I WAS LISTENING to NPR today. There was this philosopher guy who wrote a book about dolphins and why we should be concerned about them. It reminded me of a class that I had awhile back about moral status.
The class read some Peter Singer.
My opinions about Singer aside, I appreciated his efforts to get us to realize that we humans aren’t the only life on this planet. But, as a human, I still have that problem with taking any life that doesn’t look human seriously.
I mean, I don’t go around smashing hamsters or nailing dogs to walls, but I am willing to admit that I suffer from the all-too-common humans first syndrome.
As well as having a fondness for philosophy, I also have a fondness for science fiction.
Some people are squarely in a particular camp, meaning that they prefer to watch Star Trek or that they prefer the lightsaber-wielding Jedi of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, or even, god forbid, they like Farscape.*
I haven’t been one to so narrowly squeeze myself into one category of fan over another, as I have realized that there is some amount of tension between fans of any given particular science fiction program. I hadn’t really had a name for what a person like me is ( except for maybe uberdork), until I listened one morning to a radio show where another multiple program watcher called himself “sci-bi”.
Being sci-bi meant that he was not going to be labeled. He was not going to be cornered into claiming allegiance to Roddenberry or to Lucas. He was free to appreciate both or either if he so choosed.
Which brings me back to the point of all of this. I had this class on moral status. We were discussing the question, “what is a person?”.
The question, it seems, isn’t as easily answered as we may have thought.
If I was to give the standard response, I would say that a person is a human, short and simple.
But, it seems, the philosopher is supposed to say that that speciesist response is no longer viable in light of the data that “proves” that we humans aren’t the only intelligent life on the planet.
there’s all this stuff about what constitutes “morally relevant” characteristics that determine whether a being is morally considerable. we can suppose that these same criteria can also be used to determine whether a being is a “person”.
Since I am a fan of science fiction, and I also know that Gene Roddenberry was a nut about putting philosophy in to his Star Trek plotlines, I immediately recognized that my favorite incarnation of Star Trek (TNG, or The Next Generation for those who aren’t in the know) had a plot dealing with that very issue: what is a person?
Giddy with pop culture-infused zeal, I emailed my professor, explaining an episode of a TV show that would perfectly depict the conflict of personhood — especially when we consider the personhood of non-humans. I volunteered the episode “Measure of a Man”.
Now, I could get into all sorts of really geekified backstory here, but suffice to say that the episode did fit into the class discussion. But then, that got me thinking… As far as science fiction goes, Roddenberry’s characters are more “real”, meaning they are future people who reflect who we are now.
We are supposed to be philosophically challenged or enlightened by them and their actions. We see the people that we are to become when we look into Star Trek and the near-utopian future it presents to us.
I guess, in the long run, that’s the difference between a philosopher and a storyteller.
Being that I am sci-bi, I also appreciate the work of George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Truth be told, I know more about these characters than I know about my own family. I can trace the genealogy of the Solo twins (Now non-canon. Thanks a lot, The Force Awakens!) more readily than I can trace my own heritage.
Whereas Roddenberry shows us what we might become, Lucas shows us what we want to be.
Lucas shows us heroes and villains that find redemption through the love of our sons.
Lucas’ focus is on the mythology of mankind. The story where the people come first.
Which is what I’m writing about right now.
I’ll admit I have a sort-of sci-crush on the character “Data” on Star Trek.
Who doesn’t, right?
Now, my thing is not for Brent Spiner, the actor who plays “Data”, but the character himself (itself?).
I think that the point of the android Data is so that to mirror our own humanity.
Because Data is emotionless and always trying to be more human, he reflects our constant struggle to improve ourselves.
In “The Measure of A Man”, Captain Picard advocates on Data’s side when Starfleet wanted to dismantle him and use him for research, arguing that Data was a mere machine but is a person.
Picard argues successfully, that Data possesses the same qualities that we humans say defines us as human, namely, we are self aware, we are sentient, and we are conscious of ourselves and our surroundings.
I guess the philosopher in me would agree wholeheartedly that, despite the fact that Data was not human, he was a person who is entitled to all the rights and privileges that all humans are entitled to.
So far, so good.
But then I was hit by a sudden apprehension — what about a poor droid like C-3PO? If he were the subject of a question of personhood and if he were in Roddenberry’s universe, he would certainly meet Data’s personhood test.
Anyone familiar with 3PO knows that he doesn’t want to die ( he is horrified by being shot in The Empire Strikes Back, and later in the film tells Chewbacca that he doesn’t want to die), he is aware of himself, as we see that he constantly bemoans his “lot in life”, and C-3PO, unlike Data, is emotional.
C-3PO can be best described as a “nervous wreck”.
But yet, in George Lucas’ universe, a mere resemblance to humans will do you absolutely no good if you’re a droid.
A droid can be used, abused, dismantled, sold without consent. Given away to Jabba the Hutt without any consideration of how a droid might feel about the deal, and if it knows too much, its memory will be wiped.
It doesn’t seem to matter to either George Lucas or his characters whether a droid expresses fear or dread at being condemed to the spice mines of Kessel — they ain’t human.
And that, to the “Star Wars” universe, seems to make all the difference. So what does this mean?
I guess I could say that George Lucas’ movies reflect the old-world mentality that told us that animals didn’t have souls and that they only made noises when you cut them open because that noise was like the pings and pangs of the springs of a clock when it is taken apart.
Lord knows I don’t want to think about the moral status of my Siri.
But then, I could say that we should be more like Captain Picard — ready to defend our non-human friends when their lives are on the line — if only for the fact that they are persons too.
Or, I guess the better way to see all of this is to stop thinking about it all so seriously, and just enjoy the flashing lights and the soaring music.
…and the last two minutes of Rogue One.
My god, that was incredible.