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The Hierarchy of Exclusion in “Ender’s Game” — a starting point for thinking about personhood

Jønathan Lyons
By Jønathan Lyons
Ethical Technology

Posted: Apr 30, 2012

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).

Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution:

“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.

Raman easily translates to nonhuman persons, the term used in the Declaration on the Rights of Cetaceans. This could easily include sentient technologically created beings.

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: A Shattered Novel.
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As we begin to see public discussions reflecting on Orson Scott Card’s novel, Enders Game, in light of plans for the release of the movie adaptation, it would also be a good time to begin to discuss Card’s ardent homophobia and his active campaigning to bar same sex couples from the institution of civil marriage.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better place than this one to note the incongruity of his political activities with his proclaimed hierarchy of personhood.

Generally speaking, I don’t require that the authors or artists whose work I enjoy also share my politics in every particular.  However, the anticipated release of the film of Ender’s Game will also bring enormous attention to someone who currently and very publicly campaigns to bar LGBT persons from civil marriage, justifying that position in part by an utterly reactionary and false hypothesis that male homosexuality is linked to pedophilia.  I think of my many friends and colleagues, and the many public figures that I respect and admire who are part of the LGBT community, and wonder how I can ignore Card’s active bigotry toward them.  How would I feel about going to see a movie by a man who—not in some benighted time in the past but today, right now—campaigned for excluding women or African-Americans from the enjoyment of equal rights?

It will be difficult, because I think Card’s novel - and, indeed, many of his novels - are substantial works of modern science fiction and fantasy.  But I can’t justify supporting or seeming to endorse or being indifferent to bigotry.

Peter_G:  if your claim regarding Card’s reasoning for his position is true, then I agree it is dubious reasoning, since the majority of pedophiles are married men.

But there are important reasons the state ought have no interest in extending marriage to same-sex persons:  it’s because said persons are not capable of marriage, and marriage is not a right but a unique privilege for specific humans.

It used to be illegal for whites and blacks to inter-marry, and this was wrong and untenable discrimination, because interracial heterosexual couples physically can become biologically one—the embodiment of marriage—whereas same-sex persons physically cannot.

The state has as little interest in extending this privilege to same-sex persons as it has in extending it to minors, the impudnet, and to 4-year college roomates; it is not the type of community that would be fulfilled by the begetting and raising of children; it does not merit social promotion.

So rest at ease:  despite Card’s flimsy reasoning, same-sex marriage is 100% fiction.

Great analysis, Jonathan! I’m a big fan of the ‘personhood plus’ (and Humanity Plus) movement - that we should be expanding rights and protections, not curtailing them.

I’ve not read Card’s book yet, but they sound fascinating!  Perhaps on my next trip I’ll find the time—thanks for the hat tip, and thanks for a great article!

Henry, as I understand it, what you have presented is also an argument that Card has made.  That the state has no “interest” to promote in allowing same sex marriage because it does not result in procreation.  The absurdity of that argument should be self-evident to anyone living in the US in the 21st century but let’s take it apart anyway.

1. The state currently allows any opposite sex couple to marry, without even so much as a passing inquiry as to their intent or ability to procreate.  The state permits couples to marry even if they have decided in advance that they have no wish to have children, and even if one or both are biologically incapable of doing so.

2. In fact, two people of the opposite sex who marry do not “become biologically one,” any more than two people who spend a weekend in bed after meeting just before closing at the local bar.  And even if it were possible for two humans to “become biologically one,” there is certainly no evidence that getting a marriage license from a government office facilitates that process.

3. It is not the case that the state has “little interest” in giving minors the right to marry.  Generally, the state takes a strong interest in forbidding such unions.  And this is based on the view that there is a governmental interest in the protection of children as individuals who are not capable of making important decisions.  Whether right or wrong, it is a well-established governmental interest that is reflected not only in not permitting minors to marry but in refusing to recognize contracts entered into by minors, maintaining age of consent laws for sexual behavior, and enhancing criminal penalties for certain kinds of offenses that involve children.  By comparison, since the state has “little interest” in whether or not adults of the same sex wish to marry, it has no business forbidding them to do so.

4.  I’m sorry, I don’t know who “the impudnet” are, but I am not aware of laws forbidding them to marry.  Perhaps you can enlighten me on that one.  I am confident, however, that if two people are four year college roommates and of the opposite sex, no state in the US forbids them to marry—that prohibition extends only to members of the same sex (and only in most states).

5.  Finally, since several state supreme courts have expressly stated that forbidding same sex couples to marry is an illegal infringement on their fundamental civil rights, it would appear that same sex marriage is not only not 100% fiction but is not fiction at all.

Peter_G:  forgive me, and thank you; my defective vocabulary almost cost me the argument . . . almost.

Indeed, the crux of the matter is that knowingly infertile couples can marry, because they can still become biologically one.  To correct my misnomer, it is perpetually _impotent_ couples who technically cannot embody their marriage.

