Future Questions of Personhood

Parashat Vayechi 2016
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Future Questions of Personhood

There were two recent newspaper articles that prompted me to think deeply, and perhaps by my own admission, conservatively, about the issues they raised.
Both dealt with cutting-edge technological advancement that challenge our deepest-held notions of what it means to be human.

The first article discusses the future of fertility treatments through in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). In contrast to the conventional technology of IVF in which a woman’s ova are used, IVG uses generic tissue cells (such as skin) engineered into reproductive (sperm and egg) cells. The consequence of this new technology is that instead of having a few embryos available for implantation, a woman could have an unlimited amount of embryos at her disposal. To be able to generate embryos cheaply could be a blessing, democratising fertility treatments and help those after chemotherapy. Ethicists warn, however, of a morally fraught side effect: so-called ‘embryo farming’. If hundreds, if not thousands of embryos become available, it could mean that parents could select not just for viability (as happens now) but for desirable genetic traits.  
A trio of researchers, Glenn Cohen, George Daley and Eli Adashi write the following in the ‘Science Translational Medicine’ journal:

IVG might raise the specter of ‘embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life… [and could intensify] concerns about parents selecting for their ‘ideal’ future child.”

The second article raises questions about the value of humanity not from the edges of organic but artificial life. The Guardian reports that the European parliament has called for the drafting of regulations governing the use of robots and artificial intelligence, including a form of ‘electronic personhood’. Electronic personhood, the newspaper reports, would ‘ensure rights and responsibilities for the most capable AI.’
One could commend the progressivist wisdom of the European Parliament to consider such issues, since robotics are becoming increasingly central to our world’s economic activities and our human development. (Some of you may remember my futurologist sermon for Parashat B’reishit on the Singularity – that moment when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence). The MEP Mady Delvaux who wrote the recommendation, urged that this was necessary “in order to address this reality and to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans”.
The legal precedent for the development of robotic personhood lies in the pre-existing concept of corporate personhood, a complex and controversial matter far beyond the scope of this sermon. The report predicts that this framework may already become applicable for robots that may appear on the market as soon as ten to fifteen years. The proposed legislation would deal with issues such as a robot registration system, an advisory ethical code of conduct for robotics engineers and a corporate insurance scheme to cover damage caused by robots.
Legal expert Ashley Morgan states that “effectively, a law of the nature proposed in this resolution would grant human rights to robots… If I create a robot, and that robot creates something that could be patented, should I own that patent or should the robot? If I sell the robot, should the intellectual property it has developed go with it? These are not easy questions to answer, and that goes right to the heart of this debate.”

A lot of these questions have been pre-empted by science-fiction authors for decades. Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ written in 1942 already address some of the issues. To summarise, Asimov’s laws state that robots may not injure humans, actively or passively, that robots must obey human orders as well as preserve themselves unless this clashes with the first law of non-harm.
The ethical questions of our time often start at the philosophical periphery and the fringes of life. The challenges are incremental, a kind of ‘moral creep’ undermining (or alternatively, perhaps, strengthening) personhood. For decades, the discussions around the edges of life have centred on abortion and euthanasia and Jewish wisdom makes valuable contributions to this discussion. Now, it seems like the discourse will grow increasingly complex. When does embryo selection for ‘pikuach nefesh’ (saving a life) purposes spill over into eugenics? If robots are given personhood and rights, does that imply a moral relativism that gnaws at the human rights of humans, or is it a further enfranchisement of the most vulnerable?
These questions are not as abstract as they seem. Two weeks ago in our B’nei Mitzvah class, we had a great discussion on how Jewish values bears on technology. What does it mean to have a robot in your service, even one as relatively basic as Amazon’s ‘Echo’? Can you use it on Shabbat? Do robots deserve rest on the seventh day just like our beasts of burden do?
This seems far removed from Parashat Vayechi, from a narrative of Jacob blessing his children. But it is not. Vayechi is ancient futurology. Jacob gazes into the future and sees both potential and challenge for his progeny: this is the experiment of the human condition; with unpredictable outcomes.
The Parashah also anticipates Shemot, the Book of Exodus. This is the last Parashah of B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, and the narrative thrust of the Torah will shift from the stories of individuals to that of nations. With that, comes a shift in questions of personhood. In Genesis, personhood may be denied on an ad hoc basis in direct confrontation, such as with Shimon and Levi and the people of Shechem. In Exodus, however, the denial of personhood becomes state policy through the enslavement of the descendants of Jacob by Pharaoh.
The task of Judaism is not only to examine the past but to imagine the future. The Torah doesn’t only speak to what happened 3000 years ago but also what happens 3000 years from now. The purpose of Jewish learning is not to have ‘all the answers’ in the face of complex issues, but it is to empower us to ask the questions. Few of us are ethicists, legal scholars or scientists who can appreciate every nuance of the issues at hand. As human beings, however, we are obligated to inquire into, challenge and perhaps embrace our future. The scientists researching IVG caution that “society will be well advised to strike and maintain a vigorous public conversation on the ethical challenges.”

As Joseph reminded his repentant brothers, ‘al tira’u ki hatachat Elohim ani? V’atem chashav’tem alai ra’ah, Elohim chashavah letovah’ – ‘Do not fear, am I in place of God? Even though you thought to harm me, God intended it for good.’ (Gen. 50:19). Only through holding the personhood of all humanity at the forefront of our minds like Joseph did with his brothers can we be empowered to turn controversial challenges into moral outcomes. May we be continue to examine these ethical dilemmas Jewishly; through the values of humanity and through the lens of eternity.


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