Does the status of an orphaned mentally handicapped human differ from that of a nonhuman animal with similar cognitive ability? If so, what is the justification? If not, what are the implications?
In terms of the IMPLICATIONS: If it is acceptable to use an animal in medical research (or for other less important endeavors), is it also acceptable to use a mentally handicapped individual of equal or lesser cognitive ability in medical research (or for other less important endeavors)?
A genetically human "creature" will always have at least a slightly different status than a non-human animal. We eat animals. We don't eat humans, no matter how mentally deficient they may be (although we may occasionally need to kill them if they attack us and leave us no choice, but a human attack that powerful generally requires a high degree of human-level mental capacity in the attacker). As the Editor's Preface to The Ayn Rand Lexicon mentions (humorously), Objectivism does "not advocate eating babies for breakfast."
Beyond that, the degree to which a not-fully-rational being would have the same individual rights as normal adult humans depends on the degree to which the individual's rational faculty is normal. Children do not have the same range of rights as adults, for example, until the child grows and develops to the point where he needs such freedom of action and can function rationally and productively, with full respect for the rights of others as well as their respect for his rights. Humans, of course, begin life as helpless babies totally dependent on others to care for them.
Update: The Context of Rights
As the questioner notes in a comment, the 2nd paragraph of the question was added subsequently to my original answer. I actually wasn't entirely certain from the 1st paragraph whether the questioner was asking about an alleged "right" to depend on others for support (which would make the others victims of altruism unless they chose to accept the responsibility, as in the case of parental responsibility for a child) -- or merely a "right to life" (at minimum) that others may not violate. The 2nd paragraph makes the "right to life" intent more clear.
Apparently the question boils down to why a human has a right to life while an animal does not, even if the human allegedly has less cognitive capacity than a non-human animal (which I find hard to envision unless the human is nearly brain dead and very possibly not even conscious any longer). The question evidently also assumes that it has somehow been determined that the "handicapped" human will never improve, which again moves the issue significantly away from reality.
It is important to remember the "paradigm case" first and foremost, i.e., why it is that normal humans have a right to life and, as adults, all the other rights that are corollaries of the right to life. If the right to life itself is in question, then it is also important to understand why even a newborn human infant has a right to life, while an unborn fetus and an animal do not. Normal human adults have individual rights because they need freedom of action in relation to potentially forcible interference from others (i.e., "freedom of action in a social context"). Man survives by productiveness and trade guided by reason. The freedom to act in that manner is essential for man's survival -- freedom from forcible interference by others. And the others, as normal humans, also need to survive in the same manner, with the same protection of their individual rights and the same respect for the rights of everyone else.
Once the paradigm case is understood fully, I submit that the application to children (of any age, even newborns) becomes far more clear. Every normal adult owes his existence to the fact that he was allowed to grow and develop from birth to adulthood, and to the protection of his right to life throughout that developmental process. (If anyone wants to discuss unborn human fetuses, I'm sure there is already another thread on this website for that, or else we can create one.)
What is distinctive about man in general, compared to other animals, is man's conceptual faculty and the mode of survival that depends on it. Non-human animals do not have any comparable conceptual factuly and certainly do not depend on concepts of any kind for their survival. They lack the most basic differentiating quality, a conceptual capacity, that separates humans from other animals. (If anyone wants to discuss science fiction scenarios, we can do it in a different thread. The context of the present thread is reality, not a realm that is imagined and unreal.)
With the foregoing context to serve as a backdrop, we can address the issue of a defective human. There are many possibilities, however: to what degree is the individual conscious at all? Is he conscious on a conceptual level, or perhaps in only a very limited degree? (Which would still be more than any non-human animal can achieve, and no animals species other than man relies on concepts for survival.) Above all, how did the defective human get that way, i.e., where did he come from, how did he begin, how did he grow (if he's not still a baby), who took care of him as a child, was he put up for adoption, etc.? Someone must have been responsible for that person while he was a child, on the premise that the child might grow into a reasonably functional adult eventually -- or at least be accorded the benefit of reasonable doubt as to his future potential. I can readily understand that the utterly dreadful stories of atrocious behavior I've heard from parents about children who suffer from severe ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) could lead a parent to want to be rid of the burden long before the child reaches an adult age (such as through adoption or institutionalization), but such a human still deserves the benefit of reasonable doubt (i.e., hope) as to his future potential (just as every rational parent his high hopes for normal children).
