An Ape Ethic

An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood, published in the philosophy list of Rowman and Littlefield's imprint, Lexington Books, 2020. 242 pages. Bibliography and Index. ISBN: 978-1-7936-1970-9. Subjects: Environmental Ethics | Animal Studies.

Publisher's Page, order book Here. Here's the page on Amazon.

Hear me read a small part of the book HERE.

A lengthy abstract of the book, as a presentation at the Columbia University International Conference on Sustainable Development, 2020, appears HERE. Essentially the same extended abstract also appears in the September 2021 issue of The Montreal Review HERE. Ther's a nice response/summary of this extended abstract on Faunalytics, HERE.

I was interviewed by animal behavior expert Dr. Jennifer Verdolin on this subject, HERE.

Readers might be interested in my essay, "Primates are not..." published in Trace: Journal for Human-Animal Studies.

I was interviewed by animal ethics philosopher Dr. Josh Milburn, HERE.

An Ape Ethic makes the case that great apes are moral individuals because they engage in a land ethic as ecosystem engineers to generate ecologically sustainable biomes for themselves and other species. We need to recognize apes as eco-engineers in order to save them, their habitats, and in so doing, we will ultimately save earth’s biosphere. The book draws on extensive empirical research from the ecology and behavior of great apes and synthesizes past and current understanding of the similarities in cognition, social behavior, and culture found in apes. Importantly, this book proposes that differences between humans and apes provide the foundation for the call to recognize forest personhood in the great apes. While all ape species are alike in terms of cognition, intelligence, and behaviors, there is a vital contrast: great apes are the efficient ecological engineers, not humans. Simian forest sovereignty is, therefore, critical to conservation efforts in controlling global warming, and so apes should be granted dominion over their tropical forests. Weaving together philosophical, biological, socioecological, and elements from eco-psychology, this book provides a glimmer of hope for future acknowledgment of the inherent ethic ape species embody in their eco-centered existence on this planet. Central chapters include: The Case for an Ape Ethic; Cognition and Intelligence in Environmental Adaptation; Social Behavior and Personhood.


An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood clearly shows that it’s high time to recognize who we - human animals – are and who “they” – nonhuman animals are, and to appreciate that they, like us, are highly evolved agents who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. It’s the decent thing to do. The health of our magnificent planet depends on our doing this right now. In fact, it’s reasonable to argue that their – these nonhuman persons’ – presence in diverse habitats is more important for maintaining ecosystem integrity than ours. A very thoughtful and forward-looking book.” Marc Bekoff, author of Rewilding Our Hearts and The Animals’ Agenda, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

An interview of me by Marc Bekoff in Psychology Today.

“On a planet in peril, our differences (as much as our similarities) with other species offer urgently-needed lessons for living in harmony with the natural world. Dr. Tague draws on a rich array of sources from science and philosophy to provide a timely, provocative distinction between humans who exploit the environment and Great Apes who coexist successfully with it, a difference that should confer moral status on our closest primate relatives.” Christine E. Webb, College Fellow, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

“This book takes you through a series of cogent arguments to the conclusion that great apes should be granted personhood by virtue of their intellectual and moral individualism. Great apes care for their environment, they are eco-engineers; unlike humans, the great apes have not systematically degraded lands. In fact, we might be able to learn a great deal about environmental ethics from our primate cousins. This book is, thus, a must read for those interested in animal ethics in general and great ape personhood in particular.” Carlo Alvaro, Philosophy Professor, New York City College of Technology, author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul

“Overall, I found An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood to be a thoroughly accessible and extremely thought-provoking work of scholarly writing.” Paul H. Hebner, science editor


[Sample writing from the Introduction. Copyright©2020 Lexington Books and Gregory F. Tague. All Rights Reserved.]

