Preparing for the Future: Personhood Theory

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.