Should chimpanzees be granted ‘legal personhood’?

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

ScreenHunter_443 Dec. 05 16.24The Nonhuman Rights Project, an organization founded by Massachusetts lawyer and animal rights activist Steven Wise, has this week filed a series of lawsuits in New York demanding that chimpanzees be granted ‘legal personhood’. The lawsuit seeks to extend the concept of habeas corpus to chimpanzees, drawing an analogy with one of the most famous anti-slavery cases, that of James Somerset in 1772, an American slave:

…who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and was being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica. With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.

‘We are claiming that chimpanzees are autonomous’, Wise has said. ‘That is, being able to self-determine, be self-aware, and be able to choose how to live their own lives.’

I hope to write a proper response to this. In the meantime, I am republishing an old debate between myself and Peter Singer on the question of rights for Great Apes. In the form of an exchange of letters, it was first published in Prospect magazine in in April 1999.

More here.