What non-human rights are really about

Paul Raven @ 22-03-2011

The issue of basic rights for the higher animals pops up with a certain regularity, especially in transhumanist circles; here’s George Dvorsky responding to some of the more usual objections:

The rights I’m talking about have to do with protections. Nonhuman animals, like humans, should be immune from undue confinement, abuse, experimentation, illicit trafficking, and the threat of unnatural death. And I’m inclined to leave it at that for now.

While these animals may not be as intelligent or knowledgeable as humans, their cognitive and emotional capacities are sophisticated enough to warrant special consideration. These are self-aware and self-reflexive animals. They are cognizant of other minds, exhibit deep emotional responses, and have profound social attachments. That’s not to be taken lightly.

At the same time I acknowledge that there there has to be a realism applied to this issue. Nonhuman animals who qualify as persons cannot participate in society to the same degree that humans can. Thus, they should be considered and treated in the same manner that we do children and the developmentally disabled—which is that they still have rights! We would never experiment upon a 3-year old human child, nor would we force a mentally disabled person to perform in a circus. We believe this because we recognize that these individuals are endowed with (or have the potential for) the sufficient capacities required for personhood. Consequently, we protect them with laws.

For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with Dvorsky on most of his points here, though I think the biggest roadblock to non-human rights is our incomplete provision of human rights. Until we live in a world where we genuinely treat all human beings – regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, attractiveness, intelligence or lack of privilege – as our equals (biological, economic and political), how can we ever hope to extend that parity to creatures whose existence we definitively can’t empathise with on the basis of experience? (Indeed, some of the more extreme animal rights advocates seem far more able to empathise with the suffering of animals than the emotions of their fellow humans, and as such have done their cause far more harm than good.)

I totally agree that we should be looking to protect non-human sentients from exploitation, but attempting to do so before we’ve flattened the human playing field is to put the cart before the horse and then wonder that the cart doesn’t respond to the whip. Look to the plank in one’s own eye, and all that.

International longpig meatmarket

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Grimly fascinating reading over at Wired, where there’s one of those infografficky-mashup articles about the international trade in illicitly-obtained human organs and body parts. Even when we’ve reached a point when we can reliably print off spare parts for our meat-machines, the ol’ global wealth gap pretty much ensures that there’ll be a cheaper option overseas if you’ve got the right contacts. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “unbranded spares from China”, doesn’t it?

What could be worse than human extinction?

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

From a philosophical perspective, human extinction is just about the worst thing we can imagine… and it’s a fairly recent fear, too, with our conception of existential risk kick-started by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But what about a slow slide back into an animal state from our current civilisational peak? An evolutionary regression triggered by the impoverishment of the environment we mastered momentarily? [via BigThink]

Civilization obscures our similarity to other animals. We tend to hold ourselves to different standards because we see ourselves as above nature.  Many people find the slaughter of food animals objectionable. Yet no one is advocating intervention to save the gazelles from the lions or the rabbits from the foxes. Is the suffering of animals in the wild less important? Should we venture out in search of prey animals to rescue from their predators, and sick or injured animals in need of medical care? No, it would seem. It’s okay when nature imposes suffering on animals, but not when we do it. Similarly, it’s not okay when we are the subjects of nature’s cruelty.

Civilization has bestowed our species with a distorted self-image. Many people seem to have the impression that we operate independently of nature. We are fortunate that we’ve been able to act as though we are independent for as long as we have. If we don’t adjust our way of living so that it becomes sustainable, however, nature will eventually do this for us.

The worst case scenario is not that humans will become extinct, but that we will come to experience the cruel will of nature as other animals do. We can’t rule out the possibility that we will become more similar to our primate cousins in intelligence, behavior, and quality of life. We may be enjoying the peak of human intelligence, morality, and technological advancement.

