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I find Article I of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be fascinatingly insightful and concise:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Would the protections associated with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights be applied to semi-humans, such as aliens, that we might encounter? Consider that the question of "are these aliens human" is not a clear yes-no answer but rather lies on a continuum and there is contention. The passage seems to hinge on the idea that human beings are endowed with reason and conscience. If these new-found semi-humans are endowed with reason and conscience, are they too to be protected? If they lack reason or conscience, are they not protected?

What happens if we find a lost human tribe who are not endowed with reason and / or conscience? This may be the case for cultural reasons, genetic drift, etc. Would we still be bound to act towards them in a spirit of brotherhood? Note that some criminal psychopathys have been identified as lacking conscience, so in fact there is precedent for the concept.

Consider that I am interested in the philosophical implication of the question, not the political nor scientific implications. I find that some questions on Philosophy.SE are tangent to this question, without addressing it directly.

  • What do you propose we replace "human beings" with? Without that, this is a complete guessing game. (e.g. "pinkish objects" or "objects full of blood of types A,B,AB,O or "things with two feet") – virmaior Aug 12 '14 at 8:48
  • squares are beings. so are atoms and mushrooms. why would you be interested in thinking about the rights of such things? – shane Aug 12 '14 at 10:32
  • @dotancohen But then your question would be "how to rephrase the article?". Because if you just replace "human beings" by "beings" in the first sentence, it's obviously not a true sentence anymore. The concretisation, namely that human beings have this and that, follows in the second. But the first states that only humans are born free and equal. You can't just replace that without changing the whole article. Or, if you do replace it, it has nothing to do with reason and conscience, you just make a normative statement about how creatures should be seen, namely as all equal. – iphigenie Aug 12 '14 at 11:01
  • Thank you to all commenters! I've narrowed the scope of the question and in fact it is now a better question than when first asked. Thank you. – dotancohen Aug 12 '14 at 11:55
  • If we encounter aliens we might reformulate the article to read: "All living beings of the genus homo-sapiens..." as whilst any alien species with access to space travel would almost certainly have to reason, we cannot be sure that they would have an analog to what we can conscience and brotherhood. – JonS Aug 15 '14 at 13:47
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For me, in direct response to the title:

All life comes into its own as free and equal in dignity, rights and consideration. Such life as is endowed with reason and conscience also must observe this truth in transactions with any other form of life.

As an individual that also places value on non-human life, the restriction to human beings seems relatively arbitrary. Moreover, the usage of brotherhood comes off as a bit chauvinistic. All equal in dignity, we're just also going to ignore the existence of women and non-binary transgender identifying individuals in the next sentence. Starting with these two targets, I worked to modify the statement.

My personal adaptation would shift from usage of human beings to life. Fortunately, for extension purposes, life isn't defined exceptionally well right now, but definitely includes humans. Unfortunately, that opens up what should be a relatively straightforward statement to a certain degree of discussion. Oh well. That's why there's a whole stack exchange to discuss this issue.

Likewise, I append consideration to dignity and rights. This has the purpose, in human systems, of also mandating treatment in excess of the minimum required, and in non-human systems, of acting towards other life in accordance with its specific conditions and needs. That is to say, when I take consideration of other humans, I give of my time and resources to others. When I take consideration of other life, I choose vegan dietary options such as do not harm others and respect eco-systems even at non-zero financial cost.

Moreover, I can conceive of both Homo sapiens that may or may not be captured by the term "human beings" that lack reason or conscience and, for those reasons, should not be held to the same standards as other human beings. Likewise, with the extension beyond human rights, restricting reason and conscience to humans in particular becomes meaningless. For that reason, I developed a special class characterized exclusively by capacity for reason and conscience, and charged it with the implementation of my statement (as no other life would be capable of reading, understanding, and acting on it).

I'm left with something that isn't really a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but, in my opinion, largely subsumes the Declaration, and also address broader and more difficulty issues with its provision for just treatment of non-human life.

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As it stands today, I highly doubt the declaration would be applied to any non-human life, even that with reason and conscience. Historically, xenophobia always supersedes tolerance, especially in first contact. Without specific and intentional provision for rights of non-human life, I would expect no rights to be afforded. However, human is an open concept. As the Declaration refrained from usage of scientific terminology, currently we are working with (thanks Google!) the following definition:

a human being, especially a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.

Now, that's pretty imprecise. Humans are animals, and there's only a differentiation from aliens in science fiction. You'd probably lose the debate, but it is possible to argue that the "human" term could include any form of life with reason and conscience (in fact, you could even argue so on basis on the Declaration). If we encountered non-human sentient life tomorrow, I would argue for its protection on this basis.

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Lost human tribe? I'm more optimistic about this. People love things like themselves, and we'd all at least be within the same Genus (right, we're in the same Genus at least?). Especially as human and Homo sound somewhat similar, I'm sure many would be fine calling them humans. I hope that's reasonable.

In terms of actual ethics, well, you see what I think about respect in my generalization. I believe we would absolutely be bound to treat them (as anything else) with the utmost respect. In accordance with the Declaration, I believe we would as well. However, these are not ironclad truths descending directly from the wording of the declaration, so your mileage may vary.

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I think if we formulate the question as "Oh I can treat x in any way I want with no moral implications, right?" we have a fairly straightforward philosophical answer. The Declaration is a subset of this answer when x is taken to be consensus reality's definition of humans. That reduces this to a question of consensus reality, which starts to drift into theoretical sociology, so I'm fairly comfortable taking the question this far and no further.

  • This is rather insightful, thank you Calvin. Could you elaborate on the statment "Moreover, I can conceive of both Homo sapiens that may or may not be captured by the term "human beings" that lack reason or conscience and, for those reasons, should not be held to the same standards as other human beings.". Are you referring to criminals, psychopaths, terrorist organizations, communists, PETA activists, Justin Bieber fans? – dotancohen Aug 15 '14 at 14:12
  • Specifically what I had in mind was actually Deltas and Epsilons from Brave New World, because I believe fictional examples are necessarily less normative in this case. I will not preclude actions or medical conditions that can be taken by Homo sapiens that I would consider to disqualify them from person-hood, citizenship, or humanity, but that is beyond the scope of this response. EDIT: You're also talking to a PETA activist. Just to let you know. : ) – Calvin Aug 15 '14 at 15:29
  • Yes, I guessed that you might be if not a PETA activist then at least sympathetic to their cause, that is why I lumped them in! I was trying to show a spectrum of controversial standpoints while demonstrating that I stand on neither side of the controversies. Your compassionate answer gave you away! – dotancohen Aug 15 '14 at 21:43

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