Re: A Bioethical Foundation for Human Rights

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Wed Oct 31 2001 - 13:03:21 MST

I would say it makes sense to grant rights to entities based on their
ability to understand and demand these rights. This is seen in the
development of rights during childhood: first comes the right to life,
later the right of ownership and eventually the whole set of social
rights such as the right to vote. Currently this is largely handled by a
timing system where you get certain rights at certain ages, but in
principle this could instead be done by having some form of test for
each right - you gain the right to vote when you fully understand it,
you gain the right to formally own when you show you can manage your
economy and so on.

Possible transhuman and posthuman rights like the right to modify one's
brain freely might also be granted in this way. Especially rights to
activities that are incomprehensible to ordinary humans are only granted
once the being can demonstrate comprehension of them.

On Wed, Oct 31, 2001 at 09:53:30AM -0600, William John wrote:
> Those that behave in a criminal and irrational, uncivilized manner can
> not be defined as human, transhuman and certainly not posthuman. At
> best, they can be called "prehuman".

The problem with this is that irrationality does not necessarily
encompass all aspects of a mind. I know several people I consider deeply
irrational in some respects, while entirely rational in others. Such an
individual might make bad decisions in certain situations (and hence
should not be granted some rights) but in other respects they are
rational and should have other rights. I don't see how irrational
behavior automatically disqualifies you from humanhood in an ethical
> What constitutes "human rights"? Since genetically our taxonomic,
> cladistic, genetic similarities are so striking to other species
> such as chimpanzees and esp. the Bonobo chimps, I think that human
> rights must be defined cognitively by rational behavior. The issue of
> "animal rights" only reaches a threshold in rare cases such as that of
> chimpanzees and dolphins possibly whales that show signs of intelligence,
> organized behavior and maybe even a sense of ethics. No other animals
> have any right to exist except at our human, transhuman or posthuman
> pleasure. This is also found in the concept of sentience as found in
> many thoughtful science fiction and in notions such as the Prime
> Directive of Star Trek.

It might be worth considering ethical subjecthood: can an entity decide
to change its behavior purely from a mental conclusion?

Sentience is a tricky concept to use, since it is tied to wague notions
of consciousness. Many ethicists think that beings able to experience
pain have a right not to be hurt, but it is not obvious to me why that
particular experience has any special ethical importance (why not the
ability to experience pleasure?). Being able to reflect on the
experience might be another threshold of ethical relevance. But I don't
like to base ethics on what is, in the end, a particular biological
solution to the problem of maximizing fitness. Humans with no pain
sensitivity and AIs with no bodies should after all have rights.

> This background explains why terrorists need not be actively dehumanized
> because they have done that themselves. It is also why their
> extermination is no worse than killing a rabid dog in the streets of any
> city.

I disagree with this conclusion. As I have pointed out, dehumanization
can be partial, and may not stretch all the way to losing the right to

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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