Several months ago, we looked at the case for Happy the Asian elephant. Now there is a decision.
According to the majority opinion in a 5 to 2 decision, Happy is not a person in the eyes of the law. As the chief judge of New York’s highest court explained, yes, humans are protected from illegal restraint by habeas corpus. But for Happy, there is, “no applicability.” Lawrence Tribe, the eminent Harvard Law School legal scholar filed a brief that supported Happy.
Through its animal rights issues, the case also fits into the economic world.
As a baby, Happy left Thailand in 1970 (or so). Named after the seven dwarfs (Snow White), she and her six siblings went to safari parks. First in California, then Florida and Texas, she wound up at the Bronx Zoo. At the zoo, during the warmer weather, she lives outside; when it’s cold, she moves to a smaller enclosure.
The Court Case
The NonHuman Rights Project told a New York court that Happy was being “unlawfully imprisoned in the Bronx Zoo.” Wanting the zoo to move her to a sanctuary, first, they had to prove to the Court that Happy’s behavior made her a “person.” After all, in the wild, elephants are social animals, They have a language, they nuzzle and play with their babies, and they cooperatively solve problems. In one experiment at the Bronx Zoo, a researcher proved that Happy recognized herself in a mirror. Associated with people, self-recognition connects to empathy.
Furthermore, we do have examples of where the law perceives nonhumans as people. Existing separately from its owners, a corporation is one example of a nonhuman that is legally a person. As a separate entity it has rights, obligations, and can be sued. We have even begun to debate whether the entities with AI are sentient and therefore deserve human and humane treatment.
Saying that how we treat Happy defines us as a society, the dissent takes us to utilitarian economics.
Our Bottom Line: Animal Rights and Utilitarianism
About production and distribution, economics reminds us that a finite amount of resources constrain production while society determines distribution. Because we can decide who gets what and how much, we have a responsibility. Explained by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) through distribution, believers in utilitarianism say we can generate the most happiness for the greatest number of people and also have to consider animals’ happiness and suffering.
Although the court rejected a broader definition of personhood, the debate will continue. But today, a Happy decision was a sad one.
My sources and more: In our first post on Happy my sources included articles from Lawrence Wright and Jill Lepore. and Econlib. Now we can add the NY Times and this WSJ article on sentient AI. (Please note that several of today’s sentences were from our previous post on Happy.)