As for a comatose, brain-dead human, there comes a point where it is reasonable to disconnect the patient's life support and allow him to live or die on his own, giving him every possible opportunity to regain consciousness and begin to breathe and eat on his own power, and so on -- or die. And after death, it has also become acceptable practice (to my knowledge) for the patient's legal guardian(s) to authorize the use of his organs to save other human lives, unless the patient had the opportunity to grant such permission himself (if he was ever conscious) and did not do so. Again, one must look at the total context, especially how the patient came to be in his present state -- at what age, for how long, under what circumstances, etc.
In real life, to my knowledge, it would be an extreme rarity for a conscious human to be so cognitively impaired as to have no conceptual capacity at all, with his consciousness confined entirely to the sensory-perceptual level. Such a human would not be able to survive for long in the wild, like other animals, without all the other attributes that non-human animals have (like claws, fur, keener senses than man has, brains "wired" to connect sensory stimuli with physical actions automatically, and so on). I've never actually heard of such a thing myself, an animal that looks human but functions somehow without any trace of human intelligence. If it's real, let's cite an actual case and take a closer look at the precise details of it.
Update: More Context for Rights
From a comment:
I don't think I have the tie from conceptual to rights straight.
The chain from metaphysics to politics is, indeed, long and complex. For a more in-depth Objectivist explanation of it, refer to the topic of "Individual Rights" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Historically, it took roughly two millennia for man to progress from Aristotle's identification of man as the rational animal, to the Enlightenment idea of the rights of an Englishman and "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." I attempted to summarize the connection briefly in my answer, and John's answer summarizes it, as well. The statement, "man has a right" to do such and such, means that it would be morally wrong (or evil) for others to try to stop him forcibly from doing whatever he has a right to do. The Lexicon topic begins: "A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context." This has two aspects: (a) man needs such freedom in order to live, and (b) man's life is the only objective standard of value (and of morality) for man. Further elaboration on both topics -- reason as man's basic means of survival, and man's life as the standard of value for man -- can be found in the Lexicon and in the complete reference sources from which the Lexicon excerpts are taken.
Another aspect of "reason is man's basic means of survival" is that man produces the values that his life requires. He does not find them ready-made in nature; he has to work to shape natural resources into a form that man can utilize; and man relies on concepts to identify what is possible and how to achieve it. This is different from the method of survival of non-human animals.
Also, from the same comment:
I have heard claims that some animals do have some conceptual abilities....
My understanding is that these claims equate perceptual associations with concepts, and do not comprehend the full nature of concepts. Remember that Ayn Rand's theory of concepts is still new and revolutionary in the history of philosophy and science. Conventional observers don't necessarily know anything about it, and too often end up mired in a swamp of confusions and errors as a result.
Another commenter seems to dispute this point about concepts. If so, I would like to see some specific references. Examples offered by others in the past have tended to confirm the confusion between perceptual association and concepts. There should be little doubt that many animals have far keener sensory-perceptual capacities than man, and may well perform better than human infants in certain kinds of tests. The key point about man, however, is his conceptual faculty, not merely whether he can outperform animals or not in various cognitive tasks. No non-human animal can begin to match the conceptual feats that a normal human adult (or even an older human child) can perform easily.
Update: Question needs more context
In the comments, the questioner makes it clear that he is still not satisfied with the answers that have been provided. Unfortunately, I find that I, for one, am unable to offer any further insights without more context of what the questioner is referring to. The best description I have seen so far is the following:
I am referring to a severely mentally handicapped human (let him be an adult) who has no hope of developing into a fully rational being, just as a chimp has no hope of developing into a fully rational being (understanding and respecting rights).
The problem apparently is that the expression, "severely mentally handicapped human," is simply too vague to discuss in greater depth than I and others already have. If it is meant to refer to a "genetically human creature" who is effectively "brain dead" on the conceptual level, I already covered that case in the answer and updates that I have posted. One of the very first points expressed in my original answer is that "the degree to which a not-fully-rational being would have the same individual rights as normal adult humans depends on the degree to which the individual's rational faculty is normal." Unless there are some new details that the questioner would like to offer, such as whether or not the impaired individual has any conceptual capacity at all, I am unable to visualize or project what the questioner's expression could mean in sufficient detail to add anything further to the previous analyses. I have cited the general principle that would apply (as far as I can discern from the context described by the questioner so far).
Update: What "Problem"?
