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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

True Blood and Personhood

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How far does personhood and the rights associated with it reach across species? True Blood gives us an intelligent exploration of some aspects of this issue, specifically when that other species is perceived as dangerous, cruel, unnatural, and unholy. Unfortunately though, too often even those who support vampire rights refer to them as not being persons, instead emphasizing that they are essentially human or that vampires are a second species deserving of rights. A much more adaptable framework of rights could be built based on emphasizing the characteristics of personhood, such as intelligence and capacity to feel.



The most blatant example of this poor framing is an American Vampire League poster that reads “Vampires were people too.” While it may be reading too much into a humorous promotional poster from HBO to take this as representative of the American Vampire League’s arguments, as elsewhere the AVL site mentions “guaranteeing a basic set of rights for all sentient beings,” there is little emphasis on nonhumans being persons throughout the show. There is much more discussion, for instance, of the extent to which Bill Compton has the characteristics of a human, than the extent to which he has the characteristics of a person. Sookie Stackhouse and Bill joke about the extent to which he has mastered the line between vampire and human, not abomination and person. At least the vampire-hating Fellowship of the Sun understands the importance of personhood when they deny vampires it.

The Darker Side of Personhood

When Sarah Newlin tells Jason Stackhouse that the vampire he watched die wasn’t a person because a person wouldn’t do things such as feed on a human, Jason responds that “my gran and my girlfriend were killed by my best friend, just because he hated vampires, and he was a person.” Jason is correct that his human friend was a person, and the uncomfortable reality is regardless of whether a system of rights is based on species or personhood, some of the people and some of the humans will engage in deplorable acts. Perhaps virtuous individuals are “more” of a person or have more “humanity” than wicked individuals, but they are still people deserving of basic rights. It may be that there are vampires whom we haven’t seen on the series who have grown so twisted in their nests that we would not recognize their warped minds as thinking, but we should be hesitant to make that judgment. The flashbacks of the brutality that Bill was once capable of compared to his current relationship with Sookie serve as a powerful illustration of just how much one can change when given the opportunity of agelessness.

It may seem that the distinction between human and person rights is trivial, but in our own world it has bearing on many important issues, including abortion, treatment of the brain dead, and the rights of cyborgs, robots, and great apes. In True Blood, the distinction becomes even more apparent when one considers shapeshifters and other supernaturals. If it is simply recognized that rights should be extended to the two species vampire and human, then another rights struggle may be required for any other species that reveals itself. On the other hand, if a personhood-based framework of rights was established then recognizing shifter rights should be a natural extension of vampire rights. As it stands though, few focus on person-status, and even amongst shifters when Sam tells Daphne that’s he’s a person, not a challenge for a Maenad, she reminds him “not exactly.”

Of course, the immortal Maenad Maryann and her power over the town is exactly the type of thing we want to discourage. Her power to compel its citizens into orgies that they have no memory of is unbalanced and inequitable, to say the very least, just as is the relationship between the vampire Isabel and the human traitor Hugo. Hugo says that “ I begged her to turn me, it’s the only way we could be together as equals, but see they don’t want us to be equals.” These are rough examples of what can go wrong go when equal access to emerging technologies is not ensured, and they illustrate the kinds of power disparities that can occur when the citizenry is not empowered with access to technology such as life extension.

A final example of such inequality in True Blood is the flashbacks of Bill and Lorena using their vampiric abilities to prey on humans. Lorena encourages Bill to assist her in the taking of innocent lives, indicating to Bill that one day he too will outgrow traits such as having a conscience. Lorena might be seen as an example of what happens when one loses the traits that are “core” to being human, such as sensitivity, empathy, and conscience. Of course, Fellowship of the Sun member Gabe’s attempt to rape Sookie seems just as cruel as Lorena. In any case, what’s important in transformations are not the humans traits that are lost, but whether the traits that replace them are worse (as is so often imagined in our culture) or if they surpass our current traits.

The Value of Empathy

Empathy is often used as an example of a trait that we would not want to lose with
human enhancement technology. However, empathy is not the same as acting compassionately, and at least in its present form, has several limitations. While vigilance should be taken that caring for others is not lost, we should be similarly afraid that humans will continue to base their decisions on emotions that weren’t evolved to care for a world of billions of people. The important element is encouraging benevolence that will contribute to a strong, healthy community, but there are many ways minds could be designed to achieve that.

Empathy helps us appreciate the suffering of those near us or in our tribe, but it is much less useful when our capacity to feel is overwhelmed by millions facing starvation on the other side of the world. Empathy is similarly of limited value when considering future threats to all people such as climate change or extinction risks. Finally, greater ability to empathize with those we’ve spent more time with or who have similar backgrounds can increase prejudice against those who do not.

We can do so much better, either with new emotions for encouraging altruistic behavior or by modifying empathy. Transhumanism isn’t just about increasing intelligence, or gaining the strength, speed, and agelessness of a vampire. It is also about improving our decision-making and ethics. Rewiring our minds will not be easy, but the stronger communities, better judgment, and improved ethics we could gain makes the endeavor well worth it.

By Ben Scarlato | IEET | Link to article





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