On the “Marginal Humans” Argument

 Posted by on 19 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Animals, Rights
Jul 192013

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss the “marginal humans” argument against uniquely human rights. The nature of that argument is a bit confusing. So to help you wrap your head around it, I thought I’d blog the opening paragraphs of my graduate paper on the topic, On the Margins of Humanity.

In the current philosophic debates about the moral and legal standing of animals, one of the most common arguments for equality between humans and animals is the appeal to the problem of “marginal humans.” The basic claim of that argument is that because no morally significant feature is common to all and only humans, the standard view on which rights apply to all and only humans is arbitrary and unjust. In particular, rights cannot be in any way based upon the uniquely human capacity to reason since some humans lack that capacity. While normal adult humans can think and act according to abstract knowledge and moral principles, newborn infants cannot yet do so, permanently comatose adults can no longer do so, and the severely retarded never do so. Such “marginal humans” lack the rational capacities of normal adult humans, yet we still grant them the moral and legal protection of rights. Meanwhile, far more sensitive and intelligent animals, such as chimps, dolphins, and even dogs, are used and abused as humans see fit.

From the perspective of the marginal humans argument, limiting rights to humans seems like an unjustifiable form of discrimination in favor of our own human species, i.e. “speciesism.” To protect all humans under the umbrella of moral and legal rights without lapsing into logical incoherence, the criterion for rights must be set lower than the capacity to reason. Yet once that it is done, logic demands that we extend rights to all those who meet that criterion, whether human or not. In short, the marginal humans argument claims that the price of rights for all humans is rights for some animals.

In recent years, this line of argument for granting moral standing and legal protections to animals has proven to be both compelling and resilient in both academic and cultural debates. It seems to effectively demolish the traditional understanding of rights as all and only human rights by forcing a hard choice between rights for only some humans and rights for all humans plus some animals. To many philosophers and laypersons, the latter seems like a more palatable option than the former, in that banning medical testing on mice and rabbits would be preferable to tolerating it on orphaned infants and senile octogenarians. Moreover, the marginal humans argument does not demand allegiance to any particular moral or political theory: it is compatible with Peter Singer’s utilitarian “animal liberation,” Tom Regan’s deontological “animal rights,” and more. Finally, attempted refutations of it often seem to miss their mark by failing to squarely confront the question of why and how all those individual humans without the capacity to reason still deserve moral standing and legal protections.

In this paper, I will critically examine the argument from marginal humans to determine whether it is as powerful and persuasive as it often seems at first glance. I will first review the particular form of the argument used by the two major advocates of moral standing and legal protections for animals: Peter Singer and Tom Regan. (I will not be concerned with the failings of Singer’s utilitarianism or the mysteries of Regan’s appeal to inherent value, but only with the way in which each uses the argument to advance his case for animal liberation or rights.) Then, I’ll hone in upon the fundamental thrust of the argument by distinguishing it from a borderline case problem. Finally, I will examine the merits of two attempted refutations of the marginal humans argument, as well as consider three basic types of marginal humans in relation to the argument for human-only rights. My basic contention will be that marginal humans are not relevantly similar to animals–meaning that the argument from marginal humans cannot force an either-or choice between rights for just some humans and rights for all humans plus animals.

I hope that the “marginal humans” argument is a bit more clear now… and you’re certainly welcome to read the whole paper for a preview of what I’ll say on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio!

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