Danger Lampost

Futurist & Technology Consultant,


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Is it in principle valid to extend to concept of murder beyond just humans?

Among the worst of sins one can commit, is the murder of another human being. My question for the TED audience, is whether in principle, our United States Supreme Court could ever, in principle, extend the concept of murder to cover species beyond homo sapiens?

Certainly there are penalties for killing animals under certain circumstances, although our whole carnivorous culture is fraught with so much paradox there, you need to start differentiating between morals and ethics to make any sense of it. Or to put it more simply, it's OK to kill a cow but not a dog depending on what country you're in (or the other way around), or it's ok to kill to eat it, but not just because you don't want to take care of it any more, or just for sport (e.g. cock fighting or bull fights).

But whatever the circumstances with animals, our legal system does not consider that equivalent in any way to killing a human being. You are not going to be executed for killing a dog or a cow, but you could for killing another human.

The scope of this question goes way beyond the animal species we have on this planet. If we created an artificially intelligent, human-like mind - would it be murder to destroy that? If we discovered a tribe of neanderthals living peacefully somewhere (just a thought experiment), and then some human went and shot one of them dead just for sport - would we consider that murder? What about a half-breed neanderthal/human? What about an alien species we discover on the planet mars? Dolphins?

How far away from the human genetic tree do you need to get before it's no longer murder with the same penalties we hand out for murdering humans?

  • Mar 28 2013: This question is a head scratcher for sure for those who are not Buddhist.
    Animals eat other animals and that is part of the circle of life. When an animals life is taken in sport (like for a deer rack etc.) that is murder if the rest is just thrown away.
    Humans have always looked at other animals as dumb and they so are not.
    If humans ever get the chance to go beyond earth (which I hope we don't), they will take their killing ways with them, along with other issues.
    Putting forth laws to prevent killing any type of animals, artificial intelligences, Neanderthal, Aliens, etc. would be a solid move but I feel it will never happen.
    Dolphins, whales, elephants (to name just a few) are highly intelligent, but humans only get a slap on wrist ( in certain countries) when they are murdered.
  • Apr 26 2013: The "sin" of killing any living creature is completely cultural.

    Anthropologists studying remaining tribal hunter gatherers found that these people boast about their killings and killing is put in high regard. In these cultures revenge murder is very common. Contrast that to civilized societies that condemn murder unless it is time of war and even then soldiers usually silent about what happened on the battlefield.

    Kill our favorite pet and one get prosecuted. Kill a mouse and it is for the benefit of science. ..This is all culture at work.
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      Apr 26 2013: Hi Brian,

      I agree with you. I think when I used with word 'sin' in the question I did a disservice to the intent of my question as I unintentionally through religious and moral overtones into the question.

      Do you think murder should be against our cultural moral code? And if so, would you extend that to other species?
      • Apr 26 2013: Yes I believe murder should be against our cultural moral code. One of the few benefits of living in a state society is that authority of use of force lies only in the states control. The benefit is that we do not have to worry (too much) about cycles of revenge murder that made traditional people's lives so short. At the same time I acknowledge that the state sometimes is unfair the overall benefit of stifling violence is the greater good.

        I like your question about when is it ok to kill a species because like other philosophical questions its hard to draw a line. Personally I would favor putting a moral code against killing other species. But that only leads to the question of what species and why..
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      Apr 26 2013: Hi Carolyn,

      I love your response. It seems what you are saying hangs on the concept of a 'child moral code', and that by hiding that from one's own self, we permit ourselves to perform murder.

