Volume 3, Issue 1
1st Quarter, 2008

The Tao of Personhood:
The Yin and Yang of the Property-Person Continuum

Linda MacDonald-Glenn, J.D.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Professor Linda MacDonald-Glenn, J.D., LLM, during the 3rd Annual Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons, December 10, 2007, at the Florida Space Coast Office of Terasem Movement, Inc.

Professor MacDonald-Glenn’s research into evolving notions of personhood within the emerging technologies is a philosophical cross-culture of ideas between the concepts and principles of the Tao and Yin and Yang.

One of the things that I find myself driven to is commensurability, to find common ground among the things that we talk about; I use this particular language for a number of reasons.

The Tao, many of you are probably familiar with the Tao [1], a concept in Eastern Philosophy, meaning "the way". It is generally means the middle way, the middle path, the finding between the Yin and the Yang [2]. I also use that language in particular because I think it is important to take a cross-cultural perspective on this. Much of this discussion has been from a western perspective and I think to have a maximum impact we want to start incorporating other cultures, other perspectives. I have been studying the Tao, the ancient wisdom of the Tao, and trying to incorporate it in some of the things that we have been talking about. Where that comes into the law, we will see. Certainly one of the things we are talking about today is evolving notions of personhood. How the notions of persons in the past have been very restricted. It used to be a necessary condition, you had to be human to be a person, but that has changed in the last couple of hundred years.

image 1
Image 1

There are three different areas in which traditional notions of personhood are being challenged. Now, these three case scenarios are out of my thesis - I give these as three different examples but certainly the facts could be changed to discuss the different scenarios. The three areas where traditional personhood is being challenged is in animal rights, issues of animal rights. The law is evolving to recognize that pets or our companion animals at home have more status than merely property. That they are not merely objects. They have the ability to feel pleasure and pain. That was one of the other reasons why I used the Tao and the Yin and the Yang because I think that the middle path, the Yin, the Yang, reflects the tension between utilitarianism and Kantianism [3]. One of the ideas of promoting personhood for AI has been based very much upon a Kantian of rationality and reason. However, we don't want to forget about the importance of sentience, the ability to feel pleasure, the ability to feel pain; the utilitarian perspective. Again, that's one of the other reasons that I used the language, the Yin and the Yang, to describe the tension between utilitarianism and Tao ontology [4].

The laws are evolving in the U.S. There are at least six states now that recognize our companion animals are more than mere property, that they do not yet occupy the legal status of persons, but if you poll the American people – and there have been studies and surveys done on this – American people feel that their pets should have some sort of basic rights and so that they are at the very least some form of persons, even if not rational and able to speak. Or maybe they are rational but it's hard to tell. That's one area that it's being challenged and the laws are evolving to reflect that.

The second area is the notion of fetal and embryonic personhood. What we have seen is a change in the laws regarding fetal and embryonic personhood, particularly fetal personhood. For instance, the Laci Peterson case [5] where what happened was the U.S. Government, Congress passed a law that said if you kill a pregnant woman you in fact, are killing two persons. That law was intended to reflect the sense that most people recognized that at some point before you are born you are capable of sentience, which is still an area for debate. Recently, in Colorado, thanks to Terry Tomsick [6] for pointing this out to me, there is a referendum going to be on the ballot to declare embryos as having personhood. I think most people are not willing to go that far quite yet but I think what is happening, is that you are seeing a push, a push to giving status to fetuses before they are born. Perhaps a push to give status to fetuses at the point they're able to experience pain or pleasure. But right now, because the whole issue is still entangled with the rights of a woman over her own body. This issue is not going to be resolved until we have some form of ectogenesis [7] where you can disentangle the issue of whether or not that entity has rights separate and apart from the woman, which is hopefully, so much more than an incubator.

The third area in which I give as example is cyborg soldiers; it's the merger of man and machine. Currently some of the things that we've been talking about three overlapping areas, the idea of sentient machines.

