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Personhood: the Thrones We Place Ourselves Upon
Jønathan Lyons   Jun 27, 2012   Ethical Technology  

In my last in this series on personhood, I mentioned that in attempting to consider how to value other beings, for my own purposes, I settled long ago on a simple, defining characteristic: For my interactions with other beings, I ask whether they can experience pain. If they can experience pain, I have decided to do my best not to inflict pain upon them.

That has worked for me, and it is something each person must decide for zirself (see note at end of this article). This view is informed by the writings of bioethicist philosophers Peter Singer and Jeremy Bentham, who espouse a philosophy toward other beings that considers whether they can suffer, rather than whether they can reason.

Where one comes down on such a standard is entirely up to oneself. I’ve found my standard, and I have tried my best to live by it, but that doesn’t mean that I think that anyone who doesn’t live by that same judgment is “bad,” or less moral, only that zir standards on that differ from my own. And the fact that that our judgments differ on such decisions is a reasonable expectation.

But Dr. Martine Rothblatt, in the amazing article/interview “Transgender, Transhuman, Transbeman,” takes consideration of how a being should be treated for another, greater leap, and it threw me on my ear because it made me realize that my way of thinking of things was, in fact, too simple.

She “has taken from English Bioethicist John Harris the idea that that which values itself should be so valued, whether it be an ape or an artificial intelligence. She thinks this is a more useful guide than Jeremy Bentham’s derivation of rights from the ability to suffer.”

While the classifications system I seek to develop here for consideration of personhood is still valid, consideration of a being’s ability to suffer — by which before I generally meant zir ability to suffer physical pain — doesn’t cut it. It ignores the personhood of people with injuries or ailments that reduce or eliminate their ability to suffer physically. An even simpler critique of my former standard can be made, which Singer raised in his profound tome Animal Liberation: the case of mollusks, animals with no ability to feel pain, as they lack the requisite biological components. For the sake of consistency, since embarking on this path, I’ve decided to leave them off the menu anyway, choosing the vegan path. But I knew that that made my behavior toward them a bit inconsistent with my cause-no-suffering rule.

My old way of thinking fails to take into account the possibility of technological beings who would not feel physical pain unless they were programmed and equipped, physically, specifically to do so, and fails to take into account emotional, psychological, suffering. To be clear, Dr. Singer; Dr. Gary Steiner, the John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University; and others agree on this: An ability to experience emotional or psychological suffering is relevant. And I agree.

A being who can make the claim of personhood will likely also be one who can suffer emotionally (excepting, of course, for beings who suffer from psychosis or other emotional disorders — that is, people who become djur, in this system’s terminology).

In this way, Rothblatt’s position that that which values itself should be so-valued becomes even more important.

As I began with the Hierarchy of Exclusion, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series, I have worked to upended that set of guidelines for exclusion, striving instead for inclusion. That is, I seek to replace the black-and-white thinking behind the too-limited binary system of persons vs. property, to replace it with one of many shades in between. The system in progress, above, offers a beginning for considering the intelligence and sentience of all beings along a continuum. I hope that it also begins to build a way of thinking of beings, tech or biological, in a way that values them as they value themselves.

A Game of Thrones

This system asks us to acknowledge intelligence and sentience in species other than our own species — homo sapiens sapiens (HSS), including when we discover those qualities in beings of technological origin. Acknowledging the existence of these qualities in nonhuman species will challenge many. It could challenge things they have been told by parents and authority figures all of their lives, ideas such as:

* A belief that humankind is automatically superior in all ways, arising from one’s religious upbringing or background — a belief that we are in some way crafted in the likeness of the divine (this is cleverly lampooned in the first “Planet of the Apes” movie, when Charlton Heston’s character flees through an ape church service, wherein a priest reminds his flock that God created them, the apes, in his own image).

