IEET > Rights > Personhood > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > Jønathan Lyons > Futurism
The Puzzle of Personhood
Jønathan Lyons   Jun 4, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Ethically speaking, I’m waiting for B1-66ER or the hot humanlike cylons of Battlestar Galactica to show up and make a claim for personhood. Or possibly for someone’s RealDoll (NSFW), Roxxy True Companion (also NSFW), or Anydroid (NSFW — yes, again) to become imbued with enough AI to say “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache” (or to be able to say “No” and mean it.)

That's part of what happens in the sci-fi classic short story "Helen O'Loy," in a sense; Helen was a housekeeping android whose owners uplifted the unit, improving upon the original until ze became a she. [1] Geminoids already demonstrate a doppelgänger human likeness that clears the hurdle over the Uncanny Valley for at least some people.

(I penned a character, Jonny Cache, in my novel Burn, a sexbot android who is likewise uplifted into personhood by her techie owner and who goes on to help solve his murder.)

(Readers who are interested in further discussion of sexbots should consider checking out John Niman's article here on the IEET site.)
To me, the concerns of speciesism and substrate chauvinism are intertwined. By which I mean, one can separate them, but fundamentally, they each address a form of arbitrary discrimination against other beings, in quite a lot of cases very intelligent beings, simply because they are not us — that is, are not Homo sapiens (HSS).

My previous two articles in this series have dealt with the personhood of both biological beings — HSS and otherwise — and technological beings. I want to establish the case against speciesism as well as against substrate chauvinism. There's irony here, because in many ways I am a speciesist myself, and I doubt that any of us can actually be entirely otherwise. In fact, I doubt that it would be wise to be entirely non-speciesist.

Who and what we consider a person has been evolving for as long as humankind has recognized the concept. And that evolution of who/what qualifies continues even today. It is the subject of such contentious discussions and debates that I doubt that we can settle it here. But we must explore the issue, for to ignore one of such importance is to cling to the black-and-white thinking on personhood that fails us today.

While the European Robotics Network has drafted a set of guidelines for interactions between human and nonhuman, technologically intelligent and/or differently sentient beings, and while other such efforts are under way, we have no widely embraced plan in place to protect or even allow for the rights of such beings, when and if they arrive.

What I've arrived at so far is a system of classifications for inclusion in the circle of personhood:

* 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.

Looks simple enough — right?

It isn't.

One problem is the spotty record that our HSS society has with embracing the three basic protections of the Great Ape Project, which treats the other great apes as nonhuman persons; this is the law in Spain and New Zealand, and Brazil is considering the GAP's protections, but great apes (apart from us — we humans are great apes, as well) are legally considered mere things elsewhere.

Who's human?

Even the first category in my proposed classification system — Human beings — seems straightforward, until one considers that we haven't always considered all humans as persons (and arguably, even in the U.S. we still do not treat women or nonwhites or LGBTIQ people equally). At the moment, as far as we know, we Homo sapiens sapiens are the only surviving members of genus Homo on the planet. What would we do about other, earlier humans? Homo floresiensis, the so-called hobbits, are hominins who lived alongside us HSS until possibly as late as 12,000 years ago.

Neanderthals, recently found to have been mariners who got around the Mediterranean more than we had previously thought, and used more complicated tools than we previously knew, lived alongside us HSS for a time. In fact, to quote the article, "[M]odern humans shared the world with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis" 130,000 years ago, and with Neanderthals until just 28,000 years ago.

While we may imagine ourselves people of great tolerance for difference among humankind, one cannot help but wonder how far that tolerance would extend if we actually shared the world today with these thick-browed, hairy, less-intelligent, and very probably stinky cousins.

Natalie Wolchover tilts at this windmill, asking: "Would we break bread with our brainy cohabitants or be locked in battle?"

Would most of us include these other, earlier humans within the category of human beings? Or would we reserve that top tier for us HSS?

Those are particularly interesting questions when we consider that "Roche's 454 Life Sciences and genetics firm Illumina are collecting bits of Neanderthal DNA to sequence the genome of a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal woman from Croatia," raising the possibility of cloning her. Would we HSS grant her personhood (as though it is ours to give or take away)?

Some of the comments from readers of the article are telling. One observes:

"I see there's already a difficulty in that the hypothetical clone of a Neanderthal woman is referred to as either 'it' or 'he.'"

Another suggests cloning a peer group, then turning them loose on a preserve, to be observed like — well, like wild animals.

Qualities we might consider: Intelligence

A being who might qualify for personhood would need to demonstrate certain characteristics. But where do we start?
Intelligence, for example, while a component of personhood, is not enough for personhood status on its own; stock-trading software that advises its users on how to handle a trade, or which executes a stock trade when said stock hits a certain price is intelligent in some sense.

