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What is a human being?

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Sorry if this comes off as a "noob" question, but I think I have the basic idea of what Rand classified as a human. I am fairly new to the Objectivist philosophy (So far only read Virtue of Selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, and some of The Fountainhead. Have had some MINIMAL studying of the theory itself), so bear with me.

Rand, as we all know, was the Champion of Reason. I am trying to get a picture of what being HUMAN means and what classifies someone as being HUMAN. Is being "human" merely mean that one has an applicable conscious and that one can make RATIONAL decisions. If this is the basis for being "human", then what does this give you? Because you are human, you are now entitled to human rights, is this correct?

Again, sorry if this comes off as being a stupid question, but I think it is important to define humanity and what being human entails.

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To form a concept, one mentally isolates a group of concretes (of distinct perceptual units), on the basis of observed similarities which distinguish them from all other known concretes (similarity is “the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree”); then, by a process of omitting the particular measurements of these concretes, one integrates them into a single new mental unit: the concept, which subsumes all concretes of this kind (a potentially unlimited number). The integration is completed and retained by the selection of a perceptual symbol (a word) to designate it.

“A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.”

The above are quotes from the AR Lexicon (which quotes ItOE).

So, the concept man is a mental integration of the group of existents that fit the description of a man. (that description consists of the "observed similarities which distinguish men from other existents")

Here's the Lexicon entry (also from ItOE) on Man:

Man’s distinctive characteristic is his type of consciousness—a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason . . . . [The] valid definition of man, within the context of his knowledge and of all of mankind’s knowledge to-date [is]: “A rational animal.”

(“Rational,” in this context, does not mean “acting invariably in accordance with reason”; it means “possessing the faculty of reason.” A full biological definition of man would include many subcategories of “animal,” but the general category and the ultimate definition remain the same.)

Just as a preventive measure against people jumping to conclusions, I should add this observation of Rand's to the description: "A proper, philosophically valid definition of man as “a rational animal,” would not permit anyone to ascribe the status of “person” to a few human cells." (The Objectivist Forum)

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The above are quotes from the AR Lexicon (which quotes ItOE).

So, the concept man is a mental integration of the group of existents that fit the description of a man. (that description consists of the "observed similarities which distinguish men from other existents")

Here's the Lexicon entry (also from ItOE) on Man:

Just as a preventive measure against people jumping to conclusions, I should add this observation of Rand's to the description: "A proper, philosophically valid definition of man as “a rational animal,” would not permit anyone to ascribe the status of “person” to a few human cells." (The Objectivist Forum)

Ah, thank you very much for defining that for me Mr. Ellison :thumbsup:

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I find that calling the concept "rational animal" by the name "human" frequently confuses more than it clarifies. When discussing rights, for instance, it allows for people to take that "human" as a floating abstraction and claim rights for unborn fetuses, and brain dead human bodies.

I tend to use "rational being" as much as I can, for that reason (even the "animal" part is non-essential to ethical and political discussion - the same concepts and conclusions would be valid for a rational plant, or electronic device, or whatever other example that may appear in a discussion).

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I find that calling the concept "rational animal" by the name "human" frequently confuses more than it clarifies.

I tend to use "rational being" as much as I can, for that reason (even the "animal" part is non-essential to ethical and political discussion - the same concepts and conclusions would be valid for a rational plant, or electronic device, or whatever other example that may appear in a discussion).

Well, if you used "rational animal", that would indeed interfere with calling rational plants, electronic devices or whatever else except actual people, men. Rational being is a nice way around that, but it doesn't define the concept man (also know as human being), it defines something else. It would be wrong to include rational plants and electronic devices under the heading "man". Doing so would cause all sorts of confusion that properly defining man avoids.

When discussing rights, for instance, it allows for people to take that "human" as a floating abstraction and claim rights for unborn fetuses, and brain dead human bodies.

That's their error (or rationalization), and it might lead to them being wrong, unless you correct them. However, including rational plants and electronic devices as part of the concept man (which is an integral part of Ethics and Politics) would be your error, and it will lead to you being wrong.

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However, including rational plants and electronic devices as part of the concept man (which is an integral part of Ethics and Politics) would be your error, and it will lead to you being wrong.

