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Personhood: Revisiting the Hierarchy of “Ender’s Game” to expand the circle
Jønathan Lyons   Oct 9, 2013   Ethical Technology  

For the consideration of which beings qualify as persons, I suggest that the bar be set higher than that of mere sentience: a conscious life; intelligence; and the capability of abstract thought — that is, the process of using one’s mind to consider something carefully. ... A Hierarchy of Exclusion is a tool whose very name tells us that it is designed to keep some out of a privileged status for moral consideration; but our purpose here is inclusion. So let’s upend Card’s hierarchy.

As I have said before, person is a philosophical concept, while human is a scientific, even taxonomical classification:

”A person is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which in turn is defined differently by different authors in different disciplines, and less formally by different cultures in different times and places.

”Personhood is the status of being a person. Defining personhood is a controversial topic in philosophy and law, and is closely tied to legal and political concepts of citizenship, equality, and liberty. According to law, only a natural person or legal personality has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. Personhood continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s rights, in debates about abortion, fetal rights and reproductive rights, and in animal rights advocacy.

”Various debates have focused on questions about the personhood of different classes of entities. Historically, the personhood of animals, women, and slaves has been a catalyst of social upheaval. In most societies today, living adult humans are usually considered persons, but depending on the context, theory or definition, the category of ‘person’ may be taken to include such non-human entities as animals, artificial intelligences, or extraterrestrial life, as well as legal entities such as corporations, sovereign states and other polities, or estates in probate. The category may exclude some human entities in prenatal development, and those with extreme mental impairment.”

For personhood, it seems clear that sentience — that is, the ability to experience pain and pleasure — is an important consideration.

As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it: ”The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Further, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ defines ahimsa as

”the Hindu and Buddhist doctrine of refraining from harming any living being,” and further (from the Concise Encyclopedia, adds: ”(Sanskrit: ”noninjury”) Fundamental ethical virtue of Jainism, also respected in Buddhism and Hinduism. In Jainism ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. It requires a householder observing the small vows (anuvrata) to refrain from killing any animal life. An ascetic observing the great vows (mahavrata) is expected to take the greatest care not to injure any living substance, even unknowingly”

Wikipedia defines ahumsa as follows:

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: अहिंसा; IAST: ahiṃsā, Pāli:[1] avihiṃsā) is a term meaning do not injure. The word is derived from the Sanskrit roothiṃs – to strike; hiṃsā is injury or harm, a-hiṃsā is the opposite of this, i.e. cause no injury, do no harm.[2][3] Ahimsa is also referred to as nonviolence, and it applies to all living beings including animals.”

I would refine Bentham’s question further to specify whether a being can suffer in any conscious sort of way. If a being can suffer in any conscious sort of way, then we are morally obligated not to commit acts that cause or increase that suffering. Bentham’s position parallels that of ahimsa.

That degree of consideration for moral obligations and consideration, that degree of ahimsa, would seem to place our consideration for causing no suffering somewhere between sentientism and biocentrism. Surely no organism that lacks a conscious life can be said to suffer in any conscious way, and that would apply a limitation to the category of biocentrism. Plants, for example, cannot experience any conscious state whatsoever.

And if we are to embrace the Hedonistic Imperative and Dr. David Pearce’s concept of Abolition, ahimsa strikes me as an important part of that overall vision.

But beyond the consideration of personhood, perhaps an even further consideration should be embraced:

“Dr. Martine Rothblatt 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.”

That way lies veganism. I plan to write more on this in essays to come.

But for the consideration of which beings qualify as persons, the I suggest that the bar be set higher than that of mere sentience: a conscious life; intelligence; and the capability of abstract thought — that is, the process of using one’s mind to consider something carefully.

Card’s Hierarchy of Exclusion, slightly refined:

* Utlänning, or otherlander: The stranger that we recognize as being a person of our world, but of another city or country.

* Främling: The stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another world.

* Raman: The stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another species.

* Varelse: The 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: A being who is an unreasoning threat, a monster, a murderer. A being who is Djur could conceivably be a human being who is suffering from a form of mental illness that robs a person of zir ability to control zirself.

But a Hierarchy of Exclusion is a tool whose very name tells us that it is designed to keep some out of a privileged status; as I have written previously here at the IEET, my purpose is inclusion.

So let’s upend Card’s hierarchy. For our purposes, some of the categories in the graphic on Expanding the Circle of Moral Consideration I began this essay with can be grouped together.

* Utlänning, or otherlander: The stranger that we recognize as being a person of our world, but of another city or country.

All living humans: Anthropocentrism/speciesism

Future humans: Extended anthropocentrism/speciesism

The Second Ring:

Nonhuman animals: Sentientism

* Främling: The stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another world.

The Third Ring:

* Raman: The stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another species.

The Fourth Ring:

* Varelse: The 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.

