Should apes have rights?

Saturday 30 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Student Union

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?

Listen to session audio:


Tipu Aziz
professor of neurosurgery, University of Oxford

Dr Helene Guldberg
director, spiked; author, Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear and Just Another Ape?

David Thomas
freelance legal advisor, British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV); human rights consultant; recent chairman, RSPCA; former director, UK Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare and Compassion in World Farming

Jeremy Taylor
science writer; television producer and director; author, Not A Chimp: the hunt to find the genes that make us human

Dr Richard D. Ryder
ethicist; campaigner; trustee, RSPCA author, Speciesism, Painism and Happiness : a morality for the twenty-first century

Dr Stuart Derbyshire
reader in psychology, University of Birmingham; associate editor, Psychosomatic Medicine and Pain

Produced by
Simon Belt IT consultant; coordinator, Manchester Salon
Recommended readings
Orang-utans are not remotely like humans

Experts should know better than to claim that great apes can communicate in a similar way to human beings.

Helene Guldberg, spiked, 19 August 2010

Just Another Ape?

Today, the belief that human beings are special is distinctly out of fashion. Almost every day we are presented with new revelations about how animals are so much more like us than we ever imagined. This book argues that whatever first impressions might tell us, apes are really not 'just like us'.

Helene Guldberg, Imprint Academic, 1 August 2010

Can Animal Rights Go Too Far?

Even as human rights seems to have taken a few hits of late — with the U.S. government endorsing harsh interrogation techniques, also known as torture, and the Supreme Court whittling away at race-discrimination laws, defendants' rights and the Voting Rights Act — animal rights has moved further into the mainstream.

Adam Cohen, Time, 14 July 2010

Not a Chimp: The hunt to find the genes that make us human

Humans are primates, and our closest relatives are the other African apes - chimpanzees closest of all. With the mapping of the human genome, and that of the chimp, a direct comparison of the differences between the two, letter by letter along the billions of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts of the DNA code, has led to the widely vaunted claim that we differ from chimps by a mere 1.6% of our genetic code.

Jeremy Taylor, Oxford University Press, 27 May 2010

Should we breach the species barrier and grant rights to the apes?

Supporters of the Great Ape Project (GAP) are pressing the New Zealand parliament to extend three basic rights to our nearest relatives, the great apes: the right to life; the right to liberty; and the right not to be tortured.

Peter Singer and Kenan Malik, Prospect, 21 May 1999

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