Robot v. Sandford

Dred Scott, whose famous case to gain his free...

Dred Scott, whose famous case to gain his freedom began as a lawsuit filed in St. Louis in 1846 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent some time the other day arguing with my friend over the limits of humanity. This is actually an old hobbyhorse for both of us, and we’ve heard each other’s arguments many times before. Each has enlisted support amongst our group of friends. As you might expect from an argument between a sci-fi buff and a philosophy major, we take opposing sides – I line up whole-heartedly in favor of “robot rights” and he is strongly against. I call him a human chauvinist, whereas he makes the not-entirely-unreasonable position that human institutions are suited for humans only. I posit that at the very least, any non-human which can make a convincing case for its own sentience should be granted alien resident rights, and frankly I favor erring on the side of full citizenship. He suggests that at the most, they should be granted the same rights we grant domestic animals – protection against cruelty. While rehashing our old disagreements the other day, he asked how we could even go about granting human rights to non-humans, and I had a new realization.

The most likely avenue to recognition of non-human intelligence (machine, alien, or other) is through the legal system. If aliens are ever discovered, or should we build self-aware machines, sooner or later one of them will bring suit against either an individual or a government. That first suit may or may not be decided on its merits, but the key decision will be standing. That is, whether the claimant meets the conditions for bringing suit in a United States court. This was the key to the Dred Scott decision – that slaves lacked standing to bring suit because they were not recognized as having any rights a court was bound to recognize. Given the implications for US jurisprudence, any suit brought by a non-human intelligence would surely shoot directly to the US Supreme Court.

This is obviously wildly speculative and hinges on the hotly-debated question of whether or not there can exist a non-human intelligence that could communicate in a way comprehensible to us. But if they do exist, I feel confident predicting that sooner or later this question will be resolved before the Supreme Court. It will be a tough decision either way, and I’m sure that recognizing non-humans as deserving of rights would be unthinkably unpopular. But the alternative would be to mimic the chain of reasoning leading to Dred Scott, and these future justices will of course remember how history treated that one. I don’t envy whoever would have to make that decision.


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