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Saturday, March 05, 2005

The two horns of the argument from marginal cases

The argument form marginal cases, from Singer:

In order to conclude that all and only human beings deserve a full and equal moral status (and therefore that no animals deserve a full and equal moral status), there must be some property P that all and only human beings have that can ground such a claim.

Any P that only human beings have is a property that (some) human beings lack (e.g., the marginal cases).

Any P that all human beings have is a property that (most) animals have as well.

Therefore, there is no way to defend the claim that all and only human beings deserve a full and equal moral status.


The arguments promoting animal rights are contingent on how we (humans) treat other humans. That is, most of the arguments from the animal rights movement asks people to treat animals in a certain way because we treat humans in a certain way. This is the first horn.

The argument is contingent. It relies on the way we treat humans to promote treatment of animals. But what if use the second horn: the argument was reworked in such a way that we used the way we treat animals now to promote a change in the way we treat marginal humans. If we deny that animals have rights, and state some property that all rational adult humans share that some marginal humans do not, what is the problem with then denying marginal humans right as well.

The view is consistent in so far as no being is extended rights despite the fact that a being of equal moral status is not extended those rights.

However, I can see a problem with those beings who have a potential to share the moral properties of those who are allowed moral rights. Namely, babies and the temporally mentally handicapped (people in comas, I suppose). It is clear that at most babies and some people in comas will eventually share those properties which allow them to share equal moral standing with those who are allowed to hold rights.

But citing a potential to have rights seems iffy. Frey’s problem (Interests and Rights) with potentiality is that a potential to have rights denies the status of the being now. Which, I interpret as being a problem because the discussion is over which rights, if any, a being has now. Aside from the fact that babies and coma patients do not share properties which would extend them rights, not all babies and coma patients will even eventually share those properties which we cite as justification for extending rights. To lump all babies and coma patients into the class of rights holders because they might share morally relevant properties is to treat them a certain way because they are of a like kind.

Alistair Norcross (I think the paper name is Three Approaches to the Ethical Treatment of Animals) points out the problem with this sort of assignment of rights, which, to summarize briefly, judges people not on merit, or relevant properties, but on babyhood or comahood (?), which both, in and of themselves, seem rather irrelevant. The second problem of citing potential to have rights seems also to fall easily into a slippery slope, in which we could grant a fetus rights (because presumably, one day they will be adults). I would suggest the slope could be taken as far back as sperm and egg, but I think anyone arguing that a sperm and egg should have rights because they have a potential to share morally relevant properties is being slightly dishonest. Perhaps some would want to grant the fetus even at a few days moral rights, but that is a different debate. Moving on...

I do not think citing a potential to have morally relevant properties is sufficient for grating rights. It seems only fair to grant rights based on morally relevant properties, which ever those properties may be.

But there seem to be some big problems with denying marginal humans rights, at least, intuitively. We wouldn’t want to say that we can treat babies and the retarded any way we like. But there would be nothing stopping us, if we use animals as our starting point. That is, we treat animals however we like. They are bread for food, slaughtered in horrible conditions. We can own them and put them outside when they are bad. We can use their skins for belts and purses and jackets.

Of course, many of us wouldn’t use babies and the retarded this way, but there would be no moral obligation (or legal obligation) not to do so. While this wouldn’t be problematic in the case of the severely retarded in terms of their futures, imagine if we could do things like brand babies and people in comas. What about when these people do share those properties which allow them to be holders of rights. Should we tell them that the treatment they received when they were not holders of rights was justified because they lacked the relevant properties they now possess. It seems the freedom we enjoy would somehow be undermined if in our non right bearing stage, we were treated like cattle.

Of course, if I rely on human intuition when extending marginal humans rights, it seems inconsistent to demand we abandon our intuitions when it comes to our treatment of animals. So I don’t’ want an argument rejecting the second horn of this argument based on intuition, but I can’t think of anything clever, save for this little story about the branded babies above.

I feel all mixed up. Help?

2 Comments:

Blogger ydfyce said...

I think there is a property P that all (well most) and only humans have. Namely the capacity for autonomy. Autonomy being the capcity to develop, winnow, reorder and fullfill your desires for the future... Animals, most animals, seem to lack this capcity, so this property fairly neatly divides the human and animal kingdoms, with certain boarderline exceptions.

Regarding the borderline cases on the 2nd horn, we can dissolve this worry if we take a particular (and popular) notion of personal identity. If persons are constituted as 4-dimensional beings, related through space time by certain characteristics (Relation R for Parfit in Reasons and Persons), then there no context of future of past right-worthiness (if you will). Since I am a 4 dimensional object, it is morally irrellevant that I am in a coma, say, late in my life for at some point on the 4-dimensional worm a time slice of me was not comatose and capable of making rational plans for my life. Thus, because part of the 4-d worm 'me' had the capcity of autonomy I(the 4-d me) is worthy of certain moral rights, despite the fact that certain time slices of me (both comatose and infantile) will be unable to make rational choices.

Regarding the 1st horn, I'm with Singer. I think there are mebers of the animal community that have autonomy to some degree, and ass such I am a vegetarian. Are Chickens one of those animals? I don't know, but better to be safe than sorry as they say... We're in a fotunate enough position to care for the worlds creatures, or at least not kill them, so we ought to... How that 'ought' plays out, I think, will largely depend on what sort animals have autonomy and what sort do not...

-Chris

10:24 AM  
Blogger jes said...

Thanks Chris. Still a bit confused. I will ask you more in class. If we ever have it.

-jessie

2:55 PM  

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