Merely Human: The Problem of Recognizing Chimpanzees as Persons


Jay Watts

Article ID:



Mar 8, 2023


Feb 27, 2020

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

In an effort to protect two chimpanzees living in terrible conditions, Jeff Sebo, the director of the animal studies program at New York University, authored a New York Times editorial calling for chimpanzees to be recognized as persons under the law.1 Sebo and his colleagues at the NonHuman Rights Project (NHRP) also filed an amicus brief with the State of New York Court of Appeals arguing that Kiko and Tommy are persons and entitled to habeas corpus in order to force their respective custodians, two different individuals, to defend what NHRP characterizes as unlawful imprisonment before a judge.

The main thrust of the argument lies in the following claims. (1) Species membership is a scientific classification too arbitrarily determined to ground a substantial concept like moral personhood. (2) The capacities appealed to as morally setting human beings apart from other animals like sentience, intention, desire, and autonomy all exist in chimpanzees as well. Though in lesser degrees than most humans, they possess those capacities comparably to a human infant or a cognitively impaired human being. If those humans qualify as persons, so do any animals that share similar capacities. Just as third parties can petition courts on behalf of infants and the cognitively impaired, courts should offer the same legal status to Kiko and Tommy. Finally, (3) the most relevant capacity for settling the personhood claims of nonhumans and humans alike is autonomy. If a being has desires and the will to pursue those desires, such as the basic desire not to be imprisoned and isolated from other members of their species, then violating their autonomy is an act of injustice.

The animal rights position easily draws on public sympathy. Chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, and elephants demonstrate remarkable capacities to feel and communicate. In his New York Times editorial, Sebo states, “The simple truth is that Kiko and Tommy are not mere things.” This seems self-evident to anyone that loves and appreciates animals, and, as outspokenly liberal talk-show host Samantha Bee recently said, the fact that animals are awesome is about the only point on which all Americans can agree. If the law offers two categories, persons or things, as Sebo states, and being identified as a thing opens animals to abuse as property, then it seems reasonable to desire to change their definition under the law. However reasonable it may seem, that would be a mistake.


The representatives of NHRP argue from the position of real and substantial rights. They believe there is an objectively unjust way to treat some beings, and animals fall within the category of beings who ought to enjoy equality under the law. Similar to the manner Christopher Kaczor, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount, argues his inclusive view of human rights in favor of the pro-life position to include all human life, even embryonic human life, in the family of valuable human beings, NHRP sees a wider view of personhood as more strongly securing equality under the law for animals. These aren’t merely conferred rights in the legal sense. The animals in question, it is argued, possess capacities indicative of a person that must be recognized under the law in a just society.

Wesley J. Smith, a Fellow with the Discovery Institute, draws important distinctions between animal rights and animal welfare efforts in his book A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy.2  Animal welfare efforts begin with the understanding that there are obvious differences between the most intelligent animals and human beings. Human beings are exceptional. These distinctions and our exceptional status among animals place a unique moral burden on humans to treat one another with respect while minimizing the suffering we cause in other species that lack our more advanced rational and moral capacities. Efforts toward animal welfare include the pursuit of humane animal husbandry practices (the breeding and caring for farm animals), the control of animal testing procedures to guarantee they are done out of necessity and as humanely as possible, and the overall pursuit of a culture committed to responsible behavior toward animals.

Smith provides evidence that these goals are not shared by animal rights activists. That movement does not see humans as possessing a unique moral nature among the animal kingdom that ethically obligates human beings to consider the needs of other animals in a manner those animals could never match in response. The leaders of this movement morally equate human beings and animals. The concepts of responsible animal husbandry, responsible pet ownership, and humane animal research are, in their view, oxymoronic. Animals are to be treated as our equals. Owning them is the equivalent of human slavery.


Returning to Sebo’s legal person or thing distinction, chimpanzees, he argues, are emotionally complex beings that demonstrate the capacity to communicate, plan, pursue goals, and sustain strong community bonds. They clearly are not things. Sebo and his colleagues demand the law must correct the manner in which it defines them to avoid unjustly treating a person as a thing. According to a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, it is not that simple.

Naruto v. Slater is a case involving a lawsuit filed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as a “next friend” to an Indonesian macaque (a kind of monkey) PETA named Naruto that inadvertently took selfies. The professional photographer whose camera Naruto played with later published the pictures. PETA argued that Naruto was the actual artist and owner of those photos and sued on his behalf. Judge N. Randy Smith dismissed the claims as frivolous and provided a warning that taking the legal step of identifying animals as persons under the law would open our entire legal system to incalculable abuse.3 Wesley Smith expands on this warning, arguing that every animal becomes a possible litigant. The sheer number of cases that could be brought forth by any and all persons seeking to use animals to further their own pet agendas could cripple the legal system. Because of this threat, Wesley Smith routinely calls for immediate action to define personhood clearly under the law to be reserved and limited to human beings.4 The possibility that a single judge could seek to establish bizarre precedent threatens to flood our courts with animal litigation. Smith believes the only reason that legislation has yet to be addressed is that people foolishly fail to take the animal rights movement seriously.

On a common-sense level, the moral similarities between humans and nonhumans clearly are being exaggerated. Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland once said that our intuitions aren’t infallible, but they are where we begin our reasoning. We perceive the world to be a certain way and act accordingly. Human beings can be bound legally to behave in a certain manner and punished should they fail to comply. We obviously can’t say the same about chimpanzees. Kaczor asks, Are we now to police the behavior of animals?5 Are we to break up their fights and punish them for killing each other within their species? Are we to behave consistently with the view that chimpanzees are our moral equals holding them accountable for their decisions? The obvious answer is no. We do not and should not precisely because we understand that there are substantial differences in the moral nature of human beings and chimpanzees.

