Who, or what, is a person? It sounds like a simple question. For most of humankind, a person is a human being; in a Venn diagram, the circles that include the terms Person and Homo Sapiens Sapiens would be identical and would cover precisely the same area. The main problem with this approach is that it places all beings in one of two groups: Persons or property.
Property can be damaged or destroyed but, legally speaking, it has no interests deserving of protection. Declaring other beings of demonstrable intelligence and sentience property, species such as the other great apes and the dolphins, gives them the legal standing of, say, a shoe.
That is simply too clumsy, too ham-fisted a way to describe us and other forms of sentience. It is black-and-white thinking, and it is not up to the task of describing what we are coming to understand as an ever-expanding world of sentience, intelligence, and consciousness — a world not of black-and-white, but of a widening array of shades.
News that a movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is on its way, slated for a November 2013 release, has piqued my interest. I am eager to learn how director and screenplay writer Gavin Wood will tackle the issue of Otherness. Card sets a high standard in the novels, and it is a standard that I find useful for thinking about personhood. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Who gets to enjoy the status of person, and who decides the question?
It is important that we recognize that who or what is bestowed the title of person has not only changed and adapted throughout human history, it has been in flux relatively recently in the United States and the West, continuing even today. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, for example, legally declared that African-Americans counted as three-fifths of a person (for the purposes of their owners’ voting rights; this was not meant as a direct valuation of their actual humanity).
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
Eventually, though, the Civil War ended, and the people in charge of the triumphant North changed the status of the former slaves. The freed slaves were legally, then, fully recognized as citizens and as people, rather than as property.
As bioethicist and attorney Linda MacDonald Glenn pointed out in a recent Sentient Developments podcast, women and children were once accorded the status of property. And today, as presidential candidate Mitt Romney insisted on the campaign trail, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Legally speaking, that’s true in America today. So the term person itself is one whose definition is evolving as you read this.
Speaker for the Dead, Card’s second book in the Ender’s Game series, introduces a Hierarchy of Exclusion via the writings of the character Demosthenes, as recited by the protagonist’s student, Plikt:
“The Nordic language recognizes four orders of foreignness. The first is the otherlander, or utlänning, the stranger that we recognize as being a human of our world, but of another city or country. The second is the framling — Demosthenes merely drops the accent from the Nordic framing. This is the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another world. The third is the raman, the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another species. The fourth is the true alien, the varelse, which includes all the animals, for with them no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.”
The characters also list the djur, along with a discussion of the human tendency to fear that which is different — the Other:
“‘You’re afraid of the stranger, whether he’s utlänning or framling. When you think of him killing a man that you know of and value, then it doesn’t matter what his shape is. He’s varelse then, or worse—djur, the dire beast, that comes in the night with slavering jaws.’”
By this reckoning, then, we have:
* Utlänning, or otherlander: “[T]he stranger that we recognize as being a human of our world, but of another city or country.”
* Främling: “[T]he stranger that we recognize as a human, but of another world.”
* Raman: “[T]he stranger that we recognize as a human, but of another species.”
* Varelse: “[T]he true alien, which includes all the animals, for with whom no conversation is possible.” They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.
* Djur:”[T]he dire beast,” a marauding, unreasoning threat, a monstrous, murdering creature.
(Interestingly, some respondents on other blogs point out that Card seems to have take liberties with the language to arrive at his definitions for some of these terms. But that does not impede their usefulness for this discussion.)
As I mentioned, this set of designations strikes me as a useful starting point for thinking about personhood. For that purpose, we will think of these as degrees of personhood, rather than a Hierarchy of Exclusion, and adapt them — for the purpose is not to exclude, or become more exclusive, but to become more inclusive. This new set of degrees of personhood seeks to expand beyond black-and-white, person vs. property-only thinking.
I want to stress at this point that while I have used this list as a tool for thinking about likeness and otherness for a few years, I keep finding reasons to evolve it to make it more useful and accurate. I’m reasonably certain that I’ll continue to refine it, and look forward to productive observations and suggestions from anyone reading this.