On the face of it, this is just another finger-waggy “if we don’t sort things out soon… ” warning, but I think you can detach the results from the cause – there are any number of reasons we might find civilisation as we know it receding into the patchwork memories of the past. Indeed, given our tendency to prattle on about “the good old days”, you could probably convince a lot of people it was already happening…

But in recent years that nostalgic view of the-past-as-idyll has become more and more of an irritant to me. Despite the very real problems facing human beings as individuals and as a species, I think conditions and opportunities for the average person have been improving steadily for a long time (even though those improvements, like William Gibson’s future, are – sadly – not evenly distributed). This is perhaps the same myopia that makes us see the decline of the Western economies as a global recession: because things aren’t quite as easy for us in particular as they were a few decades back, then we’re obviously bound for hell in a handbasket, AMIRITES?

Well, I’m not so sure; I think we have it in us a species to survive, prosper and spread beyond the gravity well. But to achieve that, I suspect we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as a species rather than as individual nations… which may turn out to be the greatest challenge we’ve ever come up against, rooted as it is in the very evolutionary processes that made us what we are.

Still – it’s worth a shot, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

All the roads that’s fit to print

Paul Raven @ 15-11-2010

Gasp in awe at the crazy range of stuff we can ‘print’ nowadays… and then try not to think too hard about the economic job-destruction implications as you watch video footage (which, given it was linked to by BLDGBLOG, I’m assuming isn’t some sort of clever spoof) of a machine that can ‘print’ a paved Tiger Stone road as easily as laying a long roll of linoleum:

Geoff Manaugh’s post linked above already mentions China Mieville’s Iron Council as a fictional almost-precedent, but it’s such a powerful conceptual image that I think you could get more stories out of it without treading on anyone’s toes…

Stuff-we-can-(theoretically)-print bonus content: we’ve mentioned transplant organ printing before, but here’s an explanatory video from the Biophysics Lab of the University of Missouri-Columbia [via Fabbaloo]:

The greys are coming! From generation gap to economic turf-war

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2010

Props to George Dvorsky for flagging up this Salon interview with Ted C Fishman, promoting his new book Shock Of Gray, which is all about the recent rapid increases in human longevity, and the knock-on effects of such. Perhaps we’ll finally shake off our geographical differences only to get caught up in an economic tug of war between the elderly and the young:

As baby boomers start to approach the age of 65 in large numbers, do you foresee a civil rights movement for older adults, given that generation’s history of activism?

There might be a civil rights movement, but people won’t recognize it as a civil rights movement. They’ll see it as an economic turf war. When you get the resources of a society, you get the respect. You can see this in Europe right now, where the population is somewhat older than it is here. The debt crisis has really caused a huge and quick reckoning with the crisis in pension funding and hundreds of thousands of people are coming into the street. They made promises to themselves and now they find that they can’t keep those promises. In some ways, they’re battling their past selves.

But they feel like they are fighting a younger generation.

Yeah, I think that’s right. But in the long run the battle will not be for who gets what share of the public financing. It will be a more traditional civil rights issue, which is: Evaluate me on my abilities and my skills, not on my weaknesses. The older population is a hugely diverse one. If the image of an older person is going to be exclusively that of an enabled, sharp, cognitively with-it, older person who can work into their 70s and 80s, then we’re ignoring a huge part of the population that will need our help.

Not exactly a new idea, but one that probably isn’t getting the attention it deserves; longevity is kind of sneaking up on us while we bicker about other matters.

Here’s an idea that’s new, though, or at least it is to me: longevity as an accelerator of globalisation.

You argue that when wealthy nations started to age, that actually sped up globalization.

Right. Aging economies — Japan and Europe and the United States — are shopping the world for youth. The traditional workplace is changing to drive older people out — the cost of healthcare and pensions weighs very heavily on global companies — and places such as China have a population that it could send to the cities unburdened by age and the cost of age. Globalization really is a function of demographic change. When you go into beat-up, industrial towns you can feel it. You can see that older workers who used to be on the factory are now doing minimum-wage work at big-box stores on the edge of town. And then China has factories that contain tens of thousands of workers, without a single soul that’s over 25 years old. And you think, the only important thing about these workers is their youth.

Unspoken but implicit in that statement is longevity-as-driver-of-immigration. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the widespread tensions over immigration levels aren’t just a convenient proxy for concerns about the economics of greying…

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