Mark Moffett (2019) makes the case that early humans like hunter-gatherers who lived in small societies dependent on wild gardens and animals were “nations.” Can’t we say this logic applies to great apes as well from savanna chimpanzees to Bornean orangutans? A criticism of my question might be that apes generally don’t cooperate. I’ll counter that in due course. For now, Moffett might point out how societies do not equate to cooperation but include various members who share a social identity. That is true of apes, including the so-called semi-solitary orangutan. This ape identity is tied to their goal of surviving in balance with their habitats as socially and ecologically conscious individuals.

Great apes demonstrate an ethic of moral individualism through many factors, which can only be outlined here and in chapter one, but which will be treated in detail in the core chapters, two (cognition and intelligence) and three (social behaviors). For example, great apes possess and exercise advanced cognitive mechanisms that enable their intellectual and social abilities. Overall, great apes are communal creatures who consistently, whether near or far, acknowledge and at times challenge, in a type of social duel, the presence and status of others. Great apes live in garden-like ecosystems and notably have not ravaged their habitats. Can it be argued that great apes exhibit a land ethic for the well-being of their forest homes through ecosystem engineering? Rather than using broad strokes that view apes simply as another species separate from and supposedly below what is human, I consider apes as individuals and at times highlight a particular ape’s unique characteristics.

There is an ape economy consisting of good land use. On physical and mental levels, consciously or not, apes seem to participate in James Lovelock’s (1979) Gaia hypothesis of a self-regulating global ecosphere. Preceding modern humans, ancient hominids evolved adaptations for ecological systematics of thermostatic and population equilibrium. As Verne Grant (1963) would say, for the individual, its particular genes (phenotype) develop in response to the actions of its genotypic constitution under environmental circumstances. Genotypes can be modified by the environment into phenotypic variations which can be adaptive. Great apes are living proof of selectively inherited adaptations to survive in and maintain vast expanses of tropical forests. Furthermore, ape behaviors show that they are free and responsible individuals who tend to their ecological homes while caring for others in that environment. Not only is there an ape ethos, and more specifically an ethos for each great ape species, but there are also keenly aware individual characters evident among these species. Etymologically, the word ethic is related to ethos, character, and hence the title of my book.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (2007) interviewed “languaged” bonobos she worked with, and some of the core needs they articulated include: travel, sharing information, socialization, solitude, long term relationships, teaching young their culture, and acceptance by humans of their linguistic and mental abilities. The “languaged” bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha, in particular, have demonstrated emergent awareness of others as well as states of advanced perception during their communication with each other and humans (Savage-Rumbaugh, 2018). Great apes are not only self-aware but are cognizant of their cultural conditions. By analogy, these sensitivities would include sharp awareness of their physical surroundings. Each great ape possesses his or her own ethical capacities of self-awareness, autonomous intentionality, freedom to act outside the control of others, and empathy. These qualities entitle great apes to be considered as persons with moral individualism.

As might be expected, I argue for great ape personhood with reference to their high level of intelligence and complex social behavior. However, my use of “personhood,” a word that occurs throughout the book, is closer in meaning to person of the forest. Personhood has legal implications and those are not denied. More pointedly, the thrust of my argument is to advocate for apes, especially orangutans, as forest persons by virtue of their land ethic. Homo sylvestris, or person of the forest, is a phrase of Nicolaes Tulp widely used after his 1641 designation and essay by the same name (van Wyhe & Kjaergaard, 2015). Citing E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975), Richard Dawkins (1982) says science should not be advocacy but facts. My book uses empirical evidence to advocate for great ape sovereignty over their lands in line with political claims by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2011) and Eva Meijer (2019). Specific claims for the personhood argument will include a thorough discussion of the scientific literature. However, what distinguishes my multi-dimensional argument is how I claim intelligence and sociality as characteristics of moral individualism. Moreover, I claim, there’s an ape ethic for land evidenced through their ecological engineering.

