“Human Rights” – a regressive concept
Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-05-04
It sounds contradictory, but because I am a progressive, I don’t want a "human rights" bill introduced, indeed I think the term "human rights" should be considered politically incorrect, and a "human rights" bill might be a win for regressives.
What I’d rather focus on are "civil rights", that apply to anything that can participate in society, have the capacity for moral or criminal intent, and perhaps (although difficult to define in law), the ability to give and receive love.
The problem is that "human rights" is an arrogant term, assuming that certain DNA sequences by themselves determine the worth of an individual.
It’s worth contemplating a thought experiment:
Imagine that a group of intelligent aliens landed on earth, whether by intent or by emergency landing.
Should these aliens have rights such as freedom from torture, the ability to be charged with murder, and that if intentionally killed by a human not acting in self-defence that the human should be charged with murder?
Any child who has watched the film "ET" knows the answer: yes.
Yet such aliens would have a genome (if based on DNA at all) more dissimilar to a "human" genome than a wasp.
From another perspective, would we consider it unreasonable and cruel if smarter, more technically advanced aliens (let’s call them "Martians") only recognized "Martian rights" that gave protection from intentional killing, unwarranted detention and torture, but only to Martians, and thus left humans without legal protection from genocide, abduction, or anal probes?
Humane and inhuman actions are not determined by a human genome.
Let’s go to another famous scenario in ethics, but with a twist.
You are on a lifeboat that is overloaded, so that without tossing one individual overboard to drown, it is almost certain that everyone will die. One passenger is a chimpanzee that knows sign language (and probably has an IQ of about 80, give or take, can interact with passengers, and might even assist with rowing), while another is a human, an extreme congenital microcephalic (I’ve seen one), capable of swallowing, breathing, stumbling around, but probably not even self-aware, and with less capability of emotional reciprocity with a human than a myna bird.
Which do you toss out of the boat?
Which of these two, in normal society, deserves more money spent on ensuring a stimulating environment, an opportunity to self-actualize, an education, a right to have property, to be protected from malice and negligence, and to receive punishment under the law for criminal action with intent? (The chimpanzee could form criminal intent AND engage in criminal action, though with somewhat diminished responsibility, while an extreme microcephalic is capable of neither).
The chimpanzee with sign language could even develop a preference for political leaders and indicate a voting preference (Candidate A wants to include a consumption tax on fruit, Candidate B wants to give subsidies to banana growers).
Going a step further, what about the rights of future silicon-based intelligence, who don’t want to be dismantled, and want a reliable supply of electrons so they can keep running? Was the planned execution without trial of the hero in "I, Robot" unjust?
This isn’t so far away, as South Korea already has a Robot Ethics Charter to prevent abuse of humans by robots and robots by humans under development by the Ministry of Commerce-Industry-and-Energy.
From the Korean government portal 2007-12-15:
The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy has found it necessary to draft a document of ethical guidelines for robots of strong intelligence in the near future.
Since the protection of conscious entities from harm is the basis of ethical and legal code, Korea’s charter implies that the strong intelligence referred to by the ministry includes emotional intelligence. A machine possessing emotional intelligence would be, by definition, a conscious entity with the ability to be humorous, to be distraught, to express feelings.
I wonder if the progressives advocating human rights legislation actually speciesist bigots because they have not thought through the fundamental ethics of what does and does not deserve protection under the law and constitutions of a society.
- "Bicentennial Man", the film starring Robin Williams, explores not just the rights of basic protection, but the possibility of human/android marriage – an issue worth contemplating as we move toward recognition of gay marriage.
- "Horton hears a who!"
- Personhood.org aims to grant great apes legal protections
- "Not Just Monkey Business" (Legal Soapbox, 2008-03-16) considers a monkey sentenced to death
- Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children (PLoS Biology, 2007, DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050184)
- "Monkey Maths" (this blog, 2008-01-09) discusses a paper (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050328) in which chimps outperform US college students in basic mathematical tasks.
- "Apes in line for legal rights" (BBC, 1999-02-11), and includes an audio link to Jane Goodall’s support of ape rights.
- "Ape family falls out over TV" (BBC, 1999-01-14) in which a captive orang-utan family has a dispute over TV programs, because the father just wants to watch American soap operas.
- "Moral Booster" (Guardian.co.uk, 2006-06-07)
Spain is set to grant historic rights to the great apes that will regard them as ‘legal persons’ under the law.
Unsurprisingly, the Vatican hates the idea.
- Great Ape personhood (wikipedia)
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots