I have been studying your posts on Just Third Way blog. Can you help me with idea of “person”? You wrote that only persons have rights. This may sound a bit trivial but most of us will acknowledge that animals have certain rights as well (e.g., as in case of cruel treatment of animals). Can you explain the notion of person that should be understood in this instance? Thanks.
First, we must make a clarification that perhaps we didn’t make . . . er, clear to begin with. While “person” is used in everyday speech to mean “human being,” that is not always the case legally. It’s a little like using “property” to refer to the thing owned instead of the right to be an owner, and the rights that an owner has over the thing owned.
Yes, all human beings are by natural right persons, but not all persons are natural or human. That is why, for example, in many references you’ll see the term “human person,” which to some people sounds redundant rather than precise.
|"All things aim at the good."|
The question is not trivial, but it can be dealt with very simply, if not entirely satisfactorily for those who believe that non-humans have rights by nature. The fact is that animals can have rights, but only by delegation or as a grant from “natural persons” — which we will cover at the end of this discussion.
Within the Just Third Way we use the framework of the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of natural law. Within that framework, only human beings are natural persons, and thus only human beings have rights by nature. This is because among natural things, only human beings have the capacity to become more fully human, that is, become virtuous; “virtue” means “human-ness” (literally “male-ness,” but it is construed as “human-ness”). Obviously, non-humans cannot become more fully human, as they are not human in the first place.
|Persons have determinable natures and must act to develop them.|
Human beings have inherent rights — and thus personality — to develop habits of doing good, that is, build virtues (or, if we do wrong, habits of evil or vice). We do good (become virtuous) or evil (become vicious) by exercising our rights for good or evil. Whether we choose to become virtuous or vicious is up to us, as human beings have morally free wills. We can thus be held accountable for our acts.
|Each is already fully what it is.|
As human beings and thus human persons, we therefore have “determinable natures.” That is, we become what we are as the result of choices we make about how we exercise our rights and become virtuous or vicious, as the case may be. We become more or less fully human in consequence of the choices we make.
All non-humans have determinate natures. (Remember, we are limiting this to the natural realm, not the supernatural, where we would have to account for God, angels, and demons, even if you don’t believe in them.)
Having determinate natures instead of determinable natures, non-humans are what they are; they cannot become more or less than they already are. A dog cannot become more of a dog, anymore than a cat can become less of a cat.
|"Stop anthropomorphizing me!"|
We can, of course, anthropomorphize, that is, attribute human characteristics to non-humans, but that does not change what they are. If a wolf kills and eats me, is it being a bad wolf? Or is it being a good wolf in a way that happens to be very bad for me? In natural law, of course, the wolf is simply acting in accordance with its nature as a wolf. It has no choice, it has a determinate nature, not determinable. It cannot act contrary to its own nature without free will, and only human beings have free will and are thus persons — rights and free will necessarily go together.
In reality, the wolf is neither a good wolf nor a bad wolf. It is simply a wolf. Anyone familiar with the American novel Moby Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville, will see a man, Captain Ahab, obsessed with the idea that the great white whale is evil, that is, a person, that has freely chosen to attack Ahab. Ahab therefore turns what should be an ordinary commercial enterprise — hunting whales — into a holy crusade to destroy evil.
|"Have ye seen the great white?"|
The whale, of course, acts like a whale and, true to its nature, destroys the ship and everything aboard it except for a lone survivor. The only normal character in the novel is the First Mate, Starbuck, who in response to all the overblown rhetoric about a holy crusade, etc., to destroy evil, says that their job is to hunt whales, kill them, and provide oil to light lamps. (Obviously we’re not concerned here with whether we should be hunting whales to extinction just to be able to stay up nights and play parchesi.)
With respect to the cruel treatment of animals, there are, in fact, rights involved, but not any rights that non-humans have. In the most immediate sense, cruelty to animals should not be permitted, even if you own the animal, as you are then exercising your property in that animal in a manner not consistent with human nature; you are building a habit of doing evil and are becoming vicious instead of virtuous. You are violating your own rights by ignoring or dismissing your obligation to exercise your rights in a way that makes you more human, not less. Being cruel to animals also makes it more likely that you will be cruel to other people.
|"Anthropomorphize ME, will you?"|
Of course, if that was as far as it went, nothing could be done. Human beings, however, are “political animals” and naturally associate in organized groups. Even individual acts of virtue or vice have an indirect effect on the whole of society. If you and others are directly kind to animals, you and others have a beneficial, if indirect effect on the whole of society. It builds a “social habit” of treating animals with kindness, which is good for everyone, if only to prevent packs of feral abused animals roaming around attacking people.
|They're not human — but you are.|
It is therefore in the best interests of society to prevent cruelty to animals. This is not, however, because animals have rights, but because we do, the right to live in a well-structured society that is oriented toward virtue, not vice. That is why “victimless crimes” should be punished or at least prohibited or discouraged. Even if no one is harmed directly, wrongdoing influences the rest of society and encourages vice instead of virtue.
The case is more immediate if you abuse an animal belonging to someone else. You are not only violating your right to become more virtuous instead of vicious and setting a bad example for the rest of society, you are directly violating the rights of the owner of the animal.
Can, however, animals have rights? Certainly. They just can’t have them by nature. Anyone who owns an animal can delegate rights that he or she has to an animal by creating the legal fiction of an artificial person, such as is done in the case of a business corporation, a city, or even an entire country. Some people have done so and even left fortunes to pets. This can get complicated legally, as it usually involves a court appointing a guardian who owns the pet but who administers the fortune for the exclusive benefit of the animal.