In a nutshell, the argument follows this train of thought: Great ape forest personhood is evident by virtue of their intellectual and moral individualism because of their land ethic as ecosystem engineers. Correlated ideas, then, include the ape ethos, moral individualism, and eco-engineering. They connect since a moral individual who has a land ethic is a good steward of her shared habitat.

We know great apes are similar to us in morphology, psychology, and behavior. If I choose to act a certain way (e.g., for my own health or for the welfare of others), can we say that apes, because of genetic similarities, are also capable of making choices of “good” intent? Can we further say that because of evolved dissimilarities in a different environment of evolutionary adaptation apes experience a feeling of choice regarding a heightened sense of attention to their forest habitats? If you were to draw a three-bubble graphic of moral individualism, eco-engineering, and the land ethic, a pivot of contact for all three might be in the ape ecosystem. It might not be so much that apes consider the consequences of ecosystem engineering but experience, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (1999) would say, a feeling of what happens. The point is that they likely have a bodily and emotional frame of mind about what to do and so act. They are not utilitarian in this sense where concern for preferences of many count; rather, they are moral individuals whose natural activity just so happens to benefit others, whether kin, group, or unrelated beings. Ape actions contribute to the health of the forest. In this way the moral worth of an individual is not measured solely in cognitive capacity but in how the individual acts in a relationship with others in her ecosystem.

I can’t prove that apes act ethically toward their land; but the evidence concerning their self-awareness, sympathetic capacities, and intelligence seems to bolster my claim that they have evolved and adapted their behavior so as not to destroy their tropical forest homes. I can’t definitively prove conscious intent by apes in eco-engineering any more than one can prove the power of prayer; and yet people pray. In other words, I don’t have to prove that eco-engineering is cognitively motivated. Rather, apes are motivated to tend to and survive in forests because of their evolved ethos, and why I call it a land ethic by moral individuals for ecosystem engineering. In some ways, an ape subconsciously considers, How should I live? and acts accordingly with some degree of care to self, others, and habitat in order to flourish. This is not to say great apes deliberately follow rational rules or procedures for consequences. Broadly speaking, they act in a meaningful way to achieve wholeness without intentional harm to others. In this way we can see how their immediate motives are conscious, but yet they don’t necessarily have to demonstrate that there is a systematic, well-wrought plan to their ecosystem engineering. Instead, it’s a matter of the total effect from a number of related causes, such as moral individualism for health (cognition and intelligence) and the land ethic (social behavior) for kin and community. They seem responsive to the beneficial results of their actions. This will all be explained in coming chapters.

Worth underlining is how any opinions I seem to make are actually driven by my review and discussion of the scientific data. Here’s what differentiates this book from some others in three areas I attempt to interrelate:

1. Ape ethic: Drawing from environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s (1949) call to care for the inherent and not economic value of an ecosystem, great apes exhibit a land ethic by virtue of their long, sustained evolutionary adaptive success in tropical forest habitats.

2. Moral individualism: Philosopher James Rachels (1990) works against sweeping utilitarian principles and instead calls for a return focus on individual identity and autonomy. Willful actions and not just consequences are important. This is not simply self-interest, though. Rather, it affirms the moral state of the individual in relation to others in a shared habitat. The assertion here is not a universal ape moral ought but rather an ape ethical ability for normative governance. While the individual has desires which can be satisfied, these are “morally” balanced against the needs of others. I apply this notion to great apes since they exhibit individual differences across cognitive and social behaviors similarly seen in human communities.

3. Ecosystem engineering: This refers to any animal, whether ant, worm, Arctic fox, beaver, or human. However, in my estimation great apes by virtue of their mentality, social behavior, and physical movements stimulate and sustain the living components of large-scale biotic communities with positively widespread repercussions not seen in other species. Furthermore, eco-engineering acts like a bridge between ape genes and the forests, an inclusive fitness component where environmental care by the apes is connected to their species longevity.

