When philosophers have sought answers to the question of what makes humans special, and thus entitled to be treated with respect, they have tended to focus exclusively on the capacities typical of adult humans. So they will appeal to rationality, or moral autonomy, or practical agency, or self-consciousness, in explaining why human beings have rights, and ought not to be treated in certain ways. I think this is a mistake. If the only justification for not torturing someone is her rationality, or if the only reason not to harvest someone's organs is because she has the capacity for practical agency, then we end up either having to say that it's OK to harvest the organs from someone with a severe cognitive disability, or having to stretch the notion of a capacity so thin it can't do the necessary normative work anymore. I have started to develop an alternative approach. The reason humans ought to be treated a certain way, I argue, is because we are members of the social kind 'human'. In other words, the relevant category 'human' is a social construct, not a natural phenomenon. Built into that social construct are norms about how members of the kind 'human' ought to be treated, including norms not to torture, or treat as a mere instrument. In this paper I focus on what it means to say the human is a social kind; and more importantly, how social kinds can generate moral obligations.
About the Speaker
Suzy Killmister is a visiting Fellow at the Murphy Institute, at Tulane University, and from March 2017 will be taking up a position as Lecturer in Philosophy at Monash University, Australia. Suzy works primarily in moral and political philosophy. Her first book “Taking the Measure of Autonomy: A Four-Dimensional Theory of Self-Governance” is forthcoming with Routledge, and she is currently working on her second book, tentatively titled “Contours of Dignity”.
Suggested Background Reading
Killmister, Suzy, ‘Dignity, Respect, And Cognitive Disability’, forthcoming in Adam Cureton and David Wasserman (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Disability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.