Personhood, Yes—But “Peoplehood,” Too

By Shelley Harrison

The “personhood” cluster

In recent years, animal- and environmental-protection activists have developed a working familiarity with the legal concept of “personhood,” a province formerly reserved for lawyers, judges, politicians, and academicians.[1]  Activists who are neither lawyers nor particularly interested in law can now be regularly seen speaking, demonstrating, and writing about a cluster of concepts related to legal personhood:  “rights,”[2] “standing,”[3] “property,”[4] “habeas corpus,”[5] “slavery,”[6] and “abolition,”[7] for example.

Burgeoning fluency in the personhood cluster of ideas represents tremendous progress and promise for the animal- and environmental-protection movement.  But this increasingly widespread and infinitely laudable pursuit of personhood for animals may be accompanied by some confusion about the centrality and efficacy of legal personhood as a means of protecting animals.  To be sure, granting other animals a certain legal status—namely, that of being not “property” but “persons” who possess legal standing and certain inalienable rights—is a mandatory next step in the evolution of our legal-political system.  But this step will still be severely inadequate, by itself, to address the faunacide and ecocide pandemic our planet now faces.

In support of the Humane Party‘s zoocracy concept and model, the present article seeks to offer a conceptual framework that may be regarded as fully including personhood but also as being more comprehensive, with respect to the goal of animal protection, than that of personhood alone, namely, that of “peoplehood.”  Personhood does not necessarily imply peoplehood, and, without recognition of this latter concept—recognition of other animals’ cultures, their relationships, their languages and communication styles, their full-fledged existence, dignity, and sovereignty as other “peoples”—animal-protection measures will tend to be severely under-inclusive in theory and under-performing in practice.

Recognizing the “peoplehood” of other animals

Unlike personhood, primarily a legal concept, peoplehood is a broad social and cultural concept.  Among humans, the planet has been and is home to many different groups who can be regarded as separate “peoples”:  the ancient human peoples of Culture A, for instance, can be readily observed to be distinct from the ancient human peoples of Culture B by examination of their respective customs, behaviors, beliefs, tools, art, and so on.  Referring to one such group of humans as “a people,” in short, serves as a concise way of recognizing that the culture, language, history, institutions, and other traits of that identifiable group of humans are perceptibly and meaningfully distinct from those of another group of humans.

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But other animals—whales, eagles, crickets, frogs—also have their own cultures, languages, and other traits.  Indeed, their peoplehood—not to mention physical—traits (see chart below) are even more clearly differentiated from those of humans than are the traits that differ between human peoples.  Other animals, therefore, should qualify, in the present author’s view, unequivocally and undeniably not only as separate species but also as separate “peoples.”[8]

The following chart attempts to tease out at least some tentative, provisional—admittedly imprecise and imperfect—distinctions between animal personhood and animal peoplehood as used herein.

Personhood vs. Peoplehood

Personhood Peoplehood
pertains to law and legal status pertains to all dimensions of life in society
focuses on enforceable legal and political rights and duties includes law and politics, but also language, culture, ethnicity, relatedness, community, membership, institutions, rituals, symbols, norms, beliefs, values, social order, roles, interdependence, identity
attaches to an individual “person”; treats each individual in isolation, as a generic, undifferentiated unit, according to “one-size-fits-all” rules and procedures; seeks uniformity of application and equality of treatment under the law, regardless of who someone is attaches to a group as well as the individual members  and characteristic traits (culture, language, relationships) of that group—a “people”—; acknowledges and accounts for connectedness, variation, peculiarity, context, and special needs in light of who someone is
binary, dualistic, exclusive:  one has legal personhood and standing or does not virtually infinite multiplicity of degrees and areas of intersection; involving multiple continua
static, rigid, and discontinuous dynamic, fluid, and continuous
specific to jurisdiction, government transcends jurisdictional and governmental boundaries
right- and rule-oriented; absolute respect- and relationship-oriented; relative
depends on establishing and enforcing rules encompasses rules, but rules are but a small part of the whole culture
dies with the individual lives on in the group even if one member dies; potentially perpetual
can be abstract, even involving completely fictional entities (e.g., corporations) inherently concrete, cannot be meaningfully disembodied from realities of time, place, and context and from actual, living members in relation to other beings
relies strictly on remedy and/or punishment of a breach encompasses remedy and punishment, but these mechanisms are but a small part of the whole culture
adversarial:  enforced through win-or-lose lawsuit, with result imposed upon loser collaborative, cooperative, collective:  enables and promotes win-win choices that benefit entire society
reactive, backward-facing, remedy-driven;  judicial pro-active, forward-facing, prevention-driven; social, political
waits for someone to bring lawsuit; passive; burden of initiation is on the victim takes initiative to find and implement solutions; active; burden is on government, institutions, persons in power
episodic, severable, event-based; attaches to one point—one breach, one lawsuit, one remedy—at a time in a vacuum ongoing, continuous, uninterrupted, ever-flowing, organic, indivisible, interdependent, multi-dimensional, weblike, networked, relational
becomes “accomplished” upon occurrence of some event, e.g., when law has been changed to treat animals as persons rather than objects ever-evolving process of discovery, recognition, negotiation, and accommodation that is never “finished” or “accomplished”; constantly changing as circumstances change
theory underpins and is made manifest in ratification and enforcement of personhood- and rights-related laws and legal procedures, such as those set forth in the Abolition Amendment theory underpins and is made manifest in living institutions that recognize, have an ongoing relationship with, and positively include other living peoples and, consider and act upon their interests, such as zoocratic institutions, political parties, and governments