Biological unity is achieved by organs working together towards a single function.  My lungs and my heart are two (3) organs, and in the function of oxygenating my blood, the two organs achieve a biological oneness of oxygenation, of which I, the single organism, am the subject.

Similarly, the male and female coital organs are oriented to perform a unique function:  coitus.  While I have a generative organ, the sexual-type act is not something I can perform by myself, because the organ’s function is not self-stimulation, but coitus.  Thus, when the male and female organs cooperate in the sexual-type act, _*the subject of this act is the couple*_.  Neither person can “sex” by themselves.  In the sexual act, the two humans become biologically one.  There is no difference in what infertile and fertile couples do; there is only an impediment extrinsic to the act which prevents conception in the former.

In finale, knowingly infertile marriage is still good for the state, because it witnesses the good of marriage to the rest of the community, especially to the young, who readily harm the state with wayward sex.  Same-sex unions are unfortunately another voice telling men:  “You can be replaced.  You are not essential to your wives or families.  Your reproductive-type acts are interchangeable amusements.” 

But so that I don’t miss anything:

(1)  Even if the state married an impotent couple, their public witness would still be valuable.

(2)  Hook-ups achieve biological oneness, but without the consent for marriage, there is no marriage.

(3)  You have merely equivocated my term from “no incentive to promote” to “no incentive to ban”, thus committing a material fallacy.

(4)  Thank you for this correction.  What I meant was that the state has no interest in granting marriage to couples who purposely restrict their union for the duration of college to share insurance or some other state benefit.

(5)  The Supreme Court also said blacks should stay out of white schools and that the former were 3/5 human.  Those legal truths proved temporary and fictional.

I am struggling to find a concise summary of Card’s views; is there a link you could share?

Although I enjoyed Card’s books as a child (blood, guts and aliens is always a great lure), most of the stories were little more than unsubtle endorsements of facism. Messianic child-warriors, based on bizarre racial stereotypes, who save the planet from space faring beasties before returning to their countries of origin and engaging in intercine conflict for the good of their national prestige. Pretty shallow stuff really. As for the marriage argument, I find the idea that legal union should be based on the judged compatibility of sex organs the most laughable bit of moronacy I’ve heard in a while. But then christian fundies have very strange fixations.

  Do you have a counter-proposal on how to define marriage?  No proponent of same-sex unions has provided a definition.  If two people pledge to play tennis, only with each other, for life, are they married?  On what should the state base marriage, and why?

@ Henry

No ‘counter-proposals’ or alternative definitions are necessary, simply the acknowledgement that definitions of marriage have always been dependent on the surrounding culture and are as arbitrary and relative as every other social custom. The fact that modern christians operate under the absolutist delusion that they invented the concept is neither here nor there.

The standard description (and by standard I mean possessing cross-cultural, universal characteristics) is that marriage is a binding legal contract between two, or indeed more, persons. That is all, period.  Love, children or vaginal penetration have NEVER been necessary qualifying factors. It may in spirit be based on the expectation of sex and intimacy, but even that is not an enforceable requirement.

In reality people marry and have married for a host of concerns which have nothing to do with celebrating a deep and lasting relationship. Cementing family or political alliances, strengthening inheritance claims, gaining tax benefits or indeed giving legitmacy and safety to a homosexual and his/her heterosexual partner. Just because various religious groups have sanctified the institution in an attempt to give it greater cosmic significance, is an ethnocentric contrivance which bares no relation to the fact that it is first and foremost a legal union. Not a spiritual one.

Furthermore questioning the State’s motivation for legalising same-sex marriage belies your wish that the State endorse religious sentiments when considering this issue. If marriage is the rightful realm of the State, then kindly allow states to come to their own conclusions as increasingly many of them are doing. If on the other hand marriage should be entirely independent of the State, than accept the fact that some organisations, religious or otherwise, will perform gay marriage according to their own criteria and not yours. I’m afraid you cannot have it both ways. But frankly I don’t hold much hope of greater tolerance on the part of christians on this matter. The religious are often masters at obfuscating the essential bigotry which underlies their attitude towards homosexuals. If only Jesus had been a gay, black women, much persecution could have been avoided. Then again I don’t suppose she would have got very far.

Thanks for responding, Axiom, but a definition is necessary if marriage is a civil right (which it’s not):  I know and can put into writing what race is, what handicaps are, etc.  But what is marriage, that I may legislate it?  I have a legal contract with the bank financing my car:  we’re not married; so you need to go further.

The point you started to raise seemed to vanish:  if the institution is arbitrary and relative, what compelling reason do we have to include a 2nd type of relationship (when all historical definitions revolve around heterosexuality) that is not equally arbitrary and relative?  Expanded vagueness underpins no good lawmaking; furthermore, one could equally argue (and may soon) that parent-child relationships also make good marriages.

