sentient rights (was RE: Battleground God)

From: Phil Osborn (
Date: Tue Feb 26 2002 - 20:43:59 MST

>Thus with respect to beings with below human levels of intelligence, which are otherwise rather similar to us (eg: mammals), it is difficult to see where lines could rightly be drawn to grant us rights but deny the same to them. After all, in a context
where we are talking about becoming SIs, etc, the difference between a human and, say, a dog, is negligable.

I agree that the basic potential is probably there for dogs to reach true sentience - barely, given a truly accellerated early childhood environment. I suspect that even then, the smartest dog would rank as a low-grade moron in human terms. Dogs can be very smart on the perceptual level, but it's the ability to abstract common characteristics from a set of concretes, perceptual or mental, and form a symbolic operator that distinguishes us from them and other terran animals.
Dogs can do this, I know, as can parrots, mynas, ravens, chimpanzees, most higher apes doubtless and probably many of the cetaceans. But they are - with the possible working exception of some of the cetaceans - only able to get to the first level
of perceptual-based concepts, with rare exceptions, meaning that they could never reach the singularity without the help of a truly sentient species.
Humans, on the other hand, can perform limitless abstractions on abstractions. As far as we know, no area of knowledge is closed to us in theory, although the practicalities would indicate that a true SI would handle abstractions trivially that we struggle
lifetimes to dimly grasp.
Without the proper early-learning environment, of course, we humans don't do very well either, as in the wild child of Avignon, etc.
In the case of "rights," however, there are some fine distinctions to be made that pretty much rule out most of the other animals - with higher apes and cetaceans a maybe...
A "right" - from Rand (and Morris and Linda annehill, who did some nice parsing of this in their "The Market for Liberty," still probably the best introduction to anarcho-capitalism) - is an ethical sanction against interference with ones action. This presumes a clear understanding of the component terms - ethical, sanction, action.

Rights are a negative concept, in that they define when we can properly forbid someone else from interfering with what we choose to do. Without rights and the structure of ethics and contract and the social mechanisms to interpret and enforce conflicts that arise as we bump into each other, we would spend much or our time simply protecting ourselves instead of being productive.

Assuming for a moment, as Rand does, that the pursuit of values necessary to preserve ones life and happinesss is inherently good - almost a tautology
if you take life as the moral standard - then we can each individually morally justify preventing interference with our actions aimed at that end.
Presumeably a "dumb animal" could do the same, by the same standard. However, the most precise formulation of the definition of rights does not use "moral sanction," but rather "ethical sanction," taking "ethics" as the formal application of morality
- the science of values - to the universe of society.
Morality, or "meta-ethics," as some would term it (although really meta-ethics - above or about ethics - should deal exclusively with the issues that delimit the field of ethics itself) would still be perfectly applicable to a man alone on a desert island. He would still have values and there would be choices to be made. He could act immorally - denying his own
long term values - like the sailor in "Blue Lagoon" who drank himself to death, or he could focus on what the most rational course of action was and pursue it with total dedication, like Tom Hanks in "Castaway." He would not need ethics, however. It simply wouldn't apply.
Ethics does apply to society, where it is essential in defining the proper boundaries that keep us from colliding in our individual pursuits, in creating a framework for efficient cooperation, and in specifying the rules by which conflicts should
be resolved. A proper ethics optimizes the return upon our choice to partake in organized society. A bad, corrupt ethics, such as the Judeo-Christian
altruist standard, turns everyone against everyone and/or works to benefit the dishonest few who have rigged the game, at the expense of everyone.
Because adherence to such an ethics is critically important to survival - the alternative being the universal use of brute force and the adoption of a predatory lifestyle - we place great value upon knowing that our companions are indeed "ethical," that we can safely invite them into our homes, do business with them without paranoid security systems, etc.

Other human beings are, after all, the source of 99.999% of all the valuable things, experiences and ideas in our lives (which shows just how successful ethics has in fact been - even the corrupted ethics that currently prevail.).
Further, and perhaps just as important, we, as well as probably all other mammals as well as birds perceive ourselves via open, honest interactions with our fellow humans. In fact, this is the ONLY way we can truly perceive ourselves, apart from the mere physical image in a mirror. Other sentient creatures provide a mirror to our consciousness, and thereby a check upon insidious loops of insanity parasiting off our mental machinery.
Since lower animals also need this interaction - as demonstrated by a plethora of deprivation experiments with mice, rats, monkeys, etc. - why do we not accord them rights as well? The reason is fairly simple, although subtle. We don't need to - usually.

For example, we gain no advantage as omnivores in categorically renouncing meat-eating. It may
be more healthy, but there will be times when that's all that is available. We deal with cows as we choose, without any inherent economic downside to our predation.

Try that with humans and not only will the general level of productivity suffer if you manage to become a little dictator, or a thief or con artiste, but you will be risking massive retaliation and be forced, if you are rational, to constantly expend energy and time watching your back. The more productive people there are, the better off everyone is. The more thieves there are, the worse off everyone is. Even the thieves are hurt by having too many thieves around.
Similarly, and perhaps just a important, we usually gain no advantage in personal visibility, as discussed above, from granting rights to rats, crows, pigeons, dire wolves or saber-toothed tigers - the latter two having been exterminated by humans for good reason. (Note that if the tigers or wolves had been sentient, it would have been a different ball game, as contractual based specialization could have arisen - as essentially did happen eventually with wolves (i.e., dogs)).

If a person actually has a personal relationship with a lower animal, then it may be important and mutually beneficial to put that relationship on a footing of mutal respect for the pursuits of each other, and an implicit granting of basic rights, and many lower animals do clearly have the capacity for behaving in accordance with such an implicit compact and reciprocating in kind.

