Personhood for Non-Humans (including Artificial Agents)

As these articles in recent issues of the New York Times (here and here) and the holding of the Personhood Beyond the Human conference indicate, personhood for non-humans is a live issue, both philosophical and legal. As I noted during the Concurring Opinions online symposium on my book A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents last year, (an additional link to discussions is here) this includes personhood for artificial agents. Rather than repeat the arguments I made during that symposium, let me just quote–self-indulgently, at a little length–from the conclusion of my book:

The most salutary effect of our discussions thus far on the possibility of personhood for artificial agents might have been to point out the conceptual difficulties in ascriptions of personhood—especially acute in accounts of personhood based on psychological characteristics that might give us both too many persons and too few—and its parasitism on our social needs. The grounding of the person in social needs and legal responsibilities suggests personhood is socially determined, its supposed essence nominal, subject to revision in light of different usages of person. Recognizing personhood may consist of a set of customs and practices, and so while paradigmatic conceptions of persons are based on human beings…the various connections of the concept of person with legal roles concede personhood is a matter of interpretation of the entities in question, explicitly dependent on our relationships and interactions with them.

Personhood thus emerges as a relational, organizing concept that reflects a common form of life and common felt need. For artificial agents to be become legal persons, a crucial determinant would be the formation of genuinely interesting relationships, both social and economic, for it is the complexity of the agent’s relational interactions that will be of crucial importance.

Personhood is a status marker of a class of agents we, as a species, are interested in and care about. Such recognition is a function of a rich enough social organization that demands such discourse as a cohesive presence and something that enables us to make the most sense of our fellow beings. Beings that do not possess the capacities to enter into a sufficiently complex set of social relationships are unlikely to be viewed as moral or legal persons by us. Perhaps when the ascription of second-order intentionality becomes a preferred interpretationist strategy in dealing with artificial agents, relationships will be more readily seen as forming between artificial agents and others and legal personhood is more likely to be assigned.

Fundamentally, the question of extending legal personality to a particular category of thing remains one of assessing its social importance….The evaluation of the need for legal protection for the entity in question is sensitive, then, to the needs of the community. The entity in question might interact with, and impinge on, social, political, and legal institutions in such a way that the only coherent understanding of its social role emerges by treating it as a person.

The question of legal personality suggests the candidate entity’s presence in our networks of legal and social meanings has attained a level of significance that demands reclassification. An entity is a viable candidate for legal personality in this sense if it fits within our networks of social, political, and economic relations in such a way it can coherently be a subject of legal rulings.

Thus, the real question is whether the scope and extent of artificial agent interactions have reached such a stage. Answers will reveal what we take to be valuable and useful in our future society as well, for we will be engaged in determining what roles artificial agents should be playing for us to be convinced the question of legal personality has become a live issue. Perhaps artificial agents can only become persons if they enter into social relationships that go beyond purely commercial agentlike relationships to genuinely personal relationships (like medical care robots or companion robots). And even in e-commerce settings, an important part of forming deeper commercial relationships will be whether trust will arise between human and artificial agents; users will need to be convinced “an agent is capable of reliably performing required tasks” and will pursue their interests rather than that of a third party.

Autopoietic legal theory, which emphasizes the circularity of legal concepts, suggests too, that artificial agents’ interactions will play a crucial role in the determination of legal personality….If it is a sufficient condition for personality that an entity engage in legal acts, then, an artificial agent participating in the formation of contracts becomes a candidate for legal personality by virtue of its participation in those transactions.

Personhood may be acquired in the form of capacities and sensibilities acquired through initiation into the traditions of thought and action embodied in language and culture; personhood may be result of the maturation of beings, whose attainment depends on the creation of an evolving intersubjectivity. Artificial agents may be more convincingly thought of as persons as their role within our lives increases and as we develop such intersubjectivity with them. As our experience with children shows, we slowly come to accept them as responsible human beings. Thus we might come to consider artificial agents as legal persons for reasons of expedience, while ascriptions of full moral personhood, independent legal personality, and responsibility might await the attainment of more sophisticated capacities on their part.


While artificial agents are not close to being regarded as moral persons, they are coherently becoming subjects of the intentional stance, and may be thought of as intentional agents. They take actions that they initiate, and their actions can be understood as originating in their own reasons. An artificial agent with the right sorts of capacities—most importantly, that of being an intentional system—would have a strong case for legal personality, a case made stronger by the richness of its relationships with us and by its behavioral patterns. There is no reason in principle that artificial agents could not attain such a status, given their current capacities and the arc of their continued development in the direction of increasing sophistication.

