Animals As Legal ‘Things’: An Analysis
Put simply, legal systems typically divide the world into two basic categories: persons and things. Persons hold rights and their interests are protected by the legal system. But things do not hold legal rights and they exist merely for persons to use. It’s a binary view, with no middle ground. There is no entity that is legally considered to be part person and part thing.
Most legal jurisdictions view nonhuman animals as things. Of course, animal advocates view the world differently—we see animals as persons. But moral personhood and legal personhood are two very different things.
This article describes how legal personhood can be beneficial to animals and attempts to help advocates promote legal personhood. It begins with a brief history of the concept and then shifts the focus to nonhuman animals, specifically. But they caution that “western legal systems normally define born human children as legal persons and animals as legal nonpersons.” This is important because, when examining legal theory about “rights-holding,” it doesn’t always follow that human children hold legal rights and nonhuman animals do not.
The paper argues that “some things can hold rights” and it gives some salient examples. For instance, people broadly consider nonhuman animals to be property, but they still hold rights. The rights that animals hold “mostly serve to limit the property rights of the owner, though they also impose duties on all human beings and corporations collectively.”
The paper notes potential ways to categorize animals as neither persons nor things: they could have more rights than property without holding “legal personality in the full sense.” Finally, the paper argues that “one can be both a legal thing and a legal person for certain purposes.” The author outlines how for-profit corporations famously have this duality.
Led by organizations like the Nonhuman Rights Project, there is a coordinated and important effort among some animal advocates to encourage the legal system to count nonhuman animals as persons. However, animal advocates should be aware that the “personhood” label can be challenging to define and to enforce when implemented. As always, it is useful to explore a variety of approaches to afford nonhuman animals both legal and moral protections.