Can an Elephant Be a Person? Ethics Bowl Case Spotlight

By Dr. Laura Kicklighter

https://nypost.com/2021/05/05/new-yorks-highest-court-will-hear-happy-the-elephants-case/

The case “Happy to Be Alone?” describes the dilemma of “Happy”, a 51 year old elephant at the Bronx Zoo. Although elephants are social animals, Happy has lived alone in her enclosure for the last 16 years. 

A Change.org petition has garnered over 1.4 million signatures calling for the end of Happy’s “solitary confinement”, yet Happy remains isolated. A recent lawsuit by the Nonhuman Rights Project failed to have her declared a “person” under the law (which would have granted her the right not to be wrongfully imprisoned).

This case explores the moral status of Happy and other animals like her: if her basic needs are cared for, is Happy being wronged?

One way to think about our relationship with animals is to ask what makes an animal like Happy meaningfully different from humans? We may point to “uniquely human” abilities like reason or emotion, but multiple studies show that many animals, including elephants, share these traits, while many humans, such as newborns, lack them.

Most ethicists acknowledge that one doesn’t need to be human to matter, morally. Just think about an animal you love, perhaps your pet. Can we treat Spot or Fluffy however we want, just because they are not human? Probably not; they have some morally relevant interests that we must consider, like avoiding pain.

“Personhood” is the philosophical term for someone or something that matters morally. If an individual has personhood, we must take their interests into account when making decisions; I can’t treat a “person” the same way I would a rock or piece of furniture. In this sense, an elephant could be a person.

Philosophers continue to debate the qualifications for personhood. Proposed criteria include sentience (the ability to feel pleasure and pain), membership in a social group, language, or reason. Happy has passed the “mirror test”, demonstrating self-awareness, another criterion for personhood. Elephants are also social animals, can communicate with one another, and appear to experience emotion.

All of this brings us back to the case of Happy specifically. If Happy isn’t a person, we may be content to leave her alone in her Bronx Zoo enclosure; but if she does have interests that matter morally, her situation must be rectified. Does Happy need to be helped and if so how? 

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This case can be found here. Ethics Bowl has open meetings on Thursdays at 7:00. Contact Kicklighter@lynchburg.edu.

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