That Special Something

What do we value in other people such that we do not violate their property?  Besides assuming the antecedent, this seems like a good question.  Most people agree, I think, that most of the time it is wrong to hit, steal, and lie.  These neatly fall into the realm of the non-aggression axiom and treating people as if they own themselves.  Hitting is a violation of one person’s property over themselves. Of course the person could just leave, but that doesn’t change the fact that hitting is one way of messing with people’s stuff.  The same is true for theft.  Lying is the same as selling a false bill of goods. It is informing someone such that they act in a particular way, with their property, which they would not have done without misguidance.  The bottom line is that coercion is wrong, most of the time, among equals.

We don’t respect the property that people have in themselves because they are people.  This answer would beg the question.  The logic goes like this:  We respect the property in all things which are special.  People are special.  Therefore we respect the property in people.  The ‘why’ is not answered here.

A simple and valid answer is that humans have certain attributes that qualify as recognized property holders.  Great.  Progress.  So what are those attributes?  There is a lot of disagreement here.  But most people do recognize the ‘special’ place that humans retain among other animals and that this retention is due to particular qualities that other animals do not have.

Multiple things are suggested.  People can think about more complex topics.  People can plan ahead.  People can talk and communicate.  People respect the property of others.  People are chosen by god (which is the same as the people are ‘special’ argument).  People have the capacity to make moral decisions.  We have the capacity to affect our surroundings.  We are the only animal which can affect the world in a significant way.  I’m sure more are offered.  An exhaustive list would be impossible.

To think concisely, we can clarify what we are not asking.  We are not asking why humans always deserve the property in themselves more so than other animals.  Inequality is generally accepted.  If a person is beating a dog or otherwise causing unprovoked harm to an animal, there are not a small number of people who would resort to coercion in order to stop the dog-beater.  We can try to do some logic gymnastics here:  It’s not that the dog has property in itself; it’s merely that the would-be defender dislikes the idea of dog beating.  This again, begs the question.  If animals aren’t special, then why would a person feel this way at all?  It becomes obvious that there are degrees to which all animals have property in themselves.  Cat mutilation – not so cool.  Frying ants under a magnifying glass – a barrel of laughs.  There is a continuum of self ownership.  So we need not be categorical in our identification of ‘that something special’.  People usually have the something special.  And animals can have it, though most often far less of it.

People can have degrees of property too.  I don’t mean to ignore the cases of children or incompetents.  Parts of the property in these people are owned by caretakers.  Very similar to the property of pets being owned by the pet owner.

There is a continuum of ‘special something(s)’ and the amount of it determines the extent of one’s property.  Most people have enough of it to retain property in themselves, in objects, and, popularly, even other creatures.  When respecting the property of animals, we often evaluate the intent of the actor.  Is it proper to kill a deer for food?   Is it proper to mutilate a cow for the pleasure of observing it writhe before it shall be dismembered and consumed?  We put a lot of emphasis on the goodness of the intent of the person doing the harm.  Although relevant in many discussions, we need to keep it constant here.  Assume good intent.

Additionally, we can perceive that in order to keep one person alive, it may be necessary to kill an animal.  Or maybe you’re driving a car and have the choice to hit a deer or a person. What if that person is a royal jerk?  Different circumstances dictate different proper actions.  We should also keep this constant.  Since context is so often everything, this is precarious.  Is it ever OK to kill an animal if you don’t have to eat it or otherwise have reason to coerce it?  I’m not sure that we can assume constant circumstance.  If there is an animal and a guy on an island, most guys would eat the animal in order to survive.  If instead there are two guys, after a second thought, the same will probably occur.   This unlikely example demonstrates that whatever that something special is, it doesn’t mean much in the extreme situation.  People eat chickens because chickens are tasty.  You’ll be hard press to find a similarly suitable argument for eating people.  That ‘special something’ is not prominent enough in chickens for them to have property in themselves when measured against tastiness.  People must be far less tasty, or have far more of that ‘special something’ which would explain such disparate propriety between cannibalism and carnivorousness.

We recoil in discomfort if we witness a person stabbing another.  We clutch ourselves in the like mark on our own bodies and squirm.  We imagine the event from the victim’s position.  We enter into his circumstance through our imagination.  The better we know the victim in a story, the worse we feel when an unfortunate event befalls him.  If a person dies in a horrific manner, then what adds to the horror?  If a dog yelps and cries in agony, do we care more than if it were silent?  Such details serve the clarity of our imagination.  The agony becomes more closely our own.

Is that special something merely the ease with which each of us empathizes with another person or creature?  We certainly care more about the people whom we know.  And our pets rest within a different standard for treatment than do other similar animals.  Is it merely our perception and our empathy, and not a particular qualifying characteristic inherent to the creature itself?

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