The Personhood and Rights of Apes

I spent the earliest part of my career as an anthropologist studying captive chimpanzees at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, NC. While there, I always made a concerted effort to engage with zoo-goers while performing focal animal sampling (studying juvenile time budgeting and play behavior). If you’ve done any primate behavioral ecology, you will know that there is A LOT of down time. Zoo-goers would commonly comment of how similar the chimps appeared to be to humans, some even stating that humans are just another type of ape. This sentiment has been echoed by popular science writers in books like Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape, Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males.

One issue that immediately jumps into view when I first started to interrogate this sentiment was what do we mean when we say “ape?” In everyday speech, ape refers to those hairy, forest-dwelling (and savannah! 😉 Jill Pruetz), medium to large-bodied, tailless primates the live in Asian and Africa, an ecological category. In scientific language, ‘ape’ often conflates that everyday conception with humans, treating humans as simply another mode of ape.

The phylogenetic relationship of the apes to the rest of the animal kingdom is well documented, and of particular interest, their relationship to humankind. Homo, Pan, Gorilla, Pongo, and four genera of gibbons belong to the Superfamily Hominoidea, which delineates these genera from the other primates and a further delineation can be made, Hominidae, which includes humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. However, these are monophyletic clades, a grouping of organisms that includes common ancestors and all subsequent lineages, and merely indicates evolutionary relations. One the other hand, the term ‘ape’ refers to something slightly different, a paraphyletic clade. Paraphyletic clades represent a grouping of organisms that include common ancestors but some (read: not all) of its lineages. One clear example of this is birds. Dinosaurs are an extinct group of reptiles that belong to the Superorder Dinosauria which also includes birds. When we talk about dinosaurs though, we are not referring to birds but those long-extinct reptiles that roamed the Earth over 65 million-years-ago. ‘Dinosaur’ is a paraphyletic classification and does not refer to a monophyletic clade. By the same reasoning, if humans are apes, then humans must also be reptiles (we belong to the clade Reptilomorpha), and fish. As a matter of fact, we share a common ancestor with all organisms. By classifying humans as apes, reptiles, and fish, the usefulness of classification loses value and salience. Taxonimically, Hominoidea includes the apes and humans, not just apes. The same logic applied to the delineation of the great apes from the gibbons can thus be applied to the relationship between humans and the great apes. Therefore, what apes then refers to is a conceptual and ecological entity, a paraphyletic clade, and not humans are not apes. Humans are humans. We share common ancestors with the apes, but it does not follow that we are also apes (Marks, 2015).

This delineation has bio-political and ontological implications, namely, the nature of personhood. The way in which personhood is conceptualized says a lot about how we value people. This has certain implications on the rights afforded to different categorizations of beings. I chose to use the Akan’s conception of personhood to explore its nature and then broadly apply that to the question “should apes receive human rights?”

What is a Person?

 ‘Person’ and ‘human’ are often used interchangeably but the relationship between these two concepts are much more complicated than a mere equivocation. A ‘human’ can simply be defined as a member of the species Homo sapiens. I’m excluding extinct species of the genus Homo from this definition because they are irrelevant to the argument of personhood. ‘Person’ on the other hand is much more complicated.

For the purpose of this paper I will use the Akan conception of personhood. First, I think it is important to represent a non-Western philosophy of the person. Too often has Locke (see: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) and Kant (see: Critique of Pure Reason) been used as the definitive word on personal identity and the essence of personhood. They are presented as sophisticated and as Hamid Dabashi describes in Can Non-Europeans Think? (2015). European and American philosophy is termed simply as ‘philosophy’ whereas African and Oriental philosophy is described as ‘ethnophilosophy’ which ascribes a certain status and sophistication to Western philosophy that doesn’t exist in other philosophy around the world. Second, the Akan are African and live adjacent and sometimes commensually with non-human primates. This is something that Western philosophers cannot claim.

