Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Can a Non-Human be a Person?

 

shutterstock_99733508At the end of the latest Law Talk, Professors Epstein and Yoo (not atypically) disagree. Prof. Epstein appeared to have based his view on the topic on an assumption that is widely held, rarely stated, and that logically leads to shocking conclusions.

The subject was legal action proposing that an ape be recognised as enjoying certain ‘human rights’. Prof. Epstein suggested he’d be willing to entertain the idea when the chimpanzee could argue its own case. This suggests that the rights attach to the creature as a result of its intellectual (and communicative) abilities.

Prof. Yoo wisely noted that this was a category error: that a human enjoys human rights because he or she is a human, not because he or she can act like a human (my words rather than his). A human baby, he noted, is entitled to human rights although such a child could not represent him or herself in a court.

In certain philosophical and scientific circles it is an article of faith that rights attach to intelligence, even though many of the same people deny that measures of intelligence have any value. This leads to weird — and, in my view, evil — hierarchies of rights-holders of the kind promoted by ‘ethicist’ Peter Singer, wherein an intelligent dog has more rights than a newborn baby, especially if the latter is intellectually disabled.

The problem with Singer’s view — aside from the evil outcomes it facilitates — is that it is logically unassailable … If, that is, you accept the premise that our rights are based on intelligence.

Thought experiment: if the space aliens that Professor Yoo mentioned in the podcast were to appear tomorrow and they were our equals or superiors in intellect, how would we be obliged to regard them? Automatically embrace them in the spirit of personhood? Should they be granted the full range of ‘human’ rights or negotiated with to develop a set of reciprocal, enumerated rights?

It’s far more likely that we’ll have to deal with these issues closer to home. In the Robert Heinlein short story ‘Jerry Was a Man’ ‘enhanced’ chimpanzees, capable of speech, have been developed to perform menial tasks. A court finds that they entitled to human rights.

Likewise, machine intelligence may one day reach the stage of being comparable with that of humans. If they possess self-awareness (or such a reasonable facsimile of self-awareness that we are unable to tell the difference), would they no longer be property but persons?

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  1. The Question Inactive

    My take is that only humans are humans, and morality is specific to humans. However, I think it’s also a mistake to lump all non-humans into one category. You wouldn’t treat a dog the same way you treat a flea.
    I think Catholicism assumes that non-humans can be persons, because angels are people. The Trinity is three persons in one being, so I think that is another example.
    If intelligent aliens exist, it seems pretty clear it would be bad to kill them without good reason, even though it wouldn’t be accurate to call it murder. An alien killing a human wouldn’t be murder either. Only humans can be murderers.
    In regards to artificial intelligence, it seems to me that any being that was truly intelligent, would also be a living thing. I think intelligence is necessarily a kind of living activity, and that to create real AI, you would have to create life too (which I think is probably possible). I think we want to avoid abusing an AI, but I don’t think we would have to treat it as a human, because it would not be human.

    • #1
    • May 20, 2014, at 8:39 PM PDT
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  2. Valiuth Member
    Valiuth Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I am of the opinion that the test should involve both standards. For a speciese whose sentient state is in in question, it must first assert its rights itself. Once an individual has established a legitimate claim to sentients then we can assume other members of the species deserve equal protection by virtue of their being.

    • #2
    • May 21, 2014, at 5:45 AM PDT
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  3. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Valiuth: I am of the opinion that the test should involve both standards.

    Agreed: there’s no reason for this to be an either-or. Sentience should be the most important standard regarding personhood and the rights that go with it, but we needn’t limit it to that.

    • #3
    • May 21, 2014, at 6:46 AM PDT
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  4. KC Mulville Inactive

    Why?

    Why is sentience to be considered at all? Why should rights be based on intelligence or sentience?

    Before you assert who gets what rights, you have to justify the basis on which those rights are assigned.

    • #4
    • May 21, 2014, at 7:26 AM PDT
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  5. The Question Inactive

    I think that any kind of non-human intelligence would most probably be a different kind of intelligence than ours. Intelligence doesn’t exist by itself. Our intelligence comes out of our physical, human nature. I think morality could not be generalized to all intelligent beings. For example, I believe humans, both men and women, have a moral responsibility to care for the children they produce. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case for an alien species with a different reproductive biology. An alien species might naturally produce eggs that develop without parental care. I think morality is basically rules and priniciples that allow us to flourish and live up to our potential. An intelligent alien or robot, that chose to be the best alien or robot that he/she/it could be, would probably have a somewhat different set of rules and principles to follow to accomplish that goal.

    • #5
    • May 21, 2014, at 8:16 AM PDT
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  6. Valiuth Member
    Valiuth Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KC Mulville:

    Why?

    Why is sentience to be considered at all? Why should rights be based on intelligence or sentience?