No, you are wrong here. Ethics and politics apply equally to all rational beings (regardless of their physical "hardware"). The specific actions that ethics and politics might require would certainly differ (as they differ from one individual to another), but not the principles.

Your error is exactly what I was addressing above. In a debate about rights, should a participant forward the scenario where an alien from the galaxy MNZ-R-15B lands in New York (a fairly common exercise in such discussions) you would be diverted into arguing about whether he has a right to life. He is, obviously, not human. Nor a "man".

The "animality" of man is irrelevant to Ethics and to Politics. What matters is that man is a rational living entity. A definition by essentials circumvents the irrelevancies.

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I think you are talking past each other. Mrocktor wasn't trying to make the point that rational plants or devices ([email protected]#?)are also "man". Rather all he said was that to focus the attention on the relevant part, the essential, in discussions of ethics and politics, it is the RATIONAL that needs to be emphasized and not the ANIMAL. So he suggests using the term "rational being" instead of "rational animal", but he doesn't mean that any rational being is human.

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In any case, this is a great question. Fundamental, these are the best.

In forming the definition AR looks at various animals (living creatures that act purposefully, process information) and distinguishes man from them. The distinguishing factor is indeed our unique mental capacity - to reason (including the use of volition).

But then there is also the need to look at various humans and omit measurements such as gender, age, level of intelligence, specific character traits, physical appearance, etc' etc'.

So one needs to observe this list: A baby learning to speak, a newborn baby having nothing but instincts and a developing brain, some old folks, mid-life folks, kids and see what they all have in common. The trick is to only look at the special "freak" cases afterwards, since they are not the norm, but an exception, such as retarded individuals, Siamese twins, insane people. What I find confusing is that even if a human being is not capable of rational thought (like say, one of those rare cases of kids growing in isolation or in the wild) - they are still human, IMO, only abnormal humans. But saying thins means that I take the genetics and physical appearance to be the main this that makes something a "man". Anyone have an idea how to solve it?

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He doesn't mean that any rational being is human.

And I'm saying that that seamingly harmless assumption is already an epistemological error. Since we've not seen evidence of any other rational beings, except men, in our context of knowledge any rational being is in fact human. Ethics and Politics exist in our context of knowledge, and they in fact are the field of study that concerns itsels with the choices and interactions of men, not some floating abstraction called "rational being".

[Added later:]

What I find confusing is that even if a human being is not capable of rational thought (like say, one of those rare cases of kids growing in isolation or in the wild) - they are still human, IMO, only abnormal humans. But saying thins means that I take the genetics and physical appearance to be the main this that makes something a "man". Anyone have an idea how to solve it?

I've read an article just recently about a one year old "vegetable" without a forebrain. (the condition is called Anencephaly, and the (relgious) family chose not to abort for some reason, so they're keeping the thing until it dies. That is, essentially, not a man, just a plant-like body that happens to self-sustain. On the other hand, your wild child is a man. The difference is the capacity to reason, which is the essential characteristic of men, whether they use it or not.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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Another problem I have with the above list is that a newborn is not rational. They only have a developing rational faculty at its very beginning. So I'm not sure how to apply "rational animal" to a newborn. Maybe "rational animal, or an animal which is the potential to develop into a rational being yes has independent physical existence"?

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And I'm saying that that seamingly harmless assumption is already an epistemological error. Since we've not seen evidence of any other rational beings, except men, in our context of knowledge any rational being is in fact human. Ethics and Politics exist in our context of knowledge, and they in fact are the field of study that concerns itsels with the choices and interactions of men, not some floating abstraction called "rational being".

I think he gets that (at least he is not claiming otherwise from what I've seen). But you guys are getting off topic with this. Discussing best terms to use in discussion is not really the topic here.

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I believe the reason the word "animal" is used rather than "being" in the definition is that we are starting from the larger category of animals that we are trying to point out what makes humans a distinct subgroup among other types of animals and from there it is rationality which most notably makes us distinct members of the larger group of animals. So "rational" is tacked onto "animal" instead of "being" to form the definition of man because we were starting from the point of view of what kind of animal is man in particular.

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in our context of knowledge any rational being is in fact human

Agreed.