Note that a given group’s peoplehood encompasses all of that group’s law but also encompasses a great deal more than merely that group’s law.

Over time, correction, improvement, and elaboration into a full-bodied theory of animal peoplehood would be of great value to the movement, as discussed below.[9]


Why peoplehood matters

Recognizing the peoplehood of other animals is not a matter of academic or philosophical curiosity or ideological purity.  Rather, peoplehood lays a theoretical foundation for a practical path to animal and environmental protection that personhood alone cannot fully supply.

For example, once an animal’s habitat has been destroyed and that animal and her family have been killed, no amount of legal wrangling will resurrect them.  A lawsuit—the mechanism through which personhood is enforced—can only look into the rearview mirror.  And by that time, the damage that has been done cannot, in many cases, be undone.  Justice delayed is justice denied.  Humans can pass a law that says “Cheetahs shall not go extinct,” but such a law will not prevent cheetahs from going extinct.  Human-made laws are not self-fulfilling prophecies.  For these and other such reasons, personhood—while extremely powerful within its domain—is nonetheless very limited in the scope of its protective power by its being inherently retrospective and reactive in theory, design, and practice.

Peoplehood, on the other hand, involves recognizing the dignity and respecting the lives, needs, bodies, and desires of others—which, in turn, implies proactively learning about, addressing, and accommodating these needs and desires.  Peoplehood-driven innovations and solutions—such as zoocracy, when embodied in a living, growing, changing organization or institution—can enable such proactive learning and accommodation in a way that simply passing a law, even a momentous law, cannot.

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In short, where personhood can but react, peoplehood is proactive.  Where personhood answers the legal question “who was right when things went wrong?” in hindsight, peoplehood calls for preventing something from going wrong in the first place.  Where recognizing legal personhood provides a means for remedying harm (e.g., through a civil lawsuit) or punishing a harm-doer (e.g., through a criminal prosecution) after the fact, recognizing the peoplehood of others necessitates ascertaining and implementing—in advance—whatever is necessary to avoid harm, i.e., to prevent the need for a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution from ever arising.  Where personhood regards legality, peoplehood regards actuality.

Illustrative example from history:  ending human slavery in the U.S.

The difference between personhood and peoplehood can be clearly illuminated through reference to historical cases of proto-abolition, i.e., the ending of human slavery in a given jurisdiction.

In the U.S. case, for example, human slaves gained personhood either through private emancipation (“manumission[10]) or by way of a governmental act emancipating them (Emancipation Proclamation (1863)) or, ultimately, abolishing the institution of slavery itself (e.g., the 13th Amendment[11] (1865) to the U.S. Constitution or its equivalents in various states).  But, after emancipation, such personhood provided former slaves nothing at all in terms of formal education, community, business and social connections, institutional affiliation, organizational membership, financial or physical resources, influence, reputation, prestige, and so on.  Instead, former slaves were legally “free” but, in most cases, still penniless, propertyless, politically powerless, effectively homeless, and geographically fragmented or isolated relative to those humans who had not just exited from slavery.  In short, notwithstanding personhood, the former slaves’ condition still bore the deep injuries of profound injustice, and their situation moving forward was severely—severely—disadvantaged.

These other dimensions of life—connections, community, belonging, shared knowledge, social standing, and so on—are what the present article offers as “peoplehood.”  As this example shows, peoplehood carries on, in terms of the subject matter to which it attends, long after personhood has left off.

