My family has the tradition (as do a lot of other families, I think) of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol at some point the week of Christmas. I got to overthinking things per the usual and now am worried about whether or not The Great Gonzo could cast a vote.
I propose the following thought experiment:
The Blue Fairy, having had practice with Pinocchio, decides to bring more puppets to life. After a survey of the best candidates, she decides on bring the entire cast of The Muppet Show. Kermit, Gonzo, Ms. Piggy, Beeker and the whole gang are now “real” beings, biological, sentient and autonomous. They have all the qualities of any other living creature, including a sense of pain and need for resources, as well as the “minds” that their creators perceived them to have. Kermit would still be nervous, genuine, and smart, Ms. Piggy vain, obsessed with Kermit, and fabulous, etc. Would they be entitled to rights? Human rights?
One can assume that the most human of the Muppets, The Swedish Chef, would be the first to be granted rights by the Special Committee for Dealing With Magically Created Life Forms (SCDWMCF). Like Pinocchio, the Swedish Chef would be perceived as human for all intents and purposes and as a Henson creation would have been “made in the USA,” and therefore a citizen. Following close behind would be Stadler and Waldorf. Our current system of rights in the US would be unable to deny them rights, because their standing as “Muppets” would likely be categorized as either a race or ethnicity. As ostensible humans, their outer differences (being small, made of felt) would be inconsequential, as their rights stem from being members of the “human species.” Furthermore, Stadler and Waldorf would be defended by the AARP and the Swedish Chef would probably get some sort of Nordic Peoples of America backing. Swedish Chef, Stadler, and Waldorf, would, like Pinocchio, get standing as ‘real people’ and the rights associated.
So with a precedent for Muppet’s receiving rights established, the first real hurdle would be the “humans?” in the Muppet cast. Dr. Teeth and the members of the Electric Mayhem (save Animal) Scooter, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, and a slew of minor characters are all of questionable, hominid status. Sure, we all know people who kind of look like them, but Beaker’s head is a perfect cylinder and Dr. Teeth has green skin. In short, the “humans?” of the Muppets push the limits of what we accept as being human. When we watch the Muppets, we see Kermit as a frog and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker as people. That we see a yellow ball of foam wearing glasses as a human face is something of a testament to how our brains are wired to see faces in everything. The “humans?” of the Muppets would also be quickly given rights, with the assertion being made that “it doesn’t matter what color or shape you are, no matter how strange, human rights belong to all humans.” The Special Committee would logically conclude that, though exceedingly weird ones, the Muppet “humans?” are, in fact, humans proper, and thus confer upon them full rights.
So now we come to the animals of the Muppets, including the aptly named Animal, as well as Kermit, Ms. Piggy, Rowlf, Rizzo, and Sam the Eagle. Early arguments, particularly using Animal and Rizzo as examples, would be that the animal Muppets are merely highly intelligent animals, ineligible for full rights. Animal has a collar and chain, clearly he isn’t deserving of the right to bear arms or free assembly and Rizzo is a nefarious element, pilfering food and talking with a low class accent. Yet, then one could present this argument:
Faced with this stirring and patriotic rendition of an American classic, one would assume that the easily shamed members of congress would leap into action to avoid appearing un-American and quickly confer rights to the animal Muppets, including Animal himself.
But we are now left with perhaps the biggest problem: The Great Gonzo. Gonzo is, by nearly every measure, unacceptable. He is not merely not human, he is not even of a reality based taxonomic classification. Alien, monster, or whatever, Gonzo’s existence as a “weirdo” is not merely limited to his biological origin. Gonzo is also a deviant. His girlfriend, Camilla, is a chicken. In Muppet Treasure Island, he is shown to enjoy bondage (the rack, red hot pokers, etc.) and wear flamboyant outfits. He is often seen hanging out with Rizzo. He emulates Freddy Mercury. The list of morally and socially questionable acts in which Gonzo engages is embarrassingly long. Besides wearing argyle and knowing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by heart, Gonzo has few palatable behaviors.
That’s why Gonzo is the perfect test case. We can’t justify grandfathering him into the system based on his civic performance or ostensible humanity or anything else. He is a political risk. I don’t think he has any naturalization papers or a birth certificate. If we can justify giving Gonzo rights, I think we’ve effectively disproved the canard that rights are “human.”
The first argument I would make is, oddly enough, based on Gonzo’s weird penchant for bodily harm. First, this proves Gonzo feels pain. Second, it proves that he operates above an instinctual level, because he can enjoy pain and find existential pleasure (“I feel alive!”) in the pain. Finally, Gonzo’s ability to discuss the meta-fictive humor of his status as an omniscient narrator would evidence his ability to use rational faculties to their maximum, ruling out both stimulus-response training and critiques of hindered intelligence. Thus we are faced with a very rational agent. Furthermore, Gonzo has clear, high level affection for Camilla (loving her among a flock of chickens, jealousy towards the Christmas turkey flirting with her) as well as his fellow Muppets. Complicating this emotional ability are his skills in bantering with Stadler and Waldorf and consoling Rizzo after an injury.
In short, Gonzo demonstrates both high level reasoning and complex emotional responses. He grasps social situations, considers his fellow beings, and demonstrates an ability to make informed, consensual decisions. Despite having a foreign ancestry, he was made and born in the USA. Non-humans born in the USA are not eligible for citizen ship not because they are non-human but because they are not rational or capable of consent – the same reason you have be 18 to vote. State of mind, not state of biology, are what matters. If we are honest about where rights come from, there is no reason The Great Gonzo, if enlivened by the Blue Fairy, shouldn’t get to vote and run for office. Gonzo for president?
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.