    Before you assert who gets what rights, you have to justify the basis on which those rights are assigned.

    Sentience is important because it is arguably a uniquely human characteristic and our most defining one. To be granted personhood a being must be proven to be more human than not. 

    Michael though brings up a good point. It is possible that an alien be so divergent from us that we might not be able to recognize it’s sentience. 

    • #6
    • May 21, 2014, at 8:29 AM PDT
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  7. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Valiuth: Sentience is important because it is arguably a uniquely human characteristic and our most defining one. To be granted personhood a being must be proven to be more human than not. 

    Seconded.

    • #7
    • May 21, 2014, at 8:47 AM PDT
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  8. KC Mulville Inactive

    Valiuth:

    Sentience is important because it is arguably a uniquely human characteristic and our most defining one. 

    No, that formula doesn’t work. If the reason you’re looking for sentience is because it identifies humans … you can’t turn around and say that rights could be granted to non-humans because they’re sentient. 

    • #8
    • May 21, 2014, at 9:03 AM PDT
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  9. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Would it make more sense if I put it this way:

    1. Something about humans makes us special in that we have rights that should be protected;
    2. The most relevant feature of humans appears to be our sentience, (i.e., our sense of self, general intelligence, and capacity for moral reasoning);
    3. Therefore, any other creature or thing that exhibits a similar level of sentience should have the same rights and be granted the same protections.
    • #9
    • May 21, 2014, at 9:16 AM PDT
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  10. Doctor Bass Monkey Inactive

    In the Judeo-Christian view, man is created in the image of God and this is the source of his personhood and rights. When we move away from this view to man arising from chance occurrences over time, the standards for personhood and rights tend towards arbitrariness. Why shouldn’t an intelligent chimp be considered a person with rights? If man arose by chance, why is this chimp simply not arising at a later time and therefore deserving of the same status and rights?

    • #10
    • May 21, 2014, at 9:58 AM PDT
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  11. Son of Spengler Contributor

    On the podcast, John explicitly equates humanity and personhood. Is that really the case in the law? Corporations and partnerships are considered persons in various contexts, with regard to both rights (e.g. First and Fourth Amendment protections) and responsibilities (e.g. various financial regulations). Corporations are not human; they are abstractions (although they may be treated as persons on the theory that they are associations of humans, who do not lose their rights and responsibilities upon associating). As a legal definitional matter, though, it would seem to me that personhood could be extended to non-human entities.

    That said, it would seem to me that non-human entities are not persons by default, and must be granted personhood. The key is not sentience or intelligence, or even feeling, but the (Judeo-Christian) presumption of a human soul. A computer, alien, or bonobo may be more sentient or intelligent than a mentally disabled human, yet the human would be extended protections.

    • #11
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:14 AM PDT
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  12. KC Mulville Inactive

    Tom Meyer:

    Would it make more sense if I put it this way:

    Something about humans makes us special in that we have rights that should be protected;
    The most relevant feature of humans appears to be our sentience, (i.e., our sense of self, general intelligence, and capacity for moral reasoning);
    Therefore, any other creature or thing that exhibits a similar level of sentience should have the same rights and be granted the same protections.

    No, because you’ve already premised that non-humans (might) have intelligence also. If intelligence is supposed to be what makes us “special” (I’ll skip over the irony that special and species come from the same idea), then it makes little sense to bestow rights on other forms of life … because by that definition, humans aren’t special anymore.

    • #12
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:22 AM PDT
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  13. KC Mulville Inactive

    I don’t understand the reluctance to restrict rights to humans. I’d bet that the whole notion of rights is subconsciously based on the earliest human beings sticking together and protecting each other, based entirely on being part of the same species. We naturally protect “our own” first, no matter how what qualities we’re talking about at the moment that define “us.”

    Let’s face it, so much of this discussion is concerned with the issues of abortion and start-of-life issues. It strikes me as self-contradictory to say that an intelligent creature should be treated like a human, because intelligence reveals humanity, but that a human fetus can be destroyed on the grounds that it doesn’t display intelligence, and therefore can’t be human.

    • #13
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:35 AM PDT
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  14. KC Mulville Inactive

    Son of Spengler:

    Corporations are not human; they are abstractions (although they may be treated as persons on the theory that they are associations of humans, who do not lose their rights and responsibilities upon associating).

     I readily admit that I don’t like the idea of “personhood.” I risk the wrath of KatieVS, but I can only say that the theological idea of person is only an analogy with the current legal concept of person. The way we discuss personhood in secular, civil law is … IMO … a confused mess. 

    A corporation (I believe, come on lawyers help me out) can only consist of living human beings. A cat or a shrubbery can’t serve on a board of directors. So, while a corporation isn’t the same thing as an individual, at no time does a corporation bestow rights or responsibilities on anything non-human. And, in turn, trying to derive meaningful principles from the legal fiction of personhood seems to me to be an exercise in gibberish. 

