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“Robots will never be People and should never have rights” – Really?

December 31, 2009

For many, I know, this is a conundrum. This month the possibility of a future where rights extend beyond humans is in focus again, with Peter Singer’s well argued piece in the Guardian, that if we create machines (robots) that are self-aware, sentient or sapient then we have a moral responsibility to treat them with respect – that this respect should be their right.

Wesley J Smith on First Things refutes Singer’s arguments.

Why, you ask, is this subject posted on this blog? … well, becasue the same arguments used by Smith are regularly trotted out to dismantle any notion that other species might have any measure of rights; that human superiority is sacrosanct.

Smith calls people like me ‘anti-human exceptionalists’ and claims we:

“… always seem to look for ways in which animals, robots–and whatever other category [we] wish to elevate in moral value to human equivalence–mimic distinctly human capacities and activity–proving, if nothing else, that humans are the lodestar for moral worth.”

Not so. Many of us have long-argued for the rights of sentient beings, regardless of their similarity to humans. The global upsurge of environmental awareness has lead to a vocal desire for natural places and some groups of species, such as the primates, whales and dolphins (cetaceans) and elephants (proboscidea), to be protected for their inherent or intrinsic value, regardless of their value (or similarity) to humankind.

Perhaps this is simply a natural progression of the expanding circle of human ethics and a response to a sense of kinship with the non-human world that shares our planet. For me it indicates that the time is now to harness this philosophical interest to expand the moral community to include non-human animals. I know that others will disagree.

Meanwhile, despite the human exceptionalists, science has demonstrated that many species of primates, cetacean and proboscidea also have significant cognitive capacity,  slow reproduction and heavy investment in the development of each offspring; these species engage in complex social interactions with each other and with their environment; and there is a tantalizing emergent reality of cultural transmission of knowledge and skills. (I have a long, peer-reviewed list of journal articles that I am happy to share with anyone who is interested!). For instance, elephants have an exceptional ability to integrate information from a wide variety of spatial-temporal and social domains, resulting in remarkable long-term, spatial-temporal and social memory.

Such scientific evidence does not fit comfortably into the sustainability paradigm nor the belief-set of human exceptionalism which only understands ‘nature’ as a resource. However, what is difficult for them to refute is that even without such scientific evidence, these species are already accepted by many sectors of the global community as ‘beyond use’ because of an intangible belief in their inherent value and that ‘using’ them is wrong. In a few cases this belief has already developed into a normative legal right of survival.

It is clear that if we seek a humane human society we must move from concentrating on ‘reducing suffering’ to recognizing that many animals have a consciousness and are entitled to better – that sentient or sapient animals have rights which should be recognized. I see the same line or argument applying to such machines, if we ever create them.

Sentient is sentient.

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