Nonhuman Rights

Sunday, November 24, 2019
First Aired: 
Saturday, May 27, 2017

What is it

Human rights—like freedom from discrimination and slavery— are fundamental rights and freedoms that every person enjoys simply because they're human. But what about other animals, like monkeys, elephants, and dolphins? Should they enjoy similar fundamental rights? If we can extend the legal notion of personhood to inanimate, abstract objects like corporations, then shouldn’t we also extend it to other sentient creatures? How should we understand the concept of a “person” when it’s applied to nonhumans? What kind of cognitive and emotional complexity is required for nonhuman personhood? John and Ken extend rights to their human guest, Steven Wise, author of Rattling The Cage: Toward Legal Rights For Animals.

This episode was recorded before a live audience at Stanford University and is viewable on video.

Listening Notes

John and Ken first explore different definitions for what it means to be a person. John proposes that a person is a being with a conception of self, while Ken argues that a person is a being who has a capacity for pain and the ability to inflict pain on themselves. John wonders what it will take for society to recognize the rights of nonhuman persons, considering that it took the Civil War for the United States to recognize the rights of African Americans.

The hosts welcome Steven Wise, leader and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, to the show. Ken asks Wise what he means by a “nonhuman person.” Wise responds that the definition of “a person” is up to the courts. Still, Wise is personally convinced that nonhuman animals are persons because they can suffer, live in social groups, and possess complex emotions. He argues that, on top of this, imprisoning animals is worse than imprisoning humans who have committed crimes because animals do not know what they did wrong yet suffer all the same.  

Ken presses Wise on his definition of personhood: if humans can do moral wrong to animals, can’t animals do moral wrong to humans? Wise clarifies his stance on the rights of nonhuman animals, arguing that we should leave them alone. John questions whether it is still a violation of rights when we catch a bear who has been tearing trash apart at a campsite and put it in a cage to be transported away. To Wise, humans need to take responsibility for encroaching on bears’ habitats and, in turn, forcing them to seek additional sources of food. The discussion concludes with our hosts wondering why we believe that all humans have rights.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 7:17): Liza Veale chats with primatologist Franz de Waal and learns about how social animals cannot help but be empathetic. She also discusses how emotions lead to and can control our actions with neuroscientist Antonio Demacio.

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:08): Ian Shoales wonders what nonhuman rights would be like for animals like elephants who sometimes present in circuses or are butchered in the wild for their tusks.


Steven Wise, Founder and President of the Nonhuman Rights Projects

Bonus Content

VIDEO: Nonhuman Rights was recorded before a live audience at Stanford. Watch the entire show!



Research By

Jack Herrera

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