Printed: 2019-08-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/lyons20131009

Personhood: Revisiting the Hierarchy of “Ender’s Game” to expand the circle

Jønathan Lyons


Ethical Technology




October 09, 2013

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.

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