Redrawing the Line of Speciesism

photo credit: New York Times Magazine

I‘ve always been uneasy about Wise‘s approach to speciesism. Lawyer Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project are trying to attain legal personhood for chimpanzees. It‘s an exciting prospect, sure, but wouldn‘t this simply redraw the line of speciesism? Instead of advocating that another being‘s species must not be a category on which we base his right to life and physical liberty, Wise tries to pull other species over to the good side of speciesism, the side of the lucky ones.

Regardless, I was looking forward to Wise‘s appearance on the Colbert Report. When animal rights advocates make it into the mainstream media, without being stereotyped as crazy, this helps the movement overcome its fringe status. I was eager to see how Wise would make his case and how he would hold up to Colbert‘s mockery. Both disappointed.

First, the interview was basically about Tommy, one of the chimpanzees Wise works for. I know that personal stories are often most effective in getting people to care about a topic. But it didn‘t come across that Wise‘s lifetime project is not just about Tommy, but about the overall symbolic difference humans have created between themselves and other animals. Wise somehow didn‘t do justice to the significance of his own cause.

Second, Wise focuses on animals with high cognitive abilities, instead of arguing that the ability to suffer pain makes animals worthy of protection. Essentially, Wise argues that some animals are more similar to humans than we thought and should therefore receive legal personhood and rights. For me, this misses the essential point of animal rights advocacy: animals don‘t earn their right to be alive and free by being similar to us. The fact is, we have no right to rule over other living beings, regardless of how similar or different from us they are.

Third, when Colbert asked Wise if he was a vegetarian, Wise didn‘t say that he was a vegetarian, but simply responded that we don‘t eat chimpanzees. I know this is not Wise‘s actual opinion, but it sounded like eating animals is okay as long as they‘re not too similar to us. And when Colbert probed if all animals should have legal status, Wise said they shouldn‘t. Only chimpanzees. That was it. He said nothing else about non-human non-chimpanzee animals.

Of course, if Wise succeeded and chimpanzees were indeed considered legal persons, this would be groundbreaking for animal rights. Animal law has sought to regulate how we use animals rather than question that we use them. Animals have always been things, not legal persons.

But because Wise doesn‘t criticize speciesism as such, only the fact that some human-like species are excluded from its good side, his is only a slightly more encompassing version of speciesism, not its end.