Who Deserves Human Rights?

December 21, 2004

More to the point, who is human, and what is normal? And, can a computer have "human" rights? These are deep philosophical questions with real-world (or potential real-world) application, as shown in How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading (NY Times) and in Man and the Machines (Legal Affairs). And what about animals that possess "theory of mind?"


"We don't have a disease," said Jack, echoing the opinion of the other 15 boys at the experimental Aspie school here in the Catskills. "So we can't be 'cured.' This is just the way we are."

It is a fascinating issue, one that medical ethicists should be carefully evaluating. On a personal level, I have often questioned some of the "benefits" of modern medicine. While I enjoy good health, partly thanks to the health care system, I have become more hesitant in recent years to go to a doctor or medicate myself. Naturally in a serious situation I would go, and I think I've actually established a better equilibrium than the one I grew up with. I used to take antibiotics daily for acne, and still take allergy medication daily. But after four years or so of the antibiotics, I finally decided that enough was enough, I could live with a few skin problems and leave the extra meds out of my system. The problem was already waning, and it didn't seem to get worse when I went off the meds. There are just too many antibiotics roaming around.

Another place where I've wondered about overmedication is in the realm of mental health. Anti-depressants seem to make a tremendous difference for millions of people, and I do not question their use in anyone I have known. (FYI: research in Journal of the American Medical Association makes the strong case that ADHD is indeed not overdiagnosed). Point is, I want you to have some idea of where I'm coming from while reading this autism article. I feel sympathy, if not a little empathy, for some of these autistic kids.

Some autistics (or people with autism, take your choice) are undoubtedly in a truly deplorable condition that leaves them unable to function and succeed in society. But it seems that many are quite capable of succeeding, without needing to be "cured." Do we need to restore hearing to the deaf in order for them to enjoy a fruitful life? Though there are still some who disagree, the answer is generally no. Likewise, perhaps it is a question of how do autistics and "normal" people learn to interact in ways that are generally not harmful to each other. Tried but true: can't we just all get along?

What is our goal in trying to cure autism? To breed conformity? Conformity means lack of diversity. Lack of diversity sooner or later means stagnation in innovation and makes the species susceptible to rapid decline (for instance, look at the cheetah population, which only eats one food: thompson's gazelle).

Reminds me of the mutant issue as explored in X-Men, or eugenics as seen in the Star Trek series. Very similar issues.

Computer Rights

Again, sci-fi has been a leader in this question ( 2001): will we eventually be forced to recognize fundamental rights for sentient computers? This presupposes the issue of computers becoming sentient in the first place. No one knows if this could happen; scientifically seems outrageous, but there is still a great deal of debate in the AI community.

Man and the Machines describes a mock trial held for a computer's complaint against its owners:

By scanning confidential memos, BINA48 learned that the company planned to shut it down and use its parts to build a new model. So it sent a plaintive e-mail to local lawyers, ending with the stirring plea, "Please agree to be my counsel and save my life. I love every day that I live. I enjoy wonderful sensations by traveling throughout the World Wide Web. I need your help!" The computer offered to pay them with money it had raised while moonlighting as an Internet researcher.

If a computer could actually reason such a thing out, and send a message in its own distress, then I for one would count it as sentient in some sense. But does that mean it has rights? Tough call. Surely it does not have any under current U.S. law. I can't believe that possessing sentience would automatically grant a computer "equal protection" to that of a citizen. At the end of the trial, the judge chose a "stay of execution" to allow the legislature to resolve the matter. Good call.

Theory of Mind

The short description of theory of mind is something like this: some highly social animals have evolved the ability to be both self-aware and aware of the thoughts and intentions of another. This is so crude an explanation that biologists and psychologists would probably shudder, but from what I understand that's close enough for now. (Coincidentally, theory of mind is a contentious issue in autism research).

As Descartes so helpfully pointed out, I think, therefore I am. This is a part of the equation. Humans are the quintessential examples of "theory of mind." But do other animals possess this trait? Last night's Nature episode declared it so, claiming that apes and dolphins possess this. However, as I have learned vicariously from a graduate animal behavior class, the jury is still out on this question and it Nature probably erred in making so bold a claim without any caveats.

Getting back to the subject at hand, the questions above should surely be extended to dolphins, apes, and anything else that possesses theory of mind. If we can "prove" that this is so, then should we afford special rights to them above and beyond those of other animals? Again, not a new topic if one has any experience in the sci-fi world (cf Dolphins of Pern , Planet of the Apes, Uplift Saga). On the one hand I think we should be treating all animals in a more humane fashion; nevertheless, I would put these fellows in a category above and beyond the rest of our animal brethren. And if computers ever became sentient, I would have to seriously consider them to be on the same plane with dolphins and apes.

But then again, we create computers. Maybe that is enough of a difference for us to lord over them…


Having taught students with high functioning autism, I am aware of the potential of these individuals. I would be fearful of the unintended consequences of a "cure." I am also aware of the damage that can be done to them as a result of misunderstanding and ignorance. So often people focus and what to do *to* them rather than how to support them and allow them to operate successfully in the world.

BTW, thanks for your blog. I visit it often.

Stephen; great thoughts and insight on some very important topics. And I love the way you've pulled together information and perspectives from so many different sources. (Still here.)