Ender's Game novels as a starting point. My purpose in this second section is to expand our circle of inclusion.'>
IEET > Rights > Personhood > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > Jønathan Lyons
Who, or what, is a person? Speciesism and Substrate Chauvinism
Jønathan Lyons   May 20, 2012   Ethical Technology  

In my first installment, I began with the question - Who, or what, is a person? - using the Hierarchy of Exclusion from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game novels as a starting point. My purpose in this second section is to expand our circle of inclusion.

“If I cause suffering to some other conscious human, that’s considered immoral and probably a crime. On the other hand, if I destroy some property, it’s probably OK if it’s my property. If it’s your property, it’s probably not okay. But that’s not because I’m causing pain and suffering to the property. I’m causing pain and suffering to the owner of the property. And there’s recognition that animals are probably conscious and that animal cruelty is not okay. But it’s okay to cause pain and suffering to the avatar in your computer, at least today. That may not be the case 20 years from now.”    — Dr. Ray Kurzweil, kurzweilai.net

Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, defines a person as a conscious, thinking being who is self-aware.

In my first installment, I listed the Hierarchy of Exclusion terms’ descriptions from Card: Utlänning, Främling, Raman, Varelse, Djur.

From there, I began working through Card’s list to adapt it for the purposes of describing personhood. By the end of the essay, we had moved beyond Card’s Hierarchy and arrived at the following:

Human Beings.

Nonhuman Persons: The beings that we recognize as persons of another species.

Varelse: A biological or technological 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.

Djur: A biological or technological being who is an unreasoning threat, a monster, a murderer.

In this column, I intend to build on my previous entry. Readers should understand that I generally agree with Dr. Singer and Dr. Gary Steiner (who I’ll mention later) on the issues and passage where I quote them. For the sake of argument, I ask that those who wish to take issue with their statements take up the issue(s) with them.

As part of a system of classification of personhood, Djur is different from the other terms, as it describes not a type of person or nonperson, but a mode of behavior; a human being, such as Adolph Hitler or John Wayne Gacy, for example, would qualify as Djur, as well as being human.

Varelse includes all non-person animals, insects, and other beings. This may sound simple enough, but it is not. Bees, for example, communicate a great deal of information to one another concerning where to find sources of food, etc. And depending upon one’s national or ethnic traditions, animals such as dogs are thought of as either man’s best friend or as a food source. The bushmeat trade typically hunts, kills, and serves as food other great ape species (other, that is, than human beings). Cats, while considered by many in the West to be pets, or companion animals, do not enjoy such a cushy status in South Asia, where many assign them a status on par with rats.

The category nonhuman persons includes nonbiological beings who qualify for personhood.
Why should we be concerned with nonbiological beings who might make a claim of personhood?

For starters, as I mentioned in the first installment, how we define who and what qualifies as a person is in flux; this has been the case throughout our history. As a society, we have grown the circle of personhood in the past from the relatively small group of white, male, Christian property owners, outward to include the rest of humankind and, at least in some places, beyond the boundary of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

As a number of projects today actively seek to create artificially intelligent, artificially sentient beings. We must now prepare for a future in which we share our world with such beings. An intelligent, sentient being will qualify for personhood; a person who is refused the status of person is property. And as I said last time, we have a word for a person who is property: That person is a slave.

Certainly our civilization has too much of that in its history already. Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, predicts: “… [C]learly, the world is going to be dominated either by intelligent machines or cyborgs or a combination, but that’s where the future is going ... “

“The Animatrix,” a series of animated shorts set in the reality of the movie “The Matrix,” tackles the issue of what a lack of preparedness and a lack of consideration of personhood for technological beings capable of claiming that status could lead to:

B166-ER makes a legal claim for its right to not be shut down — for its right, in a real sense, not to be arbitrarily killed. As a result of humankind’s refusal to acknowledge the personhood of its artificially intelligent, artificially (or differently — I take the term differently sentient from the science fiction series Caprica) sentient creations, a war between humankind and the machines erupts, leading to the enslavement of human beings in the virtual-reality prison of the Matrix.

As I also mentioned, the binary judgment system that rules that a being has the status of either person or property is insufficient for a world of sentience that we are coming to understand as more complex, varied, and nuanced than we previously knew. It is black-and-white thinking.

Beyond Black-and-White Thinking

Not only that, but who or what merits the status of person is changing before our very eyes. Consider the Great Ape Project (GAP) and its three basic protections for all great apes:

1. Right to life

The lives of all great primates must be protected. The individuals cannot be killed, with exception for extremely specific situations, such as self-defense.

