Re: A Bioethical Foundation for Human Rights

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Fri Nov 02 2001 - 03:26:54 MST

On Thu, Nov 01, 2001 at 09:02:04PM -0500, Smigrodzki, Rafal wrote:
> Mere understanding of the concept of self is not enough, but a wish without
> understanding is impossible. So animals (with perhaps the exception of some
> primates, etc.) do not have a right to live (didn't we discuss this subject
> about five months ago?). Sentient objects without a wish to live (as some
> AI's of the future might be designed to be) can be terminated without worry.

Actually, if you study animal behavior you will find that many animals do
have something that appears as a wish to live - when subjected to pain and
danger they try to escape it, sometimes going at great lengths of pain and
suffering just to survive. They might not have an elaborate world- or
self-model and it is not quickly or easily adjusted, but the purposeful
action towards survival is there. They wish for survival, although their
understanding of what survival means is only partial compared to human

I agree with you about the AIs, although they still might have a right to
self determination.
> The word "innocent" stands here for a large and unwieldy meme-complex. In
> this context it means that those who do not recognize innocent individuals'
> wish to live, are themselves not innocent - they are guilty of disrespecting
> a life-wish, and for precisely that reason their wish to live need not be
> respected. While on a cognitive level such persons might be quite higly
> placed, from a moral standpoint their level of sentience is no longer
> relevant. Whether they are dehumanized totally, losing their rational
> faculties, or whether their only failing is a lack of concern for the
> survival wishes of other entities, the conclusion is the same - they may be
> terminated as needed to advance the life-wish of innocent humans.

Does this mean that you are allowed to shoot sociopaths whenever you feel
like it? It does advance the life-wish of innocent humans.

>However, the commision of murder(=killing of an innocent
>self-aware entity against its wishes) or even a verifiable willingness to
>commit murder, is reason enough to lose the right to live

If you were an anti-abortionist this would be a great argument for killing
abortion doctors and pro-abortion people, wouldn't it? The biggest danger of
your argument is that it can be interpreted so broadly.

This goes far beyond merely being allowed to strike back at somebody
initiating force against you, since it also allows you to make pre-emptive
strikes against people judged (by whom?) as *potentially* able to initiate

There is a terrible danger in making rights contingent on mental states that
cannot be checked, rather than based on actual behavior. Beside the obvious
slippery slope of making other, less central rights (such as freedom and
property) also contingent on having the right thoughts and beliefs *as judged
by others*, revoking the right to live now depends on a judgement of mental
capability which is quite subjective, easily affected by prejudices and
self-interest and in general hard to control.

There is also a clear social danger here, since people now have no guarantees
for their lives and hence no reason to refrain from bad behavior if they have
reason to think that others consider them lacking rights - in fact, it is
imperative for them to act before their opponents.

Sure, a strict legal regulation of this might solve some of the direct
problems, but legislation is not ethics - and if you try to legislate away
ethical problems they tend to come back and bit you. A society where the
right to life is not universal and can be revoked not just for actions but
because your *thinking* violates certain standards sounds like an extremely
dangerous situation.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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