The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animas (or PETA for short) has filed a lawsuit claiming that SeaWorld has “enslaved” the killer whales that the park holds for performance. Any claim of slavery brings Shklar’s notion of citizenship to mind. However, this case does not make me ask whether or not animals are considered citizens under Shklar’s definition of the word. They are not capable of earning an independent living for themselves and do not have the right to vote in this country. However, an argument that is often made on behalf of the animal rights movement is that of the “argument from marginal cases”. This argument deals with the comparison of animals to humans with mental deficiencies that renders their “intelligence level” similar to that of certain animals. The argument continues on to say that if it is morally wrong to eat or use people with certain mental deficiencies in the way that humans use animals, then it is wrong to use animals in this way. The argument hinges on the notion that the only difference between animals and people with certain mental deficiencies is species membership, and that any discrimination based on species membership is inherently wrong.
I pose a different question. Do people with mental deficiencies qualify for citizenship in a contemporary? Many may be quick to jump to Shklar’s ultimate definition and say that people with certain mental deficiencies do not qualify as citizens because they are unable to earn. However, I ask: What of the mentally deficient person who is being supported by a family member or friend that is earning? Does that change this person’s level of citizenship? If one responds in the negative, then a great many other people do not qualify for citizenship. In fact, if a person with certain mental deficiencies who is also being supported by a family member or friend that is earning does not qualify for citizenship, then many of us do not qualify for citizenship, either. Many of us are college students who are being supported by government funds, our parents funds, or both. As a result, Shklar’s definition of citizenship excludes many people who may be “earning” according to a different meaning of the word.
I personally suggest that Shklar’s definition of citizenship may be on to something. But, I feel that the only way it can account for a common perception of citizenship is to extend the definition of earning to those who are being provided a living by some means. I believe very few of us would consider college students, mentally handicapped people, and others who may be dependent on the support of family, friends, or the government to be anything other than full citizens of this country. Under an extended definition of earning, people under all of these categories would be full citizens. People in all of these categories (with few exceptions) can vote. With the capability of “earning”, this country would be able to include more people in a nationwide notion of citizenship, and come closer to being the proverbial “melting pot” we have claimed to be for decades.