Re: PHILOSOPHY: Self Awareness and Legal Protection

Hal Finney (
Wed, 15 Jan 1997 09:24:57 -0800

From: "David Musick" <>
>Michael Bowling said, "I say self awareness in any being presupposes and
>necessitates legal rights and protection.".

I missed the quoted posting, but I would approach this question from a
different angle. Asking for legal protection of the rights of some entity
is basically requiring that other people agree with your belief that
it deserves those rights. Rather than take the jump of demanding that
other people agree with me, I prefer to first focus on my own actions.

What systems will I choose to treat as though they have rights? I find
this is a hard question to answer, so I will hesitate to demand that
other people draw the line in the same place that I do. It is still
useful to debate the question because the insights that other people
provide will help me to understand the issues better.

Moving away from the question of legal rights also removes the element
of threat from the discussion. I am no longer proposing to force others
to follow my views, I am simply debating some issues of philosophy.
This should facilitate an honest and discussion and remove some elements
of emotion.

David continues:

>What do you mean by "self awareness"? What are your criteria for "self
>awareness"? Is a dog self aware? Why or why not? Are plants self aware?
>Why or why not? As you're thinking about this, are you deliberately arranging
>the definition of "self awareness" so that it applies only to humans?

I believe that dogs are self aware but plants are not. I do not hesitate
to cut down trees or mow the lawn, but I would not chop a dog in two
without a very good reason. I don't consider insects to be self aware so
I freely kill ants and spiders. Fish are borderline for me; I have caught
fish for sport since I was a boy, but in recent years I have had trouble
convincing myself that it feels no pain from the hook and the capture.
I don't fish much any more.

>One could argue that a plant is self aware, because it adjusts its internal
>functioning according to it's needs, so the plant is aware of itself (it's
>needs) to some extent.
>Does "awareness" mean 'responding to stimulii'? If so, then "self awareness"
>would seem to mean 'responding to self generated stimulii'. This definition
>of "self-awareness" would cover many, many types of organisms. Should these
>organisms receive legal protection?

Actually I think the term "self aware" is somewhat redundant for my
purpose. What I am really interested in is awareness, which I use as a
synonym for consciousness. It's not clear whether something could have
conscious awareness without being aware of itself. If it did, I'm not
sure how I should act towards it. Perhaps killing it is OK since it
would presumably not directly perceive the action, since it is not aware
of itself. On the other hand, that would terminate its consciousness.

Of course, I don't know with certainty that plants have no conscious. But
I base my judgement on the observation that in humans, brains are necessary
for consciousness, and damage to the brain generally causes damage to the
consciousness. Plants have no brains or brain-like organs, as far as I
know, so I assume that they are unconscious.

>Why should legal protection be based on how *conscious* a system is? Why not
>on how beautiful a system is or on how much it weighs or some other property?
>(Typically, it's based on how similar the system is to those granting legal
>protection.) If a conscious or even sentient system is unable to defend itself
>from injury or destruction, do other conscious systems have an *obligation* to
>protect it if they are able to? Why or why not?

Here is where the issue of legal rights is clouding the issue. Let me
restate David's question and ask, why do I choose to base my recognition
of the rights of beings on whether they are conscious, versus whether they
are beautiful?

I don't agree with David's parenthetical suggestion that it is because this
is an element of similarity between myself and the other. I have many, many
attributes beyond consciousness! This explanation fails to suggest in any
way why I focus on this one small aspect of myself. Why would I not suggest
that I will only recognize the rights of beings with arms, or with brown
hair, or the ability to make music, or any of the myriad other attributes
which I possess?

The reason I focus on consciousness is because I believe that it
is a prerequisite for a being to care what happens to it. Only with
consciousness can a being suffer pain or feel emotions. Conscious beings
are the only ones that I can try to imagine what it would be like to
be that entity. I really can't imagine what it would be like to be a
rock, or a plant. I picture myself solid, hard, sitting on a mountain
slope, or greenly growing, my roots sucking moisture from the earth while
my leaves take energy from the sun. But I see these as ultimately just

If I imagine if I am a puppy, playing roughly with my litter-mates,
running to the protection of my mother, that is an image which I view
as having a kernel of truth in that the puppy really does have feelings
analogous to what I have described, even though I can't really know
what it is like to be him. But this is enough for me to treat the puppy
differently than the rock or plant.

>These issues are important to think about. Providing legal protection can be
>very costly, and we should carefully consider our stand on when it should or
>should not be provided. Do we prosecute someone for killing a tree because we
>believe the tree was "self aware" and deserved our protection? How about an
>animal, such as a dog or a cat? How about a human fetus? How about an infant
>or a child? Or an adult human? How about a very advanced AI?

Even avoiding the questions of legality, I view these issues as important.
Especially as we approach an era where we may be able to create advanced
AI's, we will all have to decide how to act towards them, as in the recent
thread about very smart video game opponents.