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Creating Non-Human People

 Last week, the Academy of Medical Sciences released a report  calling for better regulation of experiments involving animals containing human tissues or genes. One specific claim made by the report is that experiments which entail “modifying non-human primates to create human-like awareness or behaviour” should be banned. Was it right to call for such a ban?

We tend to value the rational behaviour and awareness displayed by humans very highly. It is often thought to be what makes humans superior to other animals, and we think it’s a shame when particular humans lack awareness and rationality. That being the case, surely the more individuals with such awareness the better?

The Daily Mail is quite clear about its reasons for agreeing with the report’s judgement: experiments which induced human-like behaviour in non-humans would inevitably lead to a Planet of the Apes  or Deep Blue Sea  situation – super-intelligent, violent, most likely malicious animals taking over the world. Worries of that nature don’t seem to be well-grounded. Experiments would aim to make the primates more intelligent than they currently are, not to make them super-intelligent, and would be very unlikely to be able to do the latter even if they wanted to. Making creatures act more like humans would hopefully make them less violent and less likely to fight us, rather than more so. And of course scientists would not be making armies of these creatures, or making them extraordinarily strong.

Martin Bobrow, professor of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge, who led the panel, said: “Where people worry is when you get to the brain, the germ cells and the sentinel features that help people recognise what is a person, as opposed to a rat or a rabbit”. Here he clearly contrasts ‘person’ with ‘rat’ and ‘rabbit’. The implication is that we are currently able to distinguish people from non-human animals, and that we shouldn’t do anything which would prevent us from recognising the difference. So in order to know how we should respond to experiments which make primates behave more like humans, we need to understand what it is to be a person.

John Locke thought that what it meant to be a person was to be rational and to have a continuous stream of consciousness. In theory, an animal of any type could be a person. In that case, if we induced in a non-human primate enough awareness and human-like behaviour they would be a person. What would be problematic about doing so? One possible answer is that it might not be possible to tell when a primate became a person. However, that doesn’t sound like a compelling reason against a modifying a primate in a way which makes them more like a person. We could decide whether it is worse to treat a person as if they weren’t a person or vice versa, and then err on the side of caution in our treatment of the resulting animals. In that case, it might not matter whether we knew precisely which were people and which were not.

However, perhaps the writers of the report were not worried about the uncertain status of the non-human primates, but about the fact that whether they were in fact people, or just close to being people, it would be wrong to test on them. If that is the case, it’s experimenting on these animals which should be illegal, not producing them.

While no reason has yet been found to think that modifying non-human primates such that they are people is in itself wrong, various bad consequences might ensue. The awareness they gained might allow them to realise that they have been exploited, or increase their suffering in some other way (particularly if they were kept confined in the research facility). On the other hand, we usually think that our lives are greatly enriched by the awareness and understanding we have of the world around us, so perhaps theirs would be too.

Alternatively, maybe we haven’t been using the right understanding of ‘person’. Maybe a person is a being with a soul or anyway one which must necessarily be human. Then experiments which modify non-human primates such that they display human-like behaviour might result in beings who feel as if they are people, but aren’t people. That seems likely to be confusing for us and upsetting for them.

Perhaps the most serious problem might be if the scientists involved had the wrong understanding of ‘people’. Say that the non-human primates were people, but that scientists assumed that only humans could be people, and therefore continued to experiment on the primates. It seems important to avoid such a scenario. But it could be avoided by legislation on how to treat the resulting animals (for example, perhaps by widening human rights legislation to cover them), rather than by banning the initial experiments.

It’s difficult to know whether the report was right to ban the experiments that it did. What seems clearer is that our reaction to human/animal mixing experiments depends to some degree on what makes a being a person.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. The rationale for such experiments seems to be strongly anthropocentric, which such statements as: "we usually think that our lives are greatly enriched by the awareness and understanding we have of the world around us, so perhaps theirs would be too" tend to buttress. Yet I know lots of people who would love to know what it's like, say, to be a cat. But even granting we "usually" wouldn't trade our human lives for non-human (cognitively "inferior" on your terms) lives, it's likely that non-human animals wouldn't trade their own lives for human ones.

    It's arguable that it might be *in* their interest IF you construe our kind of life as richer, apt to fuller, more complex, and more rewarding experiences — they would gain in welfare, or well-being, or possible goods. But that's a strong anthropocentric — and paternalistic too — claim.

    It must at least be granted that such claims are not uncontroversial, insofar as they rest on:

    (i) the idea that there's a scalar spectrum of psychological capacities with a corresponding scale of qualities of life;
    (ii) this scale is to be assessed in terms of our most "excellent" faculties, those very faculties which have so far worked as criteria of exclusion for the non-human animals from the boundaries of moral consideration.

    Besides these worries, wouldn't we be increasing the gap between us and human-like primates on the one hand, and other animals on the other hand?

    Your discussion of cognitive enhancement (since that's merely what we're talking about) reminds me of Jeff McMahan's "Superchimp" case in "The Ethics of Killing". McMahan argues that only a (biased and merely statistically meaningful) "Species Norm Account" prevents us from considering a Superchimp's losing outstanding capacities (wrt to its species "norm") as equally unfortunate as a cognitively severely disabled human child's condition. If so, then we'd have to consider cognitive enhancement, if possible, as a way to promote the well-being of chimpanzees. But, as I argued, the case rests on the assumption that higher cognitive capacities allow for a better life, which is highly controversial.