Lastly, your 3rd paragraph is unclear to me.  Christians understand marriage to end at death:  then what of ‘cosmic significance’?  How could Christianity invent an institution that pre-dates it?  Also, I have not argued from a legal or spiritual perspective, but from a physical one, and that point has not been answered in this forum.

By upholding traditional marriage, nothing is being denied of same-sex couples.  They are free to form any relationship of which they are capable, because they are incapable of forming the relationship of marriage.  When they connect body-parts, there is nothing intrinsic to that union; pleasure and emotion are accidents, not good in themselves; the functionality of coitus between committed spouses, however, achieves an irreducible human good.

The Bank….Really? That’s your argument. A facile comparison of legal contracts between an individual and a financial organisation? Your reaching again.

The law of the land is defined by the State, and much like the State it adapts as every system must adapt to changing times. Marriage is a legal arrangement, one which exists only in relation to the framework the State has prescribed to it. Simply because you wish that framework to be constructed on a static basis which endorses your set criteria, is not a suitable reason for doing so. If the State defines marriage as a ‘special relationship’ between consenting adults, with no other necessary qualifiers, then that is what it shall be. If the State defines it as a ‘special relationship’ between a cat and a dog, then that is what it shall be. Notice how none of this is contingent upon veiws of what is good for the community.

Funnily enough, even if I were to endorse the view that marriage acts as a stabilising factor upon society, I would pursue marriage equality far more vehemently than I do now. Seeing as how the LGBT community is expanding as more people come out of the closet and transgender operations increase annually, to continue denying this growing segment of the population a legitimate place at the marriage table will be grossly destabalising to the entire concept. Rather than excluding them to the twilight zone of marriage-lite, conservatives would be better served intergrating them and their relationships into civil society. Ensuring that gay relationships are stable and receive support would bolster the long term survival of the institution and stabilise society overall.

However, as most people recognise, the politics of exclusion have very little to do with social stability and have everything to do with social bigotry and predjudice. You ask:

‘How could Christianity invent an institution that pre-dates it?’

Which was exactly my point, they didn’t. Yet they fail to see that their retrospective interpretation of marriage as a divinely mandated affair is not one shared outside the particular mindset of monotheistic, desert dwelling nomads. The cosmic significance I spoke of is a simple recognition that according to devout Christians marriage represents a holy union in the eyes of God, creator of heaven and earth etc etc. Unless of course you are of the opinion God does NOT care about marriage, in which case I unreservedly withdraw the accusation.

We are agreed that your arguments are certainly not legal ones, but to deny that they are spiritual ones either does you a grave disservice. Physical arguments!? Now you have me baffled. I was not aware marriage was defined according to the laws of motion and matter. The only pseudo-scientific arguments I’ve seen you present have been descriptions of the ‘biological oneness’ and unity which marriage entails. It is quite clear to me, as it should be to anyone, that this is entirely mystical in substance and hence, yes, a spiritual position. 

According to you gay people are free to form any relationship they please, but not the one you have mandated as being above their status to possess. The equivalent being telling a black individual living in the 1950’s that they are free to sit where they like on the bus, as long as its not next to any of their social betters. Gee thanks grandad! I find it firmly satisfying to note that the more conservatives argue for a traditional view of marriage the more out of touch, archaic and frankly mean spirited the whole endeavor looks.

What is it with you and body parts? Pleasure and emotion are indeed lucky accidents in the sense that the biological correlates of said feelings arose over millions of years of blind adaptation and mutation. But I would go further and maintain therefore that the existence of sex organs in general is likewise a happy accident, seeing as they are not the products of willful design. A position I’m sure you don’t share. How you get from the ‘functionality of coitus’ to becoming an ‘irreducible human good’ is another leap of illogic I find difficult to follow. Though I respect the artistic temperament it requires. Overall I find it hard to argue reasonably with someone whose underlying premise is fundamentally irrational in nature.

Thank you, Axiom, for your thoughts, but certainly you must admit that:

(1) If the State has no reasons, it makes unreasonable laws.

(2) To say the LGBT is “denied a place at the marriage table” is question-begging:  my question was whether physical constitution itself precludes or admits marriage, and your answer is:  “No, it doesn’t, because it doesn’t.”  Material fallacy, invalid argument.

Thirdly, I thank you for pointing out the naturalistic fallacy of “functionality”—> “irreducible goodness”.  That is false, but the argument for biological unity being an irreducible good stands, and is dependent on such functionality.

Racial discrimination is wrong because black citizens are human and merit any bus seat.  Traditional marriage discriminates based on ability, which is entirely just.  I can’t become a lawyer without passing the bar:  a difference in kind, not in degree, from those who pass the professional engineer’s exam.

Thus, I think one needs to provide State reasons for promoting same-sex marriage (SSM).  Surely American citizens are entitled to examine such reasons?

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