Human distinctiveness

What about people who are stupider than animals?

I’ve just said that it’s the capacity for abstract reasoning that makes humanity special.  There would seem to be a big problem with this claim:  some people don’t have this capability.  Consider the following:

1)      Babies.  For at least the first year after birth, human cognitive ability is probably not greater than adult members of other primates.  Does this mean that infants should have no more “human” rights than gorillas?

2)      Severely brain damaged people.

3)      An unconscious person.  If he’s drugged, it might not even be possible to immediately wake him.  Such a person has less cognitive power than an insect.  A related case would be a person in a coma—temporary or permanent.

Everyone except lunatic utilitarians recognizes such people as human beings, albeit undeveloped, defective, or inactive in some way.  A human baby is a human being.  A full-grown chimp that can run mental circles around that baby is not a human being, but an irrational animal.  Is this inconsistent with rationality being the distinguishing feature of humanity?

Here it’s crucial to recall the Aristotelian distinction between the essential idea of a thing and its particular current actuality.  The essential idea of an eye is “seeing organ”; this is the idea that uniquely allows us to make sense of all the details of the eye’s structure and function.  A particular eye may be damaged so that it doesn’t work, but as long as you can make out what its function is supposed to be, the essence hasn’t changed.  The eyes of a blind man are still essentially seeing organs.  If the eye is so smashed up that its function is totally effaced, then it wouldn’t even be an eye anymore.

It’s the human essence—which is to be a rational animal—that makes someone human, not their present actuality.  A baby is essentially human, because the only way to truly understand what a baby is now is to refer to the rational adult it is tending to become.  Imagine some alien saw a human infant, but didn’t realize it to be an undeveloped human.  The alien would not be able to make sense of what he was seeing.  How could such a helpless animal survive?  Why does it have such a big brain but no control over its environment?  Once someone tells the alien “that one’s still growing”, everything makes sense.  It is crucial too that the baby will develop into a rational adult through its own internal process of self-development.  Rationality is not a new, foreign structure imposed from outside.  One could say “the baby is a potential rational being”, and this would be true if we take “potency” in the strict Aristotelian sense of that which is virtually contained in a being’s presently-existing essence.  There is, of course, another meaning of “potentially rational”, namely “can be made rational somehow”.  So, for example, it may be possible for a sufficiently advanced race to take apart a bag of marbles atom by atom and refashion the matter into a rational being.  The case of the human infant is much different.  The baby will become rational while keeping the same essence, and thus maintaining its self-identity, and through its own process of natural development.  Thus, we should not say that a baby and a gorilla are fundamentally the same now, but we treat them differently because the baby will become rational.  The fact that the baby will become rational through its own development, while the gorilla wouldn’t in a million years, proves that they are different right now.  One possesses the human essence, and the other does not.  This essence is present at all stages of development:  from zygote to embryo to fetus to infant to child to adult.  I myself was once a single cell.  The life pattern in that cell has progressed continuously, all the while maintaining its identity, and it will remain a distinctively human pattern until it stops and I die.

The same sort of reasoning goes for the injured and the unconscious man.  A human being in a coma is still a rational being, just as the eyes of a blind man are still seeing organs.  Although constantly attacked, the idea of a distinct human essence is crucial to moral sanity.  Understood correctly, it is as tenable as it ever was.

4 Responses

  1. I learned something useful from my favorite radio jocks last week: dignity is the capacity to take responsibility for one’s actions. It makes sense. Dignity is worthiness. It is, ontologically, a measure of a being’s ontological cash value, of its efficacious power; and power directed by a will informed by an intellect (as happens when one takes responsibility) is focused and efficacious in a way that mere physical power is not. The dignity of the soldier is greater than that of the grenade, for the soldier disposes of far more efficacy than the grenade, despite the fact that, as deployed in battle, he may dispose of less potential energy per unit time than the grenade.

    Dogs clearly take some responsibility. My dog Rosie is capable of lying, and of shame at the way she has behaved. Otherwise, the utterance, “Bad dog!” would have zero meaning to her, or therefore to me. It would mean nothing intelligibly different than “Good dog!” or “Squirrel!” And, meaning nothing different to Rosie, none of these utterances of mine would affect her differently. But they do. She responds appropriately to my utterances, if not intelligently.

    But this is very far from saying that she is equal in dignity to me. For, because I can comprehend my actions vis-a-vis the world far more completely than she, so I can take a more informed responsibility for my actions. The more comprehensive the information of my actions, the more efficacious they are, and the greater my dignity (and my liberty).

    My dignity as a man, then, as different quantitatively from hers, is ipso facto different qualitatively, in just the same way that possessing $10 is qualitatively different from possessing $1,000,000.

    The bottom line: a quantitative difference just is a qualitative difference; for quantity is a quality. Where the quantitative difference is trivial, it is negligible; where not, not. It all comes down to a judgement of importance. The difference of intelligence between me and Rosie puts us in different categories of things, just as the difference of mass between Jupiter and Sol puts them in different categories. Categories are porous, to be sure, so that taxonomies are bound upon close examination to look somewhat adventitious, in one way or another; but if categories were not real, there would be no membrane to have the pores, no way to arrive at the conclusion that the boundaries are somewhat arbitrary. You can’t say that things are close to each other, or similar, without implicitly admitting that they are truly and fundamentallyh and essentially different. Again, it all comes down to a judgement about how important those differences are.

  2. […] on human evolution actually is.  Of course, this says nothing about what our position should be.  I believe that speciation by natural selection is compatible with a realist position on forms (because […]

  3. Wise and holy St. Thomas Aquinas once said the following in relation to why men walked upright:

    “An upright stature was becoming to man for four reasons. First, because the senses are given to man, not only for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life for which they are bestowed on other animals, but also for the purpose of knowledge. Hence, whereas the other animals take delight in the objects of the senses only as ordered to food and sex, man alone takes pleasure in the beauty of sensible objects for its own sake. Therefore, as the senses are situated chiefly in the face, other animals have the face turned to the ground, as it were for the purpose of seeking food and procuring a livelihood; but man has his face erect, in order that by the senses and chiefly by sight, which is more subtle and penetrates further into the differences of things, he may freely survey the sensible objects around him, both heavenly and earthly, so as to gather intelligible truth from all things.”

    “Secondly, for the greater freedom of the acts of the interior powers; the brain, wherein these actions are, in a way, performed, not being low down, but lifted up above other parts of the body. Thirdly, because if man’s stature were prone to the ground he would need to use his hands as fore-feet, and thus their utility for other purposes would cease. Fourthly, because if man’s stature were prone to the ground and he used his hands as fore-feet, he would be obliged to take hold of his food with his mouth. Thus he would have a protruding mouth, with thick and hard lips, and also a hard tongue, so as to keep it from being hurt by exterior things, as we see in other animals. Moreover, such an attitude would quite hinder speech, which is reason’s proper operation.”

    The differences are not only in mind, but in physical form.

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