The only cobbled street in Athens, Ga., is the one that leads to the Tree That Owns Itself, a white oak that supposedly holds the legal title to itself and all land within eight feet of its trunk. According to legend, the tree was “deeded to itself” in the early 1800s by Col. William H. Jackson, a professor at the nearby University of Georgia and an arboreal aficionado of sorts. Yet while the tree’s “self-ownership” is an intriguing proposition, says a current Athens historian, most lawyers agree that the deed has no legal standing. Under the common law, the person receiving the property in question must have the legal capacity to receive it. In other words, the person receiving the property must be—well—a person; and while the Tree is undoubtedly more charming than some people I’ve met, it is not, in fact, a person.
Nor, for that matter, is General Motors, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court says. And Tommy the Chimp isn’t a person either, even though he too is more charming than some persons I’ve met. Tommy was the subject of a recent court case in which a group calling itself the Nonhuman Rights Project asked that the courts “recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.” According to CNN, Pat Levery, Tommy’s owner, dismissed the notion that he is confining the 26-year-old chimp to a prison, saying that Tommy lives in a well-cared-for and expansive cage on a trailer lot in Gloversville, N.Y. “Totally ridiculous,” Mr. Levery said of the lawsuit. The judge agreed and dismissed the case outright.
I suspect, however, that the question of Tommy’s status as a person, as well as the status of other highly evolved animals like Koko the Gorilla and Shamu the Killer Whale, will continue to vex many of us. This is ironic, considering how easily we deny the status of moral personhood to whole classes of human beings, especially those who are unborn, developmentally challenged or just plain different. We deny them their personhood—theoretically anyway—in order to affirm our own. And I don’t simply mean the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge or whoever the Evil One du jour is. I mean all of us. Think about how we use language, for example: We routinely describe people in ways that reduce them to something far less than the full human persons they are. We’ve been known to refer to innocent people killed in war, for example, as “collateral damage.” We refer to our brothers and sisters as “illegals” or grossly and collectively as “the poor.” In health care the person is the “kidney patient” or “a vegetable” or “a cohort.”
I don’t mean to suggest that we can’t use categories and labels as a kind of linguistic shorthand. I have used them in this column; it is practically impossible not to. But we must always remember that the words we’re using, even when well-intentioned, are in fact shorthand. We must never forget that the human person is in his or her reality never shorthand, but always prose; indeed, he or she is actually poetry, a living word of the Word himself, the one through whom all things were made.
Frans van der Lugt, the 75-year-old Jesuit priest assassinated in Syria last month, knew that very well. He knew that while all of creation is charged with the grandeur of God, there is something special about human beings, something that sets us apart from the Tree and the chimp and the whale. And that’s why he stayed in Syria: for the people—the persons—he loved and served. In his neighbors he saw the truth that human beings, alone among God’s creation, are created in his image and likeness, that each one of us is imbued with an inherent dignity, and that this truth is so simple, so powerful, so vital to our survival that it is actually worth dying for.