Of persons, robots, aliens and humans

Monday, 26 May, 2008

It is common parlance to equate the words ‘person’ with ‘human’. That is perhaps because of all the creatures we know, we humans are those with the most obvious claim to personhood. But, what actually is a ‘person’? We know that a person is a moral entity – someone, rather than something, but that just requires us to define a ‘moral entity’, so begs the question. This is a very vital question these days, as it relates to such issues as human embryo research, euthanasia, human genetic engineering and cloning, among others.

I shall begin my little moral discourse with a key text in modern ethics, the US Deceleration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson writes (however, I should mention that this concept was borrowed from the English philosopher John Locke, who wrote of a similar idea 87 years earlier):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, that text is interpreted slightly differently. First, the notion of rights endowed by a divine being has gone, because although we are free to refer to a magical being in the sky whenever we want moral answers, all but the most theocratic would agree that forcing other people to agree to live according to those answers would be unethical. Secondly, the meaning of ‘men’ in that phrase has changed markedly. While it used to mean something like “white male humans of high social standing”, it now just means “humans”.

But still, there is a fatal flaw in this interpretation: it still is just an arbitrary stipulation that membership of a certain group gets you the inalienable rights of a person. Justice requires us to treat equals equally and unequals unequally. Furtther, we should only consider relevant properties when assessing how to treat somebody. So, it would be wise to assess a person’s skill at engineering before hiring them as an engineer, but their gender would have no relevance to their performance at such an occupation. So, is being a member of the human species relevant to being treated as a person? It appears that the commonly accepted answer is ‘Yes’.

To examine why this answer fails, I like to consider a thought experiment.

Consider an anthropmorphic alien from a sci-fi series, be it a Twi’lek or Gungan from Star Wars, a Time Lord from Doctor Who or a Vulcan from Star Trek. Now, these are not humans – they are not from our species – but they are aliens. But, in all of those sci-fi universes, they are considered to be persons – and given moral value – by the humans around them. And we, the viewers, probably do not think this is completely immoral and unjustifiable, which seems to me that we do not think that only humans can be persons and all persons must be humans. That is, we certainly do not just give the status of a person only to humans, as we can agree of the possibility of non-human persons. So how can species be relevant to personhood?

If those alien examples don’t work, consider also the monsters of fantasy, such as vampires, centaurs, pixies and Frankenstein’s creation. These are not humans, but are they persons? I’d say they would be, but why? Likewise, consider the robots of science fiction, such as those of Isaac Asimov’s stories. Some appear so close in nature to humans that we would feel uncomfortable not calling them persons too.

So it appears that there is something else, not human-ness, that is responsible for us giving person status to individuals. That is, some ‘feature X’. But before I try to work out what ‘feature X’ is, let me first address the seemingly plausible idea that we should assume that an individual member of a species that usually has ‘feature X’ also has ‘feature X’ itself. This would require us to treat an individual based not on the properties they actually have, but the properties of the group to which they belong. It should be obvious that this is the road to prejudice. As an analogy, it is wrong – ageist – to forbid a ninety-year old woman becoming an astronaut on the basis of her age. It is similarly wrong to give (or not to give) a child the right to marry on the basis of them being human. Both generalisations have some truth to them – some (if not most) nonagenarians do not have the physical fitness required of an astronaut and some (if not most) humans do have the capacity to make decisions about marriage. Nonetheless, it is very important that we do not stick to our prejudicial generalisations in cases where they fail us, such as when we find a fit and healthy nonagenarian or a mentally immature human (i.e. a child).

Now, what of human cells? A lot of people think that a single human cell can be a person (e.g. a fertilised egg), and a similar number of people disagree. In my opinion, the view that a human embryo is a person is fraught with logical and consequential inconsistencies (discussed at length here). Human embryos are not, in their embryonic state, very different from a fish or lizard in a similar state – except for being human. Their only hope to be given personhood is to claim they are members of a species (the human species) that are normally persons. But this is just prejudice – making generalisations about an individual based upon what group they belong to. And as I said above, we should abandon such prejudices when they don’t work. When we need to consider a human with properties similar (or equal) to obvious non-persons like fish embryos, we would be wise to look carefully at such prejudices.

