Transcription: Are There Non-human Persons? Are There Non-person Humans? | Glenn Cohen | TEDxCambridge - YouTube

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00:00:00
, [ Applause, ], .

We all try to live moral lives.
I say try because we don't always succeed.
One of the ways we try and do this is what we teach our kids kids ask a lot of questions.

If your kid comes to you and says, can I hit this baseball with this bat? Dad you say sure you encourage it.
Your kid comes to you and says: can I hit grandma, you say no, don't do that.
That would hurt grandma.

That would be wrong.
Okay, so far so good, but of course there's more in the universe than just baseballs and grandmas.
What happens when your kid asks you about this entity? Yeah, I'm talking about Big Bird is Big Bird more like Grandma or more like the baseball dad.

Would it be wrong to hit Big Bird to kill Big Bird to eat Big Bird? Well, you might say: ok, actually, Big Bird is a fictional character, lives on Sesame Street fine, but there are a bunch of other entities out there in the world that are equally perplexing.
What do you tell your child if they ask about destroying an embryo or a fetus? That's a pretty precocious child.
Ask that question.

What do you say if your child asks about Coco the gorilla who can understand more than 2000 words of American English, can sign in gorilla, sign language and even adopted a kitten at one point she treated like a child.

00:01:38
Well, what about entities that are made of wires and gears rather than flesh and blood mr.
data from Star Trek or the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica? Well, what about artificial intelligences AIS, who may not have a body or may have many bodies, think about a really intelligent version of Siri on your iPhone or Alexa from Amazon? Would it be wrong to erase one of them? You might think, there's a very simple answer to these very complex questions and that's just look at science.

Science will give us all the answers.

00:02:14
We need in particular, biology we're human they're, not focus on appearance, focus on morphology and that's the answer to your question.
But I want to caution you against that answer, because that answer is responsible for some of the worst atrocities humans have perpetrated in the last 400 years, whether it's American slavery or the Rwandan genocide.

That is the answer that causes that kind of thinking and for me, this part of the story is very personal.

00:02:43
When I was 22 years old, I spent a summer working for the judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda who were hearing genocide prosecutions.
When I first arrived, I really had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that 1/2 of a population could kill another half based on what seemed to me to be small, maybe even imperceptible biological differences, ethnic differences, but the more time I spent doing that Work, the more I understood that this was the end result of a process of depersonalization to take the other and treat the other as less than a person, and indeed in Kenya.

Rwanda word that was used for the Tutsis was in yinz, which means cockroach the idea being that killing one of them was no worse than stepping on a cockroach.
We want to avoid the same mistakes of our ancestors three hundred years from now.
We don't want our descendants to be judging us with horror and disgust and to do that, we have to stop making a simple but fundamental error.

That error is in some ways a linguistic error.
It's the way we use the words human and person in ordinary language.
We use these two terms pretty interchangeably, but I want to suggest to you they're radically different categories: human, that's a biological category means a member of the species, Homo sapiens sapiens or at least the genus homo count, the chromosomes Big Bird out grand Mayan.


00:04:11
By contrast, although we use the word person pretty loosely to mean the same thing: in ordinary English in law and and ethics, we mean something more specific.
We mean an entity that has certain rights or certain duties, the most important right being the right not to be armed or killed without a very good reason.
Now, once we understand this distinction between human and person, we can see that we're making a mistake by saying human equals person.

Human does not equal person.
In particular, there can be non human persons, and what do I mean by this? I want you to indulge me in a little thought: experiment imagine you're on an airplane it's early morning, you're tired, so you get one of those eye shades trying to get some Z's and someone sits next to you and they're kind of annoying they're chattering.
Quite a bit, unless you chatter turns out it's big bird now, don't ask too many questions about.

Why and my thought experiment.
Big bird is flying commercial.
Just go with me on that right.

So big bird is next year, wouldn't he seem to you with your eye shade on just like every sweet friendly, silly, sometimes annoyingly hyperactive child you'd ever met.
Someone tried to come over and bully big bird.
Would you not want to stop them? Would you don't want to give big bird shelter someone tried to come over and try to eat big bird, so maybe like really big chicken McNuggets? Would you not react with horror and disgust? Would you not want to intervene? Why does it matter when you take off your eye, mask and see the big bird has feathers a tender than skin? Why should that make a difference in terms of big birds, moral standing? It should not now.

I know what you might be thinking by this point.
You might be thinking is this a talk aimed at making me think that all animals and all artificial intelligences have all the rights of humans.
No rights are complicated.

To think for every right we can talk about.
We'd have to think what are the morally relevant characteristic of an entity that affords it that right, but not another, just because you recognize one right, a right not to be harmed or killed without a very good reason does not mean you're obligated to give an entity Every right: nobody, for example, suggesting that goldfish should have the right to vote as inside there's nothing about our being human.
That makes us the sole decider on these questions.


00:06:36
If we had animals or AIS that could communicate, that could reason they could be purchased these discussions.
They would have a seat at the table, not merely be the subjects of discussions.
What's important, though, is understanding why it's necessary to take a person centric, not a species, centric conception of who gets protection? If I would ask you why you, but not another entity, deserves protection, and you answered it's because I'm human, that's no better! An answer, then, because I'm white was in apartheid.