The Fifth Ring

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

And finally, the remaining classifications from the original circle that this circle does not address directly:

All Other Living Things: Biocentrism

Ecosystems: Ecocentrism

The Planet: Holism

Now I want to merge that set of rings with my own previous conclusions in these essays. This repurposes and redefines the Card terminology a bit, as well, and expands to include technological beings:

I note that in considering ahimsa and Abolition, when dealing with a being who is Djur, self-defense alone may make doing no harm impossible.

An extended circle of personhood, then, would include the Utlänning and the Främling, and would leave the door open to future discoveries concerning beings who are Varelse or Djur. 

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.



COMMENTS

I suffered in the act of skimming this article, because I don’t believe animals have rights; does that make me a Djur?  P.S.  Eating chimpanzee is on my bucket-list.

Negative sentiments for animals can negatively affect sentiments towards people. This is more or less what you are writing:

“I love animals—they taste great!”

Henry, the distinction between humans and animals is pre-Darwinian. There are human and nonhuman animals. What arguments (if any) would you use against the practice of cannibalism? Or do you believe that eating members of other races is ethically acceptable behaviour too?

David, thanks, but do please allow me to continue the shorthand.  Would you have any references, per chance, of dogs treating us more unfairly after 1859, than before Darwin’s publication?  Or of their attempting artistic expression even once in the history of the Earth?  That would support your erasure of an actual distinction, unless you only meant the erasure is now linguistically proper.

Admittedly, I don’t know that cannibalism can or needs to be shown morally wrong from a philosophical perspective.  Religiously, I hold it to be wrong under the sins of impiety and scandal, in that it suggests to 3rd-party observers that I don’t believe in a general Resurrection, which I in fact do.  This isn’t to say I doubt that God could reconstruct a person as He did in the first place, but for me to eat the particles instead of merely cremating and/or burying them is nothing but showy and over-the-top.  In case of dire starvation, I would say the religious believer has glory in his piety, although the theologians grant that impiety may evaporate in extreme scenarios if the agent’s intention is right.

To answer your question more directly, however, I would refer you to an article published this year by Mathew Lu in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.  He argues that (1) the “accidental unity” of a corpse is “best explained in terms of [its] now absent form,” which is the human soul.  [The soul, here, being a philosophical term, meaning the life-principle of a living thing, such that plants and animals have souls, as Aristotle proposed.]  Lu goes on to say (2) the corpse “reflects the value of of the living person because the corpse reflects the form of a living person.”  From this, since (3) eating is a destruction of form without regard to what the form properly in-forms [i.e. pretty soon I don’t care that it’s a cow in my mouth, but that it’s just a really good burger], (4) cannibalism treats the formally “not-food” that is a person however reflected, as food-simply, which would be in my view a sin of dualism, or lying with the body about what the mind knows otherwise.

Ultimately, however, I find Lu’s argument unconvincing, because of (2).  We know a dead man from a dead monkey, even instantly, but that is only from previous experience.  Their dead bodies, per se, don’t distinguish one of them as rational-spiritual.  This is where I ground my perhaps inflammatory argument against same-sex marriage:  the dead martyrs for traditional marriage (sadly, it’s only a matter of time) will by their corpses reveal more about their humanity and the arguments they made while alive than the corpses of lynched blacks could ever have said for the civil rights movement.  This is because the dead proponent of traditional marriage (hopefully) still has his organs that evidence the unique coital good he was referring to, and which no SSM nominalism can conflate or deny, while the rational spirituality of the dead black man would be evidenced only by things he could do while alive — his corpse is unfortunately silent about any claims he might have made to being fully human.

Therefore, I cannot locate the philosophical grounds to reject cannibalism, and the theological grounds incline me not at all to vegetarianism.

Here’s an illustration, Henry; if someone were to shoot your dog or cat which trespasses on their property, you would quickly change your stance on the rights/privileges of animals.

https://scontent-b-pao.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/1376368_10153362917685501_1923221312_n.jpg

This is the best I can do for now: if you were to consider your pet merely property, a property owner would have a case in claiming that since his home and yard are private property, your pet is fair game for him to kill if he were to deem it proper. If your pet were to eat his garden, he might feel justified in doing anything he can to stop the problem.. even if such means killing the animal. So right there your attitude—of an animal as only really being good enough to be the property of a human—fails.

Henry, yes, shorthand is sometimes convenient. But to contrast humans - “us” - with animals is recipe for metaphysical confusion. An inclusive sense of “us” that embraces all sentient beings, i.e. human and nonhuman animals alike, would be more accurate. Speaking accurately of human and nonhuman animals also discourages arbitrary anthropocentric bias.

Dogs? Members of the canine family are no more sapient than human infants and prelinguistic toddlers. None possess, e.g. generative syntax or the ability to formulate theories of normative ethics. But a convergence of evolutionary, genetic, neuroanatomical and behavioural evidence suggests that dogs and young humans alike are intensely sentient. They deserve to be treated accordingly.

(cf. http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pearce20130726)

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