    • #14
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:48 AM PDT
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  15. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Whiskey Sam: In the Judeo-Christian view, man is created in the image of God and this is the source of his personhood and rights. When we move away from this view to man arising from chance occurrences over time….

    I don’t think the sentience argument requires one to abandon a designed universe: one might easily say that being sentient is part of what it means to be made in God’s image.

    Whiskey Sam: Why shouldn’t an intelligent chimp be considered a person with rights? If man arose by chance, why is this chimp simply not arising at a later time and therefore deserving of the same status and rights?

    Again, I don’t think the “arisen by chance” factors one way or another. That said, if a chimp somehow gained human-level intelligence and moral agency — whether naturally, artificially, or miraculously — I’d treat it as a person and require the same of it for me.

    Also interesting to all this is the possibility that sentience arose independently in us and in Neanderthals after our ancestors split. Of course, it now seems more likely that we’re both sub-species of humans than different species, but…

    • #15
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:24 PM PDT
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  16. The Question Inactive

    Valiuth:

     

    Michael though brings up a good point. It is possible that an alien be so divergent from us that we might not be able to recognize it’s sentience.

     I think maybe a better way to say what I was saying is that an alien intelligence would almost certainly be a different “flavor” of intelligence. It would be different in all kinds of small, difficult to quantify ways, just like English culture and Chinese culture are definitely different in many, many small, hard to quantify ways. It hadn’t occurred to me that we wouldn’t be able to recognize an alien intelligence, but you have a point.

    I may even be that other big brained animals are actually intelligent, but not in the same ways we are. The functions that their intelligences serve are different, and that makes their intelligence take a different form that we have difficultly recognizing.

    • #16
    • May 22, 2014, at 8:35 AM PDT
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  17. The Question Inactive

    Dogs could be an example of a different kind of intelligence. Dogs have mental abilities that, if we try to analogize dogs to humans, are kind of strange. Dogs can read peoples facial expressions, and they can understand what we mean when we point to something. This is something they can do with humans, but not with other dogs. From a human point of view, it’s a little strange to imagine relating to another species better than your own, but that’s what it is to be a dog.

    • #17
    • May 22, 2014, at 8:39 AM PDT
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  18. Kay of MT Member

    Mankind was created not in the physical image of G-d but the spiritual, the ability to be good, loving, kind, etc. Who is to say that the same attributes weren’t granted to animals as well? The Torah gives animals all kinds of rights, including being fed before yourself, rules against abuse.

    The fact is, I have a couple of sentient, intelligent parrots, extremely opinionated, and fully capable of defending themselves and me. They recognized without training my hearing disability, and alert me every time to people at the door or a ringing phone. They also empathize when I’m in pain and will get on me and hold a finger in their talon for my comfort. I’m convinced they have souls. I think all warm blooded creatures were created with that “G-d” spark of life.

    • #18
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:04 AM PDT
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  19. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My operating theory is that a non-human can be a person if they are able to convincingly argue the case for themselves, preferably in a court of law.

    Call it the “Data Test”. On Star Trek, Data was considered property right up until he was able to convincingly argue his own case in favour of personhood.

    In other words, sentience isn’t enough. The defendant must be able to demonstrate sapience. It would not be enough, for me, if sapience was argued on behalf of the defendant by an expert third party (such as a psychologist, or a neurologist, or a philosopher, etc, etc).

    The defendant must be able to make the argument for themselves, and they need to be able to do it convincingly. That is, independently and without prompting or scripting.

    e.g. I’d be open to granting personhood to a chimpanzee that is able to take the stand and answer questions intelligently and independently from both the prosecution and the defence. I would not be open to granting personhood to a chimpanzee that had been trained to merely give a speech arguing for their own personhood.

    • #19
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:07 AM PDT
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  20. Larry3435 Member

    Unless, of course, concepts like “person” and “rights” are just constructs of our own minds, and are meaningless as applied to species who do not share our form of mind. Minnows might or might not have “rights” against sharks, but the sharks don’t much care one way or the other.

    Regarding alien species, if we meet them in the near future it is going to be because they come to us, not because we went to them. In which case, our conception of their “rights,” or of ours, isn’t going to matter any more than the minnow’s rights against the sharks.

    • #20
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:36 AM PDT
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  21. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Kay of MT: Mankind was created not in the physical image of G-d but the spiritual, the ability to be good, loving, kind, etc. Who is to say that the same attributes weren’t granted to animals as well?

     The text of Genesis suggests otherwise. Only after the creation of animals does God say (1:26), “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” So the “likeness” was limited to humanity, which was given dominion over the animals.