Do you agree that our being animals is unessential to human ethics and politics? If so, you must agree that "rational being" is a better definition (i.e. omitting a irrelevant measurement). If not, you should indicate an example where being animals our ethical or political principles take a turn away from what would be valid for other (imaginary, in our context of knowledge) rational beings. In other words, some instance where being an animal is essential in principle and not merely in application (i.e. don't eat cyanide).

Edited by mrocktor
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Do you agree that our being animals is unessential to human ethics and politics? If so, you must agree that "rational being" is a better definition (i.e. omitting a irrelevant measurement).

That's not what measurement omission is. When we form concepts, we identify the conceptual common denominator (rational mammal, to be exact), and omit the measurements specific to individual units (such as red hair, brown hair or bald, tall or short, young or old etc.)

You are not allowed to leave out an attribute that is common to all men (a body that exist independently, has limbs, organs, a head, etc., in other words, what all mammals have+ the capacity to reason). By rule, the CCD contains all attributes that are common to all men, and only the specific measurements of individual units can be omitted. (the size of the body, level of intelligence, the color of skin, etc.)

If not, you should indicate an example where being animals our ethical or political principles take a turn away from what would be valid for other (imaginary, in our context of knowledge) rational beings. In other words, some instance where being an animal is essential in principle and not merely in application (i.e. don't eat cyanide).

Sure. The Borg (from one of the Star Trek movies) would be a rational entity/entities essentially different from a society made up of rational animals, which are defined as entities that exist independently from each other not because they're rational (as the borg are rational but not independent), but because of the animal (specifically mammal) part.

The independence of individual men also comes in handy in a more real issue, the right to have an abortion. The term "rational being" would say nothing about the fact that men exist independently, the term "rational mammal" says it perfectly.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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The term "rational being" would say nothing about the fact that men exist independently, the term "rational mammal" says it perfectly.

Not so. "Being" denotes a specific "being", it does imply individuality.

I'd call to your attention the fact that while in our current context of knowledge of reality our definitions are interchangeable (and yours works perfectly well), the discovery of another inteligent being would force you to redefine your terms, while mine would remain directly applicable.

That is the strength of ommiting non-essentials. You are wrong when you say "you are not allowed leave out an attribute that is common to all men". Else you would have to be talking about the "rational bipedal, biocular, mononose, monomouth, bipulmonar, monocardiac, biarmic, pluricellular, monocerebral, aerobic, terrestrial, mammalian, (...) animal".

We ommit irrelevant aspects in definitions all the time - because they are non-essential. You are right, though, that this is not measurement omission but a separate epistemological process.

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I prefer 'rational animal'.

Rationally, my needs and decisions are based upon animal conditions. I must consume certain specific nutrients to sustain proper mental activity. I must indulge, as rationally as possible, certain biological impulses, in order to maintain proper function of my rational mind (on one end, pain indicates physical injury, on the other end sexual frustration is just that).

I might be a 'rational being', but the terms of my existence are defined by the animal biology that creates and sustains my rational faculty.

If I transcended my biology - say put my mind in a computer - I would cease to be what I am. I would not need to eat, would not need to enjoy eating, would not need to take pride from improving my nutrition, producing and obtaining more food. Instead, I might take pride in obtaining energy sources that are more electrical.

It's a distinction worth noting, because so much of our goals, and therefore our actions and desires, and therefore our identities, are determined by our biological needs.

Eating, sleeping, sex, even aesthetics, aesthetic forms (human bodies, faces, etc), colors, and such depend on biology.

'Rational Animal' is suiting, in my opinion.

Consider this: 'Humans' are rational beings that find value in the shape of certain high-protein organs (muscles), on their bodies. In the context of their lives, these muscles represent symbolically, the link between the human mind and the outer world, and the capacity of the human mind to mold that world.

'Robot Computer Telekinetics' are rational beings that find value in complex fractal etchings on their crystalline protective coverings. The complexity is a sign of sophistication, which indicates the extent to which the computer is capable of processing information - and therefore reflective of its ability to make sense of complex dynamic/chaotic systems such as solar cores, from which it draws power to sustain its existence.

Human = rational animal.

