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Human Exceptionalism and Personhood

August 12, 2011 3 comments

I run a general ‘transhumanism’ RSS stream through a Google News widget, and occasionally it brings me stories that I would never have found on my own. This last week I came across a blog post from Wesley J. Smith called The Trouble With Transhumanism. Mr. Smith was responding to an article by Kyle Munkittrick, but I was primarily interested in Mr. Smith’s argument against expanding the definition of personhood to include some animals and advanced A.I. because I’m in the process of researching for a paper that will argue exactly the opposite.

I’ve gone back and forth with a few people in Mr. Smith’s comment’s section under his article, and there are great points being made in every post (maybe mine are mundane). If you have time, it’s worth checking out. The conversation tended toward transhumanism more generally, however, so I want to address some thoughts here about personhood specifically. I’ll try to outline Mr. Smith’s argument against personhood rights for animals and A.I.s first, but he’s such a prolific writer that I’ve only been able to absorb a smattering of his writing. I asked him to double check my understanding, but he hasn’t gotten back to me yet (busy writing, I’m sure) so I’ll edit this or he can clarify in comments if I’m misrepresenting his arguments.

Mr. Smith advocates for Human Exceptionalism, saying essentially that just because humans are unique, they are exceptional and morally good. Specifically, he says “Because we are unquestionably a unique species–the only species capable of even contemplating ethical issues and assuming responsibilities–we uniquely are capable of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper conduct toward animals.” He says further that “[a]n embrace of human exceptionalism does not depend on religious belief” and “[a]fter all, what other species in the known history of life has attained the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species has transcended the tooth-and-claw world of naked natural selection to the point that, at least to some degree, we now control nature instead of being controlled by it?” He seems also to believe that human exceptionalism is the only acceptable basis for ethical behavior: “Or to put it more succinctly if being human isn’t what requires us to treat animals humanely, what in the world does?” and “Without the conviction that humankind has unique worth based on our nature rather than our individual capacities, universal human rights are impossible to sustain philosophically.” He also seems to favor including the unborn in the class of people: “Those individuals who happen to lack those attributes have either not developed them yet (embryos, fetuses, infants), or have illnesses or disabilities that impede their expression. But those attributes are unique to the human species, they are uniquely part of our natures.”

If this is Mr. Smith’s argument, it seems to me there are several problems with it.

First, he seems to indicate that mankind has unique worth just by virtue of being human. I take this to be a biological argument because he rejects the idea that we ought to assign personhood based on specific attributes. Plenty of studies have compared human DNA to chimps and have concluded that we share somewhere between 95% and 98% of the same genetic code. If our exceptional nature is biological, then it seems like either chimps are 95-98% exceptional (and should thus have nearly all of the same rights; an argument I assume Mr. Smith rejects) or something else in the 2%-5% difference in human DNA contains the exceptional parts while the chimps lack those parts and are, thus, not exceptional and undeserving of personhood related rights. There are also minor genetic differences between human beings: somewhere between .1% and .5%. Presumably (if ‘universal human rights’ are based on DNA) none of the ‘exceptional’ traits are contained in the variation between traits of human beings.

So, assuming the 1.5% – 4.5% (I imagine that the difference between chimps and humans is relevant, but the difference between people is not) difference between chimps and humans is relevant, what about the DNA could account for the exceptionalness of humans? Taking Mr. Smith’s statement that exceptionalism doesn’t depend on religious belief at face value, there must be something about the chemistry of the DNA that makes us exceptional. Now that we’ve mapped human DNA, it’s evident that there is no purely exceptional gene: the building blocks for that 1.5% – 4.5% are the same as the building blocks for the other 95.5%+ of genes. That indicates to me that there is nothing exceptional about the genes themselves, although those genes might combine in such a way so as to allow for exceptional traits. After all, the DNA difference has allowed humans to send rockets to the moon while chimps are still struggling with sign-language. If that’s right, then the biological argument is wrong and gives way to the attribute-based arguments that Mr. Smith rejects. Even if the biological argument were right, it’s unclear what about a DNA sequence carries with it inherent moral worth.

If, instead, our (at the moment, so far as we know) unique human attributes could well be exceptional and could serve as a demarcation point between persons and non-persons. This makes sense, though it does ring a bit of speciesism on its face (we get to pick the attributes that make us special, and they just so happen to be the traits that we have.) That doesn’t make the difference wrong, just suspect. What it seems to me we need to do is create a list of those attributes that make us special so that we have an objective set of criteria for including other beings into personhood if they meet those criteria. Plenty of other people have done this, though I’m not yet at the point in my research where I’m prepared to illustrate concrete examples (I’ll probably readdress the question over the next few months as my research continues.)

Whatever those criteria are, it doesn’t seem that we ought to cling to the idea that the uniqueness of humans alone makes us special. It also doesn’t seem to make much sense to suggest that without our unique status morality and animal rights cease to exist. It seems perfectly coherent to suggest that animals, plants, humans, and computers that don’t meet the criteria of personhood are special and worth protecting, even if we don’t consider them equals and people. A dog isn’t a person, but it’s also not worthless. If chimps suddenly became people, (and there is research to suggest that the smartest chimps are at least as smart as 3-4 year old humans, and we certainly consider young children people) dogs still wouldn’t be worthless; chimps would just become a little more special. We already have standards of decency when it comes to animals (animal cruelty laws, anti-poaching statutes, research standards, etc.) and the inclusion of chimps into the ‘people’ category doesn’t seem to affect those standards directly. Also, just because chimps are people doesn’t mean that they get the full gamut of ‘rights’ that (some) humans currently have: they won’t be driving any time soon, or voting, or buy houses. We don’t, after all, let 3-4 year old humans do those things. Even among people some have rights that others do not; felons can’t run for office or own firearms, 15 year olds can’t drink, smoke or drive (legally) and the clearly insane can’t have contracts enforced against them except in limited circumstances. So, even among humans, there are gradations of personhood rights that we (largely) deem acceptable.

Mr. Smith seems to reject transhumanism more generally because he sees it as detracting from the essence of being human. But, to the extent that we can create a list of what attributes make people special, and to the extent that transhumanism can enhance (or at least not detract from) those traits, it seems like transhumanism could make people more, rather than less, special. Indeed, if “overcoming the tooth-and-claw world of natural selection” makes us special, then it seems like transhumanism, in particular, ought to make us really special precisely because it allows us to overcome even more. And to the extent that advanced A.I. and animals can meet the criteria we create, they too should be people.

The main thrust of my paper argument (as currently conceived) is this: A ‘normal’ adult 100% biological human being is certainly a person. If that person wears a pair of night vision goggles, enhancing their vision outside of that humans can normally have, they are still a person. If they lose both their legs and get prostheses, they are still a person. If we replace the arms, they are still a person. Indeed, it seems like we can continue to replace and replace and replace biological parts with mechanical parts and, with the exception of perhaps the brain, the now augmented-human remains a person. Even in the brain, humans who have anti-seizure implants installed, or chunks of brain removed, remain people. So it seems like we could start with a biological human, turn that human into a machine piece by piece, and the personhood never goes away. But Mr. Smith argues that if we start with the machine, even if they have all the same attributes as the person-turned-into-a-machine, the machine is not a person.

I just can’t see why.

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