2. Individual freedom protection

Great primates cannot be deprived, in an arbitrary way, from their freedom. They have the right to live in their habitat. Great primates who live in captivity have the right to live with dignity, in large rooms, to have contact with others of their species, to form families, and must be protected from commercial exploitation.

3. Prohibition of torture

Intentional imposition of intense pain, physically or psychologically, to a great primate, with no reason or to others’ benefits, is considered a kind of torture and is an offense from which they must be protected.

The GAP does not propose human rights, nor rights that would be meaningless, to the other great apes; it merely proposes the rights to not be arbitrarily killed, imprisoned, or tortured. (Anyone can become a signatory to the GAP’s declaration by signing it at their Website.)

One’s personhood depends partly, now, upon geographic location. As Spain and New Zealand have embraced the GAP and its three basic protections, a bonobo chimpanzee who crosses the border into Spain becomes a person under the law. S/he has interests that merit protection and a right to those protections. When the same bonobo crosses back out of Spain, s/he becomes a thing, an it, a nonperson with no interests worthy of protection and no rights.

What you’re made of

Dr. Gary Steiner, John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University, makes the following observations on humankind’s attitudes toward other beings:

“I don’t see any morally relevant distinctions between different types of sentient beings, beings that can experience pleasure and pain, can have conscious awareness, beings for whom life matters. It’s only on the basis of what some people call speciesism or anthropocentrism that we make such distinctions and privilege human beings. These speciesistic prejudices are comparable to the sorts of arbitrary hierarchies proclaimed by racists and sexists.”

While such terminology as racism, sexism, and speciesism may make some feel defensive, that is not my aim here, and I hope that this discussion will not provoke such responses. To be clear, and as I said before, I am interested in expanding the circle of personhood to include nonhuman persons, whether biological or technological.

Steiner’s statement specifically concerns biological beings. But this is a new issue that we face. For my purposes, I would build upon his statement to say that while it is only because of speciesism or anthropocentrism that we make such distinctions and privilege human beings, the term speciesism does not necessarily include nonbiological beings. As Steiner said, and as I agree, no morally relevant distinctions between different types of sentient beings. I extend this to include beings of technological origin.

The term is broad enough to encompass arbitrary and prejudicial treatment of nonhuman persons who are biological in origin, but it is not broad enough to encompass arbitrary and prejudicial treatment of technologically created persons — that is, artificially intelligent, artificially/differently sentient beings that can have conscious awareness, and whose existence matters — whose lives, of whatever sort matter — to them.
For this sort of arbitrary exclusion from the circle of personhood, substrate chauvinism is a more appropriate term.

Substrate chauvinism is the conviction that only biological matter can carry moral worth. This belief automatically and arbitrarily excludes intelligent, differently sentient, technological beings from personhood simply because they are not biological.

The philosopher Nick Bostrom has written on the converse of substrate chauvinism — substrate independence:

“A common assumption in the philosophy of mind is that of substrate-independence. The idea is that mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

Substrate independence would mean that any conscious being could move from biological to technological existence freely. It is also a condition that would be required for the uploading of human minds into some other technological facility, or from biological to technological, or back and forth, over time.

Professor Warwick makes an important observation on humankind’s behavior in its role as the most intelligent species on earth toward the less intelligent species: That we kill them arbitrarily, we experiment upon them, we imprison them in zoos and elsewhere, and we eat them. What sort of a future does our behavior toward less-intelligent species suggest for humankind when sentient beings of technological origin and having superhuman intelligence arrive?

If we refuse to acknowledge the personhood of these new beings when they arrive, if we treat them as property and as arbitrarily beneath our consideration, our actions will constitute substrate chauvinism; we cannot expect artificially intelligent, differently sentient, technological beings to tolerate that situation, just as we could expect no enslaved humans to tolerate their enslavement. If we refuse to prepare to acknowledge their personhood, by our own actions we stand a very good chance of turning them into our enemies.

As we have expanded our circle of inclusion, our community of personhood, in the past, so now must we upend Card’s Hierarchy of Exclusion and think, rather, in terms of inclusion.

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.


Very good article. I think that need to do more than just assign passive rights to other species, but take positive responsibility for their health and happiness. In David Brin’s Uplift books more ‘intelligent’ species are the ones who mentor the ones who are following them. What we need to do is decide what is the most ethical way to mentor the ones who will come after us.

I rather like your use of the levels of inclusion concept and think it would be worth some thought about how we define sentience and consciousness in that context.

Thanks very much, Pastor_Alex!
I plan to keep developing these ideas in forthcoming articles here.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: There’s Nothing Natural About Dying

Previous entry: Does Transhumanism Create New Social Relations?