Communication and those who lack Reason

An exceedingly common opinion runs as follows:

Certain beings, though conscious/sentient, ‘lack reason’, and it is thus reasonable to treat them in a different way to ‘rational’ beings. These beings without reason include all non-human animals, humans up until a certain (disputed) age, and some (again, disputed) groups of adult humans, who lack the rationality of ‘normal adults’.

Because these beings lack reason, they should not be accorded certain rights, in particular the rights to personal autonomy (others can decide their lifestyle for them) and to political participation (they can’t vote, run for office, etc).

They have, on the other hand, certain privileges: they may have diminished liability for their own (perhaps criminal) actions, they may have a claim on support by others, and their right to protection from harm may be taken more seriously – although in practice often none of these obtain.

I don’t want to straight-out attack this position, I just want to make it seem less necessary, to suggest that there might be an alternative to it, which doesn’t go so far as to ignore or dismiss the (striking) differences we can observe between, say, a 2-year-old and a 22-year-old.

So distinguish two ways of expressing that difference. The first, described above, is to speak of an intrinsic incapacity in one side (usually assumed to be the 2-year-olds), who are in themselves, not rational, and so any deliberation process they engage in won’t produce decisions worth paying attention to.

Now, this claim implies the following: that we and infants can’t engage in the sort of dialogue required for political participation or recognition of autonomy – the sort where views on a topic can be not only exchanged but supported – where the question ‘and why do you think that?’ can be heard and responded to.

This latter claim is weaker, in that it could be true (A and B can’t converse) without it being because one side or the other is fundamentally ‘non-conversant’ or ‘non-rational’. After all, the same lack of dialogue often obtains between two adults who don’t speak the same language, or in bad conditions, or when one is just being a dick because they see no reason not to.

Now, these two conclusions one might draw – the weak conclusion ‘I don’t know how to converse with X’ and the strong conclusion ‘X is incapable of rational conversation’ – will largely agree in practice. If you can’t talk about it, you’ll have to do something else.

But they differ in that the former leaves open the possibility that X might be capable of dialogue with someone else, or that in the future (or the past) dialogue might become possible, once one side or the other learns the relevant ‘language skills’. And this gives support to efforts that might bring us closer to such a point (e.g. to study the communication methods already used on either side).

Maybe these possibilities are implausible for 1- or 2-year-old children. But those aren’t the hard cases. 8-year-old children, wolves, monkeys and parrots are the hard cases. ‘Mentally disabled’ adults are the very hard cases.

In such hard cases, the idea that ‘lacking reason’ is a contingent relational phenomenon, more akin to a failure of interpretation than to a simple lack on one side or the other, seems to me perfectly plausible.

Certainly, the agnostic position, that it may turn out to be such a phenomenon, seems reasonable, especially if you think mainstream knowledge has in the past tended to under-estimate the complexity and versatility of many people’s minds, rather than over-estimate it.

You might also like to avoid making committments on very obscure and difficult subjects like what it’s like to be a dolphin or what rationality actually is.

Anyway, like I said, this might not make a large or immediate difference in practice. But it’s a slightly different and m0re cautious way to express the observations in question, for people who think caution is warranted.

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2 Responses to Communication and those who lack Reason

  1. latinist says:

    I don’t know how well this works. It doesn’t seem, for example, that there’s really a communication problem when an eight-year-old expresses a wish not to go to the doctor, or to live alone without parents or caretakers; but it also seems clearly right to override those wishes by force. I suppose those are easy cases, and we’re only applying this to hard cases; but (a) the difference between “hard” and “easy” doesn’t seem only to be a matter of the type of individual we’re dealing with (since eight-year-olds can be involved in hard cases too) and (b) these cases are only “easy,” I suspect, because of our assumption that the problem is one of the individual’s capacity, not just of communication.

    And even in hard cases, I’m not sure it works. I found it a moderately hard case deciding to neuter my cat; it didn’t seem clear to me that it was a right thing to do to him. But he expressed his opinions on the subject pretty clearly — he definitely did not want to go to the vet, be touched by the vet, or be held in place by anyone, for example — and I don’t think taking those opinions into account would have really helped.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      So those may be good examples to bring up. Let me see what I think about them.

      What grounds our assumption that the 8-year-old is expressing an irrational wish – given that we can imagine cases in which that wish would be rational (if their present caretakers were abusive, for instance – or if we were in one of the many periods of history, possibly including the present, when doctors routinely carried out harmful procedures)?

      It seems to me that it’s because we don’t think the child has fully understood the practicalities of living alone, or hasn’t thought through whether they would really like the inconveniences and risks it would bring. Those aren’t things that the child can’t conceptualise (if the child had experience living on its own it might have a more vivid sense of them) so if we suppose it hasn’t properly considered them that’s probably because when/if we try to discuss them, try to seriously ask the child to explain why living alone wouldn’t have these problems, why it would be able to handle them, etc. we ‘hit a brick wall’ where the other party just repeats its demand or ignores what we’re saying. For dialogue we have to be able to get a response that recognisably seeks to persuade us. But perhaps I’m just idealising the process of dialogue.

      In the cat example, sure he expressed his opinions – but a human would equally be averse to be held down or touched by a stranger. The difference is that we can convey the rationale for the action to the human, in a way that we can’t to the cat. We can’t address attempts at persuasion to it. To take one aspect of that, it’s probably responding based on danger-signals – which doesn’t mean that it’s incapable of understanding that something is safe (it perceives lots of things as safe which it once perceived as dangerous, like perhaps certain humans).

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