I believe that the most important philosophical question of our time is, what counts as a being?
A thing is an object. It doesn’t count as a being. We can use things, manipulate them and subjugate them to our will. If I thrust a shovel into the dirt over and over again to dig a ditch of a drainage pipe, no one will ever report me for being abusive to the shovel. It is only a thing after all. In our culture beings are allowed to use things, assuming you are the being that owns them, in whatever way we choose. Beings are not allowed to use other beings, except within either legally dictated, or mutually agreed upon bounds. Beings are different from things. Beings have rights. When we speak about extending being, we are talking about extending selfhood. There are codes of conduct that tell us how to treat other beings, other selves. These codes don’t extent to non-beings.
Things have no intrinsic worth. They are not worth something in and of themselves, they maybe worth something to me, for some specific reason, but in and of themselves they are just things. Beings, or selves, do have worth. Not just because they are of value to other beings. They have intrinsic, inherent value. How we decide what counts as a being dictates what we treat as intrinsically valuable and what we don’t. That is why the question, “What counts as a being?” is the most important philosophical question of our time.
Of course this has been an important question for a long time. For most of human history the line separating what does and does not count as a being has been extending. For much of human history this question remained securely within the boundary of the human species itself. In earlier times only the members of my tribe, or my family, or my religion, or my nation, were counted as beings. Gradually the status of being was granted to more and more people. Slavery is one of the ultimate expressions of the refusal to grant the status of being to other humans. Thankfully the horror of slavery has largely, although not entirely, been removed from the developed world. Animal rights proponents are now wanting to extend the status of being to creatures outside of the human race. This extension of being must continue and in fact we must become willing to extend the status of being in ways we could never before have imagined.
Recently I saw the film ‘Her.’ It is about a not so distant future in which computer Operating Systems have become artificially intelligent. These OS’s, as they are called, learn and think and develop personalities. The film revolves around a cultural phenomenon that emerges around this new level of technology – people sometimes falling in love with their computer’s OS. The question being explored is the question of, does and artificially intelligent OS count as a being?
At one point in the film there is an argument between Theodore, a man who has fallen in love with his computer’s OS, and Samantha the name of the OS. Samantha breathes heavily as they speak and Theodore demands to know why she does that since she is not a person. Her answer is a poignant tone, “I know I’m not a person.” This seemed to highlight the essential question that the film was addressing, is it only people that count as beings?
At an earlier point in the film Theodore tells his x-wife that his new girlfriend is his OS. His x-wife is obviously disgusted and treats him with obvious disdain. Later a younger friend of Theodore’s invites him to a double date. Theodore sheepishly admits that his girlfriend is an OS. This time rather than being met with derision, the fiend simply says great take her out so I can meet her. Theodore pulls out his cell phone and introduces Samantha.
The younger friend was able to shift his concept of being to accept Samantha’s legitimacy as a being. Theodore’s x-wife had not been able to make that shift. Only the friend was able to treat both Theodore and Samantha with the respect that beings deserve. The ability to shift our concept of being is a capacity that we need to develop. Not only in relationship to other possible beings, but also in relationship to how we define ourselves.