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Some ethical problems I've run into while writing a story set in a near future where general artificial intelligence, mind upload and radical genetic engineering are a thing.

If you could scan someone's brain, or the whole body for any matter, and simulate it (not simply emulate it) virtually, would the simulated person be granted human rights?

What if you simulate the person's brain in a cybernetic body?

What if it's an organic body?

What if you modify a person's genes and turn the person into a dog?

As smart as the "dumbest" person? Some people are intellectually impaired an will always have the mind of a 5 year old, and some dogs are as smart as 5 years old. But the intellectually impaired person has human rights and the dogs don't.

Yes, this person might be cured by science in the future, and we know how a default human is supposed to be and this person just happened to have some deficiency that has not enabled his full human capacity, while dogs can't be any smarter.

What if you could modificate a dog's genes to make it smarter, how smart would it need to be to be granted human rights?

But what exacly is a human? If we had a record of every individual specimen that humans descended from since the first self-replicating molecules, could we pinpoint exactly when the first fully-fledged human was born? That if i went to the past and killed him it would be considered that i killed a person and not an animal?

Now from what I know, there is not a "sentience gene" that grants any species that has it human rights, and that makes intelligence more of a spectrum than a series of defined steps, so we could not define a point in the spectrum and say "from this point on you're sentient".

I don't expect any definitive answers, as these are yet unsolved questions of science and philosophy.

Have the precise definition of what constitues a human been discussed in natural rights phylosophy?

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    There are a lot of questions here. While I see the connections you are seeking to draw, can you narrow it down to a specific question you want answered? The Stack Exchange format works best when there is one question. When I read this, I think the question you are asking is the sentence, but there are a lot of other questions along the way.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 18:51
  • @CortAmmon The question could be narrowed down to "What is required for a being to be granted human rights?" I just made some additional questions to express all of my doubts. Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 19:25
  • Agency. If something has agency, it should be respected.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 19:52
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    This is a general problem of materialism. Materialism is incompatible with ethics. If everything is just matter--if mind is just a state of matter like temperature, then ethics too are just things that happen in matter, and are no more metaphysically significant than the course of a river. Your question assumes that mind is just a state of matter, but makes the contradictory assumption that rights are significant. If mind is just a state of matter, then rights are just a behavioral peculiarity of certain members of a species of ape. There is no metaphysical answer to your question. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 7:45
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    @DavidGudeman social contract theory completely disagrees with you, you might want to take a look. Even in a completely material world, if you punch me I am not going to like it. Most people would feel the same, and soon it would be a general agreement that punching people is bad and should expose wrongdoers to retaliation. Which is precisely ethics. And NONE of that implies a soul, an afterlife, or that anyone is more than just matter. The huge chip you have on your shoulder toward everyone who does not share your religious views make you spread ignorance. I hope it's not willingful.
    – armand
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 8:56

8 Answers 8

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Human rights are a political concept that is asserted to be philosophically self-evident by politicians.

In normative ethics, there is no general agreement about natural rights and on who should be granted them for the corner cases.

And there are already unclear cases with political and legal ambiguity without involving science fiction, such as for abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. Not so long ago rights of women were reduced compared to men's in most countries, and slavery and segregation is also not that long ago.

Philosophy on the whole seems to rather answer the question of "if something is human enough, should it have rights", but not the question "when is anything human enough to be human", leaving that question to other sciences and politics.

I personally find it easier to consider that anything else than average adults are granted political rights mostly by extension, meaning enough humans with unquestioned "natural" human rights demand that certain groups are included, (or they don't). This primary group are the bulk of society, those who would as an example have a right to vote. Those can decide as a society that unborn life of 6 months age being granted human rights, but not unborn life of 1 month age. Or to grant certain rights to dogs but not to cows, or vice versa.

So in descriptive ethics, we can analyse for each culture and time epoch, which rights were granted to entities who are not average adults. That seems much easier than to try to draw lines and find the properties from which natural rights supposedly derive, and then remove human rights from anyone not meeting that criteria.

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I kind of researched on this very topic, so bear with me when I refer mostly to question threads I contributed in.

The reactions to the question show a major conundrum of ethics: While the granting of "human rights" is almost unanimously considered to be bound to the status of being a person, there is neither a commonly accepted set of measurable properties that constitute personhood, nor a commonly accepted set of rights bound to this status. There even are various views on the status and extent of human rights in general. Even worse, there seem to be good reasons to assume that no given set of properties will sufficiently and exclusively cover the intended token entities meant with personhood (or being human, for that matter) only.

