What Constitutes Humanity?

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From: Jeff Bone (jbone@jump.net)
Date: Mon May 14 2001 - 21:36:33 PDT

Tom wrote:

> On Mon, 14 May 2001, Jeff Bone wrote:
> --]
> --]I'll spew my unpopular opinion again. Folks, it ain't human if it doesn't
> --]have language.
> Do you truly belive this JB? If so, are you not defining constraints on
> humanity just as the religious right are defining constraints on Freedom
> of Speech?

I actually think any attempt to precisely define "humanity" in biological terms
is pretty much doomed. The only precise definitions possible are totally
arbitrary. I believe "achieves language" or "can integrate (10^nx)dx" make
exactly as much or more sense as a defining point for human life as "zygote of
four cells," "third trimester," and so on. (Which is to say, still not very much
sense --- but maybe a little more than the biological alternatives.)

It may be perceived that comments like mine above in some way place a low value
on human life. That couldn't be further from the truth. My greatest
philosophical problem in trying to define a biological basis for "granting"
humanity is that any of the reasonable suggestions IMO *themselves* devalue human
life, by setting the bar for "humanity" so low!

Human intelligence and society is the most incredible, awesome, magnificent,
wonderful --- dare I say "sacred" --- thing we've ever encountered. It's
*worthy* of preservation. But "humanity" must be about more than cells and
genes. "Humanity" is an existential concept, rather than a biological one; it's
our memories, our language, our hopes, our dreams, our art, our pathos, our
culture, our monuments, our technologies... our experiences... our *lives.* My
comments do admittedly place a low value on "the meat itself," but then it should
be clear that the meat is "profane" and the "soul," sacred.

Advocating an experiential basis for granting humanity may seem cold, but I
believe it is not. Rather, I believe that it represents a reasonable balance
between rationality and pragmatism, all the while taking a (perhaps nonobvious,
but nonetheless) moral high road to preserve the meaning and value in calling
something "human."

Folks, a life *lived* must be counted worth far more than one which *might be
lived.* Further, no life that *might be lived* should should have a right to
*life at the expense of another's well-being.* That principle is used to guide
the medical decision to separate Siamese twins, for instance, in some cases when
one must perish in order that the other might live a "normal" life. I find it
amazingly hypocritical (or maybe just nonsensical) that one finds hordes of rabid
Xians in front of abortion clinics, yet no right-wind hub-bub about the Siamese
twins separation issue. To me, it's crystal clear that the two procedures are
directly analogous. Why the moral issue with one but not the other?

Note again that we're going to face even more serious ethical challenges around
this and related questions in the not-to-distant future. (Related example: what
constitutes an *individual,* as that is the entity to which human rights adhere;
"unique genome" doesn't work, even now, given twins.) Again, the problems:
corpsicles, clones, cyborgs, total bioreplacement, AI, upload / download, mind
splitting, MPD --- a current problem -wrt- guilt, etc., mindsharing, and so on.
We've got to find definition of human that is more useful and meaningful than "it
happens at conception, is continuous in your body throughout life, and goes away
once you flatline."

Human life is a precious thing; so precious that we should be very stingy with
how we grant the rights and privileges associated with it.



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