December 14, 2022

Some Implications of Recognizing Animals as Legal Subjects in the United States


Abstract: In recent years, Western philosophers and ethicists have argued for the first time that nonhumans, especially sentient animals, have some moral value or status, with significant implications for activities that impact animals.  In parallel, new science has illuminated the extent of conscious experience among animals as well as their capacity to suffer.  Nevertheless, American law’s integration of individual animals as subjects with interests and rights has been limited, despite the extreme threats that animals face.  In June 2022, a state high court for the first time determined that Happy, an Asian elephant, does not have the right to bodily liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus, over two dissents.  This talk reviews philosophical frameworks grounding the moral status of nonhumans, and the implications of those frameworks for animal legal status in the United States.  Animal legal personhood has not been rigorously theorized and evaluated in American legal scholarship.  The talk critically assesses a theory of legal personhood developed recently by legal philosopher Visa Kurki, arguing that Kurki’s notion of “passive legal personhood” should be applied to sentient animals because it is plausible that such animals should have certain basic rights and standing to protect those rights.  Relying on that conception, the article contends that a more robust understanding of legal personhood also can explain the decision in Happy’s case and related cases, and inform future judicial decisions about animal rights and personhood.  Finally, the article suggests some implications of recognizing animal legal personhood for human rights and activities, and two dimensions of environmental law in the United States: the federal law governing wild animals, and ecological legal personhood.

The seminar is open to everyone and prospective attendees are kindly asked to register by Tuesday 13 December 2022. The seminar will be in hybrid format, so please indicate in the registration form whether you want to join in person or via Zoom. Welcome!   


Ethan Prall

Bio: Ethan Prall is a doctoral student in Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Miami through the Abess Center, and an environmental lawyer. His work focuses on the science and governance of environmental problems that pose existential or catastrophic risks to nature, humans, or both. He leverages his expertise in domestic and international environmental law and governance and his training in ethics and philosophy to identify solutions to the crises of extreme climate change and ecosystem collapse from the perspective of intergenerational and inter-species ethics.  Prall holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and has extensive experience in the law and policy surrounding climate change, biodiversity, and marine governance at the federal and international levels. He studied philosophy and ethics at the undergraduate level and through a master's focused on religion and ethics at Duke University.