Friday, October 3, 2008

Dogs, Again

The latest issue of The New Yorker contains an article on Trouble. No, not the kind of trouble that's here with the current financial crisis, the election, or the environment. This Trouble is a dog, a small Maltese owned by Leona Helmsley until Helmsley died a little over a year ago. She left Trouble twelve million dollars.

Pet trusts are a difficult thing. The first one was established for Washoe, a chimp that had been taught sign language. The trust was established to save him from being sent off for medical experimentation, but to do so, New York State had to appoint a guardian for Washoe to administer the trust, and to accept him as "a person with a disability." The New York court did so, and the decision was accepted in Washington State, where Washoe lived.

Trouble thus had precedence for inheriting. But the two guardians named in Helmsley's will, her brother and grandson, didn't want him. And two grandchildren who had been disinherited threw the whole will into question. Eventually, one of Helmsley's hotel managers took the dog into his home, and the court reduced Trouble's bequest to a "more reasonable" two million dollars. This includes annual security costs of a hundred thousand dollars. Since she inherited, Trouble receives a lot of death threats.

To me, this all falls somewhere between ludicrous and important. The important part is that animal rights are a genuine issue -- but how far should they go? Is Trouble a "person"? Was Washoe? If my dog Cosette is a "person" (with or without a disability -- and is being a dog a disability?) and I am her "legal guardian," then how can I have bought her, or how could I sell her? (Not that I want to.) Buying and selling persons is illegal.

Bruce Sterling's SF often features "post-dog canines," genetically enhanced dogs who are the equivalent, legally and morally, of Sterling's "post-humans." His fiction assumes this state, but doesn't detail how we got to that point. I wish he would. Bruce, you listening?

11 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

"Person" was originally the mask worn by Greek actors to signify the role he assumed. Is your dog a mask? Does she assume a role? Hmm. Story possibility there; but you'd have to make it a cat for it to be credible.

Boethius' classic definition: Naturae rationalis individua substantia, "an individual substance of a rational nature." Implicitely, this signifies a substance, complete, subsisting per se, existing apart from others.

Thus, to be a person:
(a) substantia: This excludes accident. Basically, a person is a noun (matter), not an adjective (white), and personhood is not dependent fur, skin color, etc.
(b) completa: It must form a complete nature; that which is a part does not satisfy the definition. Your leg is not a person. Contra skiffidom, your intelligence is not a person.
(c) per se subsistens: The person exists in himself and for himself; he is sui juris, "the ultimate possessor of his nature and all its acts, the ultimate subject of predication of all his attributes; that which exists in another is not a person. That is, if your thoughts are projected into your brain by the Zorks of Planet Zorkon, you are not a person.
(d) separata ab aliis: Excludes universals, which have no existence apart from the individual. "Man" is not a person. To say that a guild, town, or university is a "person" is a legal fiction.
(e) rationalis naturae. This consists of intellect and volition. Intellection is the power of conception, that is, knowledge of symbols and not merely of signs; of "red" or "three" and "ball" and not merely of "these three red balls" which sensory perception knows. Volition is the power to desire the product of conception, including "justice," "beauty," etc. This is over and above emotion, the power to want the product of perception.

But what is a symbol? A symbol does not direct our attention to something else, as a sign does. It does not direct at all. It "means" something else. It somehow comes to contain within itself the thing it means. The word ball is a sign to my dog and a symbol to you. If I say ball to my dog, he will respond like a good Pavlovian organism and look under the sofa and fetch it. But if I say ball to you, you will simply look at me and, if you are patient, finally say, "What about it?" The dog responds to the word by looking for the thing: you conceive the ball through the word ball.
(Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, p.153)

Hope this helps. (G)

James A. Ritchie said...

For me, this isn't about animal rights, but about a person's right to do whatever the heck she wants to do with her own money.

If I want to leave my money to a dog, whose business is that but mine? It's my money, I earned it, and I should have the right to say where it goes when I die.

Daniel said...

If being a non-person is simply a disability, there are a LOT of disabled "persons" out there (other kingdoms, phyla, classes, etc). Perhaps politicians should also start sucking up to all of those "disabled persons" whose only real setback to contributing to society is not being able to speak English (oh, and that whole opposable-thumb thing)...

gdtownshende said...

As I recall, CITY, by Clifford Simak, was a novel (originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in the 40s) in which dogs were sentient life forms. It's been a long time since I've read it.

cd said...

Philosophers have spent a lot of work on these very questions, especially in recent years. There is a long tradition of defining "person" as rational agent, which includes the ability to articulate and act upon reasons; surely this unmodified poodle fails such a test. Philosophers have made a more applicable distinction between moral agent and moral patient; on this distinction, a dog is not a moral agent (a person in sense of rational agent) but is a moral patient (can suffer harm or receive benefits). The question is really, what rights should moral patients have, or what moral respect do they deserve? It would be hard to argue that they deserve inheritances on such grounds, but it would not be hard to argue they deserve to be treated kindly.

(I would note that this is a very nice case for illustrating the fundamental value difference between right wing libertarianism and alternative views, by showing how right-libertarians value property rights over any other consideration.)

Mark said...

CD, The property rights aspect of libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism is such: I own my thoughts and my body, part of which is my brain. I should be the final arbiter of what I do with the thoughts I create. As long as the Actions resulting from those thoughts harm no one else I have a right to create whatever thoughts and do with my body whatever I wish. This includes the physical fruits of my thoughts and my body-no not just feces :-)) It includes stuff like the food, machinery, business relationships, personal relationships, stories, etc. that I build and make with my own sweat, and the parts thereof (therefore being remunerated for building one flange attached to one valve of one processing subsystem of a mine....).