    In a more biographical tone, I take it that there's a strong case for the incommensurability of qualities lives in the contemplation of a sleeping cat. I would not dare suggest its life is less good than mine.

  2. I read the news about this last week and was enthusiastic to know that scientists thought such thing was possible. But their arguments confused me: with an extended human rights legislation, I can't see why it shouldn't be allowed.

    Their arguments do however highlight the still unanswered question of what is a person. If, as it seems, they base their argumentation on human-likeness characteristics, such as speech or higher cognitive functions, it worries me that what they say can be turned backwards to argue that mentally disabled or comatose humans (or even babies!) are not persons at all.

    About the anthropocentric critique: it is a human-centered opinion, but even so the new human-like animals would indeed have their lives improved, if nothing else, because they would be covered by human rights laws – therefore: no more experimenting, forced reproduction, slaughter and so on. I'm sure at least this improved legal status would make them happier.

    1. Either (1) it is true that in order to be morally and/or legally protected, one must qualify as a person, and being a person amounts to a set of cognitive functions that such enhancement would secure, or (2) moral/legal protection may be granted to more beings than those which qualify as persons.

      If (1), then there's no worry that non-persons (non-enhanced beings) are not sufficiently protected since, as non-persons, they do not qualify as those beings which should be protected.

      If (2), then why enhance them to begin with?

      I take it that there might be a *practical* interest in securing such status provided that moral status per se (whether as person or non-person) is not efficient enough that morally considerable beings be actually protected. But that leaves open the question of whether non-enhanced animals would still be morally considerable and, if so, on what grounds. If those grounds do not coincide with those which make the case for enhancement, then one still has to argue for the latter on a different basis than the requirement of moral protection.

      But as an empirical matter, legal protections aside, there's no fact of the matter that a cognitively improved life is a better life.

  3. This is a very interesting set of questions. It seems to put real pressure on Mill's claim (transitively, via an intermediary fool's pleasure) that the pleasure of Socrates outweighs the pleasure of a pig, because the former is a superior sort of pleasure. If I recall correctly, Mill's argument is that the better of two experiences can only be adjudicated by an individual who has had both experiences – and, so he says, we humans have had both pigly pleasures and our uniquely human pleasures (poetry, philosophy, etc.), so we know which is better.

    Mill's argument presumes that we have indeed experienced pigly pleasures. But this is not clear at all: maybe we've had experiences of gorging on food, and some of us, no doubt, have enjoyed the experience of rolling about in slop. But it requires an enormous, and ungrounded, assumption to claim that <i>the way we experience</i> these pleasures is the same as the way they are experienced by pigs. In other words, the argument assumes that particular experiences are modular and detachable from the background cognitive/phenomenological framework in which they occur. This seems like a very tendentious assumption. And if the assumption is false, we have no grounds for supposing that we know anything about the pleasures of pigs, and so no grounds for judging our own pleasures superior.

    All of this matters to the question of whether we would be doing animals a favor by extending to them human-type cognitive sophistication. If you agree with Mill on the Socrates/pig matter, then it is obvious that giving animals the capacity to experience humanly pleasures is better for them. (I'm assuming here that we are indeed sane and humane enough to extend the full protections of liberty to any creature we had granted those capacities.) But if you are sceptical of Mill's argument, then the matter is much more complex. After all, as far as we can know, the cognitively limited life of a happy pig (or happy chimpanzee) may be much more enjoyable than the lives of most humans. And the quality of that life may depend on the integrity of the entire suite of cognitive and phenomenological abilities naturally possessed by animals, certain to be destroyed by any cognition-boosting intervention.

    Mill's argument is pretty questionable, but one of its premises makes sense: the relative value of two experiences can only be adjudicated by someone who has experienced both. We have never been pigs or chimpanzees, so we just don't know the quality of their experiences. It is very much an open possibility, then, that instilling in them human-like cognition may actually make them worse off.

  4. Whether Eurosocialists or American religious attempt to play King Canute, the genetic science tide will come in. We haven't had much success baning rape, murder and drug trafficking, we certainly wont prevent the enhancement of human capabilities. This R&D will continue in consenting nations and its outcomes will enter the race despite any amount of moralising about what 'should' be allowed.

  5. I love the general topic of consciousness and ethics. As technology continues to progress, there's no question sooner than later we're going to have to confront questions of what exactly it is that should entitle a "being" (for lack of a better word) to the sort of rights we extend to people. I disagree with a John Locke's position, at least in its most literal form; for, if lacking a stream of consciousness or rationality means you're not a person, then what does that say about how we should treat infants, the elderly, the disabled, etc.?

    1. If a particular elderly individual or severely mentally disabled individual or an infant lacks a stream of consciousness then perhaps we should indeed reject the notion that they are a 'person'. This does not mean that we shouldn't extend some/many rights to them. However, if we do extend rights to them, then we should do the same for comparatively cognitively similar animals.

      1. Well there are many examples of animals and humans where the animal is more cognitively aware than the person (e.g., a dolphin or chimpanzee compared to a newborn human). At present, extend essentially the full bundle of "human rights" to a newborn and none to either of those animals. So, do you believe we should be giving cognitively advanced animals more rights, or cognitively weak (for lack of a better phrase) humans less?

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