The real question is: can you transcend humanity and retain your identity? If you put your brain in a computer, how long can you still justifiably be 'you', and not something else, that although rational, only is aware of your memories, and is otherwise not you.

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We ommit irrelevant aspects in definitions all the time - because they are non-essential. You are right, though, that this is not measurement omission but a separate epistemological process.

Yes, that epistemological process is called the rule of fundamentality, and it refers to selecting the one distinguishing characteristic that our units (men) are differentiated from units possessing a commensurable characteristic, a Conceptual Common Denominator (those units are animal). So, a definition specifies the distinguishing characteristic(s) of the units, and indicates the category of existents from which they were differentiated.

The distinguishing characteristic(s) of the units becomes the differentia of the concept’s definition; the existents possessing a Conceptual Common Denominator become the genus.

In the definition of man (“A rational animal”), “rational” is the differentia, “animal” is the genus. (yes, that's a quote, not my words)

So, the rule of fundamentality refers to selecting the differentia, "rational", not the genus, which is the category you are selecting from, with your differentia. The genus is, clearly, the wider category we are lifting men out of, animals.(It cannot be any other thing, since no other thing has the characteristics men have, that we can distinguish them from using the differentia "rational") The rule of fundamentality does not allow you to change the genus in any way, it is what it is, the concept right under yours in the "tree" of concepts. It must imply all the characteristics of the units, not just some "relevant" ones. Definitions are absolute, in the context of all human knowledge, they do not change depending on the context terms are being used in (such as Ethics or Politics). Here's the quote for that:

It is important to remember that a definition implies all the characteristics of the units, since it identifies their essential, not their exhaustive, characteristics; since it designates existents, not their isolated aspects; and since it is a condensation of, not a substitute for, a wider knowledge of the existents involved.

(the bolded parts are direct quotes from ItOE, or close enough to not change the meaning of what I'm paraphrasing) I'm not throwing the book at you, but you'll have to come up with a lot better than "potential new intelligent species", if you wish to correct this part of ItOE, such as real proof that men are not a type of animal. Or you could address the part that excludes potential new species from the consideration directly:

An objective definition, valid for all men, is one that designates the essential distinguishing characteristic(s) and genus of the existents subsumed under a given concept—according to all the relevant knowledge available at that stage of mankind’s development.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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Yes, I'm quite familiar with concept formation and genus/differentia definition. Why does the genus have to be "animal"? Why not "living things"? That is the point you are not addressing.

EDIT: For clarification - your argument, in essence, could be used to demand that we refer to the "rational biped", or the "rational biocular" or any of the other irrelevant characteristics of man - since man is the only rational being.

Being alive is essential, being rational is essential. The rest is fluff.

EDIT2: ZSorenson, all the particulars you list are application. You may value certain things because of your biology. Rational beings value something, rational beings must act (in some way) to attain values, rational beings must act in specific ways towards other rational beings - those things do not depend on physiology.

Edited by mrocktor
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Yes, I'm quite familiar with concept formation and genus/differentia definition. Why does the genus have to be "animal"? Why not "living things"? That is the point you are not addressing.

EDIT: For clarification - your argument, in essence, could be used to demand that we refer to the "rational biped", or the "rational biocular" or any of the other irrelevant characteristics of man - since man is the only rational being.

Being alive is essential, being rational is essential. The rest is fluff.

EDIT2: ZSorenson, all the particulars you list are application. You may value certain things because of your biology. Rational beings value something, rational beings must act (in some way) to attain values, rational beings must act in specific ways towards other rational beings - those things do not depend on physiology.

Rational animal would be the correct term because one must remember we are integrated beings, which means the animal in us is pertinent to our being, however rational we be... another rational being, per se, may not be animal, and its integratedness would, therefore, be different from ours, despite the commonality of being rational...

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which means the animal in us is pertinent to our being

As is the fact that we have two legs, two arms, one brain, one heart, two lungs, one liver, two lungs, two eyes, breathe air, live on the planet Earth, are carbon based lifeforms and a myriad other characteristics that are not essential to philosophical principles*.

You don't get to arbitrarily pick one irrelevant feature (the fact that we are animals) over the others.

