Notes on Justin Leiber's Can Animals and Machines Be Persons?

The First Morning

Mary Godwin is a fictional descendent of both Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women) and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein). Godwin argues that Washoe Delta (a chimp) and AL (a robot) should not be destroyed, because they are both persons and thus have the right not to be killed.

If their personhood were unproblematic — if they looked like you and me — the case would never have come to trial: it would have been obvious that they must be saved.

Godwin must therefore argue that Washoe Delta and AL are persons, in spite of appearances to the contrary. She says their personhood should be acknowledged because they "interacted with, and were recognized by, the human crew as persons." (5)

Furthermore, biologically speaking, there is very little difference between humans and chimps — or, as recently was shown, humans and reptiles.

Opposing counsel Goodman counters: the biological similarities don’t matter. One either is or isn’t a person. Persons "think, feel, make choices, are conscious, and use language in fascinating and complicated ways."(7) Washoe Delta and AL do not do these things, and therefore are not persons. Only persons have "intrinsic worth and dignity." Because Washoe Delta and AL are not persons, they have no intrinsic worth and dignity.

Goodman acknowledges other uses of the term "person" (to refer to corporations, for example), but claims that the "primary and literal sense" of "person" is "genetically human." Goodman says there is "an age-old equation of person and human being." (10) Washoe Delta and AL are not genetically human; therefore, they are not persons. Therefore they can be destroyed.

Godwin points out there’s NO such "age-old equation": women and slaves were denied personhood for centuries.

Goodman replies: "That’s irrelevant history." NO, says Godwin. The recognition of female personhood is a relatively recent historical development, and came about only after argument that all MEN are persons (e.g., the writings of Thomas Paine).

Goodman: but where do we draw the line? Surely we must draw the line at human beings. Otherwise, we end up with Thomas Taylor’s slippery slope, acknowledging the personhood, and thus the rights, of brutes.

Goodman’s argument is pretty bad all around, no? It’s a continuum fallacy. AND, there’s NO slippery slope for the Hindu judge, or for Western philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibniz.

So Goodman’s counterarguments so far fail.

Godwin proposes a test for personhood — the Turing test.

Go to "The Afternoon"

Sandy's X10 Home Page | Sandy's Google Sites Home Page
Questions or comments?