Re: A Bioethical Foundation for Human Rights

From: Smigrodzki, Rafal (SmigrodzkiR@MSX.UPMC.EDU)
Date: Mon Nov 05 2001 - 13:03:11 MST

 Anders Sandberg <> wrote:

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
> understanding is impossible. So animals (with perhaps the exception of
> primates, etc.) do not have a right to live (didn't we discuss this
> 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

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 would tend to differentiate between actions conducive to survival but
not dependent on having a sense of self (as in a nematode running away from
a gradient of a chemical poison) and actions intended to enhance survival
(as in the eradication of the smallpox virus). The former are not evidence
of a wish to live, merely the evidence of instinctual survival mechanisms,
with the animal not aware that the action prolongs survival - the only
sensation that the nematode feels is a changed activity of poison sensors,
not a feeling of having escaped death. In the latter example, coordinated
action is undertaken, with a clear goal of prolonging survival, with a wish
to live, rather than just evade pain. In fact, preventing smallpox increases
your likelihood of suffering - instead of dying early, you might live a long
life of sorrow. So, animals (at least the simple ones) have a wish not to
feel pain (hunger, thirst, etc.), therefore we shouldn't expose them to such
feelings frivolously but we can kill them, as in euthanizing of terminally
ill pets. Humans (and maybe some higher animals) want to live for the sake
of life itself, therefore they have a right to live.


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

#### If there was a highly reliable method of diagnosing sociopathy (for the
sake of this discussion let's define it as a stable lack of concern for the
survival wishes of other people, despite being fully aware of them) then it
would be perfectly reasonable to pre-emptively control such persons,
especially by preventing them from ever being in a position of force without
direct supervision (as in working in a nursing home as an aide - this is a
situation where you can find a fair number of sociopaths, who then enjoy
torturing their weak and frequently demented patients). This is quite
similar to keeping dangerous animals away from places where they could cause
problems, lions in cages or out in the savanna, and shooting those that
escape or sneak into nursing homes, even before they bite somebody. Even
though lions and sociopaths have the same attitude toward humans (they will
kill and eat them if hungry), we do not necessarily have to kill them, but
we may do so if needed. A sociopath who would escape supervision is more
dangerous than a lion and any means are justified in stopping him.

>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.

#### Anti-abortionnists do not define murder as I do - they have epistemological difficulties leading them to erroneously conclude that embryos have human rights. So, their ethics might be unimpeachable (they want to kill those who initiate violence against defenseless children) but their knowledge of the world is poor, therefore they make wrong decisions. I don't think that my basic argument can be abused any more than other principles. After all, "striking back" can also be very broadly interpreted.

---- 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 force.

There is a terrible danger in making rights contingent on mental states that cannot be checked, rather than based on actual behavior.

### You are entirely correct - however, the problem you are pointing to is not an ethical issue per se - it is much more of a problem with having a limited knowledge of mental states. Presently we have only very unreliable tools for predicting somebody's likelihood for sociopathic behavior but in the future you might be able to predict with a great degree of certainty that the person sitting next to you in the cafeteria would immediately kill you if you were defenseless, had no social structure to protect you and he could take your breakfast. The least you would need to do would be to prevent ever being at the mercy of such a person (never let him join the police, run for office). ------

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.

### These are important arguments, especially the self-interest one, but again, they are valid only if our methods of predicting human behavior are subjective - if you can run a virtual reality test on a person (with the person being unaware of the simulation), and he repeatedly shows objectively a disregard for the life of others (will almost always kill an elderly couple in an expensive car, stranded on a highway at night, just to get a ride in the car) then the answers are much less subjective. His beliefs are not so important as is his willingness to kill innocent persons, which revokes his own right to live. If you kill in VR, you might kill in RR, so it's OK to kill you for real. -----

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.

#### All people have guaranteed survival as long as they do not want to take other innocent person's lives - only sociopaths are in a different situation. There are maximal reasons for refraining from bad behaviour or being ready to behave badly. Sociopaths are dangerous even if they are under supervision, mainly because they are likely to be destructive regardless of the consequences, on an impulse. If you have no means of physically controlling them, keeping them far away on the Hades Penal World, or somewhere, your best option is to destroy them before they destroy 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.

#### By the way, correct me if I am wrong, you agree that the right to live might be revoked for actions, right?

I agree that under present circumstances it would be suicidal to allow more extensive limitations to the right live but in the future this might change, just as slavery is now a thing of the past due to both technological and ethical progress.

Rafal Smigrodzki, MD-PhD

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