Almost Persons: Life on Trial


Westmount Public Library, CA, 4574 Sherbrooke Street West, Westmount, QC, CA

A Great Trials Lecture with Prof. Wendy Adams (Law)

Law’s most aspirational claim is the guarantee that every person is equal before law. The extent to which this claim remains forever out of reach is reflected in the very concept we consider essential for its success, that of legal personhood. We use legal personhood to decide whose life will count in law, thus acknowledging some claims will fail, else the category would not be required. Personhood does not instantiate a self-evident demarcation between persons and things.

We have a history of using this concept to institutionalize relations of hierarchy and dominance. We no longer affirm property in humans as slaves, as we did in Dred Scott v. Sandford, but we should remember the conviction with which this case was decided. As we attend to more recent claims denying personhood for non-human animals, we are just as certain that law is on the right side of history. Our beliefs are sustained by the normative construction of human-animal relations in popular culture, where we demonstrate a persistent tendency to represent animals as willing allies in the achievement of human objectives. If we are to realize law’s aspirations for equality, we may need to question our ability to use personhood as a foundation for legal relations.

This lecture has been accredited by the Barreau du Québec for 1 hour of Continuing Legal Education: no. 10060898.

Great Trials III Lecture Series: Private Lives, Public Law

Organized by the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), the Great Trials lecture series considers a collection of history-making trials across time and examines the social and political contexts in which they took place as well as their cultural consequences. The series takes the position that ‘law’ happens as much outside the courtroom as it does within it, and that each of these pivotal events stands as testament to the ways in which constructions of authority, law, and justice have informed cultural consciousness across centuries.

Fees: $60 for the series of five lectures, or $15 for individual lectures.