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Looking ahead

Vegan, abolitionist, and animal rights activists’ embrace and pursuit of legal personhood for other animals is a development of tectonic proportions.  Changing the legal status of other animals from property to persons—emancipating them through, e.g., the Abolition Amendment—is an essential step in protecting our fellow creatures.  Activists should not—must not—settle for anything less.  As proto-abolition was in the 1800s, abolition is the central legal, ethical, environmental, and economic issue of our time.

However, even this history-making step will be but one step.  Abolition is, by no stretch of the imagination, sufficient to protect other animals from anthropogenic violence, conquest, mass faunacide, and global ecocide.  As long as humans pave over, clear-cut, contaminate, and strip-mine other peoples’ homelands—including those homelands that are “owned” by humans—, these other peoples will continue to perish and go extinct.  As long as humans wipe out other peoples’ homewaters through oil spills and sewage, plastics and acidification, these peoples will continue to perish and go extinct.

Personhood is, therefore, not enough.  Necessary, yes—and nothing less than revolutionary in the grandest of senses—yet still not sufficient.  We must also embrace other animals’ peoplehood, recognizing them as independent and culturally sovereign peoples with their own “lives to lead / mouths to feed / friends in need,” if they are to survive the anthropocene.  To extend this embrace is not only to emancipate these other peoples.  Rather, it is also to view them as other peoples and behave accordingly, leaving them, their friends, their societies, and their homes alone, intact, undisturbed, and free from human imperialism, colonization, bullying, and other interference.

Theorists and writers interested in helping further develop the concept of peoplehood and its applicability to other species—thinkers with a background or interest in sociology or anthropology,[12] for example—are encouraged to submit the HP volunteer application.

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[1]    Personhood is a legal concept that means the state of being recognized as a “legal person” in a given legal system.  A legal person is the essential “atomic unit,” one might say, to which legal rights or duties attach:  to own and transfer property, to enter into a contract, or to sue or be sued, for example.  The U.S. legal system currently includes two basic types of legal persons:  “natural” persons, a category which includes human beings but no other naturally occurring organisms, and “artificial” or “fictional” persons, e.g., corporations.  Artificial persons do not exist in nature; they are simply fantasy creations, made up by lawyers, judges, and politicians, for the purpose of achieving some legal effect.  A key legal effect of the corporation fantasy, for instance, is to limit legal liability, such that owners of a corporation get to keep the financial gains generated by a business but do not have to bear financial responsibility for losses inflicted by that business on the rest of society.  A corporation is, in other words, a tool for privatizing gains while socializing losses and is, by design, purely sociopathic.  Meanwhile, actual, living animals exist in the real world but do not, except for humans, currently have personhood in the U.S. legal system.  The result is that actual beings living in the real world do not even enjoy the same rights—or anything close to the same rights—as wholly imaginary beings that exist nowhere but in a dream—nightmare—world.

[2]    The underlying legal-political concept of “rights” and what constitutes a “right” has been evolving for thousands of years.  The history and the multiplicity of meanings that people attach to the word “rights” will, for the most part, be left to a separate article.  In its fundamental sense, a “right” can best be defined in reference to two legal persons and a government:  a first person holds a “right” when he or she can ask—successfully—a government to force a second person to do or not do something, i.e., to “enforce” his or her “right.”  A “right” held by the first person implies a “duty” owed to the first person by the second person.  The “ask” generally takes the form of a lawsuit.  Specifically, a lawsuit is a process whereby the first person asks the government to force the second person to do or not do something.

[3]    Standing is a legal concept and term that denotes the state of being the proper person to ask the government to enforce a right or duty.  For example, the first person described in footnote 2, as the person who holds the right, has standing to bring a lawsuit based on that right, whereas a random stranger who does not hold that right would not have standing to bring such a lawsuit.

[4]    Property is a legal concept and term that denotes a “bundle of rights” that a legal person holds with respect to, say, a given object or piece of land.  This bundle of rights includes several distinct rights, such as a right to exclude others from entering that piece of land.  The legal person who holds such property rights with respect to a given object or piece of land can loosely be said to be the “owner” of that object or land, although the particular rights included in such “ownership” may vary greatly.  In slavery-based legal-political systems, such as the U.S. in its current form, living beings (other than humans) are treated as objects, not persons (see footnote 1), and can therefore be “owned,” i.e., treated as property.

