#2: Rights, Humanity, and What it Means to Be a Person

This essay arose from a conversation about whether or not people have "rights," and what it means to have "rights." Like many Americans, I believe that people do, simply as a consequence of being people, have certain inalienable rights; and among these are the right to life, liberty, self-determinism, and to believe and express as they desire so long as they do not infringe on these same rights in others. I believe these rights are immutable; that they are a consequence of being a person, and are not granted by the state or by any other entity or power; and that a state or other entity can take them away, but not grant them.

But do I believe these things simply because I'm an American, and these are cultural ideas that are held in America, thus I've been brainwashed into believing them? Well, no.

There's no question that a person's social, political, and moral ideas and values are socially informed, and that people can and do absorb many of those ideas from the society around them.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that I believe what I do because I've been "brainwashed' to believe them, however. There are many cultural and social values held by a great many Americans which are just as firmly inculcated into people here which I reject; evidence suggests that cultural brainwashing doesn't work too well on me...

More to the point, a person who holds ideas about rights simply because he has been told that "rights are good" probably is unlikely to think too deeply about the implications of those rights; a person who is simply repeating American cultural ideas about innate human rights is unlikely to, for example, see the contradiction between those values and the idea that it is OK to tell gays and lesbians that they cannot marry.

In fact, I think these ideas have often been enshrined in America more as vague theories than as matters of political and social reality. Even the very people who first articulated these ideas as a framework for American society did not really believe them, or at least did not follow their own arguments through to their logical conclusions; Thomas Jefferson, who believed that "all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," kept slaves.

When you do sincerely hold to these beliefs, and you do follow them through to their logical conclusion, which I do, you end up in territory that diverges radically from the reality of American society, and makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I'll get to that in a minute, but for right now, suffice to say that these ideas are held by Americans only in an abstract theoretical way, rather than as a matter of real truth.

I do believe that a great many Americans do simply parrot back what their civics teacher told them about "rights" without thinking through what that means or what the implications of those beliefs are. I don't think I'm one of them, and let me tell you why.

Traditionally, the rest of the world has not accepted the American view of rights as an inalienable and irrevokable consequence of being a person. One person I have talked to claims, for example:

Here's how the English tradition views "rights".

Rights are made up. They are not physically real. They exist at the same level of reality as "marriage", "soul mates", "demonic possession", "Friday the 13th" and "Christmas". To define what that level of reality means, they exist ONLY in conversation, and their impact on physical reality shows up ONLY as patterns of behaviour exhibited by people who believe in them.

I can't speak to whether or not this is an accurate representation of the English position on basic rights, not being familiar with English culture. I will say that in a philosophical sense, this is correct. The notion that people have rights is not a truth in the same sense that gravity or the weak electromagnetic force is a truth; it is not subject to empirical measurement, and it is not an immutable force by which the universe operates. The notion of rights is fundamentally a moral issue, and its effect on reality is a consequence only of the fact that people who hold these ideas tend to behave in a certain way.

However, there are practical consequences to holding forth the idea that "all people have certain rights to which they are entitled simply as a consequence of being people."

Fundamentally, I'm a pragmatist. I'm not spiritual at all, and I am not interested in the notion that rights are divinely ordained, or that God said we should behave thus-and-such a way, or that it is in our spiritual best interest to do thus-and-such, or whatever. I hold these ideas because there are practical consequences to them, and practical consequences to not holding them.

I believe that a society which enshrines the notion that certain rights belong by entitlement to all people is better than a society that does not, and I believe that "better" in this case can be demonstrated practically as well as morally.

There's a very easy demonstration of this idea, which I like to use as an example whenever people talk about the notion that the rights of self-determination are not an intrinsic part of being a person or that it is acceptable for one group of people, for whatever reason, to remove this self-determinism from another group.

It used to be that American society held the idea that blacks are inherently inferior to whites. So much so that for the first part of American history, we actually believed that blacks were not even people at all, but were property, no different from any other beasts of burden. Even after we got past that idea, many people still held (and some people still hold today) that blacks are not as smart as whites, and so educating blacks is a waste of effort; why do it since they lack the cognitive tools to benefit from it?

Yet the first person to pioneer open-heart surgery was black.

Had this person not been able to go to medical school, had he been prevented (as many other people were) from pursuing a career in medicine on the theory that blacks simply were not intelligent enough for it, then the pioneering contributions this man made--contributions which benefitted all of society--would have been denied us, or at least delayed. (Sure, had he not done this, someone else would probably have done so, eventually--but there's no way to know how much time would have been lost.)