The Akan are an ethnolinguistic group along the Gold Coast of Africa and can be traced back to prior to the 13th century (Wingo, 2008). They have a rich philosophical system that includes a thorough conception of personhood because it informs social institutions, practices, moral responsibility, and the governance of proper relationships. The word onipa describes two different but related concepts. The first is the reference to the biological species. It’s a synonym for human. The second is a special social status achieved, particularly, an entity with certain moral and metaphysical qualities. That is, someone that belongs to a moral community which carries with it moral responsibilities.

The second concept is what is of worth to this evaluation of apes as persons. The Akan have two competing terms which refers to one’s status as a person. Oye ‘nipa and onnye’ nipa, real person versus not a real person. These refer to one’s engagement in the moral community and meeting his/her moral responsibilities (Gyekye, 1978). Moral responsibility comes from the human capacity to reason (reflexively) and not from some accidental characteristic:

[W]hat a person acquires are status, habits, and personality or character traits: he, qua person acquires and thus becomes the subject of acquisition, and being thus prior to acquisition process, he cannot be defined by what he acquires. One is a person because of what he is, not because of what he acquires (Wiredu & Gyekye, 1992; p. 108).

Although one is a person based solely on his/her existence as a being with the capacity to reason, the rights that one has access to come in degrees due to one’s participation in moral responsibility. An individual that fails to participate only has access to basic human rights and human dignity (Wiredu & Gyekye, 1992). This is the lowest that a person can fall, which justifies legal or community punishment for violation of moral responsibility, such as limiting rights to freedom (imprisonment), access to certain resources, or enacted social control.

Expectations and values come from the culture in which one is embedded, but this is not the “soil from which they grow” (Wiredu & Gyekye, 1992). Reason as a necessary condition of personhood plays an important role here as individuals (freely acting agents) can call into question cultural assumptions and enact change. Self-criticism, then is a necessary component of engaging with the moral community.

This conception of personhood incentivizes social cooperation and permits change by not appealing to some objective moral code. An essential feature of the Akan conception of personhood is that even those humans not engaging with the moral community still have their moral worth, rights, and dignity preserved. Moral worth is derived from a common humanity and not a product of superficial or artificial characteristics (Wingo, 2008).

Apes as Persons

The Akan conception of personhood can be applied outside the species Homo sapiens to evaluate other members of the living community as persons. Onipa, according to the Akan, have access to rights and responsibilities that are afforded to beings with the ability to reflexively reason. Reason allows individuals to engage with the moral community, and even those that fail or refuse to fully participate are still afforded rights and dignity belonging to all persons because they possess the capacity to reason. The question then becomes: do apes have the capacity to reason reflexively? Do they have the capacity to consider the implications of their decisions and engage in the greater moral community?

Apes’ failure to engage in the moral community can be thoroughly illustrated through behavioral practices. Amanda Rees discusses the role of infanticide in non-human primates in The Infanticide Controversy (2009). She introduces the reader to Sarah Hrdy’s hypothesis that infanticide among primates is an evolutionary strategy that maximizes individual reproductive success. To argue that behavior is good insofar as it is natural is to commit the naturalistic fallacy (Moore, 2005). To assume this is true is to assume that because infanticide occurs naturally among our closest phylogenetic relatives, then the behavior is permissible.

Viewing infanticide through the lens of Akan philosophy, one can see that the maximization of one’s own reproductive success is not an engagement with the moral community. In this case, infanticide is occurring for the benefit of one individual at the cost of others. Although this is speculation, it may be true that individuals participating in this type of behavior do not reflect or understand the consequences of the behaviors, thus no indication of reason occurring, and maybe a product of instinctual behavior.

Humans and thus persons have culture which creates carries with it certain expectations. This extra variable among humans does not exist in the same substantial form among non-human primates. It is not acceptable to appeal to nature to justify behavior. Across all cultures, there are cultural expectations that govern what is considered right and wrong behavior of its members.

To further illustrate, it’s not merely that an appeal to nature is an unacceptable way to justify behavior among persons. Still, persons are reflecting on the study of infanticide in other organisms. The Infanticide Controversy explores the nature of science, how science is performed, and our own intellectual engagement with the topic. This reflexive reasoning is Akan philosophy’s hallmark of personhood, participating in the moral community, and creating change.