South Africa, as Peter Singer recognized long ago, just as racists do wrong by favoring their race over all others, just on the basis of racial differences, so species ist's do wrong by favoring their species over all others, just on the basis of species difference now.
At this point of the talk, you may have a very pressing concern.
You a little shy to express it.

So let me express it for you go something like this.
I really like bacon some bacon fans in the audience.

00:07:39
Does this mean I have to give it up Cohen? What are you telling me? Well, the answer is: maybe maybe not just because you believe that there can be non-human persons that some nonhumans are persons doesn't mean that every animal in every AI is a person.

Instead, what we need is a set of criteria for personhood, that is, species neutral.
It doesn't depend just on species and depending on how you define those criteria, the community of persons could be wider or narrower.
So let me tell you about a few big definitions of personhood and bioethics.


00:08:17
One set of definitions, sometimes called capacity X views capacity X on these theories you ask, does an entity have a particular capacity and we fill in the blank with the X.
If the theory you have is the capacity to engage in complex reasoning towards future oriented events, then very few animals will qualify, but some like Coco might.
By contrast, if your definition of capacity X is the ability to feel pleasure or pain, then many animals will qualify and you're gon na have to think about changing your diet.


00:08:52
To be completely Frank, there are also more complicated theories.

00:08:55
You could say it could be one among a list of capacities or jointly requiring two or more capacities, but on just about every capacity X view.
An entity like Big Bird will qualify as a person there's a second set of views I want to Express - and these are particularly relevant to debates about abortion and stem-cell derivation they're called potentiality views on this view.

It's not whether an entity actually has a capacity.
It's whether they have the potential for that capacity.
We ask in the ordinary course of things.

Is this the kind of entity that would have this capacity? So babies, for example, are not born with the ability to engage in complex reasoning, but we know that they will develop into children into adolescents into adults who will, and we say because of their potential - we ought to treat them like persons now.
A lot of work is going to be done by that concept.
Of the ordinary course of things is that a concept of development or a concept of transformation is our sperm.

The kind of thing than the ordinary course of things becomes an adult.
What about a fetus? What about an embryo some very hard line, drawing problems we find this complex.
If, at this point, your head is hurting a little bit believe it or not.

That's a good thing why it means you're opening up your eyes to the complexity of the moral world around you and while it may be a little bit frightening to consider these questions to face them head-on.

00:10:25
I want to urge you not to retreat into the comfort of human equals person when we know that gets the moral world wrong.

00:10:32
So what I've tried to tell you is, when you think about persons realize that many of them won't look anything like us.


00:10:40
They could have feathers, they could have gears, maybe they don't even have bodies when you encounter an entity and want to know how to treat it.

00:10:47
Don't ask.
Is it human, that's the wrong question? Instead, what you should ask is: what are the capacities needed for personhood and does this entity have it or not? Now, if you paid close attention to the title of my talk, you remember there were two questions.

One question whether there are non-human purr, I tried to argue their candy, but the second question is: are there non person tunes? Are there non person humans, and this is a much more disturbing and frightening set of questions you might be tempted to say, let's just expand.
The community beyond humans, but, of course every human being, is a person.
Indeed, we talk about human rights right, the rights you have just by virtue of being a human being.

Why not give all humans an automatic, pass and say we're all persons? Well, when it comes to big bird or alexa or other AIS, we said that you need to look to their capacities rather than merely judging them on the basis of their species or their category.
If that's right as to Big Bird, why not apply the same theory to our own species? Isn't it a little species is to say we're special in this regard? Now, if your theory of personhood is something like the ability to feel pleasure and pain, then almost all humans will qualify and it'll be easy, but then again so will almost all animals.
On the other hand, if your theory of personhood is more demanding the ability to engage in complex reasoning to plan for the future, if that's your theory, then, through the unfortunate existence of severe developmental disabilities, there are some human beings who may not qualify on that theory.

Are we really prepared to say that they're, not persons, are we really prepared to say they ought not to get the protection from harm we give other human beings? I'm gon na try to give you a way out of this problem, but I'm not going to vouch for the fact but it'll satisfy you or not, but here goes even if and I'm very explicitly, gon na leave it as an F.
Even if we think there are some humans that do not meet the capacities or the potentiality for capacities of persons, we might nonetheless have good reasons to extend to them the protection from harm or being killed.
Why? Well, maybe it's because they've got parents and siblings? Who love them and those entities are persons and for those persons interests we extend the protection or maybe it's because we think human beings are very bad decision-makers.

We get things wrong a lot.
We want to err on the side of caution, be over inclusive, or maybe it's because we're worried about the dulling of sensitivities.
This completely resolved the question.

No, I'm not trying to convince you that it does instead.
My goal here today is to make you realize it's something you might have taken for granted, something you may not even have thought about before you entered this room that human equals person is probably wrong, but the right way to approach these problems is through a person.
Centric, not a species centric conception of who deserves protection, that to favor your species just on the basis of species membership is a moral wrong, no better than racism.

And finally, while when we look at these difficult questions, these complex questions, these frightening questions about personhood.

00:14:09
We may be tempted to retreat to comfortable ground, but if we want to live that moral life, we want to teach our children right from wrong.
We have to face them head-on.

Thank you very much.
[ Applause, ] [, Music ].
You .


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