One thing that tangents on this area is "what is a person, since only persons can own, including their very selves." There was a time in this country's history where 50% + 1 voter believed that those with skin darker than a vaguely defined tone couldn't own himself or anything else because he wasn't a "person".

The way I interpret the question of this string ("define the problem") is clarifying the definition of a Being/Person/Sentient Entity. Obviously, there's a big difference between a human and the grains of our breakfast cereal. There's a bit less difference between a human and the cows in our 'burgers. There's even less difference (as far as cognitive function goes) between a cetacean, high primate-not what I meant! Step away from the bong!-and a human. There are still cultures of humans (subset=culture) who believe it's ok to eat apes and chimpanzees (subset=primates). Most Americans I know wouldn't think about actually eating a primate, yet have no qualms about cattle (subset=mammalia). Then there are those I know who refuse to eat flesh, subsisting on plants (subset=living things). But I don't think that any vegetarian I've met would eat a mobile, much less sentient plant-type lifeform.

Nancy Kress said...

CD--
The problem with defining "person" in terms of being able "to articulate amd act upon reasons" is that it leaves out the profoundly retarded. Yet they, too, are human, and inheritances can be left for their care.
Mark -- My problem with pure anarch/libertarianism is the same thing: It makes no provision for the weak, sick, or young who have no resources of their own and (from one reason or another) no peole to care for them, who cannot care for themselves. Public support (which means taxes on others' productivity) is necessary here. It's no accident than in all of ATLAS SHRUGGED there are only two very young kids, and they just happened to luck out by having a loving mother.

Mike Flynn said...

Nancy:
The problem with defining "person" in terms of being able "to articulate amd act upon reasons" is that it leaves out the profoundly retarded.

MikeF:
And that will always be the problem with definitions based on what Midgley calls "the cult of the cerebral." It even leaves out those asleep.

Decades ago, John C. Campbell wrote an editorial titled "What do you mean, human?" in which he deconstructed one definition after another.

Personhood is not predicated upon accidents like skin color, cognitive state, or phase of physiological development. It must take account not of the accident of time, but of the life cycle (as we say nowadays) and the common course of nature. An infant may not have attained the age of reason, but in the common course of nature will do so. A retarded man may have a defect of intellect, but one cannot have a defect in a nature he does not possess. A defective intellect is still an intellect. Even a weak concept is qualitatively different from a percept.

cd said...

'The problem with defining "person" in terms of being able "to articulate amd act upon reasons" is that it leaves out the profoundly retarded. Yet they, too, are human, and inheritances can be left for their care.'

That seems to me no objection to the philosophical concept. Legal precedent may not follow the best conceptual cut. You could accept the philosophical tradition, and still grant human non-persons human rights, for other reasons, while granting also that they are not persons in this technical sense.

('I build and make with my own sweat'

No. Leona Helmsley did not work thousands and thousands of times harder than most others. Bill Gates did not create as much as 1/2 of the United States combined. And there is no relevant connection from the claim that my mind and body are mine to the claim that vast inequalities must be accepted. So, why respect the social contract that creates this inequality? The libertarians claim that it is just to respect that contract, but their every defense requires the assumption that property rights are supreme and the assumption that inequalities are no harm.)

Nick A said...

Read _Animals in Translation_ by Temple Grandin, or anything else she has written. Temple falls somewhere in the high-functional autistic spectrum. She has designed a series of 'more humane and more efficient' cattle handling shutes and processes, for ranches and slaughterhouses. She claims that her autism, where she innately 'thinks in pictures' instead of language, has given her deeper insite into the intelligence of animals. Despite her work (which she claims is a humanitarian improvement to a process that would happen regardless of her actions), she makes a very compelling case of the under-rated intelligence of animals.

Mark said...

More reasons why I flock to this blog pretty above all others :-)

"The unexamined value might not be worth pursuing."

As far as anarcho-capitalism's failure to care for the truly disadvantaged, I don't necessarily see it as a failure of anarcho-capitalism as something more profound than any stated ideology of a society: the zeitgeist of a culture. I've seen monarchies, republics, pure democracies, communisms (of at least two different kinds) and anarchisms work, albeit mostly in smaller groups. Seeing this I can't help but wonder (and often believe-maybe I'm not as cynical as I figure I am) at how societies of millions might realize these values. Even though I'm extremely atheist, I've met plenty of theists who do good and are good. Same with (other) political philosophies. I've met plenty of capitalists who genuinely want to build a better world, starting with what they themselves are able to control (as if there's any wisdom in trying to control what one can't-reference Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

I figure that if a society of generous yet disciplined people exists, calls itself libertarian, anarchist, socialist, monarchist, whatever, the result will tend toward good, one aspect of which is to care for those who aren't able to care for themselves. If a society is short-sighted, greedy (as opposed to selfish-but that semantic would open another 55 gallon drum of worms), intolerant, the result will tend away from caring for those who need it, the weak, sick, young.

As for how I see diversity in income/belongings: it's a symptom of freedom. I'm free to make bad decisions and suffer the consequences, others are free to make good decisions and enjoy the consequences. Death is the bringer of equality. Now, what I may have some beef with is the idea of someone inheriting Big Money and just fanning himself for life, but more and more (as life and economics go faster) this person will lose that wealth unless he pulls out in time to learn how to handle it. I'm thinking Warren Buffet's got a good idea about giving away his inheritance. After all, it's not a cash *pile*, it's a cash *flow*. If his heirs don't understand the concept of Real Wealth (what created the numbers in the bank), then they don't deserve the result of it.

Just finished Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction. Coincidentally he touched on the concept of stated vs. practiced values in society.