      Have you any thoughts about where the child moral code comes from? Do you think that is inherent in children? Or are they taught that some how? Would a real "Lord of the Flies" turn out better than the book?
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    Mar 29 2013: No. In principle it is not valid. Because all we base our principles on at the deepest level are necessities and survival of our existence. We have no qualms of arming our children to teeth, indoctrinate them with 'nationality' and send them to mass murdering people in the name of war. We have different words for murder, like collateral damage, assassination, execution, homicide and manslaughter each with its own context. I will argue that your statement "Among the worst of sins one can commit, is the murder of another human being." because sin is a word with religious undertone and murder/mayhem had been committed in its name many many times. Even when a state sends someone to electric chair, it is murder.
    There is one and only one biological justification of killing another animal and that is of food chain progression. If we were very rational animals, we would have eaten dead soldiers of the defeated army, dead convict, accident death victims because otherwise it would go back to nature anyway.
    Now, you feel a bad taste in your mouth, right? We are after all soooo human. Enters religion, the savior that declares you the 'ordained' one to rule the world, a true copy of God and everything else is for your consumption.
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      Mar 29 2013: That is an excellent point about the religious overtones of the word 'sin'. The word can refer to violating either a religious or a secular moral code - I think it simplifies the question to assume the moral version of this word, especially as I referenced whether our U.S. Supreme Court would ever consider this. So I would make that clarification.

      Because we are Omnivores and can survive perfectly well by not killing another animal, I would argue that the killing of animals in this context is not motivated by the need for survival or food chain progression (at least for most people), so I don't think this is justified on those grounds as you have argued them.

      It would only be rational to eat dead people if that was your very last food source, as when people get stranded somewhere and do turn to cannibalism to survive. Otherwise we have much more nutritious and better tasting food sources available. I suspect we would not taste very good - well, maybe little kids might taste good if you fried up their ribs baby back style with some nice sauce?
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        Mar 29 2013: So our principle is not to eat a dead human being as long as we can survive without doing it. In principle we should not kill another human being as long as we can survive without doing it. It is silly, IMO, to see murder as 'sin'. In a society or situation where we can avoid it, murder is a mistake, albeit grave but still mistake, that should be discouraged through social codes of conduct or their modern version, law.

        As regards whether we can murder other animals, the same principle of necessity and survival should work. It's not because we are 'higher' animals and have divine decree to do that.

        Technology/science constantly works to take care of our necessities and survival but it should work intelligently to reduce our necessities and survival bottlenecks not increase.

        When we attain a technology like plants to have energy just from natural elements, and if we still retain our wisdom till then, the concept of murder beyond humans will be automatically extended and will become something of the past.
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    Mar 28 2013: Thank you for your answer. How would you answer about creatures, such as Neanderthals, that humanity did not create, but which (in the situation I posed in my question) we happen to discover still alive? And which are very close to Humans - with language, tools, and so on.
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    Mar 28 2013: I dont think it is valid. I believe that humans are creatures of a higher power who puts the law against murder in our hearts. If we as humanity create something else and claim that such is a member of our community, then the laws we make about such will be human laws. Not like the one written in our heart.
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    Mar 28 2013: I dont think it is valid. I believe that humans are creatures of a higher power who puts the law against murder in our hearts. If we as humanity create something else and claim that such is a member of our community, then the laws we make about such will be human laws. Not like the one written in our heart.
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    Mar 28 2013: To have a civil right, a creature must be able to understand that it has a civil right. That is why civil rights apply only (so far) to humans.

    While we have voluntarily placed on ourselves the responsibility to treat animals in a humane fashion, animals do not have civil rights.
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      Mar 28 2013: So.... What about the mentally incompetent, or those from such a foreign language and culture that they do not understand the concept of civil rights. Do they have civil rights?

      The result of what you say, is that if I killed another human who was from such a foreign culture that they could not understand the concept of civil rights, that would not be murder. I don't mean to trick you though - so perhaps you could clarify what you mean?

      What does it mean to treat animals "humanely?" It's a really interesting word to use especially in this context, because one might think it would mean to treat an animal like a human, because humane is human with an 'e'. Not the case though. It just means to treat an animal with kindness. Do not mean to imply you don't know that - just find that particular choice of word fascinating.
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        Mar 28 2013: Fine, I wasn't clear enough, sorry.

        To have a civil right, a species must be able to understand that it has a civil right.
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          Mar 29 2013: What would be the implication if a species was able to understand it has a civil right? Would members of the species then be capable of having a soul?

          I'm not sure what you mean exactly by a species knowing anything, because to my understanding, a species can not understand something, only individuals can? Perhaps you mean a certain number of members of the species must understand, not everyone? So the ones that don't understand get a pass?

          I'm potentially excited though that you may be on to the first proposed Turing Test for the Soul: We give the test subject a civics test.