for Estrellita

The case for robot rights is often made by analogy to the case for animal rights and the case for the rights of natural entities like rivers and mountains. Josh Gellers is a strong proponent of these analogies, as is David Gunkel, and in my engagements with them on Twitter they often challenge me to apply whatever principles I want to use to exclude robots from moral consideration to these other entities which, they point out, have already been granted a variety of rights in many jurisdictions. Rights for non-humans are already here, they declare. Why not let robots into the company of rights-bearing subjects too?

It’s a good challenge and one that is worth facing. Just so we’re on the same page I should make clear that I believe that animal rights and the rights of nature are today assigned within reasonably coherent ethical and legal frameworks. I have looked at the cases they have suggested and, though they seem to understand these cases a little differently than I do, I basically agree with the way rights, as I understand it, have been assigned there. The coherence of these frameworks, however, cannot, as I see it, be extended to robots or other artificial entities. To put it in David’s terms, what we may think about animal rights and the rights of nature need not compel us to “think otherwise” about robot rights.

I’m going to take the two cases one at a time, animals in this post, and rivers and mountains without end in the next, in both cases using my now favorite artificial intelligence, GPT-3, to represent the analogous robot rights candidate. Since GPT-3 generates text, I am going to consider the somewhat narrow question of whether it can have “the moral right to be identified as an author”. If, for example, someone gets GPT-3 to generate a blogpost, the moral right of GPT-3 to proper attribution (if it had this right) would be violated if the text was either not attributed at all or attributed to someone else. This would be the case independent of any merely legal copyright violation, since a copyright can unproblematically be owned by people and entities other than the original author of a text.

How is the right of attribution similar to a right that an animal might have? The analogy I want to explore is suggested by the work of Tom Regan*, who, in The Case for Animal Rights, has argued that many animals are “subjects-of-a-life” and, as such, are also proper subjects of rights. If an animal is capable of feeling both distress and loneliness, for example, it has a right to be free from unnecessary harassment and forced isolation, both of which can be understood as forms of violence. That is, the rights of the animal are violated by causing it either physical or emotional harm. On this view, deliberately subjecting an animal to suffering or depriving it of the company of those it loves would be considered an act of cruelty.

As it happens, just as I was finishing the first draft of this post, Josh pointed me to a perfect case. Earlier this year, it seems, a final judgment was handed down in the Constitutional Court of Ecuador in the case of Estrelitta, a chorongo monkey that was taken by authorities from her human home, where she had lived for 18 years with a woman she considered her mother, and taken to a zoo where she died of stress after a few weeks. The judgment goes to great lengths to consider whether the animal’s rights (not merely those of the woman Estrellita was living with) were violated and even cites Regan’s seminal work on “animals as moral beings and subjects of life” (p. 26, n83). I have not yet looked closely at the case, which is heartbreaking on its face, but it seems like a very correct judgment. This was not merely a tragedy; it was an injustice.

In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan details what it means to be the subject-of-a-life:

[It] involves more than merely being alive and more than merely being conscious. … individuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests. Those who satisfy the subject-of-a-life criterion themselves have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles. (P. 243, quoted from Wikipedia)

I think the moral rights of authors can be similarly rooted in the “subjecthood” of the author. I have previously compared what Hemingway called the “writer’s problem” and what Barthes’ called the “problematics of literature”. “A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway. “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” Barthes put it this way: “Placed at the center of the problematics of literature, which cannot exist prior to it, writing is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language.” In their very different ways, both situate the author of a text within an experience (one, you will note, that includes a social relation) and assert an explicitly moral claim that is grounded in the freedom the author enjoys.

The crucial question here, as Regan points out, is that it makes sense to ask “what is it like to be” an animal. I will add that there also something like being an author. An individual’s rights as an animal or author depend on this subjective experience, as a truth that can be projected (Hemingway) or as a nature that can be situated (Barthes). We can now ask whether this can ever be the case for a “generative pre-trained transformer”.

Obviously, I can’t answer that question definitively in a blogpost. But I will again cite (as I did at the start of the summer) Borges wonderful reminder that a book isn’t just a linguistic structure. In his “Notes on (toward) Bernard Shaw”, he starts with a list of fantastical notions from Raymond Lully’s “thinking machine” to Kurd Lasswitz’s “Total Library” (an idea he would famously explore himself) and then offers the following:

Lully’s machine, Mill’s fear and Lasswitz’s chaotic library can be the subject of jokes, but they exaggerate a propensity that is all too common: making metaphysics and the arts into a kind of play with combinations. Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite … A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships. (Labyrinths, p. 213-14)

This gesture at the infinite relationships that constitute a book is a nice set-up to my next post on the rights of nature. But do notice that, like Estrellita, who had a right to remain with her adoptive mother, a book (or, rather, its author, of course) has the right not to be “isolated” from the problematics of the literature in which it has taken its place. In order to read it, we must respect the morality of its form. In any case, even if we grant, as I do, that animals can have rights because they are the subjects-of-a-life, we do not need to grant that robots can have rights unless they, too, can be the relevant subjects of them. In the case of GPT-3, we must ask whether GPT-3 can “project its experience”, can “situate the nature of its language”, or, indeed, whether it can “impose its voice” on the memory of the reader. Is it capable of an infinite dialogue? Can it be the subject-of-a-text? I think not.

Tom Regan’s case for animal rights cannot be made for robot rights. But I’m sure that neither will he be allowed to have the last word on animals* nor will I be allowed to have the last word on robots. The dialogue, after all, is infinite.

*I should make clear that I’m by no means an animal rights scholar. What I offer here is something I’ve learned mainly from Wikipedia. On Twitter, Josh reminds me that he covers Regan’s work in chapter 3 of his book. I haven’t revisited it for this post.

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