The discussion of contracting suggested the capabilities of artificial agents, doctrinal convenience and neatness, and the economic implications of various choices would all play a role in future determinations of the legal status of artificial agents. Such “system-level” concerns will continue to dominate for the near future. Attributes such as the practical ability to perform cognitive tasks, the ability to control money, and considerations such as cost benefit analysis, will further influence the decision whether to accord legal personality to artificial agents. Such cost-benefit analysis will need to pay attention to whether agents’ principals will have enough economic incentive to use artificial agents in an increasing array of transactions that grant agents more financial and decision-making responsibility, whether principals will be able, both technically and economically, to grant agents adequate capital assets to be full economic and legal players in tomorrow’s marketplaces, whether the use of such artificial agents will require the establishment of special registers or the taking out of insurance to cover losses arising from malfunction in contractual settings, and even the peculiar and specialized kinds and costs of litigation that the use of artificial agents will involve. Factors such as efficient risk allocation, whether it is necessary to introduce personality in order to explain all relevant phenomena, and whether alternative explanations gel better with existing theory, will also carry considerable legal weight in deliberations over personhood. Most fundamentally, such an analysis will evaluate the transaction costs and economic benefits of introducing artificial agents as full legal players in a sphere not used to an explicit acknowledgment of their role.

Many purely technical issues remain unresolved as yet….Economic considerations might ultimately be the most important in any decision whether to accord artificial agents with legal personality. Seldom is a law proposed today in an advanced democracy without some semblance of a utilitarian argument that its projected benefits would outweigh its estimated costs. As the range and nature of electronic commerce transactions handled by artificial agents grows and diversifies, these considerations will increasingly come into play. Our discussion of the contractual liability implications of the agency law approach to the contracting problem was a partial example of such an analysis.

Whatever the resolution of the arguments considered above, the issue of legal personality for artificial agents may not come ready-formed into the courts, or the courts may be unable or unwilling to do more than take a piecemeal approach, as in the case of extending constitutional protections to corporations. Rather, a system for granting legal personality may need to be set out by legislatures, perhaps through a registration system or “Turing register,”.

A final note on these entities that challenge us by their advancing presence in our midst. Philosophical discussions on personal identity often take recourse in the pragmatic notion that ascriptions of personal identity to human beings are of most importance in a social structure where that concept plays the important legal role of determining responsibility and agency. We ascribe a physical and psychological coherence to a rapidly changing object, the human being, because otherwise very little social interaction would make sense. Similarly, it is unlikely that, in a future society where artificial agents wield significant amounts of executive power, anything would be gained by continuing to deny them legal personality. At best it would be a chauvinistic preservation of a special status for biological creatures like us. If we fall back repeatedly on making claims about human uniqueness and the singularity of the human mind and moral sense in a naturalistic world order, then we might justly be accused of being an “autistic” species, unable to comprehend the minds of other types of beings.

Note: Citations removed above.

The Personhood Beyond the Human Conference

This weekend (Dec 7-8) I am attending the Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale University. Here is a description of the conference’s agenda:

The event will focus on personhood for nonhuman animals, including great apes, cetaceans, and elephants, and will explore the evolving notions of personhood by analyzing them through the frameworks of neuroscience, behavioral science, philosophy, ethics, and law….Special consideration will be given to discussions of nonhuman animal personhood, both in terms of understanding the history, science, and philosophy behind personhood, and ways to protect animal interests through the establishment of legal precedents and by increasing public awareness.

I will be speaking on Sunday afternoon. Here is an abstract for my talk:

Personhood for Artificial Agents: What it teaches us about animals’ rights

For the past few years, I have presented arguments based on my book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, which suggest that legal and perhaps even moral and metaphysical personhood for artificial agents is not a conceptual impossibility. In some cases, a form of dependent legal personality might even be possible in today’s legal frameworks for such entities. As I have presented these arguments, I have encountered many objections to them.In this talk, I will examine some of these objections as they have taught me a great deal about how personhood for artificial agents is relevant to the question of human beings’ relationships with animals. I will conclude with the claims that a) advocating personhood for artificial agents should not be viewed as an anti-humanistic perspective and b) rather, it should allow us to assess the question of animals’ rights more sympathetically. Bio

Steven Wise, the  most prominent animal rights lawyer in the US, will be speaking today and sharing some rather interesting news about some very important lawsuits filed by his organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, on behalf of great apes’, arguing for their legal personhood. (Some information can  be found here, and there is heaps more at the website obviously.)

If you are in the area, do stop on by.