Judge N. R. Smith addresses the challenge raised comparing nonhuman species with infant humans and the cognitively impaired in his concurring Naruto decision: “Animal-next-friend standing is materially different from a competent person representing an incompetent person. We have millennia of experience understanding the interests and desires of humankind. This is not necessarily true for animals…next-friend standing for animals is left at the mercy  of the institutional actor to advance its own interests, which it imputes to the animal or object with no accountability” (emphasis in original).6 We have lifetimes of shared community and communication offering insight into the desires of our fellow humans. We know their thoughts because they are our thoughts. We can extend to other humans our basic understandings of human nature, desires to thrive, flourish, be free, and, most importantly, to be alive. We have no such insight into the minds of other animals. All claims to know their minds are speculative and vulnerable to the manipulations of people with agendas unrelated to the welfare of particular animals.

Are Species Distinctions Entirely Arbitrary?

Sebo argues that taxonomical classifications are too arbitrary, and, as evidence, he offers that science authors such as Jared Diamond believe that chimpanzees and bonobos ought to be reclassified into the genus Homo, the human genus, rather than the genus Pan in order to communicate their biological proximity to humans. Taxonomical classifications are not static and change as our understanding of other animals continues to grow. 

But those changes are intended to establish classifications that reflect objective features. It is true that Homo sapiens sapiens as a classification was created to represent humanity, but created classifications provide a system to understand actual distinctions observed in different creatures. Admitting chimpanzees and bonobos are more like humans than they are like other animals doesn’t make the argument that chimpanzees are morally equal to humans. In fact, it demands an explanation as to why animals so similar to us in many respects are so dramatically different from us both in rational and moral capacities.7


Sebo’s arguments focus strongly on autonomy, to which he appeals in order to ground personhood. He believes species membership and natural kinds are simply illusory and unreliable. Autonomy is a superior standard. Christopher Kaczor responded to similar arguments put forth by Harvard professor Steven Pinker in Pinker’s article “Dignity Is Stupid.”8 Kaczor countered that, in every way, human dignity is vulnerable to the charge of arbitrariness, but autonomy is equally as vulnerable.9 All criteria disqualifying human dignity (such as dignity is relative, ambiguous, or fungible [can be reduced and increased], or it can be harmful) can be leveled equally at autonomy. He writes, “The concept of dignity does a better job than autonomy in describing andaccounting for the intrinsic value of every human being. We are valuable not simply because of our choices, and still less do we have value only while we are exercising our autonomy. We have value when we are not choosing or cannot choose.” Grounding our value, personhood, and dignity outside of our mere humanity in functional capacities leaves all of the things we intuitively grasp as most important to our selfunderstanding as human beings anchored in foundations that are episodic and degreed by nature. 


We craft laws and defend Smith’s idea of human exceptionalism based on strong intuitions common to the human experience. Our shared experience of human thoughts, desires, and will provides insight into human nature, and we see moral capacities and responsibilities in humanity that are absent in even the animals most closely genetically related to us. This offers sufficient justification to treat humans differently than animals under the law.  

In addition to that knowledge from common experience sufficient for public discourse, Christian anthropology grounds those differences. Christians have the best explanation for clear intuitions that we are different from all other animals, as well as the strong sense that humans bear a responsibility to protect our environment while refraining from unnecessarily causing suffering in other species. We are the imago Dei, set apart by God and intended to take care of His creation out of our deep gratitude for the world He gave us. It isn’t necessary to pretend animals and humans are morally equal in order to justify protecting them from cruelty. We are commanded to reflect the character of God in the world around us. His justice, His mercy, His love, and His wisdom are to radiate through us. It pleased Him to fill His world with wondrous and various creatures. We are to be like Him and be good stewards of His creation.

Christians are not averse in principle to the concept of nonhuman persons. We traditionally attribute personhood to the Trinity and to angels, clearly nonhuman beings. We simply recognize that a danger lies with attempts to elevate animals to our moral equals in spite of the glaring evidence they could never operate as such. These efforts ultimately reduce us all to an undifferentiated mess. Animal rights activists will seek out the most basic presence of autonomy and the broadest sense of what it means to pursue desires. The arguments transition from “Chimpanzees ought to be treated as special within the animal kingdom because of their shared capacities with humans” to “Humans and chimpanzees are no different from pigs or mice or parakeets.” Efforts to blur specific lines usually end up blurring all lines. According to Wesley Smith, that is exactly the point.

Jay Watts is founder and president of Merely Human Ministries, an organization defending intrinsic human dignity.


  1.  Jeff Sebo, “Should Chimpanzees Be Considered ‘Persons’?,” New York Times, April 7, 2018,
  2. Wesley J. Smith, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, (New York: Encounter Books, 2012), 15–18.
  3.  Naruto v. David John Slater, No. 16-15469 (9th Cir. Apr.23, 2018), http://cdn.ca9.uscourts. gov/datastore/opinions/2018/04/23/16-15469.pdf.
  4. Wesley J. Smith, “When a Horse Sues,” National Review, August 14, 2018, https://www.
  5. Christopher Kaczor, A Defense of Dignity: Creating Life, Destroying Life, and Protecting the Rights of Conscience (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 25.
  6.  Naruto v. Slater, 29.
  7. Diamond explicitly addressed that question at length in his book The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (Hutchinson Radius, 1991).
  8. Steven Pinker, “Dignity Is Stupid,” The New Republic, May 28, 2008,
  9. Christopher Kaczor, “The Importance of Dignity: A Reply to Steven Pinker,” Public Discourse, January 31, 2012,
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