“Personhood” for Beginners

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 24, 2012 in Rat News | Subscribe

Posted by André  on  06/01  at  03:20 AM


Thanks for engaging – and also for the explanatory comment. Of course I am very sympathetic with the spirit of your piece. All I wanted to do was – to suggest a different approach on the matter.

If the goal of the article was merely to invite people to think twice about dismissing animal rights as something laughable – obviously you did a good job. However, its rhetorical structure could be easily attacked, and its conclusions invalidated. So, to make a better case for nonhuman animal rights, I would have employed a different strategy.

The crucial point, I believe, is where you say that humans have a right, not a privilege, of personhood. This is very much incorrect. Personhood is not a right at all. It is the prerequisite for having rights. Only persons have rights. We should bear in mind that “being a person” is a human concept, and therefore humans attribute it to other lifeforms according to their taste. There is no reciprocity in this. Yes, humans might attribute personhood to certain animals (in the Czech civic code, if I am not mistaken, dogs are considered persons, for example), but it is a gift from us, humans, to them, beasts. Dogs cannot rally, protest, strike, or sabotage our social order to press politicians to pass a pro-doggie legislation.

Typically, intelligence and sentience are not considered particularly relevant factors in these matters. Above, I gave certain human examples to show you how we are inclined to consider persons even organisms completely devoid of sentience, emotions, and intelligence. Sacredness is the trick. Take human embryos, for example. Many people consider them persons, even at the earliest stages of development. The reason is – because they consider human life sacred, no matter what. Therefore, any individual human organism, no matter its developmental conditions or cognitive capacities, is a person, and therefore entitled to a number of fundamental rights.

Women, and weak human minorities were granted the rank of “persons”, only after long, civic battles. They had the strength and the strategic capacity to influence our legislative machine, and the social discourse altogether. Animals and human children cannot do that. And, indeed, even nowadays their will means nothing, they are tutored and moved around, regardless of their individual preferences. Sometimes they are abused. Animals, in particular, are universally enslaved and, often, killed – treated as a mere alimentary resource for our species.

So, why don’t we focus on compassion and on the essential sacredness of all individual lifeforms instead? There is a very beautiful text, from St. Augustine. It is quite old, but still important. He examines the reasons behind vegetarianism – and he dismisses the notion of animal rights on practical grounds. He argues that our lives, and in particular our alimentary lives, would not be sustainable without systematic abuses on beasts. But now we have artificial meat. We have technological tools capable of making our lives compatible with universal compassion. So, you see, a Christian champion was almost ready to embrace the notion of animal rights, if only people could live without meat, and animal slaves. Buddhists and Hindus are already there. Now, also we can. We just have to light once more this religious, compassionate light – the light behind our ethical judgments.

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