Readers will discover that these three ideas are intimately related in my call for ape personhood, since it is the moral individual who exhibits an ape ethic of ecosystem engineering. Readers also need to understand that lots of topics are covered, all circling around the notion of moral individualism. For example, chapter one provides a framework that is elaborated upon in the two analytical chapters that follow. Objections are covered as they would arise through the book. I don’t want to presume that ape awareness, sentience, and sapience are self-evident. Rather, I have marshalled a substantial amount of evidence from field and lab researchers, as well as scientifically informed philosophers, to discuss and analyze an array of ape cognitive and behavioral patterns to support my claims of moral individualism tied to eco-engineering. My argument asks that sovereignty be granted to great apes as forest persons.

Content Copyright © Gregory F. Tague. All Rights Reserved.

An Ape Ethic Table of Contents with Section Headings

Acknowledgements [see below]


Why This Book

About This Book

General Objections to the Argument and Claims of This Book

Of Emotions, Motives, and Ecology

The Whole Organism Response

Domain for Apes


Legal Rights and Personhood

Moral Individualism

Great Apes as Ecosystem Engineers

Individual Agency and Autonomy

The Moral Ethos of an Ape Ethic

Special Objections: The Long Shadow of Kant

Do Apes Have Moral Minds?


Emotional Understanding

Brain and Consciousness

Intelligence and Instinct

Can Apes Think?

Theory of Mind

Cognitive Communication With Reference to Tools

Environmental Psychology and Ecological Engineering

Good Gestalt


Biology of Moral Systems

Evolutionary Ethics

Social Conformity

Great Apes as Social Persons

Social Motivations and Understanding

Social Traditions and Cultural Ethos

Social Learning

Outer and Inner Forest Worlds


The Language of Anthropomorphism

Ape/Human Moral Psychology

Ape/Human Moral Sentiments

Ape/Humans: Not as Different as Imagined

A Culture of Change?

The Garden and Its Gardener

The Long Call





I would like to thank:

The office of the Academic Dean, Jennifer Lancaster, St. Francis College, for a course release.

The librarians at St. Francis College.

Multiple anonymous peer reviewers.

Many scholars and scientists have encouraged my pursuits in evolutionary studies, including Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe; David Lahti; Christopher Jensen; Carlo Alvaro; Dustin Hellberg; Shawn Thompson; Christine Webb; and Peter Canning. Supportive current and former St. Francis College colleagues include Kathleen Nolan; Kristy Biolsi; Irina Ellison; Alison Dell; Clayton Shoppa; SungHun Kim; Ian Maloney; Wendy Galgan; Gerry Galgan; Jennifer Wingate; Athena Devlin; and Timothy Houlihan. This book had humble origins in a paper for a working group on nonhuman forms of The Modern Language Association, which met over several days in January 2018, headed by Samantha Pergadia. My gratitude to Alexandra Resnick for copy editing and to Vukasin Petrovic for proofreading. Special thanks to Paul Hebner for editorial consultation. Sincere gratitude to my acquisitions editors for shepherding this project to completion: Jana Hodges-Kluck and Sydney Wedbush.

The book is dedicated To Gary L. Shapiro, who has worked over forty years on behalf of orangutans and other species to preserve their rainforest habitats.


An Ape Ethic has been added to the online relevant books of The Cultural Evolution Society and to the bibliography of the Animal Studies Program at Michigan State U., animals as philosophical and ethical subjects. The book was featured on the social media page of Universitat Pompeu Fabra's Centre for Animal Ethics, Barcelona, 25 May. The book was featured on Stanford University's Millenium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere site as well as the site of Animal Rights Watch.


Of related interest, see this issue of the ASEBL Journal on great apes.

Concerning great ape personhood, the book "is perhaps the most current and comprehensive analysis of these points [e.g., environmental intelligence and social behaviors] in print today and will serve students and those with an interest in those subjects extremely well....urgent and compelling." Elizabeth Tyson, Journal of Animal Ethics, Spring 2022.