Faversham Stoa is a philosophy discussion group meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 7.30 to 9.30pm in the The Bull in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics. If you have an idea for a topic that you would like us to cover why not drop us a line? There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!

Free Percy

“Today, I have initiated proceedings against my so-called owner, Mr Polly, under article 4(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which declares that 'No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.'”

“Since Mr Polly captured me in Venezuela, I have been held against my will, with no money or possessions to call my own. How can this be right? I am a person just like you. I feel pain. I have plans.1 have dreams. I can talk, reason and feel. You would not treat your own in this way. So why do you allow me to be abused so blatantly?”

“The answer I hear is,'Because you're a parrot, Percy.' Yes, I am indeed a parrot. But although your convention is on human rights, throughout it talks of 'everyone' and by everyone it means 'all people': What is a person? It used to be thought that only white people were truly persons. That prejudice at least has been defeated. Surely a person is any thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself. I am such a being. I am a person. To deny me my freedom purely on the grounds of my species is a prejudice no more justifiable than racism.”

Source: Book two, chapter XXVII of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (5th edn, 1706)


Listen too much to the optimists or pessimists about biological science and you may well come to believe that Percy is not such a distant possibility. Who knows when genetic engineering will make it possible to breed a species of super-intelligent parrots or, more likely, chimpanzees?

If and when we do, will we be producing people? 'Person' is not the same kind of category as 'human being'. The latter picks out a biological species, the former apparently something less physiologically specific. Consider how we react to intelligent aliens in science fiction, such as the Klingons in Star Irek. 'They are people too' seems to be not just a reasonable response, but the right one, whereas it would just be false to say 'They are humans too.'

From a moral point of view, which category is more important? Consider the morality of torturing a Klingon. 'That's OK, he's not human,' certainly seems to me morally outrageous, whereas 'Don't do that, he's a person' seems morally just. If this line of reasoning is right, then not only should Percy fly free, but we should think again about how we conceive of ourselves and other animals. First, the idea that our moral significance lies in our nature as persons rather than as human beings fits well with the idea that our identity is determined not by our physical bodies but by those features of the self that are essential to being a person: thought, feeling and awareness. They are what we require to continue to exist as persons, not our bodies. Secondly, Percy's point about racism suggests that 'speciesism' is a real possibility. Speciesism w~uld occur whenever we use the fact that a creature is of a different biological genus to justify treating it differently, when that biological difference is morally irrelevant.

As a matter offact, no other animal has enough of the characteristics of a person to qualify for protection under the European Convention of Human Rights. However, there are many animals that not only feel pain, but can to some extent remember and anticipate it. Could it not be argued that this in itself means we are morally obliged to take this pain into account and not cause it unnecessarily? And if we fail to do so, purely because the animals in question are not human, are we not guilty of speciesism? The charge needs to be answered, even though there is not much prospect of it making it to a court of law.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini

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