[5]    Habeas corpus most commonly refers to a legal mechanism whereby a first person can ask the government to show good cause for detaining a second person and, if no such good cause can be shown, thereby obtain the release of that second person.  A U.S. organization called the “Nonhuman* Rights Project” (NRP) has been a leader in attempting to use the writ of habeas corpus as a means to procure freedom for other animals, which has in turn popularized the notion of “personhood” among members of the animal-protection movement.  This organization’s efforts have achieved some significant path-clearing results, including, for instance, an expected revision of the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of “person” such that it appeals to “rights or duties” instead of “rights and duties,” a shining example of the importance of clear, thoughtful drafting in the world of law.  See “Black’s Law Dictionary to Correct Definition of ‘Person’ in Response to Nonhuman Rights Project Request” (NRP, 2017).  Relative benefits and drawbacks of attempting to achieve animal personhood through the unelected (i.e., judicial) branch rather than through the elected branches (i.e., executive and legislative) and political process are briefly described in “Abolition Academy: The Two Basic Mechanisms” (Humane Party, 2017).  Further discussion of these topics, as they pertain to other animals, will be left to a separate article.
*The present author recommends against use of  “nonhuman” as being a profoundly anthropocentric term, deeply dualistic, binary, and self-aggrandizing.  Use of this term legitimizes and exacerbates anthropocentrism as a worldview and undermines legal efforts on behalf of other animals.  Moreover, binary-ism is a major challenge not only in the context of animal rights but also in the context of human civil rights initiatives, such as the Equal Rights Amendment II.  Activists should therefore seek to avoid participating in and reinforcing binary-ism in all its forms.  Even for the Humane Party, keeping this “non-human” word out of usage has been a challenge, especially since many, if not most, other organizations use this and other anthropocentric terms without reflection.

[6]    Slavery is a legal concept and term that denotes legal treatment of a living, sentient being as property (see footnote 4) instead of as a person (see footnote 1).  The history and multiplicity of forms of slavery will be left to a separate article.

[7]    Abolition denotes a legal-political event that occurs at a particular moment in time, specifically the event of “abolishing” slavery (see footnote 6) in a given legal-political system.  After this event has occurred, sentient beings can no longer be treated as property in the given legal-political jurisdiction.  In contemporary terms, abolition—ending of all slavery—should be distinguished from proto-abolition—ending of human slavery.  See generally “What Does Abolition Mean?” (Humane Party FAQ).

[8]    Fantasy and science fiction literature does a particularly good job of evoking, demonstrating, and relying upon the peoplehood of other species.  For instance, when Tolkien describes the different beings who inhabit Middle-earth, his readers’ recognition of dwarves, elves, orcs, ents, and great eagles as different “peoples”—one volume edited by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher is even entitled The Peoples of Middle-Earth—happens effortlessly; their peoplehood is too obvious to require conscious reflection, as each of these groups has their own distinctive customs, ways of communication, and all the other markings of peoplehood.  Similarly, viewers have no trouble recognizing the peoplehood of, say, the ewoks or gungans in the Star Wars films.  Meanwhile, Star Trek fans would never once doubt that vulcans and klingons, for instance, are distinct and culturally sovereign peoples on par with humans.  Even in Watership Down—a fantasy that comes much closer to home than these others—the peoplehood of the rabbit characters needs no explanation.  Yet, somehow, when humans are faced with the actual, living creatures who share the actual planet we inhabit, the elsewhere obvious peoplehood of other sentient species tends to evade us.

[9]    Concepts like peoplehood are assets in the “intellectual battle” in which the animal-emancipation movement is engaged and in which the aid of “the intelligentsia and literati… is needed” (“Vegan Literary Theory and Criticism,” The Humane Herald, 2017).

[10]  Robert Carter III, of Virginia, for example, manumitted over 400 slaves beginning in the 1790s.  See, e.g., Andrew Levy, The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter (Random House, 2007).  The Humane Party’s Manumission Movement urges modern slave-holders to follow Carter’s example by, for example, turning their rape and slaughter facilities into animal sanctuaries.  See, e.g., “Want to be an effective activist?” (Humane Party, 2016).

[11]  Section 1 of the Abolition Amendment is modeled on and incorporates some of the language of the 13th Amendment.  For more discussion, see “Why does the text of the Abolition Amendment adhere so closely to that of the 13th Amendment?” (Humane Party, 2016),

[12]  Anthropology denotes, on its face, a study related to humans (the anthropo- root means human).  But extension of peoplehood to other species will call for a full-blown equivalent of anthropology for those other peoples, not merely from a behavioral or ecological science perspective that regards animals as objects but rather from a perspective of respect and appreciation that affords full credence and supremacy to their views and values, including their desire to be free from observation and intrusion, and recognizes and respects their innate sovereignty and dignity.

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