By a kind of extension, a pet dog acquires rights of a sort by virtue of his relationship to his owner that go beyond those of mere physical property, such as a car. The dog's owner is behaving in a relationship that involves a mutual recognition of rights between him and his pet - else it is a very violent and sad relationship. The dog, for instance, in guarding the house of his owner, becomes an agent of the owner.

The implicit understanding between owners and pets who they love, that each is of great value to the other, and that each will behave in accordance with that fact - as in dogs who heroically rescue owners or their children from fires - becomes by extension a recognition of certain bounded rights for that particular dog - and pet dogs in general, although not the same open-ended rights that humans have.

Obviously, this line of analysis, (which is somewhat new to me, so I'm exploring this as I'm writing) may also have direct bearing upon the rights of children...
My own personal interspecies experience includes long-term dealings with parrots, crows, cats and dogs. I know from many, many experiences that a lot of dogs are incredibly sensitive to the emotional states of humans. Often they can tell from a distance whether you are afraid of them or not. (Not all dogs can do this reliably - it does have a strong learned component, and the newer breeds of attack dogs have had a lot of the empathy bred out of them.)
More importantly for the course of this discussion, as it helps me make a piont, dogs are often quite adept at detecting whether you are being emotionally open with them or putting up a front. I learned decades ago that I could literally control many dogs' behavior from thirty feet away simply by choosing to suppress my feelings or allowing myself to feel them. I don't know what subliminal vocal or olfactory cues I was giving off, but it definitely worked.
Dogs clearly percieve emotional suppression as a threat - much more of a threat than simple anger or fear directed at them. They will usually shy away from someone - or attack them - who is suppressing fear, not someone who is afraid. It is thus that they can tell friends from enemies. Their friends don't have to hide anything. (Smarter dogs are quite capable of trickery.)
(On the flip side of this, taking a leaf from Wilhelm Reich, the control mechanisms of society are largely about keeping people in a state of deprivation in terms of emotional interaction. Since this is one of the most important needs - especially in the formative years (see the most recent Scientific American for some real breakthrough research on the actual measureable brain damage that such deprivation causes - especially for boys), it is only natural that when the real needs are not met, then symbolic
needs can be easilly substituted, pretty much a definition of neurosis. Once you've got someone hooked on symbolic substitutes, you've really got them, as the substitutes never actually satisfy the original real need.)

I want to introduce some archaic terminology here, as there really is no good substitute. The term I'm bringing into play is "honor." This is something that nowdays is seen in parody more than elsewhere perhaps, and has suffered conflations similar to that of "hero" with "victim." O'well. I'm sure that there are better definitions, but off the top of my head, being "honorable" means not having anything about yourself, especially your motives, that you should rationally need to hide. Or, another perspective of the same issue, living in such a way that you would want yourself as a neighbor and a companion in times of peril. I.e., not living as a cheat or a predator.

In society, the primary beneficiary of a commitment to honorable behavior is not other people. It is ones self, in the most literal sense. A person who knows that he or she will behave honorably - meaning, among other things, respecting the rights of others and not taking unfair advantage of them, or treating others with justice as a central principle - does not have to constantly second guess his or her own
reactions in fear that others will discover his real nature.
But then there's the rub... What happens when being honest is directly opposed to staying alive - as a Jew in NAZI Germany, for example? It is "civil society" that is required to make honorable behavior possible and profitable. In civil society, neither ones beliefs alone nor ones expression of them is likely to get one killed or beaten up.

When civil society is torn apart and set against itself, as with religious wars, such as our current incredibly devastating War on Drugs, when people have to conceal who they really are, and can only open up to members of their own belief, tribe, gang, party, etc., then honorable behavior can become a liability.

With the loss of honor as a basis for rational behavior goes also trust, as rights devolve to mere material economic utility, and we see a increasingly draconian use of force to enforce and protect them, as people lose their natural honor-based inclination to behave ethically regardless of whether a cop is watching. Then only iron-clad contracts can ensure compliance and various expensive economic mechanisms must be employed to provide the security necessary to carry out normal business - the sad situation in China, for example, for most of its history.

(It is damnably difficult to invoke a concept such as "rights," which we of the West have enough trouble keeping clear, when you don't first have a concept of objectivity. How, in practice, can you make the kind of precise decisions about property boundaries that we demand of our courts to resolve our disputes, if you can't agree that there is an objective reality? Answer: you don't, and it devolves to force. Who has power gets everything else. Who lacks power will lose everything. You get to build your dam if you are the strongest, slyest and meanest and can hang onto your stones long enough to pile them up. Otherwise, someone more capable in those areas will use your stone to build their wall.)

This has been kind of a round about discussion of the original concept - rights and whether they apply to lower animals, but I hope that the various issues I've raised will provoke more concise and precise responses.

To conclude then, rights are a way of conceptualizing the fact that in normal society - as opposed to various lifeboat situations - we have to be able to act with some assurance that the stone we used for a dam won't simply be carted off by the next passerby for his wall. Both from a purely practical materialistic economic basis and from profound psychological needs, we need a structure of ethics based on rights - our ability to deny someone else the option to interfere with us. All rights are both a right to action - based on our fundamental need to act freely in order to survive and prosper - and a right to property, if only in our own bodies.

Rights then are a fundamental part of the structure of society that makes civil society,and thus honorable behavior, and thus real emotional interaction, and thus personal visibility, and thus long-term sanity and happiness possible.

This also applies, as I've discussed, if you want a personal relationship with a lower animal. On some level, you have to respect their rights in that context, and by extension, other people are bound to respect the resultant rights of that animal. This is not some mystical metaphysical concept, but simply an application of practical ethics and the psychological need to maintain honorable relationships.

In general, however, no one should have to conceal that he or she is a carnivore - just so long as you don't eat other people. ;)

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