Geertz, the ‘Anthropological Understanding,’ and Persons

(As promised in an earlier post on Clifford Geertz, I will be posting a few reactions here to his essays in Local Knowledge.) 

In ‘”From The Native’s Point of View”: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 59), Clifford Geertz writes,

The concept of person is…an excellent vehicle by which to examine this whole question of how to go about poking into another people’s turn of mind. In the first place, some sort of concept of this kind, one feels reasonably safe in saying, exists in recognizable form within all social groups. Various notions of what persons are may be, from our point of view, more than a little odd. People may be conceived to dart about nervously at night, shaped like fireflies. Essential elements of their psyche, like hatred, may be thought to be lodged in granular black bodies within their livers, discoverable upon autopsy. They may share their fates with doppelganger beasts, so that when the beast sickens or dies they sicken or die too. But at least some conception of what a human individual is, as opposed to a rock, an animal, a rainstorm, or a god, is…universal. Yet, at the same time, as these offhand examples suggest, the actual conceptions involved vary, often quite sharply, from one group to the next. The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe; a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

Indeed, this notion of a person often seems a ‘rather peculiar idea’ even without the contrasting notions of persons in ‘other’ cultures. For instance, as I suggested in a post here on the ethics of care, which conceives of persons in more relational terms, most puzzles about personhood ascription arise precisely because of our limited view of persons as unitary entities. The puzzles I have in mind are the so-called ‘borderline’ cases: new-born infants, comatose patients, and the like. They very often do not meet some or many of a conventional cluster of attributes associated with persons: rationality, consciousness, free-will, autonomy, moral sensibilities, other-directedness and so on. But our intuitions suggest to most that these entities are persons, worthy of our attention, and wait for it, care. The difficulty in these cases arises because the entity in question is considered in isolation from a surrounding social, inter-personal, and emotional context. Viewed in this light, and evaluated against a check-list of conditions, which make our putative persons resemble nothing as much as the rational, freely-acting agent so beloved of market theory, these entities fail the personhood test spectacularly. But of course.

The ‘anthropological understanding’ that Geertz highlights is crucial because it affords us a means of inspecting, evaluating, and comparing the varied conceptualizations of persons that cultures, separated by time, place, language and history, can afford us. These notions should help clarify, and even more importantly, inform ours: ‘person’ is not a static concept, it has a history, one subject to influences precisely like the ones Geertz pointed us to.

Note: The journal citation for Geertz’s essay is: “From the Native’s Point of View”: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding, Clifford Geertz, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , Vol. 28, No. 1 (Oct., 1974), pp. 26-45

Virginia Held on ‘An Ethics of Care’

Yesterday Professor Virginia Held delivered the annual Sprague and Taylor Lecture at the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College.

On a personal note, it gave me great pleasure to welcome Professor Held to Brooklyn College. My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. On her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors. During that semester, I had my intellectual horizons considerably expanded; after I had written my term paper on Marx and Feuerbach’s views on religion, Professor Held wrote a recommendation letter for me that secured my admission to the doctoral program. Thus was my professional career in philosophy launched. Twenty years on, now a professor at Brooklyn College, I was delighted to welcome the scholar that kicked it all off for me.

Virginia’s lecture was titled “Why Care”; it attempted to highlight the significance of developing frameworks for moral decision-making based on an ethics of care. The abstract for her recently released The Ethics of Care (Oxford University Press, 2005) notes:

Where…moral theories as Kantian morality and utilitarianism demand impartiality above all, the ethics of care understands the moral import of ties to families and groups. It evaluates such ties, differing from virtue ethics by focusing on caring relations rather than the virtues of individuals. [Held] proposes how values such as justice, equality, and individual rights can “fit together” with values such as care, trust, mutual consideration, and solidarity….[Held] shows how the ethics of care is more promising than other moral theories for advice on how limited or expansive markets should be, showing how values other than market ones should have priority in such activities as childcare, health care, education, and in cultural activities. Finally, [Held] connects the ethics of care with the rising interest in civil society, and with limits on what law and rights are thought able to accomplish.

In her talk, Virginia drew out some of the implications of such an ethics: for instance, the value it would ascribe to the maintenance of many significant personal relationships (such as mothering, which currently is paid a great deal of lip service by our politicians but is devalued by their actions and legislation) or more abstractly, the reconfiguration it might cause in our current notions of personhood, which consider persons to be highly individualistic, unitary, autonomous, rational entities, but which an ethics of care might understand as more relational objects.

This last part is of great intellectual interest to me; I intend to write on it in this space. Soon enough.