by guest writer Kris Schnee
©2009 Kris Schnee

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   “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

   These words form part of the American creed, and have shaped the struggle for freedom worldwide—for humans! But do those old ideas apply to a world with intelligent non-humans in it?
   When black Americans campaigned against slavery, one of their slogans was, “Am I not a man and a brother?” If we ever create a race of animal-people or the like, that argument will get used again for the new race—and some of us humans will say, “No!” In the nineteenth century, everyone involved in the slavery dispute was definitely H. sapiens, but it wouldn’t be true this time. Back then, the best arguments against equality were bad science (“They’re mentally inferior!”), bad religion (“They’re the cursed descendants of Ham!”), or what we could call ‘education’: “These people are like us”, goes this rationale, “but primitive. By enslaving them we’re teaching them our ways, and helping them to improve and become independent.” There’s an argument that the Muslim world really did use slavery that way, circa 1800, and that American contact with that culture led Americans to question their own stance on slavery.
   Say that in the near future, we create a race of ‘anthros’. If they’re true animal/human hybrids or uplifts rather than modified humans, at first there’s a big chance they’ll be dumber than us. So the scientific “they’re inferior” argument will be true! As for the religious argument, there are so many opinions we can’t know which will prevail. Many million people will probably see anthros’ very existence as blasphemy, which bodes ill for equal treatment.
   How about the ‘education’ excuse? Would it necessarily be a bad thing to make second-class citizens of anthros? It’s conceivable that giving them full rights could be a mistake; after all, we wouldn’t want some Chicago biotech firm cranking out rats that are just smart enough to pull a voting lever! Full citizenship might even be a bad idea for the anthros themselves. In a free society, citizens need to take care of themselves, and a newly-created species might not be physically or mentally capable of that. That is, what if they lack the brain structure to understand language, mathematics or how to live in a human civilization? It wouldn’t just be a matter of teaching them patiently and letting talented individuals rise to the top; it’d be like having an entire species equivalent to severely retarded humans! Maybe the second generation would be much better thanks to advancing technology, but what would we do about the first? So, there’d be some justified pressure for treating a non-human race as inferior and subject to special legal controls. In fact, performing the experiments needed to create a fully intelligent race would itself probably involve ‘oppressive’ acts like controlling their breeding and keeping them for study. In a way, we’d be doing them a favor by treating them as inferiors.
   On the other hand, inequality is easy to abuse. As Frederick Douglass noted, if you’re exploiting people it’s helpful to keep them dumb and ignorant.* So, with this sort of anthro scenario, there’d be good reason for controlling people, but also serious potential for mistreatment.
   Now, the downside of having anthros around is fairly obvious. There have been plenty of stories about poor, oppressed furry characters struggling against the Man, but few seem to deal with the sort of conflict described above. The assumption is that somehow, anthros get zapped into existence and then humans start mistreating them, because the humans secretly envy them for being so wonderful and perfect. Not likely: Prototypes are flawed! And since really testing how an intelligent being thinks and behaves would involve having more than one or two of them, that rules out the cliche plot about some lone superbeing escaping from an evil government/corporate lab. A serious ‘uplift’ effort would require a lot of patience by humans, and probably a restricted life for the first generations, little better than slavery. Well-meaning humans would push for equal rights, against both well-meaning scientists and would-be slavers.
   That’s a story scenario. But what will actually happen if anything like that is tried in the real world? That is, who would win the argument over how to treat the new race? The answer depends on who another argument, over the question, “Where do our rights come from?” Historically, ‘rights’ have usually been a matter of brute force or faith. To the extent that anyone in any past society was ‘free’, it was either because they were tough enough to kill anyone who wanted to dominate them, or because religion—mostly Christianity—led people to believe that everyone is entitled to be left alone in some ways. In the Enlightenment era, Christian and secular thinking led people to the idea of ‘natural rights’. Ever since then we’ve been struggling with exactly what that means. Roughly, it’s the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with—” or “from that equal creation they derive”† “—certain inalienable rights”. Natural rights were never really pinned down in a rigorous philosophical way, but they produced the closest thing to universal freedom that has ever existed. If you were to be born as an anthro, you’d be lucky to be in a civilization that accepts natural rights, because you’d need only to argue that they apply to you. Easier said than done, but much easier than winning your freedom by force.
   Today, though, many of us think that idea is quaint and outdated. To hear certain people talk, rights are things invented (rather than discovered) by humans and granted or withdrawn by governments whenever the majority wills it. Instead of the short list of “life, liberty and property” found under natural rights, modern rights can be ‘rights’ to control other people and demand the product of their labor. In other words, we’ve been legally and philosophically giving up the idea that made our civilization unique, and that gives any future anthro race the best chance at a happy life. Ours, too.
   So, in thinking about what would happen to some prototype species, we should consider not just how smart they’ll be and how well they’ll fit in, but also about our own conscience. Democracy actually works against freedom if ‘rights’ are based on some majority-will vote of who to oppress. If we’re willing to oppose a majority and say, “This is wrong, no matter how you vote on it!”, we have a moral strength that doesn’t come from the herd. If we ever do create an anthro race, we’re going to get hit hard with moral dilemmas, and the way we handle them is going to shape our own prospects for freedom too.

*"To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one." – Frederick Douglass

†Jefferson’s original wording. Jefferson was a Deist who called himself Christian, but composed his own secular version of the Bible.

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