Monday, December 16, 2013

Why no cow prepares a meal for the herd


Most blogs I have written here about the question what a person is are about personal identity in time. So they go into the question what makes that I am still the same person as many years ago. Another question is what the characteristics of personhood are, so what distinguishes a person from a non-person, like, for instance, a human being from an animal (or from most animals, for some animals certainly have personhood in a way). This question was dealt with by J. David Velleman in his recent article “Sociality and solitude”. I shall not discuss the article here, but the following passage caught my eye. It says a lot about who we are as a person:

Visiting a museum is a human sort of grazing, but visiting with a companion is not just a case of grazing in the same place  …; it is a case of two going together … The mere personhood of another person, which makes him eligible for going together, is of value even in the absence of any personal relationship. (p. 332)

Velleman is referring here to Aristotle’s description of friendship. Aristotle sees friendship as “two going together”, which he contrasts with “the case of cattle, grazing in the same place”. Grazing cows in a herd are doing the same: grazing. But each cow grazes for herself. Cows in a herd do not have a common (or joint) intention, but they have an intention in common. (ibid.)
Also man can behave like a grazing cow in a herd and he often does! For instance, when someone walks alone through a museum and looks at the paintings one after another while ignoring the other visitors present. But it doesn’t need to be a mere individual activity. The same action can be done together with a friend, wife or husband, child, and so on. Then one has a joint intention performed in a joint action, and usually one talks with the partner about what one sees. This possibility of having a common intention – to be distinguished from an intention in common – is a characteristic of personhood, so Velleman, and I agree. It doesn’t need to be so that one jointly shares attentions only with people one knows. If I want to bring the piano upstairs I can hire a hand for helping me. I don’t need to know the guy, as long as he is prepared to help me for a remuneration.
As Velleman states, this characteristic of personhood does not need to present itself continuously and openly. It doesn’t need to be manifest. It can also be latent and come to the surface at the right moment. Let’s say that we are grazing the paintings in a museum and then we make a remark to another visitor about a certain painting. A conversation starts and we walk together through the museum discussing about what we see. So a sudden and temporary kind of friendship or companionship comes into being, which probably ends when we leave the museum. Cows will not do that. They’ll not start to talk about the grass, showing another cow the place where the grass is best. In this sense cows don’t have personhood, while man has. And have you ever seen a cow making a meal for the herd?

David J. Velleman, “Sociality and solitude”, in: Philosophical Explorations 16 (3): 324-335.

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