I want to change the conversation in the courtroom from “Are you a human?” to “Are you the kind of being that should have rights, and what should those rights be?”
Steven Wise was recently interviewed at ARZone. He talks about his Nonhuman Rights Project and its goal to win at least one right for at least one nonhuman animal in one state in the USA.
The current focus of the project is on nonhuman animals who can demonstrate autonomy and who are not currently used for food. They made this decision because it will be nearly impossible to get any current judge to grant rights that will cause drastic economic or lifestyle changes, and because autonomy is what judges currently use to determine personhood. Rights can only be granted to legal persons. Wise is quick to point out that he doesn’t think rights should be limited to members of those species that can demonstrate autonomy. According to Wise, autonomy is a sufficient but not necessary basis for granting rights.
He talks about how the culture of the courtroom has changed a lot in the 32 years since he started practicing law: “People no longer bark when I walk into a courtroom.” He believes this is the first possible moment in which there is a chance of winning a case on behalf of a nonhuman animal.
He explains why he thinks the state common law approach to seeking animal rights is much simpler and more achievable than a federal or legislative approach.
Wise describes his argument based on practical autonomy to win personhood status for a nonhuman animal. He says he wants to change the conversation in the courtroom from “Are you a human?” to “Are you the kind of being that should have rights, and what should those rights be?”
The questions that usually arise when people consider Wise’s approach are: (1) is it more important to break the species barrier in law or to avoid reinforcing speciesism (by focusing on autonomy rather than sentience)? and (2) is it too soon soon to pursue a legal approach? To learn more about Wise’s legal approach to animal rights and alternative approaches, see Animal right theories.