Human Rights for Nonhumans

Baek Ma-ri (Seolhyun of AOA), Jung Jae-min (Yeo Jin-goo), Han Shi-hoo (Lee Jong-hyun), Jo Ah-ra (Gil Eun-hye) and their band playing in front of a fountain in 2015 Korean drama Orange Marmalade

Vampire mania has gripped mainstream media since the commercial success of The Twilight Saga film series. Over in South Korea, the trend showed no sign of dying in 2015, which saw three dramas revolving around vampire romances. Among them, however, Orange Marmalade, like the HBO series True Blood and BBC drama Being Human before it, went beyond the lust and gore factors to highlight a connection between the idea of vampires in hiding and diversity issues:

“When we eat oranges, we usually throw away the peels. However, when we make orange marmalade, we chop the peels into fine pieces and add them to the dish. This gives it crunch and tanginess. Even orange peels originally destined for the trash bin become indispensable in the preparation of orange marmalade. […] It’d be great if our band could come together to produce music like marmalade—not ostracizing people simply because they are different, but instead making room for those who are deemed useless.”

Baek Ma-ri’s speech in Orange Marmalade

In the world of the drama, vampires have made a peace treaty with humans, promising to abstain from the consumption of human blood in return for protection of their lives. They live incognito, reining in their superhuman abilities, concealing their synthetic blood diets and changing towns each time people discover who they are. Ironically, as one critic noted, this constant fearfulness makes them human. There are obvious parallels here with real-life struggles of gifted individuals, whose unusual behaviors provoke fear and misunderstanding, and those with mental disorders, to whom stigma is attached even when the conditions are kept under control.

Orange Marmalade does not stop there. Even as vampires’ rights are being championed, its male protagonist poses a sharp question: should vampires be conferred human rights when they are not human? This is a matter that deserves thought as controversy over the rights of other beings like animals erupts and as robots with human-like mental qualities become a reality. Maltreatment of the former has long been a problem in human society, whereas antagonism towards the latter is evident in recent discussions on the invasion of robots into labor markets. Semantics, though, may be blurring the core issue at stake. Whether we brand their rights as “human rights,” “vampire/animal/robot rights” or rights going by some other name, the critical point is: should nonhumans be given the same level of protection and freedoms as Homo sapiens?

It may help to first identify the existing grounds for acknowledging human rights in humans. Some thinkers, most notably Catholics, assert that all life units of human origin are sacred, and thus should be treated with dignity from as early as the point of conception. Where possible, some also support bans on abortions and death penalties. Although the public debate thus far largely relates to whole organisms, it seems to make sense that such religious standpoints would also apply to biological components forming “the seat of the soul.” If robots were to be controlled by human neuronal cells or brains, a prospect scientists are already considering, they might therefore deserve careful treatment and safeguards against reckless destruction, when the above-mentioned human sacredness is recognized.

Another attribute that has sometimes served as justification for human rights is advanced intelligence. Here, the ability to reason is a cause for respect. Nevertheless, critics point out that some groups of humans (e.g. infants and the severely mentally handicapped) have smaller cognitive capacities than animals, yet most modern people express disgust at ill treatment of these disadvantaged individuals. Furthermore, it may really be that humans and animals have their own styles of intelligence, which cannot be judged by the same standards. What would make normal human cognition stand out is perhaps its facilitation of an appreciation of “higher” freedoms (as humans regard such freedoms) like the rights to nationality, education and participation in cultural life. From this perspective, it is these human constructs, not the whole spectrum of Homo sapiens rights, that the lack of human intelligence can justifiably disqualify animals from. Mentally incapacitated humans, in fact, have limited uses for those freedoms themselves (e.g. indifference to alternative citizenship options and inability to state their own citizenship preferences), which is a sad but undeniable fact of life. If robots could someday develop a “sophisticated” appreciation of human rights, though, reasoning capacity alone would not be sufficient for barring these mechanical creatures from the higher rights.

A third factor is sentience. In particular, among the various areas of conscious awareness, the potential for people to experience pain and distress has often moved others to defend their welfare. Yet suffering can actually be sometimes more acute for animals, which, precisely because of their cognitive capacities, probably cannot appreciate any greater purpose for which they are undergoing hardship (e.g. biomedical research), than for normal human beings. Robots, too, may one day be able to feel pain and sadness because, from a scientific point of view, sentience is essentially a physical phenomenon. Although scientists have demonstrated that computers cannot model consciousness, physicochemical approaches have not been fully explored yet. As long as molecular structures and reactions responsible for sentience can be completely elucidated and reconstructed through artificial means like bottom-up nanofabrication techniques, the possibility of robots in need of rights due to their susceptibility to emotional hurt cannot be ruled out.