In a new comment, the questioner describes his viewpoint as a "problem" for Objectivism:
My personal belief regarding the severely mentally handicapped (so severe that they can not reason as well as some high level primates) is that they should be protected in some way from intentional harm or exploitation. But I do not see how that follows from the principles of Objectivism. To my knowledge, no recognized Objectivist (or any Objectivist) has has ever solved this problem, despite having 50+ years to do so. I had contacted ARI many years ago a number of times to no avail.
As I've explained before, I do not see any major "problem" with concluding that mentally impaired humans, to whatever degree of impairment they suffer from, nevertheless retain at least the right to life, and as many of the corollary rights as their specific capacities allow. But remember also that rights do not impose an unchosen obligation on others. A mentally impaired human who cannot take care of himself would need to rely on the voluntary charity of others. (Objectivism does not oppose charity. Refer to the topic of "Charity" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon for further explanation.)
I suspect that the overwhelming majority of mentally impaired humans nevertheless demonstrate, by their characteristic behavior patterns if not by more direct intellectual communication, that they are more like normal humans than subhuman animals. There is a well established principle in philosophy, upheld by Objectivism, known as the "onus of proof." By that principle, as I understand it, one must grant a mentally impaired human every reasonable benefit of doubt as to the extent of his mental capacity. If he simply cannot function at all in peace with other humans, then others are certainly entitled, as a matter of their self-defense, to restrain him. This is true in regard to criminals of normal human intelligence as well as "severely mentally impaired" humans.
Objectivism also very strongly disputes any claim that subhuman animals can "think" or "reason" or grasp and use concepts. The switch from perceptual-level cognition to the beginnings of the conceptual level is something that only man has demonstrated the capacity to perform. If actual experiments and tests on animals seem to show a higher level of cognitive efficacy in subhuman animals than previously realized, major questions still remain as to exactly what those observations actually indicate about animal cognition and its full capabilities for the survival of subhuman animals. There really should be no controversy about the claim that animals can survive more effectively by animal means, in correspondingly conducive habitats, than humans can. It is in the nature of those animals to be able to do that, entirely through sense-perception and anatomical features, just as it is in the nature of man to survive by means of concepts.
"A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context." -- Ayn Rand.
Rights, as such, morally defend and protect certain human actions taken among other people. Actions such as moving about, seeking what life requires, keeping property, and pursuing one's own happiness are protected by rights.
Actions such as physically harming others, or tying them up or locking them in closets, are not. In fact, these actions are forbidden by rights -- the rights of the victim.
The question is, how does mental capacity affect rights? Do we lose our rights if we lose our mental capacity?
Note that rights, as such, do not concern mental capacity. They concern behavior among other people. It's not how smart or stupid someone is which determines if he has the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
What is essential is whether a person is able and willing to respect the rights of others. A person who fails to respect others' rights will, by rights, be rapidly curtailed -- they will be taken out of the social context.
Of course, prison, or a mental hospital, is a new kind of social context, but it's a very lopsided one, where the inmates or inpatients don't have the freedom to move about, keep property, or pursue their happiness.
Concerning the case of the mentally deficient, rather than criminals, then, why is it that, in a mental hospital, we don't deny the inpatient's right to life, in the same way that we deny a chicken a right to life whenever we slaughter one? If a person's brain is no more functional than a chicken's, why is it that we eat, or experiment on, the chicken, and not the person?
I think it is because, qua human, when trying to be moral, we respect others' rights whenever we can afford to.
Whenever we curtail someone's freedom, it's because we have to to protect ourselves and other innocents. If locking someone up is a sufficient means of protecting innocents from dangerous behavior, there's no moral justification for going "the extra mile" and killing them, or cutting them up for science experiments.
Perhaps its an issue of holding out hope that the mentally deficient might be cured some day. But more importantly, it's simply that the mentally deficient don't deserve to be harmed or exploited that way.
A skeptical person might now ask: "Ok, so why, then, do we kill chickens? They are arguably more harmless than people can be." The answer is that, in general, chickens are more valuable as food than as free-roaming agents. The same is not true of people. People, on the whole, are much, much more valuable to us if we leave them free, than if we kill them and eat them.
Cannibalism is wrong simply because it is a senseless waste of a human life.
We live in a society of human beings. Such societies have rules (laws). In reading the Constitution which is the authority for all such laws, you will not find any exceptions to guaranteed rights based on lack of intelligence or other capacity. Even the Declaration of Independence which was our statement that we would no longer be subjected to the whims of English laws stated "All men are created equal with certain inalienable rights..." While one might debate the morality of these concepts, the fact is that they are foundations of our society.
answered Jul 27 '12 at 17:11