Intelligence is one component of personhood, despite the fact that we Homo Sapiens Sapiens, the most intelligent species on the planet at the moment, do stupid things. Some of our people do dangerous Jackass stunts, or hold what conspiracy theorists on AM radio tell them in higher regard than they do science and the findings of scientists.

For personhood, a being must also demonstrate sentience.


Wikipedia defines sentience as "the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Eighteenth century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think ('reason') from the ability to feel ('sentience')."

How can such a being demonstrate such qualities?


The Turing Test determines not necessarily the consciousness of a technological agent, but whether that agent does a good enough simulation of a human being's consciousness when communicating with a human being to fool that human being into believing that ze is communicating with another human being.

A religious political movement is working to have fertilized human egg cells legally recognized as persons (they also use the term personhood; but, as such a cell is neither intelligent nor sentient, but merely has the potential for these qualities, I cannot in any way consider it a person. By this standard, also, such entities as corporations and ships, both legally persons in the U.S., would not qualify.

Likewise, as Linda MacDonald Glenn and other bioethicists point out, some human beings/HSS are not people in this sense. For example, a human being who is born anencephalic — that is, born "without a forebrain, the largest part of the brain consisting mainly of the cerebral hemispheres, including the neocortex, which is responsible for higher-level cognition, i.e. thinking" (Wikipedia) would not qualify as a person, because that human would have no intelligence or sentience, and could never attain them.

As I said, this is about breaking free of the black-and-white thinking of classifying beings as either persons or property, while acknowledging that at least some beings who are not human are nonetheless deserving of the status of persons. It is also an attempt to begin to prepare for the arrival of artificially intelligent, differently sentient, technological beings.

I'll continue this discussion in my next article.


[1] The whole thing about English lacking a gender-neutral pronoun is that it makes referring to people and things that are not specifically male or female a laborious circumlocution. It encodes gender-binary thinking in a world where the binary gender dynamic simply is not up to the task of identifying the many variations on the theme in human sexuality reflected in terms such as transsexual, intersexual, and so on. Can't we speakers of English think our way outta this?

Sweden has introduced the gender-neutral pronoun hen to address the problem.

Human Rights Watch political Web actions ask participants to share whether they are Man, Woman, Woman/Transgender MTF, Man/Transgender FTM, Genderqueer, or Prefer not to say.

When I was an undergrad, I did a study for a course on gender & linguistics, concluding that singular they was already the naturally-adopted solution. I got an A, but I think I was being lazy - or at least not very adventurous. That, and many instructors will go to their graves refusing to accept singular they as a correct form.

So I'm thinking, for futurist blogging, anyway, to start using the ze/zir solution, as in this
passage from Alice in Wonderland.

For now, I plan to use this solution only when I encounter gender ambiguity.
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.


Thanks for the nod, Jonathan—I just wanted to clarify that I, too, think that all human beings ought be considered persons, regardless of cognitive capacity—to say otherwise suggests that those who are mentally or physically disabled are not worthy of moral status.

I think other ethicists have labeled it “personhood plus” (or H+!), in the sense that personhood ought to be more inclusive, not exclusive.

Thanks for your comment and insight, Linda!

In a post on Tiffany’s debates a few months back, I chimed in on a person-hood discussion and was astounded to find that the majority of responders could not conceive of giving an AI rights if it fit the description of sentience, yet had no problem giving a blob of tissue that had the promise of sentience, still unattained, those same rights. My hope for humanity, whom I thought was becoming smarter and better, were dashed and I quit the forum.

Jønathan, thanks for the piece. It is always positive to show how matters are more complicated then it seems - and also, it is important to examine from close our traditional prejudices. But, together with Linda, I would not treat “personhood” as an exclusive club, with cognitive rules of admission.

I like the notion of extended, inclusive personhood. And of course I agree with your caveat. We should indeed stop this search for bizarre, exclusive criteria - and focus on why each of us want to be alive, to enjoy the world around, and to avoid unwanted, painful experiences. 

It is a bit strange to tailor a certain notion of personhood - meant to fit entities that do not exist (yet), but not supposed to apply to a necessary developmental stage of multicellular lifeforms (i.e. “the blob of tissue”). In other words, why are we ready to negate now the right to exist to a number of very real non-sentient creatures, just to include possible ghosts from the future?

@nude007: The main problem with the personhood-for-fertilized-eggs people is that while they use the language of this discussion, they are motivated by what they perceive as a bioconservative religious and/or control motivation, by which I mean that they appear to be motivated by a desire to control the sexual behaviors of women, or because they think that their religion compels them to fight against the termination of unwanted pregnancies.
By comparison, people on the more technoprogressive side of things seek to break the limits of mainstream/bioconservative thinking, which classifies only homo sapiens sapiens as persons/people, and refuses to consider further possibilities, or that such a way of classifying persons/people might be too limited for the task.

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