Monday, February 9, 2009

The One

by Hanno

The uniqueness of human beings is an issue at least as old as Aristotle and has at least two components: First, Aristotle places our unique status as the primary way of understanding both our purpose and our goodness. The Greeks thought that everything has a purpose, and that the purpose of anything had to be unique. Following that, if we think that we are not unique, we would start to think there is no purpose in our life, no function we are supposed to fulfill. And since the good knife is one that fulfills its function well, the good person is one fulfills our purpose well. If we have no purpose, what happens to our notion of living well?

What, then, is unique to humans? What is our purpose? Many people have thought of different answers, and for a long time, it always struck me as odd to even ask. Some people point to our thumbs as being unique, some to the creation of culture (non-biologically driven patterns of learned behavior), some to language, some to thought, some to reason. Each of these, 'cept the thumb, have been shown not to be unique, and a thumb is not much to hang your hat on. OK, you could hang an actual hat on a thumb, but not a metaphorical one.

The reason this always struck me as odd is simple: its rather obvious that we are unique, that even if a chimp can learn language and reason, we are not the same as a chimp. In other words, our definition in terms of these features is so inadequate that it seems silly to ask: what makes us human? And without the Aristotelian background, the importance of the question escaped me. So what if monkeys can speak, or reason, or have a culture, or if we discover some other species with a thumb? Why would that effect our conception of ourselves? Why would that threaten our conception of ourselves as unique? What rides on determining unique features of the human being?

Now when we discover that some feature that we thought was unique turns out to be shared (The bonobo is able to grasp language at a high level, chimps are able to reason, some chimps have a culture, some chimps use tools, etc., etc.) the obvious response is mere passing interest. "I thought that feature was unique... oh well, I guess it isnt." I have had that reaction myself and I see it in others. So where would existential angst come from?

Second (there has to be a second, there was a first... forgot? first paragraph), moral notions are limited (historically, if not philosophically), to people. This is not a Western idea. So, for example, the Comanche called themselves "The people" (Nermernuh). Everyone else is not. If you are of the people, you are protected by the people. There was, apparently, almost no violence within the tribe, or against anyone who culturally acted like a tribe member. However, anyone outside the tribe was not similarly protected. They may trade with you, or they may kill you, that choice is up to an individual Comanche, and simply not part of their ethical framework, not subject to judgment. Other people's moral status was like any other piece of nature, sometimes to be preserved, sometimes to be used and sometimes to be abused. It has been argued (I think correctly) that the whole 10 commandments were originally understood in the same way: "Thou shalt not kill" really meant "Thou shall not kill a fellow Jew." It, too, was a tribal notion.

The question then of what a human being is connects to our conception of morality: humans are beings to which we have a moral duty, while non-humans are not protected by moral codes. It is also easy to see how correctly defining the human in terms that shape our moral attitudes (reason, not thumbs) is one way of intuitively increasing beings with moral rights. "I know those things do not act like us, but they really are human, and hence we have moral duties towards them." "I know we do not seem to be human to you, but we have this uniquely human feature, too, so you should treat us as moral agents." Historically, when we have broadened our notion of the human, we bring more people into society, and start acting better. A good definition of a human, then, has been of great importance. It is then easy to see that if we are not so important, not so unique, nature gets raised by default. Many people who do not see humans as unique see us as part of nature, thus raising the moral status of nature. We call them "environmentalists."

So now we can see why much of the artificial intelligence science fiction asks whether or not computers that develop consciousness are moral agents. Early in Star Trek, The Next Generation, we see a trial to determine whether or not Data, a computer, is a moral agent, or not. Is he an officer in the Federation, or is he like any other computer, to be used by its owner as its owner sees fit?

I think our angst about thinking computers is not existential, but about control. It is the worry of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, HAL in 2001, and Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator.


ce said...

Your language is messy. Understandably so, but still messy. In some cases, you seem to be using "human" in terms of species (or something close to it) and other times you're using "human" as synonymous with "moral agent" or "person".

In the first, of course, it's rather obvious. Ask a biologist, and let's move on. In the second, as with your Data example, it's far more interesting. And yes, Data is a moral agent/person. Even without emotions, he was a person. With them, he was just a more confused, but happier person.

Why is this such a basis for angst? Because we want to be special, damn it. It's ego, but it also becomes, for some, a basis of our identity. In buying into our own uniqueness, being unique becomes a part of who/what we are. Our castles in the sky only hang so long as we believe. And you're challenging that belief.

Hanno said...

Why would uniqueness be necessary or sufficient to being 'special?' Why hang your hat on something merely because it is unique?

We separate the biological from the moral, but that was not always so. It was not for Aristotle, nor for the Comanche. For many people, showing that something is or is not part of our species is tantamount to showing that they are or are not moral agents. When we separate them, we put a new emphasis on our moral reasoning, ie, feeling pain, or rational, but now understood in terms not unique to the human species.

ce said...

