Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fookin’ Prawns

Guest writer: Alex Villarreal
     My girlfriend Katie and I were in the tub drinking martinis one night when our conversation drifted to the topic of District 9. For those unfamiliar with D9, it involves a group of malnourished and sick aliens found in a ship hovering above Johannesburg. The aliens (derogatorily referred to as "prawns") are taken to a government camp where the humans treat them with particular brutality.
     Katie commented how horrible it was the way the humans treated the aliens because the aliens were clearly intelligent beings so they deserved the same rights as humans.

     This got me thinking; what is it that makes a being worthy of so-called human rights?
     It seemed to me that Katie’s comment was implying that intelligence alone gives a being this privilege.
     The potential implications of that idea seemed interesting to me so I said for the sake of argument let’s assume the following:
1. A ‘being’ deserves fundamental rights on the basis of possessing some capacity or attribute
2. Furthermore, that attribute is intelligence
     Now wait a minute. Given those assumptions it appears to me there are whole groups of people in our society not deserving of human rights. Whether I refer to infants or the mentally disabled, certainly there are some unintelligent humans. Are those people unworthy of fundamental human rights?
     At one point in our conversation Katie claimed that infants and the mentally challenged do deserve rights because they are humans and humans are generally defined as being intelligent. Therefore they should be treated as intelligent (and consequently be worthy of natural rights).
     Now this reminded me strikingly of something professor Bauer said in ethics class concerning the nature of definitions according to Wittgenstein. He argued that you could never arrive at a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to define a word (for example try to find such conditions for the word game*). Bauer, following Wittgenstein, instead compared a word’s meaning to a system of family resemblances, pointing out that we could merely identify things that are generally true within the family but not exhibited by all its members.
     For example, in my family, the Villarreals are generally defined as being good motorcycle riders. But, you put my uncle on a motorcycle and you’re likely to donate a new hood ornament to some unsuspecting truck driver. So it would be ridiculous to treat every Villarreal as if they were all good motorcyclists.
     I think the same point holds true for humans. Just because humans are generally defined as intelligent does not mean we should treat every person as if they were intelligent. Clearly it would be ridiculous to treat a brain dead individual in a vegetative state as if they were intelligent. Distributing ballots to such individuals for the next elections would be an overtly absurd and wasted gesture.
     Regardless of where the line is drawn between an intelligent being and a non-intelligent being, there are certainly individuals who fall into the latter category. Consequently, if given that intelligence is the only thing that makes a being worthy of human rights, these individuals are not worthy of such rights.
     I definitely don’t like the sound of that. Of course I feel there is reason to give basic rights to infants (perhaps on the grounds of potential intellect) or to the mentally disabled (perhaps by a matter of degree or on some grounds independent of intellect) but if we assume that intelligence grants rights it comes down to the question: Where do we draw the line for intelligence? Is it some staggered hierarchy where the greater the intelligence of a being the more rights it deserves? Or is it some on/off switch where at hypothetical intelligence level “5” you have all your human rights and at level “4.99” you have none?
     Seems rather arbitrary to me… and particularly heartless. I just hope intelligence isn’t the only basis for human rights.
     I sure do love bath time =)

Alex Villarreal

    *Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' "-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!

—From aphorism 66, Philosophical Investigations


Anonymous said...

Great movie.

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