It has been argued that non-human primates behave morally (see: de Waal 2006, 2009, 2013). Whether this is true or not, it does not refute my argument that apes are not persons. Behaving in a way that humans deem moral (assuming that non-human animal morality is like human morality) does not meet the necessary conditions of personhood according to Akan philosophy. Non-human primates are not engaging in the moral community and, even more so, have not indicated a capacity for reflexive reasoning that is necessary for this engagement.


Although I argue that apes are not persons given a particular human conception of personhood, it has not addressed the arbitrary nature of defining personhood a certain way. It relies on linguistic conventions and cultural beliefs that create seemingly arbitrary boundaries. It could be that personhood could be redefined to include apes, but what would this accomplish?

Primarily, the inclusion of apes in the concept of person would provide apes a privileged legal status, granting them access to special rights and privileges that are not accessible to other genera. One immediate issue that arises from ape inclusion in personhood is that we don’t even guarantee all humans the basic rights and privileges of personhood. A look through history will reveal countless times in which humans are considered non-persons. Karen and Barbara Fields argue that the creation of ephemeral categories has justified the treatment of a group of people as non-persons (2014). This conceptualization would then value some non-human organisms over members of our own species.

Another problem that arises from the inclusion of apes into the community of persons is that it fails to recognize the boundary between, not only individuals engaging in the moral community but also members of the social community. Non-human primates do not engage in human social life in any substantial way. They may play important roles in cosmology, religion, and daily life (Fuentes & Wolfe, 2002), but are not participating in social relationships. This precludes any possible participation in the moral community, which requires social engagement.

Apes and Rights

I have argued that apes are not persons and the only persons that exist are humans, but the notion of personhood and access to rights is often equivocated. Things that have rights are persons, and everything else is an animal and thus has no access to rights. The question that arises from this line of reasoning is what sort of rights do apes get?

In short, not human rights. Apes are not humans. Human rights, as expressed in the United Nations The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), include things like the right to nationality, the right to marriage, the right to own property, and the right to take part in the government of his/her country. These rights do not apply to other organisms as they are of no interest to them.

Peter Singer, although he argues that apes are persons (Singer & Cavalieri, 1993), expresses an interesting conceptualization of how to derive rights for non-human animals in All Animals Are Equal. He isn’t arguing that all animals, including humans, should be treated the same; he argues that all animals should have equal consideration of their interests (1974). This is a tricky task to accomplish as how can we know what interests non-verbal organisms have? Humans have an interest to property, education, and employment which can be discerned through simple communication. Any interests that animals have must be inferred, but how does one do so to a reasonable and sufficient level?

Freedom of life and liberty can reasonably be inferred for animals that exhibit sentience, that is to say, animals that can experience pleasure and pain (Singer, 1974). The application of this broadly across the entire animal kingdom is difficult because it is hard to draw a distinction between sentience and non-sentience. This is a result of the difficulty in defining pain and pleasure. If pain is defined as a response to some sort of negative stimuli, then all living organisms experience pain. Singer addresses this by adding a component of time and cognition into the equation, where sentience can be discerned by consideration of emotional responses over time.

If all animals, including humans, should have equal consideration of their interests, then what happens when the interests of humans conflict with the interests of non-humans? For instance, if a dog and a human being are trapped in a burning building, and you can save only one, you ought to save the human because the amount of suffering produced by the loss of the human outweighs the loss of the dog. However, Singer argues that these types of conflicts are fairly rare, and the biggest issue is when trivial human interests come into conflict with animal interests. He asks us to consider the amount of suffering produced by, say, laboratory experimentation on apes compared to the benefits received by humans.

An issue that arises from Singer’s argument is that it reduces the value of humans, or any animal for that matter, down to their ability to experience pain and pleasure and explicitly asks us to consider some great moral calculus when making ethical decisions. Therefore, human worth can come down to some equation where some people become valued less than others and are thus expendable.

