What’s the significance of this contrast? We know that elephants are more social – and far more intelligent – than cows. But the comparison goes far beyond the question of intelligence and alertness. I believe it’s possible that elephants have all the cognitive and emotional capacities it takes to be persons. I’m not claiming they belong to the species Homo sapiens, obviously: rather, I mean they might have the potential to deserve the label ‘person’ in recognition of their particular status or identity. Along with many philosophers, I think that being a person involves something different to being a living organism with human DNA.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that elephants currently express the full range of personal and creative capacities that humans do. But I suspect all that’s missing are certain informational and institutional structures, along with the motivations to innovate upon them. In humans, we know what those structures look like: they are the books, movies, museums and laws that manifest in the world what otherwise exists only in our heads. It might be that there’s a lot going on in the heads of elephants, but they just haven’t been moved to externalise and store it in the environment the way we have.
However, if elephants do have all the raw mental material it takes to be persons, a time could come in the near future when we might draw them into a more expansive kind of personhood. The behavioural economics experiments that a colleague and I are planning to run with a group of semi-wild, female elephants in South Africa should begin to test the plausibility of this arresting speculation.