When a society decides arbitrarily that one particular group of people are, for whatever reason, not entitled to the basic rights of self-determinism, then that society denies itself the benefits that members of that group can contribute. These benefits are not theoretical; like open-heart surgery, they are tangible. A society which denies the notion of rights to some of its members suffers a quantifiable loss as a result. And most importantly, evn the people who belong to the privileged group in that society lose.

I think it's safe to say that people in America are often quite uniform about giving lip service to the concept of fundamental rights, but don't really think about them much, and don't allow that lip service to get in the way of their own particular prejudices. While Americans talk the talk, the reality of American history is that securing these rights has required, so far, at least two major civil rights movements, one war, and countless amounts of bloodshed. And we're still not all the way there yet.

This is a problem, both for moral and for practical reasons. The abstract, philosophical notion of "rights" has very real and practical benefits, as I've mentioned already.

There's also the flip side to that, which is the moral value of rights. Morally, the notion of rights is predicated on mutual empathy and recognition of ourselves in others. A person who thinks it is acceptable for him to deprive others of their rights must, if he follows his own argument to its end, must accept that it is OK for someone stronger than he to do the same to him.

The practical consequences for believing in the idea of intrinsic rights are manyfold; they create a society that can benefit from the contributions of all its members, and they create a framework of enlightened self-interest which says that ultimately, when I respect the rights of others, I am respecting my own rights as well--as anything I can do to others which deprives them of these rights, someone else can do to me.

These are not platitudes or vague woo-woo ideas; they have real-world, nuts-and-bolts, practical ramifications. Ultimately, at the end of the day, I believe that holding these ideas about rights for everyone improves my life in real and practical ways.

Ideas, even abstract ideas, have power. The more people who share those ideas, the more power they have. When you accept the idea that people do have rights and that those rights are real and must be respected, you join forces with everyone else who shares those ideas. When a society embraces those ideas, that society becomes stronger.

It is no accident that if you look at world history, you consistently see, ove and over again, the dominant and most powerful nations on earth are the ones who are the most progressive. The Roman empire was the first to extend the notion of "citizenship" to the inhabitants of those countries they conquered; Rome was imperialistic and militaristic, but part of what allowed them to consolidate and stabilize their empire was their doctrine which said that any person in a Roman-occupied territory who had never taken up arms against the Roman army was a Roman citizen, with all the rights and privileges therein. During the Middle Ages, when the Western world was mired in backward, reactionary religious ideology, the dominant force on the planet was the Persian Empire--the first empire ever to codify the notion of "rights" into law, and one of the first examples of an empire governed by a meritocracy.

The idea of rights is a powerful one. Societies which embrace it gain practical benefits from it, which gives those societies a competitive advantage over societies which do not. In about a hundred and fifty years, America rose from a backwards colony with no technological infrastructure to a world superpower...in part because of an abundance of natural resources, to be sure, but also in part because it embraced self-determinism, and self-determinism, though it may be an abstract value, creates prosperity.

The United States is hardly faultless. In fact, sometimes this country falls from its ideas in ways that are flat-out embarrassing. Nonetheless, the fact remains that enshrining these rights is one of the things that have led this country to the poisition of being the world's only superpower. These rights not only make the lives of the people who hold them better, in ways that cannot be quantified (self-determining people are happier than slaves, for example), but also creates societies which are more prosperous and more powerful.

The place where it gets tricky is in understanding what is meant by a "person," and this is where America has historically fallen down flat in enshrining the notion that people have rights. This is where I also diverge radically from common and contemporary thought about what it means to have rights, and leads into an area of moral theory that bioethicists call "personhood theory."

Early in American history, many people advanced the notion that Negroes belonged to a different species than Caucasians. This is, of course, a ridiculous and kind of asinine assertion to make; the fact that blacks and whites can have sex and make viable babies is proof that we are all the same species by definition. But the argument was made nonetheless, because it needed to be made in order to justify the institution of slavery. The alternative, that blacks and whites are both people, leads to a contradiction; if we are all people, and all people have rights, slavery becomes indefensible.

One of the core problems that people face when they begin talking about "rights" is in separating entities which have rights from entities which do not. Even the most hardcore advocate of the notion of rights would not say that an automobile or a rock has rights; some people believe that animals have rights, though stop short of saying that these rights are the same as the rights invested in people (not even PETA says that hamsters should be allowed to vote, for example!).

