The Rights Of Great Apes
Throughout Western history, from the abolition of slavery, to the universal right to vote, to desegregation of ethnic groups, there has been a steady increase in the legalized moral capacity of societies. In another words – rights have been afforded to a growing number of interest groups.
Each of such rights has been controversial at the time. Today, great apes have become the latest group to go through such a development. A legal declaration submitted to the United Nations, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes, defends the interests of great apes. The moral minimums of human rights – right to life, individual liberty, and prohibition of torture – also apply, and should be extended to great apes. In the following paragraphs it will become clear why.
Firstly, great apes bare greater biological similarity to humans than does each to any other animal. They are similar to the extent that human blood can be successfully transfused to a chimpanzee or a bonobo with a compatible blood group. Genetically this translates to a difference of less than one percent (the difference between humans is around 0, 5 percent). To that end great apes hold up to the biological requirements of attaining rights.
Secondly, great apes are capable of culture-like representation. Their cultural similarity to humans is qualitative, not quantitative. By their behavioural and emotional engagements in societal and cultural activities they bare great resemblance to humans. According to Savage-Rumbaugh and others, “apes are capable of forming such complex concepts and expressing them to one another trough bodily positions and facial expressions.” (Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker and Talbot) Bonobos experience a full range of emotions from love and fear to anxiety and jealousy in addition to other emotions. Chimpanzees are able to learn human sign languages and communicate. Both species, as well as other great apes, have developed communication among their own groups. To that end great apes hold up to the cultural requirements of attaining rights.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly from the human perspective, giving rights to great apes is economically feasible. Great apes do not form part of the food production industry. Neither are they an important source material for the clothing industry. Moreover, the number of great apes in the world is counted in the thousands, not millions. Great apes are a relatively small group of animals. To that end the Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes holds up to the requirements of prudent economics.
Great apes hold up to every requirement of being a member of the legal community. Great apes are fundamentally similar to humans in biological terms. More importantly, they are capable of a culture-like representation. Most importantly, perhaps, their special protection would is economically feasible. Consequently, the Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes would extend the right to life, individual liberty, and prohibition of torture to animals who are similar to us in all the ways that matter. Rights for the great apes would be a profound affirmation of the capacity for comprehension in the human species; its moral implications would dignify our kind.
Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, Stuart G. Shanker and Taylor J. Talbot. Apes, Language, and the Human Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.∎ Back to Index