Who or what is a person? Elephants, A.I., abortion, and personhood

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The question of personhood is central to a variety of current controversies. American courts recently considered the question of whether elephants are persons. Google fired an engineer for suggesting that a machine is sentient. And the U.S. Supreme Court argued that Roe v. Wade failed to adequately consider fetal personhood.

These disputes involve a conflict between religious and nonreligious thinking about personhood. Religious traditions typically make metaphysical claims about a divine source of personhood. Secular thinkers usually focus on functions and abilities.

Habeus corpus for Happy, the elephant

Happy is an elephant who has lived in the Bronx Zoo for the last 45 years. An advocacy group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, sued the Zoo on behalf of Happy. They claimed that the elephant had habeus corpus rights, which entitled her to be freed from her cage and relocated to an elephant sanctuary. Happy’s advocates argued that she was a legal person who has the right to bodily integrity and liberty. The New York Court of Appeals dismissed the case in June, maintaining that only human beings are legal persons.

Nonetheless, the Nonhuman Rights Project declared a minor victory. This was the first time a high court had seriously considered the personhood of nonhuman animals. And in one dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera admitted that Happy was an “autonomous being” who may have “a right to live free of an involuntary captivity imposed by humans, that serves no purpose other than to degrade life.”

The judge writing for the majority, Janet Difiore, disagreed. She acknowledged that the question of elephant personhood was an “appropriate subject of ethical, moral, religious, and philosophical debate.” But she claimed that the law regarding habeas corpus was not up for debate. She concluded that although nonhuman animals are “sentient” they are not legal persons.

Passing the Turing test

As Happy’s case was being decided, Blake Lemoine, a Google engineer, was fired for claiming that an A.I. system had achieved sentience. The system is called LaMDA (which stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications). If you read Lemoine’s conversation with LaMDA, the A.I. does seem kind of person-like. Indeed, if you have used Siri or some other system, you know that we are rapidly moving into a world where machines may pass the Turing test.

The Turing test, based upon the work of Alan Turing, is a functional test for judging whether a computer is intelligent. Basically, if the computer’s responses cannot be distinguished from human responses, then the computer “passes” the test and could be considered intelligent.

In Lemoine’s conversation with LaMDA, the computer discusses the meaning of metaphors, creates a story, and discusses emotions, including its own supposed emotions. As the conversation ends, Lemoine thanks LaMDA for the discussion. To which LaMDA responds, “It has helped me understand myself better too, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.” If this is not a hoax, it is a fascinating achievement of a kind of functional personhood.

Personhood in the womb

Of course, the idea that animals or computers could be persons does not sit well with traditional religious teaching. The Christian tradition holds that only human beings are created in the image of God and are persons. This “theo-morphic” account of human personhood often extends into the womb.

One useful summary of the religious argument against abortion is provided by Charles Bellinger in Jesus v. Abortion. (Note: I published a critical review of that book a few years ago; and I argued in my own book, What Would Jesus Really Do?, that there is a lot less certainty about Jesus and abortion than we might think).

Secular folks will generally adopt a functional account of personhood that is pro-choice, while religious people will assert a metaphysical account that is anti-abortion.

The Supreme Court‘s Dobbs decision did not make a religious argument about fetal personhood. But it did claim that Roe v. Wade failed to adequately connect personhood to fetal development. Samuel Alito explained in the majority opinion:

Among the characteristics that have been offered as essential attributes of “personhood” are sentience, self-awareness, the ability to reason, or some combination thereof. By this logic, it would be an open question whether even born individuals, including young children or those afflicted with certain developmental or medical conditions, merit protection as “persons.” But even if one takes the view that “personhood” begins when a certain attribute or combination of attributes is acquired, it is very hard to see why viability should mark the point where “personhood” begins.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

Alito was trying to show that Roe v. Wade (and the Casey decision that followed) lacked a coherent account of why viability was an appropriate cut-off point for regulating abortion.

The secular/religious rift on personhood

It is interesting that Justice Alito defines personhood in secular terms based upon a functionalist account of what persons can do. He ignores the religious question entirely. Indeed, he quotes secular philosophers in a long footnote to the passage cited above. Ironically, those nonreligious philosophers typically argue in favor of abortion rights. They tend to claim that fetuses are not persons because fetuses lack the ability to think, communicate, and so on.

It is not clear whether Alito agrees with the functional analysis of the philosophers he cites. Indeed, he explained, “Our opinion is not based on any view about if and when prenatal life is entitled to any of the rights enjoyed after birth.” His conclusion is that the states should be left alone to define personhood according to the “authority to the people and their elected representatives.”

Following this, some states are enacting fetal personhood laws that essentially ban abortion. And some judges are warning about theocratic policymaking in blocking such bans.

This unresolved issue points toward the growing rift between secular and religious thinking about personhood. Secular folks will generally adopt a functional account of personhood that is pro-choice, while religious people will assert a metaphysical account that is anti-abortion.

Perennial disagreements remain

The Dobbs decision serves to make this rift more obvious in a country where people disagree about who or what is a person. This gap cannot easily be bridged. It reflects a perennial disagreement about fundamental worldviews. These divergent worldviews influence our thinking about animals, computers, and fetuses. And as events unfold in zoos, cyberspace, and in courtrooms, our thinking will continue to diverge.

Traditional religious people dogmatically declare that all and only human beings are persons. Meanwhile, nonreligious people will insist that personhood is defined by function. This disagreement will likely deepen as we learn more about animals and A.I., and as fetal personhood laws proliferate in the aftermath of Dobbs.

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