[tsat home] [#45]

Another Look at
Transformed Rights

by Robin Zimmerman
©2006 Robin Zimmerman -- all rights reserved

In TSAT #44, a pair of articles appeared under the title Rights of the Transformed. As is often the standard when dealing with controversial issues, the articles were chosen to present both pro and con; my response is to both articles (but chiefly directed at the second), and to the broader question they both tackle.

This broader question is, of course, "Who deserves rights?"

Yes, I realize that the original question was, "What rights does a transformed person have?" This is an excellent question, being both directly relevant to the theme of TSAT and knotty enough to encourage a fair amount of debate. But before it can be answered, we must ask "Do transformed persons have rights?" And in answering that, we must turn back to the base question: Who deserves rights?

Who deserves rights? ShadowWolf says, "Every sentient being", and defines sentience as the ability "to think and plan beyond the effects of instincts or programming." The Right Reverend Nehemiah Gish says "Humans", and defines humans as the species God made in His image -- that is to say, Homo sapiens sapiens. I say, "All intelligent beings", and I'm not sure how I should define it. (My latest attempt is "having the powers of memory, pattern recognition, induction, and deduction.") Can I prove I'm right? No! We are discussing a moral question, and until there exists a universally agreed-upon system of ethics -- that is, never -- we can't prove any answers to moral questions. But I hold that my position is both supported by common sense and impervious to the objections Rev. Gish has raised.

Why do I say that granting rights to non-humans is common sense? Well, to start, consider fiction. Literature has always been a mirror to the common ethics of society, so if an idea is widespread in our books, movies, radio shows (do those still exist?), and the like, it can hardly be called ridiculous without strong evidence to the contrary. As it stands, there is a substantial body of literature featuring non-humans. In almost all of it, the author assumes intelligent non-humans to deserve basic human rights as a matter of course. The chief exceptions only come in two kinds: Intelligent beings that are computers, and intelligent beings which by human standards are criminally insane. Since even criminally insane humans are not granted normal rights, those beings at least make no argument against my position. (The AIs, I can't help. I'll take comfort in the exceptions and leave them be.)

Of course, books aren't the only (or even the best) thing we can argue from. ShadowWolf makes an argument from civil rights legislation, that being already an example of a movement to grant rights to beings that lacked them before. In the case of transformed beings, we can add to this the precedent of disability legislation (although that might be more relevant to the question of what rights to give). Even the arguments for animal rights help support the idea of rights for non-human intelligences, thought Rev. Gish is inclined towards the opposite view.

Which brings me to the other half of my essay. Rev. Gish makes three arguments against granting rights to non-humans, and I shall refute each of them.

First, he argues that the government cannot be trusted with the power to decide who is human, and uses the Dred Scott case as an example in his favor. Ironically, it serves better as an example in mine. After all, it proves that the government does have the power Gish fears, and has it whether or not we think it deserves it. Therefore, even if the Dred Scott case proves that the courts can't be trusted with this ability, it doesn't matter. What matters is that we need an official definition of personhood to ensure that courts do not abuse this power. In fact, we need such a definition even without the presence of transformees and other non-humans.

Second, he argues that there can be no definition of humanity from physical characteristics. Leaving aside my belief that physical characteristics are irrelevant to the question of rights, Gish here ignores the original question's focus on those whose physical characteristics have been changed. Defining personhood by the form of the body is the farthest thing from the transformee's advocate's mind.

Third, he argues that mental characteristics (I bundle "language use" with these) cannot be used to judge personhood. He argues this from two examples: the fact that the computer program ELIZA has fooled several people into believing it to be human, and the fact that the gorilla Hanabi-Ko, better known as Koko, has been taught sign language. He claims that the former of these as proof that normal tests of intelligence cannot distinguish a non-person from a person, and the latter as a second proof that language use cannot be a test either.

This is the argument that I must defeat to establish my case. It is also his weakest. If Gish believes that we cannot distinguish even a mentally retarded person from either Koko or ELIZA, I submit to you that he must have no idea of how poor their performance seems to be.

For example, consider the transcript of Koko's AIM conversation in 1998 (also available here). A careful reading of it shows Koko at a level of conversational expertise so poor that people have literally done better in their sleep! (Admittedly, an AIM conversation is hardly a scientific test. But claiming primate language use is still controversial, as it would not be if primates could even converse as well as first-graders.) Similarly, any individual seriously dedicated to the goal of testing conversational ability can see through ELIZA easily -- a quick test against any online version (of which there are far more than one available) will show that easily. Still better, the Loebner Prize (a $100,000 award for the first computer to show itself indistinguishable from a human) has been testing AIs for fifteen years, and no computer so far has ever successfully passed for human. Contrary to what Gish argues, intelligence is easy to test, and there are already mechanisms in place to do so.

(While I said he only made three, Gish actually makes one more argument. However, this fourth argument assumes that no valid secular criterion to distinguish personhood can exist. Since his proofs of this all fail, this argument does too.)

To round it up: I believe that most of us, if faced with the problem in the flesh, would grant a transformed human whose intelligence human rights. It is our natural response to such a situation, and there is no reason we should do otherwise. Transformed humans deserve rights. And, if you'll believe me, so do all other intelligent beings.

[tsat home] [#45]