A Systems Perspective on Personhood

Recent issues concerning personhood

In the recent controversies over abortion, many conservatives have adopted the position that not only is a human fetus a person, but that a person comes into existence at the instant when a sperm penetrates the cell wall of an ovum.  They feel that the termination of a pregnancy at any point is inherently the killing of a person and so is morally repugnant under all circumstances.

An expansive notion of personhood, such as exemplified by this position, has many consequences that don’t appear to be fully considered yet.  The status of personhood involves many legal, moral, and ethical aspects.  This piece endeavors to examine multiple issues of personhood and the societal consequences of this status.

“Persons” are given various societal goods on the basis of their “personhood”.  These societal goods are not available to “nonpersons”.  Such societal goods include rights, freedoms, protections, and implicit shares in society’s commonwealth assets.  In parallel, “persons” have societal obligations and responsibilities as a consequence of their personhood.

Personhood conflicts

Difficulties emerge when the rights and freedoms of one “person” conflict in some manner with the rights and freedoms of another “person”.  Which “person” has rights that supersede those of the other “person”?  An example is whether the rights of a fetus supersede the rights of the woman carrying the fetus, such as when the pregnancy threatens the life or physical or mental health of the mother.

What exactly is a “person”?

Increasingly, we are grappling with the question of just how to define personhood.  In particular is personhood a single state?  Or are there degrees of personhood?

The definition of “person” and the associated social rights, freedoms, and protections have varied greatly over time and over different cultures and belief systems.  In most eras, women did not have the same rights, freedoms and protections as did men.  Similarly, slaves did not have the same rights, freedoms, and protections as free persons.  Prisoners still do not.  Previously, rights, freedoms and protections depended on race, class, and caste.  Children and youths have rights, freedoms, and protections that depend on age.  Recently we have been expanding various personhood protections (e.g., of disabled persons).

Cases important to consider for personhood now

There are a number of cases that need to be looked at now when thinking about who is a “person”:

  • In the U.S., courts have determined that corporations are “persons” in the eyes of the law.  The full meaning of this interpretation is very unclear. Just what rights, protections, and freedoms should they have?  And what obligations and responsibilities as a consequence?
  • Is a human ovum just penetrated one second ago by a sperm a person?  Is an 8-cell human zygote stored in a fertility clinic freezer a person?  Just when does such a biological entity become a person?
  • Is a human infant born with anencephaly a person?
  • Is a brain-damaged human adult kept on life support in a persistent vegetative state a person?
  • Is an elderly human adult with extreme senile dementia a person?
  • Is a human adult with extreme mental retardation a person?
  • Is a human conjoined twin with a single body and two heads one person…or two?
  • Would an augmented or modified human produced by genetic engineering be a person?  With what degree of augmentation or modification?
  • Would a recreated Neanderthal be a person?
  • Is a highly intelligent nonhuman mammal (e.g., a bottlenose dolphin, a chimpanzee, or an elephant) or a highly intelligent bird (e.g., a raven or parrot) a person?  If so, what are the required characteristics to qualify as a person?  Where should the line be drawn?
  • If we encountered one, would an extra-terrestrial alien with human-equivalent intelligence be a person?
  • Will a cyborg that has a combination of human and machine intelligence be a person?
  • Will a humanoid robot with a degree of self-awareness and agency be a person?
  • Will an AI software program running on a distributed network with self-awareness and agency be a person, even though it is entirely virtual, lacking a physical body?

Degrees of personhood and some consequences

If we decide to have degrees of personhood, how do we all agree on the scales and the associated rules?  How do we handle disputes about personhood? 

Societal obligations and responsibilities associated with degrees of personhood

Already, entities with qualified personhood due to age (e.g., infants and youths) are held to different societal obligations and responsibilities.  Similarly, we hold entities with qualified personage due to other factors (e.g., humans existing in a persistent vegetative state) to different societal obligations and responsibilities.

Ownership and personhood

The contemporary principles of ownership are as follows:  Non-person entities (e.g., intelligent animals) can be owned by persons.  Persons cannot be owned by other persons (as a result of the abolition of slavery).  Corporate persons modify this principle by being able to own other corporate persons.  Human persons can own corporate persons.

What will ownership come to mean, in the emerging world of multiple classes of personhood?

Consciousness as a factor in considering personhood

A key consideration is how consciousness factors into personhood.  Today, the meaning of consciousness is a subject of intense study and debate.  What exactly does it mean for an entity to be conscious?

When we speak of “consciousness”, there are actually multiple aspects to consider.  Sentience is defined as the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.  Animal rights activists note that animals have sentience, particularly in terms of their capacity to suffer.  They argue they should then be provided with certain rights and protections.  To what degree will we endow machine intelligences with sentience and feelings?  And what will be the consequences of doing so?

Self-awareness has to do with being conscious of and observing the flow of one’s thoughts.  This includes being aware of being aware and thinking about one’s thinking.  Self-awareness is kind of a meta-level of consciousness.  A significant portion of non-human animals can be shown to have at least some degree of self-awareness.  Although AI systems don’t need to have self-awareness to function, there is no barrier to having it.

Sapience is defined as the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, insight, and common sense.  Sapience is often equated with wisdom.  We even term our species homo sapiens sapiens: “man the wise”.  To what degree will we endow machine intelligence with the capacity for sapience?

Personhood gets particularly interesting when we try to consider advanced machine intelligences

At what point should we give rights, freedoms, and protections to machine intelligences?  There does not appear to be any fundamental reason why a machine intelligence cannot be programmed to have self-awareness and agency, so that it can have at least a degree of personhood.  And just what rights, protections, and freedoms do we give them in that event?  A current example is the debate as to whether bots have protected freedom of speech.  How are these rights, protections and freedoms distinguished from those of other types of persons?  Correspondingly, what responsibilities and obligations will be coupled with the rights, freedoms, and protections afforded to machine intelligences?  What share of the commonwealth resources will they be given?  Will machine intelligences be required to obey the same laws and rules as humans?  Pay assigned taxes and fees?  What else?  Serve on juries??  Perform national service??

Institutional aspects of personhood decisions

How do the various international declarations of human rights and responsibilities apply in the new cases we are beginning to consider?  These typically take the view that “everyone” is an equal person, with the same basic “personness”.  How will various human institutions come to agreement on the expanded concepts of personhood being considered here?

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