Should apes have rights?

Watch Helene taking part in a discussion at the Manchester Salon with Professor Tipu Aziz, David Thomas, Jeremy Taylor and Dr Richard D. Ryder.

Original introduction
In 2008, Spain became the first country to commit to the Great Apes Project, an initiative from scientists and philosophers who believe that the great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans — should be granted basic rights. Animal rights campaigners want this idea to be accepted more widely, to protect these animals from torture, abuse and commercial exploitation. But what would extending rights to apes actually mean? Would such rights actually improve the prognosis for great apes? And does extending the concept of human rights to great apes make any sense from a moral philosophical point of view?

Apes’ rights campaigners frequently argue we should extend rights to apes because they are extremely close to humans in terms of shared DNA and a wide range of cognitive attributes, like empathy and tool manufacture. Much scientific evidence suggests that these claims of ape proximity have been heavily over-egged, however, and critics insist apparent discoveries about apes’ abilities are wishful thinking on the part of animal-lovers. This remains a controversial area, but others argue we should take a purely moral decision to award rights to apes, regardless of the scientific case. In the absence of any appreciation by apes of the rights we may bestow upon them, however, apes’ rights could only be exercised by us on their behalf.

In what sense is this different from mere protection? Opponents of the Great Apes Project argue that the case for granting ‘rights’ to apes misunderstands what rights are, and devalues their significance. After all, women and the historically oppressed nations of the world were not simply given rights in recent centuries: they fought long and hard for equality in a way that apes show no signs of emulating. But animal rights campaigners often point to humanity’s history of oppression and inhumanity even to other humans as evidence that we are not such a superior species after all.

So is it time to expand our understanding of rights so as to secure a humane future for remarkable non-humans? Or are rights, like the capacity to make moral judgements about whether or not to protect other species, something only humans can appreciate?