*Namely ethical and political principles

Edited by mrocktor
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Yes, I'm quite familiar with concept formation and genus/differentia definition.

You're obviously not familiar enough. You made three fundamental mistakes that prove it:

1. and 2. :you mistakenly invoked both measurement omission and the rule of fundementality, to justify defining concepts based on the context you intend to use them in

3. you're not aware of the fact that definitions are absolute in our entire context of knowledge, and you keep insisting that in the context of Politics and Ethics men should be defined differently than in the context of biology for instance.

Why does the genus have to be "animal"? Why not "living things"? That is the point you are not addressing.

The genus does not "have" to be animal, it is. The capacity to reason differentiates men from other animals. There's nothing to address, I'm done trying to convince you that men are indeed of the genus animals. Pick up a biology book, and read all about it.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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you keep insisting that in the context of Politics and Ethics men should be defined differently than in the context of biology for instance.

No, I'm arguing that in that context the concept "rational being" (which does not have a word for it) is superior to the concept "man" (= rational animal).

The genus does not "have" to be animal, it is. The capacity to reason differentiates men from other animals.

The capacity to reason differentiates men from all other living beings. This is a more fundamental distinction than the difference between a tree and a whale. It is a less fundamental distinction than that between an amoeba and a rock.

If we start from all existents and differentiate initially between living and unliving we form two initial concepts. Let us call them beings and objects. If we start from all living beings and differentiate between the ones with a rational faculty and the ones without it we can form two more concepts. Rational beings share features that irrational beings do not - they are volitional, they must act by choice to sustain their lives - thus they need ethics, they can live in society to mutual benefit - thus they need politics.

Now explain to me, why is it necessary to form concepts by first subdividing "beings" into types (protozoa, fungi, plants, animals etc.) and then separating the "animals" part into rational and irrational? Answer: it is not.

Concepts are tools. We form them in the way that best serves our cognitive purpose. In this case, if you want to debate philosophy, it is more useful to form the concepts in the way I described above - arriving at the essential concept of "rational being" (call it whatever you like). Using the typical "rational animal" as your unit when discussing Ethics or Politics, while not incorrect (since rational animals are rational beings, and all that is valid for the latter is valid for the former), introduces opportunities for error.

Such errors are very common. Attributing rights to other animals and attributing rights to unborn or brain dead humans are merely the most obvious cases. Likewise denying rights to alternate rational life forms in thought experiments.

I'm done trying to convince you that men are indeed of the genus animals.

EDIT: Removed sassy rejoinder to add:

I note that I was very poor at making the above distinction. Your first reply to me is actually spot on - I am talking about defining "something else", which happens to be a more useful tool for philosophical discussion.

Edited by mrocktor
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Concepts are tools. We form them in the way that best serves our cognitive purpose. In this case, if you want to debate philosophy, it is more useful to form the concepts in the way I described above - arriving at the essential concept of "rational being" (call it whatever you like).

You're already calling it whatever you like, how is it gonna help if I now start calling it a pink elephant, because I find it more useful? I already explained why definitions can't be changed around to suit your purpose in a given context.(well, I explained that Objectivism doesn't allow you to, but the reason isn't that hard to figure out)

Using the typical "rational animal" as your unit

I'm not using anything as my anything, Objectivist Ethics and Politics uses the definition of man (defined by Ayn Rand according to the objective method she describes in her Epistemology). The reason why she uses that concept is because that's who Objectivist Ethics and Politics are for.

If you want to create an Ethics and Politics for some arbitrarily defined creatures in an imaginary Universe, feel free. But for a couple of posts now you gave up even the pretense that you're following Objectivist Epistemology to do it, you're instead talking about completely nonsensical methods, that kinda sound like Objectivism, of selecting fundamental this and that because it suits you for some purpose or other. That's not Objectivst Epistemology.

introduces opportunities for error.

Not in my view it doesn't. Objectivism works fine for me. If yo have some specific errors in mind, please, bring it.

I am talking about defining "something else", which happens to be a more useful tool for philosophical discussion.

You're talking about defining something else than Rand created Ethics and Politics for, but that's not all. Your method for defining that something else is also something other than Objectivist Epistemology, and as far as I can tell, it's not something objective at all.

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