The Meaning of “Man” In Heinlein’s Tale of Slavery

A very rich woman and her trophy husband visit a “plasto-biology” facility called the Phoenix Breeding Ranch. The Ranch designs and makes all kinds of creatures for different uses. The couple, the van Vogels, was there because Mr. van Vogel wanted to buy a Pegasus so he could show up a contemporary from his country club. But while the couple is touring the facilities they happened across a large group of chimp workers, called Joes. The Joes were awaiting destruction because they were “at the end of their useful lifespan.” When she passed by one of the Joes, Jerry, spoke to Mrs. van Vogel. Mrs. van Vogel was shocked at what was going to happen to Jerry, so she used her influence as a shareholder to push the director into letting her lease the Joe who caught her attention. Then she put her considerable wealth towards saving the rest of the Joes in the company’s possession. The company, itself rich, powerful and with a lot of its own influence, put up roadblock after roadblock to stop her. So after lots of planning and consultation with a “special shyster,” or underground attorney, Mrs. van Vogel had Jerry file a lawsuit for an injunction to keep the business from killing him.

The story is not really about what it means to be human. The people in the story knew what that meant. They just were not doing the right thing here. Mankind had already run into at least one other race; the Martians, who taught them the secrets of plasto-biology. By treaty and generally accepted dogma, that race met the definition of “man.” Mankind, despite the effrontery of trying to fit aliens into a definition of something they genetically were not, had done this kind of thing before. In order to prove that Jerry was a man, his attorney had to meet a two element test. First he had to show that Jerry was something other than an object; that he was more than just a tool. But there was a prejudice in the judge’s minds that he had to get past first. People had grown accustomed to talking, genetically-modified animal-like slave laborers who were nothing more than complicated pieces of property that could be bought and sold. Humans thought of them as chattels already, largely because of their purpose in life. Although Heinlein did not get into how ingrained this view was, I would say that humanity had come to a point where the health of the economy would be at risk if that notion were turned upside down. So the trick was to get the judges (this was a bench trial) to think differently before they applied the law. The attorney started out slowly. To answer the first element Jerry counted five fingers, and then argued with the attorney who offered Jerry a cigarette or candy if Jerry would agree that he held up six fingers. In other words Jerry showed intelligence, and then stood up for what he believed. Jerry demonstrated that he was capable of independent, intelligent thought, and was not just a tool which did our bidding.

Second, he had to prove that Jerry was man-like. The common belief, which was pled by the defense, was that since Joes had neither human shape nor human intelligence, and even if the were a bit more sophisticated than a riding mower, they were not equal to a man. Part of the proof of the plaintiff’s case in chief was testimony from B’na Kreeth, the Phoenix Ranch’s Martian chief scientist. In what I like to call a Perry Mason Moment* the plaintiff’s attorney, Pomfrey, called the Martian scientist to the stand. There really was not too much love lost between the Martians and humans, and Pomfrey was counting on Master B’na’s elitist outlook and sense of self preservation to carry the day.

“Are you a man?” demanded Pomfrey.

Under your laws and by your standards I am a man.

“By what theory? Your body is unlike ours; you cannot even live in our air. You do not speak our language; your ideas are alien to us. How can you be a man?”

The Martian answered carefully: “I quote from the Terra-Martian Treaty, which you must accept as supreme law. ‘All members of the Great race, while sojourning on the Third Planet, shall have all the rights and prerogatives of the native dominant race of the Third Planet.’ This clause has been interpreted by the Bi-Planet Tribunal to mean that members of the Great race are ‘men’ whatever that may be.

“Why do your refer to your sort as the ‘Great Race’?”

Because of our superior intelligence.

“Superior to men?”

We are men.

“Superior to the intelligence of earth men?”

That is self evident.

“Just as we are superior in intelligence to this poor creature Jerry?”

That is not self evident.

