How Do We Treat Non-human Entities?

Big Bird muppet standing next to Michelle Obama

If we want to live a moral life, how should we treat animals or complex artificial intelligence? What kinds of rights should non-humans have?

These are some of the questions Harvard Law Professor and HarvardX faculty I. Glenn Cohen explored with an audience of 2,300 in his TEDx Cambridge talk, “Are There Non-human Persons? Are There Non-person Humans?”

Cohen, one of the world’s leading scholars of law and bioethics, challenged the audience to consider how law and morality should accommodate animals and artificial intelligence alongside human beings.

Using as his starting point, of all things, Big Bird from Sesame Street, Cohen examined how our current moral vocabulary equating “human" and “person" may be leading us astray in the way in which we treat non-human entities. “We use these two terms pretty interchangeably, but I want to suggest to you they're radically different,” said Cohen.


Cohen is an award-winning teacher and faculty director for the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics. He teaches the free HarvardX online course Bioethics: The Law, Medicine, and Ethics of Reproductive Technologies and Genetics, which has introduced more than 20,000 students to the study of bioethics and the application of legal and ethical reasoning. Enroll here for a new session of this online course, which opens on December 5th.

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