For our purposes, the framling can, I believe, be folded into a modified definition of raman; as an Other who is a person, but of another species, a raman is certainly alien/Other enough for that.
Recent scientific discoveries of nonhuman communication in the wild, as well as very well-documented cases of sign language and symbolic-language acquisition among great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans would seem to make the language including “all the animals” obsolete, as well as incomplete. And because we homo sapiens sapiens are not just great apes, but members of the taxonomical kingdom animalia, as well, language separating “all the animals” from human beings seems redundant, even chauvinistic. It claims that we humans are not animals, which simply is not the case.
With that in mind, we can begin to adapt this list for the purposes of the personhood question:
* Utlänning, or otherlander: the stranger that we recognize as a person of another city or country.
* Raman, the stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another species.
* Varelse, the true alien, with whom no conversation is possible. We have not witnessed the qualities that would qualify them for personhood status.
* Djur, the dire beast, a marauding, unreasoning threat, a monstrous, fearsome murderer.
Further, for our purposes, I think that Utlänning is best simplified to the term human being. This could be about many of the ways that we group ourselves — fans of a certain sports team vs. other sports teams; Catholics as opposed to, say, Baptists; Texans as opposed to people from any other U.S. state; and so on.
I’d like to hold onto varelse and djur for now, as they may prove useful at some later point. To that end, I’ll tweak their definitions a bit:
* Human Beings.
* Nonhuman Persons, the stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another species.
* Varelse, a being, but a being who is alien to us, and with whom no conversation is possible. We have not witnessed the qualities that would qualify them for personhood status. I see no need to differentiate between biological and technological beings here.
* Djur, the dire beast, a marauding, unreasoning threat, a monster, fearsome murderer. I also see no need to differentiate between biological and technological beings here.
So how is this useful? To quote Card further:
“The difference between raman and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.”
I agree: We are the ones who decide who or what we include under our definition of person. We are the ones in power.
To paraphrase the above language, the difference between nonhuman persons and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be nonhuman persons, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.
Expanding who or what we include under our definition of a person to include new beings does not mean that those beings have passed some moral threshold. Indeed, it means that we have — that we, the people making the decision to include them, the Others, have passed such a threshold and cast off some degree of sameness chauvinism. Over time, we in the West have expanded our consideration of who merits full personhood outward from a circle that included white, male, heterosexual, Christian property owners, and excluded everyone else. Discoveries in the realms of biology and other sciences are making clear that we must continue to expand that consideration to include other beings; we must decide who — and what — merit inclusion in our definition of personhood. (How we decide that is a many-headed hydra of an issue, and one that I plan to explore further in future entries.)
The changes we have experienced in personhood have arrived through struggle, through demands for equality, and over a great deal of time. Battles for equality continue, but today in the West, human beings cannot own other human beings; nonwhites, women, and children are no longer considered property; and though entirely too slowly, progress is being made for the equality of LGBT persons. As these battles rage on, new fronts in the struggle for personhood are emerging; among them, we see efforts such as the Great Ape Project and the Declaration on the Rights of Cetaceans on the biological side.
On the technological side, efforts such as the European Robotics Network’s “Roboethics Roadmap”, and documents being written by a panel of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and ethics experts in South Korea each seek to provide humankind with a code of ethical conduct to prevent humans from abusing robots, and vice versa. These groups work in the hope of putting a framework into place for such interactions before technological beings arrive that could make a claim to the status of personhood, rather than property.
This is a complicated subject, and I realize that I’ve only begun to open its possibilities. I plan to write more on it, and to refine these ideas for such categorizations. Share whatever useful, constructive thoughts you have on the matter.
As a transhumanist, I firmly believe that we must be prepared for just this situation, for a person — even a nonhuman person — who is property is a slave.
Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: AShatteredNovel.
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