Now hold on to your hat, Dorothy, because Kansas is about to go bye-bye...

Personhood theory says that rights exist in any entity which has self-awareness and the intellectual capacity to understand itself, the implications and consequences of its actions, and the ability to make informed and moral choices about those actions. To date, that means human beings, and it's no accident that people talk about "human rights" when they talk about rights.

But there is no reason to believe that this will always mean human beings.

One of the implications of personhood theory is that any entity which meets these criteria has rights. That means, for example, that if we were to unearth some species of sapient being other than homo sapiens in some far-off, unexplored forest, that species would have rights. It means that if we ever create a true, "strong" aritficial intelligence, that AI has rights. It means that a sapient alien species, if such a thing exists, has rights. It means that a person's consciousness and sense of self transferred into another form, such as a robot or a computer (if such a thing is possible), has rights. It means that a person's brain, preserved alive in some way in a non-human body, has rights.

As a society, we have been very, very slow to recognize that a person whose skin is a different color than ours has the same rights and entitlements as a person whose skin is the same color. The notion that it is possible for something that does not look like a human being at all to have rights does not sit well with the vast majority of people--even people who *do* embrace the idea of "human rights."

Is this a theoretical issue? For now, yes it is. Will it always be? Almost certainly not.

In the book The Age of Spiritual Machines, author Ray Kurtzweil argues that at the current rate at which computers are being developed, with a doubling in computational power every eighteen months, we will reach the point at which computes will be smarter than people in about twenty years. Of course, this makes a lot of assumptions about current trends continuing, but I would not be surprised if it's far off the mark. Right now, at this very moment, the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer has about the same raw processing power as a human brain. The way it's wired is very, very different from the way a brain is wired, of course, and it's optimized for an entirely different kind of information processing; I am not making the argument that a Blue Gene computer is sapient, not by a long shot.

But consider this. right now, as I sit typing this very long message, a group of Swiss researchers is using a Blue Gene supercomputer to attempt to build a map, neuron for neuron and connection for connection, of a human brain. Now, if they succeed, what happens if they make that model dynamic? What happens if they model the individual physical and chemical properties of each neuron, and then let the simulation run? Hypothetically, the model will behave and react exactly like the person the model was made from. If it says it is sapient and self aware, is it? I have only your word that you are sapient and self-aware, after all...

Personhood theory says this model would then be a person, with all the rights and entitlements that belong to you or I or any other person.

This is one of the central ideas behind transhumanism--the idea that a "person" can take many forms, and that it is possible for us to model or otherwise change ourselves in ways that make us strikingly different from humans as we have always thought about them, yet still retain this *personhood*. Transhumanists embrace not only the idea that people have rights, for both practical and moral reasons, but that these rights pertain to any person, regardless of its form--not just to human beings as human beings have always existed.

These are issues we will probably have to start dealing with in our lifetimes. They sound like science fiction right now, until you start doing the research and finding out just how much is being done in the fields of neurology, neurophysiology, biomedical nanotechnology, and computer science. Shelly's other boyfriend Ted is is planning to return to school seeking a postgraduate degree in neurobiology with an eye toward making computer models of living human brains; this stuff is very much for real. You think people had problems accepting the idea that blacks are people--you have no idea!

There's a very good book, Citizen Cyborg, that discusses the moral and ethical ramifications of personhood theory in more detail. I strongly recommend that anyone with any interest whatsoever in the idea of "rights" read it. I know the author, James Hughes; I had dinner with him a few weeks back, and he's really on the ball. He began getting involved in exploring transhumanism and personhood theory when he was doing a dissertation on the cultural differences between Westerners and Japanese with regard to things like "human rights" and the assumptions that people make about what rights they are entitled to; in Japan, for example, they do not have the moral problems we do with disconnecting brain-dead patients from life support, but at the same time they have different social issues surrounding transplants and organ and tissue donation, for reasons that are cultural and reveal social beliefs about personhood.

I believe that rights exist. I believe that the belief that rights exist is a powerful idea, with both moral and practical consequences for the societies that accept or reject these beliefs. And I believe that in my lifetime, these beliefs will be tested in ways which, until now, we have never anticipated.

I hope we make the right choices. It is impossible to overestimate the importance and the value attached to our ideas about personhood and about rights.