Another thing to consider is that apes are not concerned with whether or not they have rights. As stated above, apes do not engage with the moral community and have no interest in their procurement of rights. Rights inform us how we can act and what we can expect in a given culture and given context. As an American, I know that I can say nearly anything I want with little to no impediment from the government—a right to free speech. By understanding my rights, I can know how I am able to act in my culture. However, apes have no concept of rights, and there is no way to convey that information to them. Even if we could, we would be holding apes—different species with different social organizations—to human social standards. Apes are not morally responsible and thus would not be under the same scrutiny and subsequently tried for violations of chimpanzee rights, human rights, etc.


Apes are not persons. According to Akan philosophy, personhood requires a capacity to engage with the moral community. Apes do not seem to have the capacity to reflexively reason and thus participate in the social or moral community, at the very least our social or moral community—a chimpanzee will behave like a chimpanzee. Whether apes behave morally or not, there is no engagement with humans in a greater exploration of morality and right action.

Personhood is not necessary for the acquisition of rights, but rights themselves serve to inform persons of their behavior and not the recipient of their rights. Persons, as defined by Akan philosophy, are beings with the capacity to reflexively reason and thus engage with the moral community, are the ones interested in rights and who gets them. This isn’t to say that apes or any other non-human animal shouldn’t be protected. Still, we protect by passing laws prohibiting certain treatment of other members of the animal kingdom. This informs us humans of the unacceptable ways in which to treat animals. Finally, it is only humans that engage with the nature of personhood and rights in the first place. This places humans in a non-arbitrary category separate from all other animals, including the apes.

Assembly, U. N. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from United Nations:

Dabashi, H. (2015). Can Non-Eurpoeans Think? New York, NY: Zed.

Fields, K. E., & Fields, B. J. (2014). Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in America. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Fuentes, A., & Wolfe, L. (2002). Primates Face to Face: The Conservation Implications of Human and Nonhuman Primate Interconnections. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gyekye, K. (1978). Akan Conception of Person. International Philosophical Quarterly, 18(3), 277-287.

Kottak, C. (2010). Window on Humanity. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Marks, J. (2015). Tales of the Ex-Apes. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Moore, G. E. (2005). Principia Ethica. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Publishing.

Rees, A. (2009). The Infanticide Controversy. Chicago, IL: University Chicago Press.

Singer, P. (1974). All Animals are Equal. Philosophical Exchange, 1, 171-180.

Singer, P., & Cavalieri, P. (1993). The Great Ape Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. New York, NY: St Martin’s Press.

Wingo, A. (2008, Fall). Akan Philosophy of the Person. (E. N. Zalta, Editor) Retrieved May 1, 2016, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Wiredu, K., & Gyekye, K. (1984). Person and Community: Ghanian Philosophical Studies. New York, NY: University Press of America.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Adam, this is a very interesting post. And really good bibliography. However, I would recommend checking out Tim Ingold’s chapter on “A circumpolar night’s dream” (89-110) in The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. I’ve referenced your post in my class-notes on personhood. Basically, I think that we could still sort out the distinction between person, human-person, and animal-person. In this sense, we could have human-persons as well as ape-persons. Both are persons but of different types. And while human rights are for humans, there are also ape rights for apes.


    1. My only concern is what do we actually mean when we say “person.” I think there is a distinction to be made between organisms that participate in human culture versus sacred or special classes of animals (i.e. whales, dolphins, apes, etc.). I’m not convinced the same word needs to be used in order to connote special classes, especially when we mean ‘special’ in a different way.

      In terms of rights; they tend to be do several things (as is illustrated by the molecular model of rights), but one thing in particular is that they structure morality. While conferring rights, to a chimpanzee for instance, informs humans how to behave, it conveys no information to the chimpanzee and fails to structure its morality. The chimpanzee will behave like a chimpanzee independent of the rights it has. Providing rights to non-human animals will do nothing to inform their behavior. Since they lack the capacity (and it would be wrong to even expect) non-human animals to engage in a human moral community, conferring rights really informs us of their conceptual and moral standing in the eyes of the culture conferring the rights. In this case, it seems prudent to simply place these sacred or special animals in protected classes of organisms that have security by law.


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