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Shall Ape be Allowed to Kill Ape?

It is widely accepted that it is immoral to cause gratuitous harm to animals, and indeed there are many charities that have been set up around the world, such as the RSPCA (see: to prevent harm to animals and to promote animal welfare. Some organisations want to go further than mere protection of animals, however, and seek to promote the idea that we should recognize various ‘animal rights’. For example, the participants in the ‘Great Ape Project’ argue that non-human ‘great apes’ – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – should share the human right to life, the human right to the protection of individual liberty and the human right not be tortured. See: Advocates of rights for great apes have had some modest success. In 2007 they convinced the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous province of Spain, to grant some rights to the great apes (See:


A common response to the push to expand the sphere of recognized rights bearers to include animals (Roger Scruton argues this way: is to argue that animals cannot be rights bearers because they do not and cannot hold duties. I think this line of reasoning is too swift. Human infants are commonly thought to bear rights but they do not and cannot hold duties. However, there is a conceptual connection between rights and duties. If x has a right then someone, or some group, has the duty to uphold that right. In typical cases we reason that society as a whole bears at least part of the duty to uphold individual rights. I have a duty to refrain from killing people I don’t like and society has a duty to ensure that I do this, which it fulfills by maintaining police forces in order to prevent violations of rights and to prosecute rights violators.


It seems plausible to think that society as a whole has a responsibility to ensure that the rights of all right holders are upheld and if this category were to include great apes then a society that had communities of rights-bearing great apes living on its territory would incur this responsibility. The Great Apes project reports on various successes in protecting apes from human abuse:,stories-and-victories-of-gap-project-internationals-president, and indeed it seems plausible to think that human society as a whole should prevent abuses of animals, many of which can be described using the language of rights violations. However, the defenders of rights for great apes and other animals often miss a crucuial point about the extension of universal human rights to animals. It is not only humans that are liable to violate any rights that non-human apes might hold. Other apes are liable to do so as well. Consider the right to life. It is well known that chimpanzees have a propensity to kill one another:; so it seems that society as a whole ought to take action to prevent chimpanzees from violating one another’s rights to life by policing chimpanzee communities. And chimpanzees are far from the only killers in the animal world. Even bonobos, which have a reputation for peaceful behaviour, sometimes kill other monkeys: If we take the idea that non human great apes have the right to life then surely we have a responsibility to police all ape communities to uphold the right to life, in the same way that we try to ensure that the right to human life is upheld, by policing human societies.


One response that I have heard to the above line of argument is to concede that human societies do have a duty to police ape communities but to argue that it is impractical to uphold this right because it would be too costly. I don’t find this response at all convincing. The first problem is that it is highly discriminatory. If we are willing to pay for the policing of human societies and we think that apes hold similar rights to humans then we should also be willing to police ape communities. If it really is impossible to afford to police all ape communities and all human communities then perhaps we should redeploy police from the safest human communities to the more violent ape communities. The second problem is that it may not be that costly. It may be that volunteers can be found to police ape communities, or perhaps some apes may be able to be trained to undertake this role.


I suspect that most people would recoil from the idea of ape communities being policed. Most of us would prefer that animals communities are free from human interference but that individual animals are allowed to kill one another and violate one other’s rights. We prefer that animals are allowed to be wild animals. But animals can only be wild animals if humans don’t attempt to uphold their rights.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I’m ok with some amount of policing of other ape communities. But isn’t there an important analogy to international relations here? Just as we allow different nations to handle their own murder cases for the most part, we should probably allow other ape communities to handle their own ape-on-ape violence for the most part. Perhaps violence within chimpanzee troops should be left to standard chimp rules–including even allowing a new alpha male to kill the infants fathered by the old alpha. Violence between troops, the chimp wars, might call for intervention. You could also justify this on preservation of endangered species grounds.

  2. I think this would have to be a consequence of gaining these rights. My thought though that given a context of basic interests this sort of problem with also extend to non person animals killing other animals. I wonder if Jains have any rule on this?

  3. Hi Rob,

    the analogy to international relations is interesting. I have two thoughts:

    First, we don’t respect sovereignty come what may. If a state was persistently failing to uphold the rights of its citizens, then that failure may constite a prima facie case for external intervention in that state, by the United Nations or some other party.

    Second, I’m not sure that any current human society would agree to cede territory to any particular species, but if they did then the choice of species would be very problematic. Great apes share territory with many other species, including other species of great apes and it is not obvious why we should favour one species over another.

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