Therefore, any answer to your questions will come down to cultural preference.

There is only one philosophy of nature that has a concept of personhood that has properties which can be empirically verified as far as I am aware, and that is the philosophy of Helmuth Plessner. I warn you that this philosophy is exceedingly complex to understand but if you are so inclined, you can read up a bit on personhood/excentric positionality here.

Built on Plessner, Jos de Mul has worked a lot on ideas like yours. You might find something interesting for your purposes if you look in his publications.

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What is required for a being to be granted human rights?

This is how I think it works in the current world (and in the near future):

The being needs to trigger a sufficient empathic reaction from the politically relevant people in order for it to receive any rights. The more closely the being resembles a real human the more closely its rights will resemble full human rights. Rationality plays some role but empathy rules.

This is just my opinion but I believe you and your readers may find it compelling.

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  • I'd doubt the resemblance theory. You might look at racism both "black/white/asian" or "cultutral racism" and ethnicities where there's strong animosity and denial of rights happened despite high resemblance. Or how for some animals rights take a high standing despite little optical resemblance.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 14:08
  • @haxor789 Yes there are some exceptions, but at least in the current western world a being that resembles humans has a high chance of receiving human rights. And optical resemblance is not all there is to resemblance. Dogs have been bred to express extreme friendliness towards humans, up to a point where they are more friendly towards humans than any human has ever been. This has gained them a very good standing among humans despite them appearing much different. Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 16:18
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I'm voting to close because it violates the expectations of a single, focused, non-speculative question amenable to the Q&A format.

However, there are some pointers I'd offer.

  1. There is a difference between being a person and a member of Homo sapiens philosophically speaking. For instance, in the system of US slavery before it's abolition, Africans were not granted the status of personhood despite they rather convincingly were human beings in the biological sense. In law, the question might also come into play when someone is brain dead, though still alive, something called the persistent vegetative state in modern medicine.
  2. Ethics is a really, really broad field. If you're going to write about ethics, you might want to explore the topic in detail and come to terms with ideas like emotivism, deontology, and other terms like normative ethics. You're question demonstrates a lack of knowledge of what might be termed rather basic topics regarding ethics.
  3. Categorization is a complex topic. In regards to that, read over entries on necessity and sufficiency, prototype theory, and the sorites paradox. These philosophically adjacent topics provide some basic insights into the art of taxonomy. Even a field as established as biology has had revolutions lately regarding the use of clades to supplement less sophisticated thinking given the genetic revolution. The logic that one applies in one's taxonomy will determine the answers to your questions, such as does the logic include the law of the excluded middle?
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  • To provide a brief overview, species are roughly determined by genetic permutations with species roughly delineated by reproductive capacity between members. Sapiens could mate with neanderthalis, but not Pan troglogdytes, so humans and chimps are different. At one point, they had a common ancestor whose members could interbreed. When that stopped for biological reasons, viola, two species who share about 99% of genes. As genes slowly morph, animals slowly evolve, but they don't pop into existence spontaneously.
    – J D
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 17:44
  • Human rights are generally conferred by the establishment of personhood, which in US law actually includes rights given to corporations since they exist as persona ficta. It's the opposite absurdity as excluding humans based on their skin color.
    – J D
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 17:46
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Agreeing that this question as is phrased should be improved else closed.

I would like to say:

  1. Are you a human?
  2. How do you know?
  3. Can you identify other humans?
  4. In what sense are they similar or different to you?
  5. Are the common things shared more than the differences?
  6. Do they need to eat too, do they feel pain, do they need things you need in order for life to not be unbearable and problematic for them and others?
  7. Do these needs depend on whether I recognize them or not?
  8. Do we really need to speculate on our predecessors or other animals or simulations in order to recognize the needs and rights of current population now?

Answering honestly those questions will provide an answer.