    • #21
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:39 AM PDT
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  22. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Kay of MT: The Torah gives animals all kinds of rights, including being fed before yourself, rules against abuse.

    The Torah obligates Jews to care for animals, but that does not necessarily confer rights upon the animals. There is a rabbinic dispute about the reason for the obligations — whether it is to provide kindness to animals vs. to inculcate sensitivity among humans. (Nehama Leibovitz provides a nice overview in her discussion of the obligation to chase away the dam, Deut. 22:6-7.)

    I’d further note that gentiles do not have these obligations. Theirs are limited to the Seven Noachide laws. There is indeed one of the seven that relates to animal cruelty: the prohibition on eating a part of an animal while the animal still lives. But this is much less restrictive than the obligations on Jews. If animals had such rights, they would have them in all times and places, wouldn’t they?

    • #22
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:43 AM PDT
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  23. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Kay of MT: I’m convinced they have souls. I think all warm blooded creatures were created with that “G-d” spark of life.

     The Torah has two words for soul. “Nephesh” is used for people and also for animals. “Neshamah” is reserved for people, and is considered a kind of higher soul. I think it is a recognition that animals do have a level of sentience and an animating spirit, though only humans are made in God’s image.

    • #23
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:48 AM PDT
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  24. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Misthiocracy: e.g. I’d be open to granting personhood to a chimpanzee that is able to take the stand and answer questions intelligently and independently from both the prosecution and the defence. I would not be open to granting personhood to a chimpanzee that had been trained to merely give a speech arguing for their own personhood.

    Well said.

    Well said. And yes, The Measure of a Man is a great episode of television.

    • #24
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:49 AM PDT
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  25. Robert E. Lee Member
    Robert E. Lee Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Sure non-humans can be people. I mean, most politicians qualify as people even if they have given up their humanity. Non-humans, by definition, are not human. But that doesn’t exclude them from being people. Shoot, even corporations are considered people and off-hand I can’t think of anything more non-human than a corporation.

    • #25
    • May 23, 2014, at 8:50 AM PDT
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  26. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Son of Spengler: If animals had such rights, they would have them in all times and places, wouldn’t they?

    Indeed. If animals had a right not to be treated cruelly, they would have that right not only from humans but also from other animals, and therefore predators would be criminals.

    • #26
    • May 23, 2014, at 9:16 AM PDT
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  27. Kay of MT Member

    Son of Spengler:

    Kay of MT: Mankind was created not in the physical image of G-d but the spiritual, the ability to be good, loving, kind, etc. Who is to say that the same attributes weren’t granted to animals as well?

    The text of Genesis suggests otherwise. Only after the creation of animals does God say (1:26), “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness;

    If you are going to take Genesis literally then you need to remember the talking snake and Balaam’s ass, who didn’t surprised anyone with their speech.

    • #27
    • May 23, 2014, at 9:19 AM PDT
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  28. Valiuth Member
    Valiuth Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Defining rights by species isn’t any safer from abuse. As the definitions of species is also highly arbitrary and subjective. You could always classify out large swaths of what today are considered human beings into new species if the whim struck you, and then use that as justification for denying them rights. 

    I think what we should ask our selves is this. If we did run into an alien species which displayed culture, language, complex abstract thought (as demonstrated by the ability to do math or engage in imaginative story telling), would it be morally right for us to treat them the way we do cows?

    • #28
    • May 23, 2014, at 9:41 AM PDT
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  29. Manny Member

    Human rights are for humans. The words mean what they mean. Animal rights are for animals, and I support certain basic rights for animals, and they are not the same as human rights. Where I think people get confused is in lumping all animal rights together. Clearly there is a spectrum of animal rights. We would not give the same rights to a cockroach as to a sheep as to a dog. An ape would certainly be on the highest level of animal rights, but they would not be human rights. Is it based on sentience? I think it’s based on whatever soceity agrees, and that ultimately comes down to the human heart. [Side note: That sounds like some form of the great chain of being.]

    • #29
    • May 23, 2014, at 9:43 AM PDT
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  30. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Valiuth: I think what we should ask our selves is this. If we did run into an alien species which displayed culture, language, complex abstract thought (as demonstrated by the ability to do math or engage in imaginative story telling), would it be morally right for us to treat them the way we do cows?

    Once a species demonstrates sapience, I would no longer classify it as a “beast”.

    I do not believe that non-sapient animals can have rights, because rights cannot be separated from responsibilities. Non-sapient animals do not have the ability to respect my rights, therefore they cannot have rights of their own. If a tiger has the right not to be killed, then it has a responsibility to not kill.

    I believe in animal welfare, and donate annually to the local humane society, but I do not believe in animal rights.

    • #30
    • May 23, 2014, at 9:50 AM PDT
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