Some people would add one more reason for the recognition of human rights: rational agency. It is expected that rights should be balanced with responsibilities and exercise of care, and humans are thought to have the free will and rationality to accomplish this. Obviously, people with diminished mental capacities again illustrate the fallacy of such claims. Moreover, moral good should ideally be delivered, whether from those guaranteeing rights to rights holders or from rights holders to beneficiaries of their acts, without expectations for anything in return. While moral contributions from individuals are certainly desirable, these can be tabulated and governed separately.

Baek Ma-ri (Seolhyun of AOA) playing the guitar in front of a fountain in 2015 Korean drama Orange Marmalade

So far, this article has examined how and when the grounds for granting human rights should justify establishment of the same rights in nonhumans, so that the application of human rights is consistent with the rationale for advocating them. These rights may translate to different things, such as batteries and water insulation materials for robots vis-à-vis cooked meals and houses for humans, but the general ideas are the same. On the other hand, supporters of speciesism would perhaps argue that, no matter how deserving animals are of such rights, their needs are less important than humans’. It is natural, this line of thinking goes, to favor one’s own species over other creatures, the way parents would save their own children before anyone else. Thus, it would be acceptable, for instance, to test drugs on animals and deploy robots to hostile work environments (e.g. dangerous disaster scenes) in order to save human lives.

That argument, however, does not obliterate the duty to protect nonhumans altogether. In the case of animal testing, for example, there is still a need to minimize the number of experiments and search for alternative research models and procedures which do not infringe their rights to bodily integrity and freedom from torture. In the case of robots, non-sentient and non-human-brain-based robots should perhaps be manufactured and put to use instead of their life-like counterparts whenever possible. Also, naturalness does not make an act inherently right. The ethical line drawn between humans and nonhumans may be as arbitrary as one between people of different races or temperaments, and thus unjust.

Even if we are to embrace the legitimate rights of nonhumans, though, one last obstacle remains: communication. Humans often consent to the sacrifice of one or more of their rights to secure other aspects of their welfare. With animals, however, it is difficult to learn their opinions about compromising bodily integrity, for instance, to undergo a life-saving operation. Mentally incapacitated people at least have legal representatives with insights into what average humans or the patients themselves, before their loss of capacity, would have wanted. Neither is it easy to negotiate and coordinate living arrangements with animals. You cannot readily persuade one species to scale back, among other things, feeding and reproduction activities that endanger the survival of another. Some enforced limits on their freedoms may therefore be warranted, although this scenario is not really that different from mentally disabled individuals sterilized without consent or kept under constant supervision to safeguard their health.

In a nutshell, nonhumans, on the whole, may qualify for more rights than what they currently enjoy, yet it seems impracticable to guarantee all of them the full range of human rights. Nonetheless, at least on a symbolic level, it should be acknowledged that humans and certain types of nonhumans are equal in moral status and therefore deserving of all human rights they can benefit from. Perhaps, some good starting points would be legal instruments on human rights and official definitions of personhood, where this notion can be enshrined. That may help to set a norm whereby nonhumans are seen as respectable members of society, not inferior beings to be trampled upon or presumed malevolent without adequate basis. The prospect of Man, beast and conscious machines living as equals may then cease to be a ludicrous fantasy, but rather a cherished goal we are constantly reminded of so that we find solutions to overcome or compensate for our inability to understand and influence animal thought and our desire to place the interests of loved ones from our own kind above nonhumans’. And if harmonious co-existence with those with fur or metal for skin cover becomes that important, the less excuses we have for marginalizing people merely with human skin of a different color or genetic variant.

Robotic Rights                                                    The Drama

Reimagination of Bios and Biases                    Drama Resources

5 thoughts on “Human Rights for Nonhumans

  1. What a lovely article and analysis! I thoroughly enjoyed Orange Marmalade, and it’s wonderful to see such an insightful perspective 🙂

      • Thank you! It’s tough to choose between the two, but I think I gravitate towards the sageuk portion. I loved the light and cutesy feel to the modern parts, but really enjoyed digging deeper into our characters and their motivations. I also found the music and visuals just stunning. But both parts had their strong points. Which did you like best?

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