By Marc Bekoff
"Marc," my deeply caring, passionate and devoted father, asked, "can you please wheel Mom into the kitchen and get her ready for dinner?" I answered, "Sure, Dad," and began the short trek. But the journey went well beyond the confines of my parent's home. It remains a difficult and multi-dimensional pilgrimage for which there aren't any road maps or dress rehearsals. I watch myself watching Mom. The role reversal is riveting; I'm now my keeper's keeper. Where's the person I called "Mom?"
My mother, Beatrice Rose, who I love dearly, has suffered major losses of locomotor, cognitive and physiological functions. She doesn't know who I am, and likely has lost some self- and body-awareness. In a nutshell, my mother has lost her autonomy. She has little self-determination. Nevertheless, there's no doubt others would still think of her as a "person" whose spirit and soul reside within and who's entitled to certain moral and legal standing. And they should.
Generally, the following criteria are used to designate a being as a "person." They include being conscious of one's surroundings, being able to reason, experience various emotions, having a sense of self, adjusting to changing situations and performing various cognitive and intellectual tasks. While many humans fulfill most if not all of these criteria, there are humans who don't young infants and seriously mentally challenged adults. But they're also rightfully considered to be persons.
Now, what about my companion dog, Jethro? He's active, can feed and groom himself, and is very emotional. Jethro's as autonomous as a dog can be. Yet, many people wouldn't feel comfortable calling Jethro a "person." This irreverence would be a prime example of just what's wrong with academic musings!
Why the different attitudes toward my mother and Jethro? Why are some people, especially in Western cultures, hesitant to call chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, elephants, wolves and dogs, for example, "persons," even when they meet the criteria for personhood, more so than some humans? Fear. Many people fear that elevating animal beings to persons would mean that the notion of personhood is tarnished, that it means less for humans. Some also fear that animals will then have the same legal and moral standing as humans and they'll be equals.
While some may believe this whole exercise is shamefully crass, there are some important issues at stake. Loving Jethro (and other animals) as much as I do doesn't mean I love my mother (or other humans) less. Does granting Jethro and other animals personhood and attendant moral and legal standing lessen or take moral and legal standing away from humans? No. Such fears aren't warranted.
Little's to be gained by claiming that granting "personhood" to some animals would be a misguided or blasphemous move. Surely, Jethro goes through life differently from most human (and other dog) beings, but this doesn't mean he hasn't got any life at all. People vary greatly (there are countless different personalities as there are "animalities"), but the term "person" is broad enough to encompass (and celebrate) this marvelous diversity.
So, does calling a nonhuman a person degrade the notion of personhood? No. However, this move would mean that animals would come to be treated with the respect, compassion and love that's due them and that their interests in not suffering would be given equal consideration with those of humans. Could one reasonably argue that a world with less cruelty and more compassion and love wouldn't be a better place to live and raise children? I don't think so.