Why People Are Not Things

Is it ever justified to treat people unequally?

Before you try to answer, notice something about the question:

It’s not a factual question. It doesn’t ask what is, but what ought to be.

We might include facts in our answer, but our answer isn’t about the facts. It’s about right and wrong. The facts are only there to support our conclusion.

Our conclusion might be that we should treat all people equally in some basic ways. They all have the same human rights, simply because they are people.

On the other hand, shouldn’t lower animals have rights? They’re also living things, as we are. And what about plants? Do they have rights?

Most of us would say that only humans have rights. We distinguish between people and non-people.

We think that people should be treated carefully to avoid violating their rights.

As for non-people, even if we treat them with kindness, we don’t feel the same moral obligations as we do with people.

But how can we justify that distinction?

The most common way is to argue that people and non-people are different kinds of things. Different kinds of things get treated differently.

Consider the graphic at the top of this blog post:

  • At the left, the two apples are the same kind of thing, but they differ in degree. One is larger and redder than the other. But even if the bottom apple was green, it would still be an apple and it would still have a color.
  • In the middle, the numbers 2 and 3 are the same kind of thing, but they differ in degree. Two is less than three.
  • On the right, the court on top is from Seattle’s CHAZ area (either that, or from the movie “Idiocracy”). The one on the bottom is a normal U.S. court. But they’re both courts, the same kind of thing. They differ in degree: one is stupider than the other.

Notice that apples, numbers, and courts are different kinds of things.

If things are of the same kind but differ only in degree, then you can treat them in the same ways. You can eat apples, you can add numbers, and you can use courts for legal proceedings.

But if two things are of different kinds, then you often can’t treat them in the same ways. You have to treat them differently.

And that brings us back to our distinction between people and non-people. People are all the same kind of thing. No matter how tall, short, young, old, smart, stupid, law-abiding, or criminal they are, they are still people and they still have human rights:

  • If you want a secular explanation, only people have self-awareness and the ability (seldom exercised) for rational thought.
  • If you want a religious explanation, only people have souls and are made in the image of God.

But the bottom line is that since people are all the same kind of thing, they all have the same basic human rights. That’s why it’s unnecessary to worry about average differences between social groups. If a group’s members are “on this side of the line” between people and things, then they differ only in degree from other people and they have the same human rights.

One problem of civilized societies is to control crime without violating the criminals’ human rights. It’s a tough problem that no society ever handles perfectly.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Philosophy, Political Science, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why People Are Not Things

  1. J P says:

    I sometimes wonder if any two people are ever treated equally. Anyone who grew up in a family with multiple kids (and anyone who has parented such a family) knows this is true.

    The older kids say the youngest got away with things the older ones weren’t allowed to do. The younger says they got hand me downs and there are few pictures of them. The middle child says those on either side got all the attention. And everyone knows who Mom’s and Dad’s favorites are. And this is where parents love and want the best for all of the kids.

    I think the better goal is that everyone is treated fairly, which is more achievable and takes into account differences in need and ability that we are all subject to. You can’t legislate “fair”, though.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Your analogy with parenthood is a good one. People should know something about raising children: They’re going to screw it up. There is no way to do it perfectly. The best we can accomplish is not to screw it up too badly, doing it as conscientiously as we can based on the information we have at the time. The same thing applies to human societies: We’re always going to screw it up. Injustices are inevitable, partly because humans are imperfect and partly because injustice is often “in the eye of the beholder.” The best we can do is to establish and follow general principles of justice and rules of human conduct that seem sensible based on our group’s history, attitudes, and dominant beliefs. And we should accept in advance that as Voltaire said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”


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