Let me now return to the question of this ‘feature X’. With humanoid aliens/monsters/robots, we would likely give them the status of persons – despite them not being human – because they have ‘feature X’. With human embryos, they are not legally considered persons – despite them being human – because they lack ‘feature X’. Therefore, the concept of a person is quite probably species-neutral, unless there is a pressing need for the species to be considered a morally relevant entity.

So, what exactly is ‘feature X’? It is what separates you and I (and Jar-Jar Binks and Spock) from cats, canaries and carrots, but what is that? Some suggest sentience (the ability to feel) or even painience (the ability to feel pain), but these do not rule out cats and may rule out robots that do not feel pain, so should not be an acceptable feature. I think the most influential answer was given by the afore-mentioned philosopher John Locke, in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689). He wrote:

“We must consider what person stands for; which I think is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking and seems to me essential to it; it being impossible for anyone to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

This is the concept of the ‘Lockean person’, but I think it is fairly sufficient an answer (despite the fact that it is possible for an organism to perceive without perceiving that they perceive – i.e. to be sentient but not self-aware). The Lockean person is grounded in features – consciousness and awareness of oneself over time – possessed by an individual, which (I think rightly) makes membership of whatever group irrelevant to a being awarded personhood. We award the right to life to a person, because only a person can value their own life. We award the right to liberty to a person, because only a person can truly value their own freedom. We award the right to happiness to a person, because only a person is able to value their happy mental state. I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t deprive another of something they value (unless we are actually protecting something they value even more, such as destroying a person’s car to save their life) – so this may be a good ‘self-evident’ foundation for this viewpoint; it is finally a self-evident truth that we can use.

So ‘feature X’ is self-awareness, or more specifically the ability to value ones own life. This provides a satisfactory answer to why we feel certain aliens or advanced artificial intelligences should be considered persons despite not being human. This provides a reason for why human embryos and foetuses, or plausibly even human infants, are not considered persons by some.

It also provides a reason for our common equivocation between humans and persons: humans are usually self-aware creatures that value their own life. We can mostly be safe in assuming that a human will also have the ability to consider him or herself, so will be a person. This is not a moral requirement, that all humans must be treated as persons, but rather an assumption that we can use to avoid wronging a person. By assuming that a human is very likely to be self-conscious, and very likely to value their own life, we can say that a human is also very likely to be a person, and so should be protected. It is not an abhorrent conclusion to say that a particular human is not a person when we have some other reason (and the supporting evidence) to suggest that they are not aware of themselves, because the idea that human = person is only a useful rule of thumb, and must be discarded in certain cases. It is speciesism to do otherwise.



  1. Hmmmmmm……So how then do we carefully classify an Insane person?
    In these days that even pets are assuming an integral part to human living, we may as well attach a ‘personality’ to dogs and cats.

  2. An insane person is a person nonetheless. If you are asking whether an insane human is a person, well that depends on the level of insanity – do they have a concept of self, and do they value it?

    The same question should be asked for dogs and cats.

    I’m not saying I know the answers, because I don’t know for all but the obvious – that a human embryo isn’t a person, and that most adult humans and chimps probably are.

  3. […] human being is therefore deserving of rights just for being human. As I’ve argued previously, this argument is blatant bigotry, and therefore combating this viewpoint is one important reason for bringing Neanderthals […]

  4. Accrording to this definition litlle children (who doesn’t value its life and aren’t self-aware,whose brain ist fully developed) are not persons.
    But somehow ,according to law (UNESCO, those things) they are treaten as humans and correspondingly protected …

    • First, being treated as human and being treated as persons are different things.

      But my main point would be that UNESCO is not the final authority on matters of ethics. Neither am I, of course, but simply noting that UNESCO disagrees with me is not an argument against what I’ve outlined above.

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