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Image 2

I have not yet read Marvin Minsky's “The Emotion Machine” [8], but I am really interested in the thoughts of whether or not machines and AI can experience pleasure or pain in any sense. I don't how many people have suffered existential angst, which is not necessarily physical. There is the idea of disembodied entities, the avatars that Bill Bainbridge spoke about. I like the idea of the translation that was yet another reason that I liked the Tao and the Yin and the Yang was because what we are seeking is a translation between all the different approaches and ways of thinking about the same thing, but in different ways, in different languages, in different perspectives.

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Image 3

Then there is the human technogenics or cyborgs. One of the things that certainly has made a leap towards that is the idea of converging technologies, Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno [9], which Bill Bainbridge [10] was a major author on. There are some anticipated payoffs including improved work efficiency, enhanced sensory and cognitive capabilities, and changes in health care. These are all things that are moving us more and more towards a merger with AI. What we're doing, particularly what the military is doing, in some of the cutting edge research on augmenting human intelligence; not only human intelligence but also animal intelligence. This brings up this question of where is there a difference; is there finally going to be a difference?

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1. The Tao - Common dictionary translations of Tao include: road, path, way, means, doctrine. In the Tao Tee Ching, it is generally used to indicate the unseen, underlying law of the universe from which all other principles and phenomena proceed. It is described as unnamable, unfathomable and inexhaustible. Taoists attempt to be one with this principle. http://www.thetao.info/tao/tao.htm January 31, 2008 1:37PM EST

2. Yin and Yang - In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang (simplified Chinese: traditional Chinese: pinyin: yīnyáng) are generalized descriptions of the antitheses or mutual correlations in human perceptions of phenomena in the natural world, combining to create a unity of opposites in the theory of the Taiji.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yin_and_yang January 31, 2008 1:39 PM EST

3. Kantianism - the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The term Kantianism or Kantian is still often used to describe contemporary positions in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

4. Ontology - a study of conceptions of reality and the nature of being. In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence and forms the basic subject matter of metaphysics.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology January 31, 2008 1:49PM EST

5. Lacy Peterson case - On December 23 or 24, 2002, Peterson is believed to have murdered his wife, Laci, while she was eight months pregnant with their unborn child, who was to be named Conner. He initially reported her missing on Christmas Eve and the story quickly attracted nationwide media interest.
http://petersontrial.info/scott-peterson-summary.php January 31, 2008 2:22PM EST

6. Terry Tomsick - an attorney and retired judge from Colorado.
http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/rights2007bio/tomsick/ January 31, 2008 2:28PM EST

7. Ectogenous (or ectogenic) – adj. 1. Having the ability to live and develop outside a host, as certain pathogenic microorganisms. 2. Ectogenous.
Stedman. The American Heritage Medical Dictionary, Second Edition. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, 249.

8. Marvin Minsky - Marvin Minsky is Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research has led to both theoretical and practical advances in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, neural networks, and the theory of Turing Machines and recursive functions. (In 1961 he solved Emil Post's problem of "Tag", and showed that any computer can be simulated by a machine with only two registers and two simple instructions.).
http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/minskybiog.html January 31, 2008 2:36PM EST

The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind - In this mind-expanding book, scientific pioneer Marvin Minsky continues his groundbreaking research, offering a fascinating new model for how our minds work. He argues persuasively that emotions, intuitions, and feelings are not distinct things, but different ways of thinking.
Greater information on this book may be found at:
http://www.simonsays.com/... January 31, 2008 3:55PM EST

9. Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno - Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science are converging technologies for improving human performance. For greater information, go to:
http://www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/ February 1, 2008 11:19AM EST

10. Bill Bainbridge – William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D. - (born October 12, 1940) is an innovative American sociologist who currently resides in Virginia. He is co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and also teaches sociology as a part-time professor at George Mason University. He is also the first Senior Fellow to be appointed by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Bainbridge is most well known for his controversial work on the sociology of religion; recently, however, he has published work studying the sociology of video gaming.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sims_Bainbridge February 1, 2008 11:34AM EST

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