Animals should be conferred some degree of personhood status under Singapore law, and their advocates – whether in the form of organisations or individuals — should be given the right to act as representatives of said animals in court, according to lawyer M Ravi.
Noting that there is “a global movement to recognise animals as legal persons”, whereby primates – such as a chimpanzee named Cecilia, in an Argentinian court – and dolphins have been given the status of personhood, M Ravi said in a video uploaded on his YouTube channel, Ravision World, last Sun (1 Dec) that such a concept is important, as animals may not have rights “if they are not given certain rights” equivalent to the ones human beings enjoy.
“Nonhuman rights refer to the legal rights of animals to have the right to spend their days as autonomous, sentient beings without human interference … These rights are not available to animals if they are not recognised as legal persons before the courts,” he argued.
“So if we truly care for their rights, we must confer on them a certain amount of personhood status,” M Ravi stressed.
He added that in New Zealand, even rivers and mountains and parks have been given personhood status.
The concept of locus standi – or having the standing in court to bring an action – according to M Ravi “revolves around the notion that animals should be given a voice in court”.
“Animals can’t speak for themselves … Human beings can engage a lawyer who can represent them in court, but animals should be given the standing in court,” he said.
Subsequently, this means that “certain groups of people or individuals should be their representatives”, M Ravi proposed.
However, in Singapore – besides the State itself – individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) fighting for animal rights currently do not have the right to file an action on behalf of an animal.
This is because “only the State has that standing to prosecute [those who abuse animals] and to protect animals”, the lawyer highlighted.
Following that, M Ravi raised the dilemma in cases where the State allegedly “transgresses” the rights of animals.
“Who has the right to stop or question that indiscriminate killing?” questioned M Ravi, referring to his example of cats being culled “indiscriminately or disproportionately” in Singapore.
“An individual who is interested in, for example, looking after a couple of cats who are being indiscriminately culled will not have the legal standing to be a proper representative, to have that locus standi … to protect the rights of the animals,” he added.
NGOs, as well as individuals, said M Ravi, should thus “be conferred the right to challenge such actions or review such actions in court”.
Doing so would be “in line with the global movement of giving locus standi to such organisations and individuals who are interested in the rights of animals,” he opined.
“We are prioritising the interests of animals over human interests. For example, in a zoo, we can improve an enclosure for an elephant by increasing the space, but that does not mean that the elephant’s right is being recognised,” the lawyer stressed.
“It has its right to not be deprived of its liberty. It should roam freely,” M Ravi stressed, adding that recognising such a right is “crucial”, as it will lead to the recognition of animals’ “fundamental right to existence”.
Animals, he added, have the “right to be born, to grow, right to move, and the right to die in a natural environment”.
“Animals should be allowed to live their lives as what nature has intended them to be,” stressed M Ravi.
US attorney and animal rights activist Jay Shooster of Wild Animal Suffering Research observed in Legal Personhood and the Positive Rights of Wild Animals that “nonhuman animals are viewed as legal things in virtually all legal jurisdictions” presently.
“They are treated as property. They don’t possess rights, they are solely the objects of rights. SeaWorld, for example, has the right to own their orcas, hold them captive, and force them to perform for profit,” he wrote.
As a result, “it is exceedingly difficult to advance their interests in a court of law”, and in the absence of “the right to sue (i.e. to have a human representative/guardian to sue on their behalf), typically the only way to advance their interests in court is through indirect arguments that invoke human interests as the underlying nature of the case”.
“For instance, in a particularly obscene example, to utilize the Animal Welfare Act for animals’ benefit, animal protection groups often have to show that some human plaintiff’s “aesthetic interest” in seeing animals happy and healthy justifies the court’s decision to evaluate whether animal cruelty is taking place, and to provide a remedy.
“In other words, under the current legal framework, an animal’s interest in not being tortured is not enough of a reason for a court’s stepping in to prevent it—it is only because human beings don’t like seeing tortured animals that such a case can ever see the light of day,” Shooster added.
Animals do not necessarily have personhood, but should still be given legal rights and protections: Contemporary theorists
In Personhood, Animals, and the Law, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University Christine Marion Korsgaard proposed that animals do not hold the status of personhood, as they “lack normative self-government”, which is the ability to deliberate on whether an action is correct or whether there is a good reason for doing so.
The ability to do so, Korsgaard argued, gives rise to rights and obligations, which only human beings are entitled to, bound by and are capable of fulfilling.
However, this lack of normative self-government or autonomy leaves animals – in the eyes of the law – “with no legal means of protecting their interests or their welfare”, she stressed.
“If they have no rights, they are not persons, and that leaves them to be things. But animals are not mere things, since they are beings with interests and lives of their own,” Korsgaard emphasised.
Consequently, Korsgaard mooted the idea that – based on the late 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s principle that if a person, i.e. a human being, is to be treated as an end in himself and not as a means to an end – then animals should, by way of “simple consistency”, be treated similarly.
Kant, in defining personhood, argued that a person is an end in himself, to be valued and respected for his own sake, and never to be used merely as a means. He also proposed the idea that the basis of valuing a person is the person’s capacity for autonomy, which gives rise to human rights.
“Because human beings are rational beings, Kant argued, human beings, unlike the other animals, are able to choose our own way of life. We reflect about what counts as a good life, decide the question for ourselves, and live accordingly,” Korsgaard expounded.
“We have the basic rights of personal liberty, liberty of conscience, and freedom of speech and association, because each of us has the right to determine for himself or herself what counts as a worthwhile life, and to live that life, so long as the way we act is consistent with a like right for everyone else. Because the other animals do not choose their own way of life, they do not have rights grounded in this kind of autonomy,” she added.
Korsgaard then asked: “I think we should ask ourselves, on what grounds do we ourselves claim to be valuable in the way that we claim to be – ends in ourselves, never to be used as a mere means to someone else’s ends? Is it really because we have the capacity for rational choice, or is it also more simply because we have a welfare of our own?”
Associate Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University David DeGrazia in Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction similarly argued that animals should be treated as their own ends, not merely a means to an end.
Touching on the ethics on keeping animals in zoos, for example, DeGrazia wrote that animals, as “beings with moral status”, deserve the “proper recognition that animals have importance in their own right and not merely as tools for human use or playthings for our entertainment”.
While DeGrazia argued that “the Great Apes” such as gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos may still thrive when given “a great deal of space, and considerable enrichment that encourages playing, climbing, exploring and problem-solving”, he predicted that it would be likely impossible to do so for marine creatures such as dolphins in aquatic exhibits, given “their propensity to swim enormous distances” and “their rich social organization”, which cannot be replicated by an artificial environment.
In the same vein as the argument made for M Ravi above in favour of granting legal rights to animals, Korsgaard argued that “the only way to afford any effective protection for their welfare is through human laws”.
“The idea of animal rights sounds silly to some people, because it seems to suggest an insane desire to moralize nature: to imply that we should declare predation to be murder and to make it illegal, or perhaps to turn battles over territory into property disputes that get settled in court.
“But an advocate of animal rights need not be in favor of our trying to protect nonhuman animals from each other. Rather, the point is to protect them from us, from human beings,” she added.