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Personhood Beyond the Human: Karen Davis on Provocative Elitism of Personhood for Nonhuman Creatures

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Published on Dec 21, 2013

On December 8, 2013 Karen Davis spoke on "The Provocative Elitism of "Personhood" for Nonhuman Creatures in Animal Advocacy Parlance and Polemics" at the Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale University.

Karen Davis, PhD is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns (www.upc-online.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Her articles have appeared in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Sister Species, Encyclopedia of Animals and Humans, and Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters.

Her books include Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, and A Home For Henny. Karen Davis and her work were profiled in the Ark Trust Genesis-Award Winning article, "For the Birds" in The Washington Post and she is in the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame "for outstanding contributions to animal liberation."

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The Personhood Beyond the Human conference was organized by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, Yale's Animal Ethics Group and Yale's Technology and Ethics Group.
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Abstract: In the 1980s, Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation was the bible of the burgeoning animal rights movement. Singer's argument was lucid and compelling. He said that nonhuman animals, being sentient, have interests the same as humans, and that it is wrong to sacrifice their important interests to humanity's trivial ones. He said that consideration of animals' interests is a matter of logic, reason, justice and morality, not mere "sentimentality." This formula provided the bold, principled approach to animal advocacy that was needed to inspire a movement.

Yet even in the process of promoting animal liberation and criticizing the traditional hierarchy of nature set forth by Aristotle and others, Singer has consistently maintained a presumption of human superiority over all other forms of life, a presumption that continues to affect the animal advocacy movement. The hierarchy starts with mentally competent adult human beings proceeding down to the "lowest" life forms. The chief point of contact between humans and other animals is "suffering," yet over time, even the suffering of animals could not compete with the "superior" suffering of humans in Singer's view. "Personhood" became a touchstone.

In Rethinking Life and Death, published in 1994, "personhood" is represented as a privileged identity to which only mentally competent adult humans and the great apes are definitively entitled, with the great apes far below humans, being characterized as ranking with "intellectually disabled human beings." In the 2011 revised edition of Practical Ethics, certain other animals, including some wild birds, are said to perhaps be eligible to be granted some degree of personhood based on laboratory experiments and field observations showing that they possess a measure of "rationality," "self-awareness," and "future-directed thinking and desires." However, a sentient "nonperson" or "merely conscious" being does not qualify for what Singer calls a "right to life, in the full sense."

I argue that such categorizing relegates the entire animal kingdom, apart from humans, to a condition of mental disability that is totally incompatible with the cognitive demands exacted upon real animals in the real world. It illogically implies a cerebral and experiential equivalence between the mentally incompetent members of one species (due to age or impairment) and the mentally competent, fully functioning members of other species. It leads to a perhaps well-meaning but fatuous focus on an animal's ability or inability to play video games, and solemn pronouncements about laboratory "findings" that adult pigs and chickens are "as smart as toddlers."

In an effort to elevate nonhuman animals in the public eye, such advocacy actually devaluates them anthropomorphically to a status of, at best, inferior humanhood. It leaves them in a realm that, to quote Singer's own words, bodes bleakly for animals and animal liberation: "Given what we know about human nature, as long as we continue to think of animals in this way we will not succeed in changing the attitudes that, when put into practice by ordinary human beings, lead to disrespect -- and hence mistreatment -- for the animals" (Animal Liberation, 1990, 229). http://nonhumanrights.net/abstracts/#...

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