Since we have pretty much resolved the issues of racial and ethnic discrimination in wertern societies, civil rights is rather simple thing nowdays: if you’re human you have all the rights if you’re not you have no rights.
The only reason civilization can function that way is because we are the unquestionable rulers of planet earth but if things turn out as we expect them to we won’t hold that title for long.
Current trends appear to dictate that in a a few decades (a century tops) there will be several other species (and I employ the word “species” in a very broad way so that it includes not only biological life but also all the other possible forms of intelligence and life-like behaviour) with intelligence levels that match or even surpass our own. In adition, the own concept of “human” will have to be revised, since our species will evidently diversify and suffer considerable modification.
If we want to peacefully coexist with our intellectual equals and superiors while still keeping our rights and duties we will have to come up with a functional legal and moral system that applies to a diverse multi-species society. So, what should that system be based on?
As I said before, it can’t be humanity. I also don’t think it can be intelligence (as much as we insist that we are “rational animals” we have to admit the fact that super-intelligence will probably think of us as we think of mice).
A popular solution (which I’ve seen presented several times in this forum) is that we grant basic rights to all “sentient beeings”. This may be a viable solution, since it would lead super-intelligences to respect us. We would also have to change our treatment of so called “irrational animals” since most studies suggest that they fit our traditional definition of sentience, but that will be a lot easier once we have vat-meat and stuff like that. The one true problem with this hypothesis is that sentience is actually a pretty hard thing to define and it’s even harder to determine who or what can be classified as sentient.
In wikipedia setince appear defined as “the ability to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively”. Given that definition i think it’s pretty clear that at least all animals (or at least most of them) are sentient. But this may be harder to guess with diferent creatures.
Has any of you read Peter Watts’ Blindsight. It’s a science-fiction novel that describes the first contact between humans and the “scramblers”, a race of alien being that is intelligent but not sentient. They are smartter than us but don’t have the so called “subjective experience”, however, they try to deceit us to thinking that they do.
This brings us to the classical chinese room argument. If an indentity acts like a sentient being is it safe to assume that it is sentient? Watts clearly answers that question with a no, and I agreed with him when I finished the novel.
But then I read the arguments of some philosophers and neuroscientists and they made me think.
Do we really have a reason to believe that our so called “subjective experience” is actually subjective? Can’t it just be the result of an imensely complex algorithmic process?
Philosopher Daniel Dennett goes as far as to afirm that consciouness in its standard definition is nothing but an ilusion and that our brain does nothing but processing information and generating appropriate responses. He sustains his position by afirming that we have no empirical evidence on the existence of qualia. Despite being a little divided, I think he’s got a point.
If he is rght, don’t we have to define the concept of sentience?
I would like to here your opinions on this subject. I know I’ve drifted i little away from the theme but that’s because I think these thibgs are important to debate. Maybe I’ll write more on the issue of civil rights another day.