RATTLING THE LAW
Just as Peter Singer and Tom Regan dramatically influenced the world of philosophy and environmental ethics by suggesting that nonhuman animals are worthy of moral consideration, this remarkable book by Steven Wise is a major contribution, if not the seminal work, in a developing body of jurisprudential writing that makes a case for the granting of appropriate legal rights to at least some non-human animals.
Rattling the Cage is a comprehensively researched and captivating argument for the extension of legal rights to chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees). It begins with an historical look at the origins of our pervasive and convenient cultural assumptions about the supposed inferiority of nonhuman beings and how that seemingly insurmountable prejudice is rooted in classical philosophy's concept of a Great Chain of Being that hierarchically places humans just below the Godly realms and all other animals far beneath man, and therefore deservedly subject to every human whim.
Wise argues that the untold suffering of nonhumans at the hands of our species has been dubiously justified through the ages by seemingly infinite variations of this Great Chain of Being theme, and that the time has come, with the assistance of scientific revelations modern technology has afforded us (through such disciplines as psychology, anthropology, physiology, and ethology), to show that some nonhumans are far closer to us in both cognitive capacities and emotional makeup than we have previously believed or allowed ourselves to realize. Wise makes his case by analyzing exhaustive and unfailingly interesting (and sometimes riveting) studies of primate cognition and behavior, as well as anecdotal tales that indelibly etch his argument in our minds, and when one reads stories of such chimps as Lucy, who made tea for internationally renowned primatologist, Roger Fouts, each morning before her lessons in signing, our hearts as well.
But, however thoroughly Wise makes the case for advanced cognition in chimpanzees, and in parts of the book such as his superb chapter on language and consciousness, he makes the case exceedingly well, the fundamental importance of his book lies elsewhere.
As an accomplished attorney with over twenty years experience representing nonhuman beings in court, Wise walks us through the difficulties of finding relief, if not justice, for such a clientele. He explains the difference between legal thinghood and legal personhood, and here begins what this reader considers to be Wise's greatest contribution to the cause of animal rights. He claims that the crucial judicial distinction between the two concepts lies in the capacity for and degree of autonomy the subject or party in question possesses or exhibits, and suddenly his exhaustive presentation of non-human primate cognition takes on newfound meaning. Wise is seriously suggesting that non-human primates deserve to be elevated to the status of legal persons rather than things.
While other highly accomplished attorneys and activists advocate legislation as the most effective route to animal legal rights (and he would surely and warmly welcome such legislation), Wise argues that the common law holds the greatest promise for the recognition of legal personhood and rights in animals.
Conventional wisdom holds that common law judges make rulings solely on the basis of precedent, regardless of the ever-changing contexts in which cases are decided, but Wise shows us with convincing clarity that common law judges act not only in accordance with precedent, but on the bases of policy and principle as well, and that such considerations provide a jurisprudential window through which judges might legitimately elevate chimpanzees to legal personhood and afford them what appropriate rights they deserve. (Anyone who doubts the power of policy and principle to motivate judges need only reflect upon Justice Harlan's historical dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, where he argued that separate but equal was an unacceptable racial divide, and the fact that his reasoning was adopted almost whole cloth half a century later when the Supreme Court discredited that precedent in Brown v. Board of Education.)
By no means does Wise believe that chimpanzees and bonobos are the only nonhumans entitled to legal rights, but feels the case can most readily be made for these creatures because they are "evolutionarily closest" to us. He no doubt understands the words of Harvard's legendary constitutional law professor, Laurence Tribe, who once wrote that "...the very process of recognizing rights in those...with whom we can already empathize could well pave the way for still further extensions as we move upward along the spiral of moral evolution."
Steven Wise has written a profoundly important book that may well present a blueprint for open-minded judges of conscience to grant long-overdue legal rights to our closest genetic cousins. But it is also contains a very well-written and deeply moving message to the educated lay reader, a plea for compassion and justice so emotionally potent that one will laugh and cry while Wise gradually, logically, and powerfully builds his case, a case that, with no small thanks to his provocative book, may someday soon be won.