The talking or potentially rational animal is an ethical distinction, not a biological species in the sense of Linnaeus. The talking animal is one that could potentially join with us in ethical deliberation, but all animals at least are considered sentient, as having some kind of living awareness. Even our word “animal” comes from anima, which the Romans used to translate the Greek psyche or “soul”. The latter had its origins among the poets, and was developed by Aristotle into a key concept of his hermeneutic biology.
Prolonged meditation on what this living awareness really is seems to me to lead in directions more poetic than discursively philosophical. (I mean neither to denigrate poetry in the way commonly attributed to Plato, nor to assert its superiority in the manner of Heidegger’s later works, just to recognize it as something different from what I am mainly doing here.)
Be that as it may, beyond the community of ethical or sapient beings is the larger community of sentient beings, with whom we ought to feel some kinship. This relation between the ethical community and a larger community to which it belongs is something that itself has ethical significance. So even if we can’t really explain what life is or what awareness is, as ethical beings we ought to respect that broader kinship.
One of the fundamentals of Kantian ethics is a universal respect for people — not just those of whom we are fond, or those of whom we approve, or those who belong to a group with which we identify. This of course does not mean we should one-sidedly tolerate extremes of abuse. Respect for people is actually an Aristotelian mean. Like all ethical considerations, it requires a bit of thought in the application.
I used to worry about “metaphysical” or theological preconceptions about what it means to be a person. Even now, I would not base respect for people on a theological notion of substantial personhood, which carries too many presuppositions. Rather, I would start from the Aristotelian concept of rational or talking animals, understood as participating in Brandomian sapience.
I actually believe in respect for all beings, period — including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. At this level, respect just means a sort of general kindness. But Kant was right to note that there is a profound practical difference when it comes to our fellow talking animals. The fact that we can talk to each other and ask questions of one another makes our interaction with fellow rational animals unique. Even under a broad, somewhat non-Kantian notion of respect for all beings, the kinds of interaction that are possible among beings possessed of language are far richer, and entail more specific responsibilities. Kant himself chose to reserve the term “respect” for those more specific responsibilities.
Kantian respect for people has nothing to do with judgments of the competence or goodness of individuals. It is grounded in the sheer possibility of dialogue. (See also Recognition.)
20 years ago, I worried a lot about Brandom’s sharp distinction of sapience or reason from mere sentience or bare organic awareness. It was not until the Woodbridge lectures reprinted in Reason and Philosophy (2009) that I began to develop a more favorable view of Kant that helped make this more comfortable. Thanks to Brandom and others I read later, I now have a very different way of understanding Kant’s dualistic-sounding moments. (See What Is “I”; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)
Sapience is an emergent second nature resulting from an accumulation of practical doings and dialogue that is not just arithmetical but somewhat tending toward coherence and improvement. We are thus reunited with Aristotle. (See also Rational/Talking Animal.) On such a basis, a very sharp distinction is fine.
(I am intrigued by the fact that the very first sentence of chapter 1 of Brandom’s Making It Explicit gives Aristotle a nod: “‘We’ is said in many ways.” Also, he clearly refers to an ancient point of view emphasizing discursive rationality as preceding Enlightenment representationalism. Discursive-rational inquiring and explaining is older than modern abstractly referential pointing. Discursive rationality, I want to say, is a decisive move away from unthinking traditionalism that long preceded modernity as usually understood. As soon as we begin to inquire about reasons, the door is open.)
Like most people probably do, I used to implicitly assume an empirical meaning for “I”. Wishing not to dwell on Subject or self, I therefore used to carefully avoid first-person references in serious writing. The Kantian notion of an explicitly empty I as mobile index of a unity of apperception — composed with Brandom’s notion of unity of apperception as an ethical task — has freed me from such scruples. The I that speaks can rise above circumstance.