It is not likely possible to hold a conversation with someone who believes, as a matter of faith, that ze was created in God’s image, and that that’s enough of an argument to refuse to consider even shades of personhood in other beings; we can use what sounds like the same language, including many of the same terms, but we are not, fundamentally, talking about the same thing. I’m talking about ethical responsibility, not mysticism, or a self-aggrandizing view that magically and automatically places some people upon a throne of superiority because of some quality such as race, or gender, or religious affiliation.

* A refusal to believe that, despite the many ongoing efforts to design artificially intelligent, differently sentient beings, either

A) They will never arrive, or

B) Even when/if they do arrive, they still won’t count, no matter what.

I encounter this attitude from my students a bit; it we create these beings, they tell me, then technological beings cannot be classified as persons. But when pressed, they generally cannot explain why they think so. This is speciesism, and I expect it because we just don’t ask ourselves such questions very often. I also expect it because merely asking such questions offends some people, in the way that asking some to consider equality for LGBTQI people, or nonwhite people, or nonmale people, goes too far for them. They cannot imagine such a thing.

Nonetheless, we have begun to address those hurdles, and we must clear these new ones, as well. To refuse to do so, for either of the aforementioned reasons, merely leaves us unprepared.
What we need to recognize is that human is a biological concept, whereas person is a philosophical concept, which can extend (and is already applied in some instances) beyond the human species.

To draw a line in the sand and proclaim, I am superior because I am white, or because I am male, or because I am straight, or because I am left-handed, or because I have blue eyes would be absurd — today, at least. Mostly.

To draw a line in the sand and proclaim oneself automatically superior because of one’s membership in the species HSS, or because one’s mind resides within a biological substrate (one’s own biological brain), likewise demonstrates self-limiting, self-aggrandizing thinking.

We need to get off that throne. This will take time, and I expect much resistance, but eventually, in the 1960’s, even the church admitted that the universe did not, in fact, rotate around the Earth. Though the geocentric model had long been disproven, and admitting the truth in no way harmed the institution, and though it still took centuries, they did, eventually, admit a truth that was difficult for them to accept.

We rejected heliocentrism, eventually. We are striving to reject racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. And we will. Eventually. We have arrived at the time to reconsider automatic, arbitrary anthropocentrism, as well. The wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind: “I will not wait to convert the whole society to my point of view, but will straightaway make a beginning with myself.”

Consider beginning with yourself and your own thinking on this.

And, of course, the difficulty of admitting that something we once believed to be true may be wrong and, worse, may even implicate us in behavior that is wrong.

Resisting Critical Self-Evaluation

A minor divergence here: I teach Kim Stanley Robinson’s story “The Lucky Strike” in my sci-fi course. It’s about a single man, Capt. Frank January, the man assigned to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, aboard the plane that replaces the Enola Gay for the atomic bombing run on Hiroshima. He makes a conscious decision to miss, raining atomic fire instead down upon the hills just beyond the city. The tactic works, the bombing frightens the enemy into surrender, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never nuked. And Captain January, of course, is court-martialed and executed.

I supplement this with quotes from military sources, the top brass of the era, many from this article. I don’t want to crowd those in here, and the information is available to interested readers at that link.

But this isn’t this the history, written by American victors, that they have been taught; in that history, the Japanese refused to surrender (which we know now is not true), were not defeated (which we also know now is not true), and would fight maniacally, door-to-door, against a ground invasion (speculation). A ground invasion would, we were told, be a barbaric, deadly event.

Therefore, says this official history, we “had to” drop the atomic bombs — plural — “had to” kill something like 100,000 - 200,000 human beings, if only to lower casualties on both sides.

Read the linked article and make your own judgment. I cannot tell you which version is more true. But I can tell you that a contingent of my students always reacts badly to the notion that we might have nuked two cities without needing to. Even faced with the opinions of the military top brass of the era against the bombings, from that linked article and from elsewhere; even faced with the knowledge that we had long since cracked Japanese codes and knew that they were trying to find some way to surrender; even faced with the fact that they had lost the ability to defend their skies; even with all this, the emotional rejection of the possibility that we may not have needed to drop those bombs shrouds their ability to accept an informed, sourced, alternate account of the atomic bombings.

