Monday, July 06, 2009

The Difficult Questions of ‘Personhood’ by Mike Treder

Being a human and being person may not be the same thing.

The Difficult Questions of ‘Personhood’

Mike Treder

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

Posted: Jul 2, 2009

Every human is a person, right? And anyone we call a person must be a human, correct?

Well, no, not necessarily.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, ‘person’ means: 1) human, individual.

That seems as if ‘human’ and ‘person’ should be completely overlapping and identical sets, like this:

But many ethicists, particularly progressive bioethicists, say that for both legal and ethical reasons it is advisable that we sharpen our common definitions of ‘person’ and ‘human’ so that they do not entirely overlap. For example, profoundly disabled humans—whether badly brain-damaged or mentally handicapped to a severe degree—might not then be designated as ‘persons’ by this refined definition.

In that case, the sets would not totally cohere and would look like this:

The observant reader may wonder why there is so much extra blue space in the Persons set on the chart above. That’s because I’m going to suggest that several other species beyond Homo sapiens should be considered for inclusion under the definition of ‘persons’.

From an article at Wired Science:

As a population of West African chimpanzees dwindles to critically endangered levels, scientists are calling for a definition of personhood that includes our close evolutionary cousins.

Just two decades ago, the Ivory Coast boasted a 10,000-strong chimpanzee population, accounting for half of the world’s population. According to a new survey, that number has fallen to just a few thousand.

News of such a decline, published today in Current Biology, would be saddening in any species. But should we feel more concern for the chimpanzees than for another animal — as much concern, perhaps, as we might feel for other people?

“They are a people. Non-human, but definitely persons,” said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. “They haven’t built a rocket ship to the moon. But we’re not that different.”

Fouts is one of a growing number of scientists and ethicists who believe that chimpanzees — as well as orangutans, bonobos and gorillas, a group colloquially known as great apes — ought to be considered people.

It’s a controversial position. If being a person requires being human, then chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, are still only 98 percent complete. But if personhood is defined more broadly, chimpanzees may well qualify. They have self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers. Hardly a month seems to pass without researchers finding evidence of behavior thought to belong solely to humans.

Some even suggest that chimpanzees and other great apes should be granted human rights.

If you accept the proposal that great apes ought to be regarded as persons, then our chart looks like this:

Note that the set of Great Apes does not fall entirely within the set of Persons. That’s because it seems logical that if some humans are excluded on the basis of their severe handicaps, then some great apes would fall outside the appropriate definition of personhood for similar reasons.

Another group of animals also might deserve consideration as persons, namely Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).

From an earlier article at Wired Science:

As the annual International Whaling Commission meeting stumbles to a close, unable to negotiate a compromise between whaling opponents and people who’ve killed more than 40,000 whales since 1985, scientists say these aquatic mammals are more than mere animals. They might even deserve to be considered people.

Not human people, but as occupying a similar range on the spectrum as the great apes, for whom the idea of personhood has moved from preposterous to possible. Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos possess self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers. According to a steadily gathering body of research, so do whales and dolphins.

In fact, their capacities could be even more ancient than our own, dating to an evolutionary explosion in brain size that took place millions of years before the last common ancestor of the great apes existed.

“If an alien came down anytime prior to about 1.5 million years ago to communicate with the ‘brainiest’ animals on Earth, they would have tripped over our own ancestors and headed straight for the oceans to converse with the dolphins,” said Lori Marino, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The idea of whale personhood makes all the more haunting the prospect that Earth’s cetaceans, many of whom were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are still threatened.

Now we have three sets overlaying the Personhood set:

But we’re not done yet.

Transhumanists expect that at some point during this century—possibly within just a few decades—a new set of sentient beings, not entirely biological in origin, will emerge. These ‘cyborgs’ might include robots with artificial brains, humans with significant cognitive or other enhancements, or even computer-based lifeforms. Perhaps not all cyborgs will deserve to be defined as persons, but certainly some will. Thus we have:

And, finally, if we go back to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, where we began, we learn that another definition of ‘person’ is: 6) one (as a human being, a partnership, or a corporation) that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties.

So, we have to include as persons not just humans, great apes, cetaceans, and cyborgs, but also corporations:

Wow, this is getting pretty complicated. What are the implications of these expanded and revised boundaries of ‘personhood’? What does it mean legally and ethically? How might it affect social, environmental, and economic policies? Moreover, what about the possibility—maybe the likelihood—that humans could choose in the next several decades to ‘uplift’ some of our animal cousins, using science and technology to give them greatly increased intelligence?

To answer all these questions would go well beyond the scope of one short blog article. It might be better, in fact, to convene a meeting of scholars and interested stakeholders to debate and discuss the topic and hopefully to find some consensus.

That’s precisely what we intend to do. Stay tuned over the new few months for more information about a proposed workshop on Personhood, to be organized by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. It should prove very interesting.

Mike Treder is the Managing Director of the IEET, and former Executive Director of the non-profit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

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