Furthermore :

  1. What is a human need not be constant across time. Each time can have its own concept of rights for what is human at that time. This means that a predecessor of a modern human can deserve rights in its own respect. Whether they are called Australopithecus rights instead of Homo Sapiens rights is not our concern here. Moreover there is a unique link from Australopithecus (and earlier forms) up to modern Homo Sapiens.
  2. According to animal rights advocates, non-human animals equally deserve rights since the premises for rights (eg stemming from needs) are to a large extent common across most animals. Human-like intelligence is not among those premises.
  3. Whether a human can be simulated successfully is a hypothesis we need not take into account, unless this is in fact realized, and then we will have something concrete to talk about.
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You write, “ I don't expect any definitive answers”. That’s good. For here is my less-than-definitive response.

  1. If you could scan someone's brain, or the whole body for any matter, and simulate it (not simply emulate it) virtually, would the simulated person be granted human rights? Yes.

  2. What if you simulate the person's brain in a cybernetic body? Still Yes.

  3. What if it's an organic body? Yes.

  4. What if you modify a person's genes and turn the person into a dog? No.

  5. Or what if you could modify a dog's genes to make it smarter, how smart would it need to be to be granted human? When an average person could not tell the difference between the dog’s reactions and those of a human. When the difference, if any, is not measurable.

  6. As smart as the "dumbest" person? Some people are mentally impaired and will always have the mind of a 5 year old, and some dogs are as smart as 5 years old. Disputed.

  7. But what exactly is a human? If we had a record of every individual specimen that humans descended from since the first self-replicating molecules, could we pinpoint exactly when the first fully-fledged human was born? Yes

  8. That if I went to the past and killed him it would be considered that I killed a person and not an animal? Yes.

  9. Now from what I know, there is not a "sentience gene" that grants any species that has it human rights, and that makes intelligence more of a spectrum than a series of defined steps, so we could not define a point in the spectrum and say, "from this point on you're sentient.” No, but we might be able to say, “now you are self-aware.”

Thank you for posting this question. This one made me dust off the cobwebs.

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  • Thank you for the answer. Could you elaborate further on questions 7, 8, and 9? What is the objective characteristic that separates humans from animals that makes them self-aware? (that's what I meant by "sentient" by the way, though it might mean something completely different in actuality, pardon me if that's the case). Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 9:25
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The practical (if unsatisfying) answer to this question is that a human being is anyone or anything that can successfully argue that it deserves human rights. We aren't human because of genes, biological structures, specific cognitive abilities, or whatnot; we are human if (and only if) we achieve a context in which other human beings feel obliged to treat us as equals.

  • In the US, slaves were considered beasts until they were granted status as citizens after the civil war, but were still not considered fully human until they demanded rights in the 1960s
  • Women have historically been considered less than human, and are still viewed that way in many cultures

It's tempting to try to attribute some sort of 'ontological' feature that separates human from beast/machine, but it really boils down to a quasi-metaphysical self-awareness, in which something can see itself as a self deserving of equal treatment to other selves. If humanity encounters an alien being, an artificial intelligence, a genetically engineered creature (e.g., Rocket Raccoon), or other such entity, there will be an uncomfortable period where some of us refuse to accept it as deserving rights. That entity will not be considered as 'human' until (and if) it convinces us to respect its rights.

Sounds a bit backwards, I know, that the grating of rights defines what is human, but... Welcome to the post-modern world.

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Here is my response to @Paulo Raposo’s comment.

  1. But what exactly is a human? If we had a record of every individual specimen that humans descended from since the first self-replicating molecules, could we pinpoint exactly when the first fully-fledged human was born? Yes. I think that DNA analysis has progressed this far. There will never be such a record, of course; but the result is possible, if only in theory.

  2. That if I went to the past and killed him it would be considered that I killed a person and not an animal? Yes, because this living thing would be a human being.

  3. Now from what I know, there is not a "sentience gene" that grants any species that has it human rights, and that makes intelligence more of a spectrum than a series of defined steps, so we could not define a point in the spectrum and say, "from this point on you're sentient.” No, but we might be able to say, “now you are self-aware.” This one was tougher. The difference for me is that the thing entitled to rights would be able to learn and teach itself things and would understand what it was. Frankly, I think that Philip Klöcking had the best answer on this point.

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  • if awareness is what makes us humans, we would turn non humans when we sleep and we arent dreaming. There is no awareness whatsoever in that state. Also we could reach odd conclusions such as it isnt wrong to kill a human (turned non human by) if he was previously set unconscious by being doped or something
    – Pablo
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 21:23
  • @Pablo. I said this was a tough one. I meant that. Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 23:20

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