“Finished with the witness,” announced Pomfrey. The opposition counsels should have left well enough alone; instead they tried to get B’na Kreeth to define the difference in intelligence between humans and worker-arthropoids. Master B’na explained meticulously that that cultural differences masked the intrinsic differences, if any, and that, in any case, both anthropoids and men made so little use of their respective potential intelligence that it was really too early to tell which race would turn out to be the superior race in the Third Planet.

What Jerry’s attorney did here was to give the finder of fact good reason to pause before applying the test of humanity in a tight and restrictive way. Not only did he put a credible expert on the stand who said that there essentially is no difference, but the expert’s own presence was proof enough that the application of a hard and fast rule would be morally and legally wrong. As the hammer-between-the-eyes deal-sealer Pomfrey called Jerry back to the stand and asked him to sing his favorite song. Slightly shocked that the Joe would like singing, or even comprehend music, the court listened as Jerry sung an old slave field song; Sewanee River. The comparison was too much for the judges, so they found for the plaintiff; Jerry, and all like him, were men.

Since the story was essentially a courtroom drama you might not find it too surprising that it was otherwise loaded with legal tidbits. Things such as judicial notice, contract law, corporate ownership and ethics, legislative power, the right to practice law, declaratory relief as a remedy, injunctions, family law and more; this story seriously tweaks my legal-dweeb needs. Considering all of that, I was a bit surprised that Heinlein neglected to work in anything about the most relevant law. Concepts such as equal protection under the law and due process were well understood and had been heavily litigated by 1947. But Jerry Was a Man is so infused with those concepts that I can only assume that Heinlein did not want to bog the story down with too much legal technicality.

The phrase “equal protection under the law” refers to a constitutional guarantee that no person or class of persons will be treated differently, or denied the protections of the laws that others enjoy in like circumstances in their lives, liberty, property, and in their pursuit of happiness. It is such an important protection that the Constitution and the Amendments to it, which otherwise only protect the individual from action of the Federal Government, actually restricts a denial of rights by any state. The Due Process Clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution operates to proscribe any deprivation of “life, liberty or property.” What this story was about was whether or not Jerry was a “person” such that he would come under the protections of these laws, and essentially presents the same debates that occurred over the slave trade in this country before the 14th Amendment was even drafted. As a culture we have answered this question before, and in the context of manufactured beings or aliens I cannot imagine anyone in good faith advocating for anything but a broad definition. This issue has been dealt with by three other authors, including Vercours and Piper, so we shall be revisiting it soon.

Mrs. van Vogel did not what she did out of a sense of maternalism. She did what she did because she was shocked by the condition that the Joes had to abide with, and out of a sense of fundamental fairness. Her reaction was fairly common: She saw someone whom she could identify with enslaved, and she did something to stop it. Heinlein did provide one instance of precedent though. A case was mentioned where a court prevented an estate from putting down a harem of Persian cats, as requested by a decedent in her will, by holding that valuable and useful property cannot be destroyed wantonly. The case was no help to Jerry as his cataracts were getting pretty bad, and he could no longer do his gardening jobs anyway.

I think that the story also invokes another good question about how we treat our animals. Is it right that we put animals down when their useful lifespan have run? We tell ourselves that they are incapable of understanding the nature of their suffering, so we do them a favor by taking their lives when they can no longer work. I suppose someone at some point came up with that ration of crap, thinking possibly that a lamed horse for example would not know why he was not being eaten by a wolf. I have had some recent experience with putting down a beloved pet recently. Let’s just say that I am torn by the practice. Anyway, this question is more of a moral one, even if it does touch on the law. So I’ll leave it alone here.

From a legal perspective this story is a triumph. Even though it got some of the legal procedures wrong it came to the best conclusion I can see based on the spirit of the law, and dealt with a counter-argument that passed the laugh test, but in my opinion just barely. Look here for a review of this story’s literary merits.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

* You know the kind. Where the attorney gets the right witness on the stand at the critical moment, and then gets him to say exactly what he needs him to say. It never happens that way, but it sure does make for good story-telling.

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