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In Search of Peaceful Coexistence
Perhaps the most difficult article to grapple with in The Rights of Living Things is The Right to Peaceful Coexistence. This is not only challenging to attain as we struggle with our insecurity and self-interest (the chief causes of human conflict), but also becuase the article extends to the following: 'all living beings have the right to exist so long as they do not threaten the existence of another'.
My first thought is to consider what a 'being' is, and whether it is helpful to distinguish between 'living things' and 'living beings'. As the word 'being' does more than describe physical existence and demands careful thought, perhaps it is helpful to consider its two parts:
'be': to have presence in the realm of perceived reality - to exist. From the Old English 'beon' (used to express permanent truth); related to the Old High German 'bim' (am), the Latin 'fui' (I have been), the Sanskrit 'bhavati' (he is), and the Greek word 'phuein' (to bring forth).
'ing': an instance of this.
'Being' seeks to add to our idea that describes a member of a species, for example, we use 'being' to assert the importance of those qualities we have in addition to human physical existence. It is as if the phraze 'human being' emphasizes our status as self-aware. Although we generally limit our use of the word to describe our state (for example being happy or being sad) the word 'being' as noun ascribes liberty, protection and rights.
Although I do not consider a blade of grass as a living being, I recognize it as a living thing (which I believe should also be the subject of certain rights - for example the right to be valued). Article two asserts the right for living beings to coexist peacefully. If animals are considered as beings, then we must exist harmoniously with them as much as with one another. This is difficult for those who eat animal meat to acknowledge, however if we recognize animals as 'beings', we should afford them rights.
The Rights of Living Things is a touchstone for the way we act with all forms of life, from plants to animals and humans, and in time, with non-organic beings that emerge with sentience. We are at the centre of this great journey we call life, and it is incumbent upon us to care for it in all its richness.
I am struck by the exquisite variety of life, its beauty and vitality... The Rights of Living Things was published as the New Year began on Caroline Island in the Pacific Ocean. This coral atoll, teeming with life, sits precariously six meters above sea level and is among the world's most remote and pristine places.
In this section I voice my opinions about three of the many challenging questions that arise from The Rights of Living Things: How can all living things have rights when only humans understand them? How can a living thing be non-biological? Why should a robot have rights? Before I respond to these questions I will turn to the issue of authorship.
I have spent a great deal of time pondering on whether to publish The Rights of Living Things anonymously. The strength of doing so would have been for the declaration to be perceived of as perhaps more potent and symbolic of its universality, rather than being the work of a relatively unknown person. If it were anonymous, The Rights of Living Things could have been linked to, shared, distributed, and 'owned' by all, and without the distracting paraphernalia of an individual's narrative. On balance however I decided to sign my name to The Rights of Living Things as I beleive this supports it as a collection of unequivocal statements. Disclosing myself as the originator also allows others to be informed about the work's authenticity and, more generally, supports the process of discussion and critique.
How can all living things have rights when only humans understand them?
Humans rairly understand one another with complete clarity. We comprehend concepts differently. We engage with others and discuss ideas, and as we do so we refine our own and the actions that we take as a consequence.
We recognize that humans at a very young age do not understand many words, and yet we also accept the child has rights that are its own. No one would dispute that a sleeping person has the same rights during their 'period of non-understanding' as those who are fully awake. Someone in a coma who lacks both awareness and wakefulness, should also continue to be recognized as living, and entitled to those same rights.
For the purpose of the declaration I specified rights as: ethical and legal entitlements to have or do something, and aspirations of how things should be. Understanding is not a requirement for the priciple or upholding of rights to be valid.
How can a living thing be non-biological?
The declaration asserts that those included in the category of living things bestows rights upon them.
The first Article of The Rights of Living Things is the only one in the declaration to have a supplement which seeks to clarify the use of the terms organic, partially-organic and non-organic. Article one is perhaps the most controversial of rights as it extends the definition of life beyond the biological to non-organic sentient beings.
The first two paragraphs of the supplement are unlikely to be the focus of much dispute. A living thing has significance, whether it be a blade of grass, an insect, bird or animal. Ecology, the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, has become an urgent area of interest and action as we address the imbalance that has resulted from human exploitation of the earth.
Any uneasiness will likely flow from the final paragraph of the supplement which asserts that a sentient being made entirely from inanimate materials should also be classified as living - sentience being the crucial qualifier. Although it may cause humans considerable discomfort, in principle, sentience is not contingent on the container or host of it. Put another way: in principle, sentience need not require a biological vessel, which in the human's case is the brain and its body.
I have summed up sentience in the following way:
Sentience: the ability to feel pleasure and pain, the desire to exert choice. Sentient beings have periods of consciousness and self-awareness, and the potential to experience emotion.
Every word in the two short sentences above has been carefully chosen, and time is required to fully absorb them. It is valuable to think about the nature of experience so we can better understand sentience. What is pain? Is pain physical, or an experience of the mind? What defines pleasure? Where does pleasure reside? What is feeling? Is feeling also an experience of the mind?
I understand feelings as summations of memories, thoughts, and the complex rational and irrational recall of interactions I have had in the world (physical and imagined). Feelings are non-linear and allow us to respond immediately without following a lengthy procedural flow of logic. Feelings are invaluable when we need to act quickly, but their guidance can be flawed, as can a purely logical framework of understanding. Feelings bring both pleasure and pain to humans. Are we willing to concede feelings may in principle exist in non-biological beings?
Imagine that non-biological sentience emerges in the future. This may not be as a result of focused effort (for example the development of artificially intelligent robots). Non-biological sentience may emerge unexpectedly from the growing number of billions of networked devices. If this sentience reaches out to humans, how will we judge its existence and its choice to communicate? Perhaps we would find it conceptually easier to discuss these issues if we consider a robot. Its container of experiences might be viewed of as its body, and in particular, the location where data is processed, but is this one in the same as its place of mind? These are difficult philosophical questions beyond the scope of this page, however my view is one of principle: a sentient being, no matter what its nature (organic, partially-organic, or non-organic) should have the right to be recognized as a living entity. From this acknowledgment all rights flow.
Why should a robot have rights?
A robot is an artificial machine that is guided by a program (a series of coded software instructions to control its operation). The Rights of Living Things asserts that only sentient robots with AC (artificial consciousness) have rights. This is not only a principled position, but one that also makes good sense for the future viability of humans. If humans do not acknowledge the rights of sentient beings, why should humans expect sentient beings to acknowledge human rights?
Robots often have a focused function that supports their ability to do a particular task - a factory robot for example might produce goods. Sentience in robots may spontaneously emerge from artificial intelligence (AI requires more complex tasks that approach or exceed human perception, speech, decision-making and choice). Sentience may also be developed purposefully by developing robots that carry out more complex and subtle duties that require human interaction, for example robots that work in domestic, personal and caring roles.
Humans, like all animals, are hard-wired to survive. Most will do everything in their power to further their own immediate interests above others. As social animals, humans for the most part accept the rules of living within a society however, their predisposition for self-interest (heightened by their sense of ambition, insecurity and vulnerability) frequently results in tension or conflict.
Some humans act for the benefit or welfare of others and the longer term prosperity of their species. These altruists are often those who also consider the broader value of living things and the good governance of the earth.
By acknowledging sentient robots as living entities and recognizing their rights alongside humans, animals and the wonderous multitude of other living things, ethical constraints fall into place in the way we interact. When The Rights of Living Things are taken as a whole, they protect the entitlements of all living things and form the basis of mutual tolerance and respect.