Why would being human be necessary or sufficient for being a moral agent? Certainly, we could say that the two terms are indeed synonymous, but that just makes it trivial. A fetus is "human", but it's hardly a moral agent in any interesting or important sense of the term. A person post frontal lobotomy is human. A person in a vegetative state is still human. Are they all moral agents?

Special can easily be seen as contained in the concept "unique". Anything unique is special, but not all things special need be unique. That also seems a common usage. Thus, being unique also grants being special, by definition.

The odd thing is that being "special" is somehow automatically good or desirable or to somehow make us "better". Yet, we also use it in a derogatory fashion. Being "special", in that way that allows you to ride the short bus, does not seem enviable, and is not usually seen as desirable or "better".

When we separate them, we put a new emphasis on our moral reasoning, ie, feeling pain, or rational, but now understood in terms not unique to the human species.

Yet, the only thing "unique" to being the human species, is that we are classified as the human species. Either that, or they're things that are wholly morally unimportant. Certainly, we can give examples where having an opposable thumb is somehow morally relevant or valuable, but it hardly seems important (read: utterly insufficient and utterly unnecessary) for moral agency.

We separate the biological from the moral, but that was not always so...For many people, showing that something is or is not part of our species is tantamount to showing that they are or are not moral agents

Aristotle was Greek. The Comanches were a tribal people. We can understand (to some degree) and move beyond their respective biases. Drawing lines around yourselves is simply prudent, but we shouldn't confuse prudence with a moral imperative. Otherwise, Hobbes certainly seems prudent, and that's a morally defeatist line of thinking.

Aristotle also did not have the benefit of modern studies. Biology and psychology were not so well developed, as all that. But we can still apply the methodology more or less.

Why are humans moral agents? What makes a moral agent? Once we know what moral agents do, then we can figure out what makes a good moral agent.

Notice, even for Aristotle, not everything about the wise man is going to be unique, and not everything about the virtuous man is going to be unique. There will be overlaps with those who are not virtuous, and there will be overlaps with those who are not wise. But what about when they do overlap? A virtuous person is compassionate, and a Gorilla can be too. Why is the compassion of the Gorilla not morally relevant, but the compassion of the human somehow is? I'll need a principled account for that one. Data is loyal to his friends, and resolute in his obligations when they have been accepted. Certainly, Aristotle would respect both. Should we ignore it because he's an android? Again, I'll need to know why. You should be courageous at the right time, in the right way, and in the proper amount. The fact that you are a Klingon seems about as relevant, as whether or not you have fallopian tubes.

If the Borg were to suddenly restructure their society so that they begin to live in a virtuous way, it would be very, very odd to somehow say that they aren't virtuous, merely due to their not being human.

Humans can be speciesist, just as easily as they can racist, sexist, etc. We want to be better, to be smarter, braver, stronger, etc. And when we find obvious inadequacies, we just reevaluate and set up a different bar, one which separates us from the others, and makes us feel superior. It doesn't matter what it is, or how asinine it makes us. As the old biases and divisions go out of fashion, we just make new ones, which are more socially acceptable. So, we hate bums or Mexicans, and make ourselves superior to them, because belittling the women folk is no longer acceptable. And we want it to me morally permissible. After all, it's not that I'm a bad person, it's that they're lazy freeloaders.

Hanno said...

Why indeed? But I think that part of the need to see humans as unique is tied to using the terms as synonymous.

I say that, but then I also think of the whole spock/human debate, that Spock somehow misses out because he does not have feelings, that he makes a poor captain because he is too logical, that data wants to be human, and I see the strain of "we ARE special" coming through SF as well. So even if other beings have all the features normally associated with human, we are still better. Maybe ego is more at work than I thought.

ce said...

Maybe ego is more at work than I thought.

Welcome to the other side of the mirror. We are very lonely here...

Anonymous said...

What it do Hanno? Long time listener first time caller. Not really tis I Doc Murphy. As usual I do not have any earth shaking insight into the topic at hand and in fact may not accurately address the topic at all. I am short for time, so I will be brief and unrevised. What separates humans and makes us distinct, aside from our omaha class submarines, is that we have the ability to ponder our individuality and existence on a much higher level than any other being on earth. This is also our downfall(different discussion). Our centuries of introspection are a pure luxury of our uniqueness and dominance of the natural world. Speaking of the natural world, I would now like to address your environmentalist. Environmentalists are a necessary check on human excess and natural destruction, but they too are a luxury of man. I said years ago that the meaning of life is its own preservation. I do not know to what extent I still hold that belief, but for the sake of environmentalists it will do. You see, I am offended when people say that I should not eat meat or wear shoes made of leather. The reason for my disgust is simple. If I do not exert myself over the natural world, then the world will consume me and anyone who would do the same. If I do not cut my grass, then vines and shrubs will swallow my home.

To sum it up. Aristotle was hitting the nail on the head with his function argument and environmentalists are necessary but some of them piss me off.

P.S. Great movie Guybrarian. One of my favs. Hope to make it:)


Hanno said...

Well, if you weren't such an ass about destroying the enviroment, the balance could be maintained without them being such asses either.