That’s because in asking them to consider doing so, these materials ask them to consider the possibility that we did not need to drop those atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the conclusion that follows that is too dire to accept: that anyone who would drop atomic weapons on one city, let alone two, when it was not absolutely necessary, has committed an act that is nothing short of monstrous.

Which means that, if these other sources are considered, our country may have done something monstrous. And that implicates them, and me, and all of us here in the states, on some level, even though most were not yet born when the bombs dropped. It’s our country’s monstrous act so, on some level, it’s our monstrous act. On some level, we still own it.

It’s a difficult possibility to ponder, let alone accept.

And for most people, implicating ourselves in such an act, however distantly, is impossible.

Those who can consider the facts presented, and who can arrive at a conclusion based on those, rather than upon an arbitrary, emotional rejection of the new information, however, have at least some chance of being able to critically evaluate their own actions and their impacts.

Don’t accept my example on the bombings, necessarily. But try evaluating your own actions and decisions critically. You might find it as difficult as I do. But I think that we could all do with a little less time on our thrones — myself included.

Previous Essays on this Topic


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

Who, or what, is a person? Speciesism and Substrate Chauvinism

The Puzzle of Personhood

Determining Personhood: Not Black & White, But Many Shades of Gray

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.


Interesting text. I appreciate the continuity between feminism, queer studies and veganism, but I think there is something missing in how machines fit into the mix.

I don’t believe that machines (no matter how complex or “smart”) could ever be persons (or animals) because computation is an arrangement of matter: a representation. The meaning of the state of a computational system is not understood by the system, it requires an external homunculus to give these states meaning. I don’t believe that increasing complexity, speed and even the illusion of personhood changes this fact. No matter how good a photograph of a person, we would never make the mistake of confusing the representation with the reality, as long as we know a photograph is a representation (we know because its constructed). Just because a weather model predicts it will rain, does not mean that it will.

That is not to say that technology cannot eventually become self-conscious and self-aware, but that would require a living technological system (a biological / chemical system that is both alive and representational). Such systems would have great animal-like potential, but their personhood would not result from their complexity, but arise from their foundation on self-growing, reproducing and self-evolving biology. This requires the manipulation of biological components. If these are animal components, then there is an ethical paradox: A system that requires ethical treatment can only be made though unethical behaviour—-the manipulation of living materials without their consent. Now, if the components were plant-based then that gets interesting, technically and ethically.

I realized recently why transhumanism continues to exist, despite this representation problem. Transhumanists must be hard determinist materialsists, they believe that all aspects of us can be reduced to an arrangement of matter and energy, that is a representation. If this is the case, then we can also reduce our free-will to a function of the experiences our material has been through. We are nothing but reflex creatures that deterministically respond to the exact same conditions the exact same way. There is no free-will and all choices we could ever make were determined the moment of the big bang. While this way of thinking is highly popular in science, its hard (impossible?) to resolve with our phenomenological experience of the world and our choices in it. If our choices are predetermined and we have no free-will, then ethics has no meaning, and we can’t be held responsible for our actions, they simply result from the context of our existence.

I think that by opening the door to representations as having personhood, that does a fundementally unethical disservice to living creatures, reducing us to representations who cannot contribute to the world, only follow through the motions.

Hi b. I appreciate your comment.

Most of your resistance does strike me as favoring the biological and believing that a technological being cannot be considered a person. As I said, what we need to recognize is that human is a biological concept, whereas person is a philosophical concept, which can extend (and is already applied in some instances) beyond the human species.
I’d also like to direct your attention, as someone who’s clearly giving the issue serious thought, to my second piece in this series:

“Who, or what, is a person? Speciesism and Substrate Chauvinism”


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