By law, even the worst criminals may be pardoned on grounds of mercy etc. But if an animal attacks or even kills a human, it can be put down. My question is: Shouldn't there be 'rules' to determine who we can really call a human? That way, we could differentiate between when to attribute human rights and when not to.

NOTE: I'm only interested in discussing mental attributes of a human being, NOT physical ones.

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    Laws are made for persons, and yes, it is possible that not all humans are attributed personhood. You will find some answers and links here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personhood Please note that I edited your question; if you don't agree with my changes, you can use the rollback function. – iphigenie Mar 31 '15 at 21:52

What you are questioning is actually a hotly debated topic. Different groups have very different opinions as to such definitions of words. Your particular question is very apropos for the abortion debate going on in America today. The debate literally boils down to a disagreement as to what is "human."

One solution is to have smoother laws without sharp edges between inanimate/wild-animal/pet/human. However, writing such laws in a way that people find acceptable turns out to be a remarkable challenge, so we live with the fact that disagreement over the edges will be hotly debated in exchange for "something that doesn't spectacularly fail in every way."

If you are interested in a debate on what it means to "set rules to determine..." I highly recommend reading about Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Many intuitively tempting phrasings for such rules fall into the sorts of First Order Logic structures Gödel was looking at. He found such structures had some particularly nasty side effects which have profound implications on your question of "should we set rules..."

These implications are so profound that I would almost dare to answer your question with "no, we should not set such rules" simply because it is so hard for a layman (with less than a college math degree) to write rules which don't fall victim to the incompleteness theorems. The only reason I would not answer "no" is because I think there are some partial rules which are beneficial, but sidestep Gödel's frustrating issues, and I think it can be good for society to seek those partial rules out. They should just understand that any attempt to make those partial rules into complete rules is a very tricky business indeed.

  • This is a good answer except for the irrelevant stuff about the incompleteness theorem, which is just misleading. It really doesn't matter at all whether laws are decidable; they're only supposed to work in the most obvious cases anyway, since surely you've forgotten to write down something important. – Rex Kerr Mar 28 '15 at 16:49
  • "They're only supposed to work in the obvious cases anyways" is a pretty contentious argument. While I agree with you, and that's what I was getting towards with the idea of "partial rules," I find that the vast majority of Americans in particular have a fascination with the idea of rules which work perfectly in all cases. I mention Godel because his theorem basically shuts down any shred of hope that such a perfect rule can be found, and that frees us to start looking for those rules which work in the most obvious cases. – Cort Ammon Mar 28 '15 at 21:51
  • That there is any room for precedent indicates that in practice decidability has often not been reached on a first pass, and given that precedent continues to grow around the same issue, it seems doubtful that successive passes are guaranteed perfect decidability either. But you have made a very grand claim, without evidence, that it is actual formal mathematical undecidability that has anything to do with the problem instead of more prosaic issues of imprecision of definition, difficulty of measurement, inherently subjective concerns, etc.. – Rex Kerr Mar 28 '15 at 22:09
  • For evidence I might sight the public response to the Ferguson shooting. There was a huge clamor to put rules in place to "prevent a shooting like Ferguson from ever occurring." In every debate I faced with this, eventually somebody made a statement which was transformable to a statement that "we should find an axiomatic system with a particular set of properties" which fell into the class of problems Godel was looking at. Every single one of the arguments brought forward was literally a search for something that was proven mathematically impossible decades ago. – Cort Ammon Mar 28 '15 at 22:24
  • For another point of evidence I came across the same pattern with abortion debates. Every debate I came across which sought a legal rule-based solution to the problem fell afowl with Godel's incompleteness theorem, showing not only that there was a flaw with their particular solution, but that the entire class of solutions they were looking at were flawed. – Cort Ammon Mar 28 '15 at 22:25

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