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We as a species have tended to have difficulty from time to time figuring out what makes someone a "person." At various points in time, we've said that people with dark skin aren't really "people," or people who worship thus-and-such an imaginary friend rather than the imaginary friend we prefer aren't "people;" hell, much of the world still believes, in this day and age, that women aren't people, or that Jews aren't people. The Tutsi tribe in Rwanda believes that the Hutu tribesmen aren't people, and the opinion appears to be shared in the other direction.

And we ain't seen nothing yet.

A lot of people don't see it coming just yet, but it's racing toward us with the ferocity of a freight train driven by a crack-addled monkey with a toothache: there's going to come a time, and those of you on my friends list who are younger than I am will probably live to see it, when debates about whether or not black people have souls, and the attendant wars which have followed those debates, will look like a minor squabble at a Boy Scout camp.

So, as a public service for those of you who're going to be faced with this particular poser, I offer a quick, easy rule you can remember when you're trying to puzzle out the right thing to do:

If it's sapient, it's a person.

Gays? Yep, they're people. Dark-skinned folk? Yep, they're people, too. Stay with me, here.

Clones? People. Experimental monkeys with augmented brains? You got it--people. Artificial intelligences? Uh-huh...people. Constructs made by mapping a person's brain into a neural network simulation? People.

Now, there are certain rules you have to live by when you're dealing with people. First, if you do something, and after that thing you do, a person isn't there any more, that probably isn't cool. Switching off the AI? Dropping the clone into the waste-disposal chute? Murder. Even if the experiment didn't go quite the way you intended.

Second, a funny thing about people is that you can't own 'em and you can't sell 'em; we've been through this already, and it's a settled point, m'kay? Yep, even if you owned the computer you built the simulation on, as soon as the upload is done and the person you've uploaded looks through the Webcam you've thoughtfully hooked up and says "Whoa, so this is what it's like to be inside a computer!" it ain't your computer any more. Sorry. Maybe you can, I don't know, take a tax writeoff or something.

If it's sapient, it's a person. Pretty simple really. That ought to help get you through a few moral conundrums.


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2005 11:40 pm (UTC)
So then, what about a clone made only a functional brainstem?

And, for that matter, what about (that age old debate) a fetus?

I mean, in theory what about the WOPR mainframe?
Oct. 4th, 2005 01:27 am (UTC)
The first two aren't sapient. The last arguably is, and should be treated accordingly. (Of course, it's generally kosher to defend yourself against a person who's trying to kill you, even if that person's an AI...)
Oct. 4th, 2005 12:02 am (UTC)
(previous comment deleted and this one posted in its place, because I realized as soon as I hit "post comment" that I really needed to phrase it better)

If it's sapient, it's a person.

What are your criteria for determining sapience?
Oct. 4th, 2005 01:21 am (UTC)
Seconded. Because I swear that many animals I have known are sapient.
Oct. 4th, 2005 01:29 am (UTC)
What are your criteria for determining sapience?

C'mon, now, I can't give you ALL the answers...something's got to be left as an exercise to the reader! :)

Seriously, sapience is something that may be hard to qualify; there's likely going to turn out to be some gray area between sapience and non-sapience. Still, anything that's clearly on this side of the line deserves personhood merely by having the ability to claim it.
Oct. 4th, 2005 03:07 am (UTC)
Still, anything that's clearly on this side of the line

if this criterion ever settles any case i'll be thrilled.

and surprised.
Oct. 4th, 2005 12:40 am (UTC)
What about a homo sapiens who's frozen cryogenically?
Oct. 4th, 2005 01:29 am (UTC)
Hmm. Good question. "Non-sapient, but only temporarily so," I'd say. A person who's under anaesthetic doesn't appear sapient, for example, but that condition is only temporary.
Oct. 4th, 2005 02:44 am (UTC)
Curses! There goes my "assassinate the arch-nemesis in his sleep" loophole!
Oct. 4th, 2005 01:23 am (UTC)
Dude... you like SO need to put a rush on getting Citizen Cyborg. Or steal my copy. Or something.
Oct. 4th, 2005 01:30 am (UTC)
Yes, I do! Every quarter, I get an Amazon gift certificate for referrals from my Web site (which is usually about enough to get one book), andthat's the one I'm looking at when the next quarter rolls around.
Oct. 4th, 2005 02:47 am (UTC)
If you're not willing to wait, the Borders on Dale Mabry carries it. I'm reading it now (during those brief moments when I take a break from being a total Firefly fanboy), and while the author seems to have a chip on his shoulder about Extropians the book is nonetheless excellent!
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 4th, 2005 06:48 pm (UTC)
Turtle? Ruling on bigots, please?
Oct. 5th, 2005 10:57 pm (UTC)
You know, funny thing about bigots--they're still sapient. Unpleasant, perhaps, but sapient nonetheless.
Oct. 8th, 2005 10:28 pm (UTC)
Hi there,I hope you don't mind but I added you.
I came across your journal while visiting poly guide/bdsm do's and don'ts
also..I am a huge fan of Firefly...it really is to brilliant for television
Oct. 21st, 2005 04:36 pm (UTC)
Not at all...welcome aboard!
Oct. 21st, 2005 04:43 pm (UTC)
cool,my next paper has to be a total opinion paper:Polyamory Vrs mongomy
(if my spelling is stupid its because I have been up all night writing a term paper)
Oct. 9th, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC)
I go one further.

To define sapient, the critter/citizen needs to be able to explain sapience, as a subjective experience.

This form of introspection should weed out the bigots, since they spend all of their cranial processing power defining reality as something screwed up by others, and thus lack the self-awareness of why reality is screwed up by themselves.

Two birds, baby, two birds. Stone, count it, just one.
Oct. 21st, 2005 04:38 pm (UTC)

As elegant as your solution is, though, it would weed out a lot of people I've met, and even a couple of people I've dated--which, it might be argued, is not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm still skeptical about the morality of not treating them as people nonetheless...
Oct. 22nd, 2005 04:21 am (UTC)
The mere threat of denying them a ruling of sapience might scare more than a few into abandoning their xenophobia.

It's a salve to your moral quandary, nothing more. I've found there are few quick fixes to problems as fundamental as, for example, the existance of folks who exist in diametric opposition to the correct opinion. Strangely, they feel the same way about us. . . .
Oct. 17th, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC)
I usually go by the possesion of logic (i.e., sapience), self-awareness and emotion. Somehow, it doesn't seem nearly so troubling to end the existence of an AI if the AI itself has no opinion on the matter.
Oct. 21st, 2005 04:39 pm (UTC)
Is emotion a necessary and intrinsic part of sapience? Would you say that a television Vulcan is not sapient?
Oct. 24th, 2005 03:46 pm (UTC)
No, I would say that sapience isn't all that's required for humanity. Sapience covers logic and maybe self-awareness, but I think at least a little emotion is also necessary.
Oct. 25th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC)
Well, hmm. A normal person is an emotional being; but let's say someone experienced some kind of brain damage that erased his ability to experience emotion. He'd certainly experience life much more differently than everyone else, and would probably lose his ability to empathize with the people around him, but would he cease being a person?
Oct. 25th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think so.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )