A Person Yoda Is?

In today’s Legal Theory Lexicon entry on “Persons and Personhood”, Larry Solum suggests that if

an intelligent alien species were to arrive on Earth … [and] the members of the aliens displayed evidence of human-like intelligence and could communicate with us (e.g. were able to master a human natural language, such as English), then we might be tempted to treat members of this species as morally and/or legally entitled to the same rights as humans.

He also gives the example of “Chewbacca and Yoda in the Star Wars movies. Neither Chewbacca nor Yoda is a member of the species homo sapiens, yet both are treated as the moral and legal equivalents of humans in the Star Wars universe.”

As it happens, the issue whether aliens able to communicate with us should be entitled to legal personality has in fact been raised in a Canadian Court. In the case of Joly v. Pelletier, [1999] O.J. No. 1728 (QL), Justice Epstein of the Superior Court of Ontario granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that the plaintiff, who claimed that he was not a human being but rather a Martian whose DNA test results were being tampered with by the CIA, Bill Clinton, and sundry others, was not a person, and therefore not capable of being a “plaintiff” within the meaning of Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure!

For what it’s worth, I think that Professor Solum is right, and Justice Epstein, rather too formalistic, albeit quite amusing. But this raises further questions. If an individual intelligent alien is a person, what about collective intelligences, whether made up of insects (as in Isaac Asimov’s short story “Hallucination“) or bacteria (as in Asimov’s novel Nemesis)? What about a collective artificial intelligence (as in Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Invincible)? And perhaps most importantly: could any alien crazy enough to turn up on Earth these days be considered intelligent?

Privacy in the Past, Present, and Future

Our own actions – individual and collective – set the upper limit of our privacy rights. We will never have more privacy rights than we care to have, although we often have fewer. One stark illustration of this idea comes in Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Dead Past,” in which a group of scientists build and, despite the government’s best efforts, thoughtlessly disseminate the instructions for building a “chronoscope” – a machine for viewing any events in the (recent) past. Their original purpose was historical research, but the chronoscope is not very useful for that; what it is very good for is snooping and voyeurism. The story ends with the government official who tried and failed to stop the protagonists wishing “[h]appy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone.”

The internet, especially Web 2.0, is (almost) as good as the chronoscope, argues Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in a short essay published in the Stanford Law Review Online. It also allows everyone to learn all about anyone, provided that the person – or indeed someone else – posted the information on the internet at some point. And the fact that people share their every thought and deed online shapes society’s expectations of privacy, which are the key to what constitutional protections we have in this area. Those parts of our lives which we do not expect to be private are not protected from observation at will by the government. And if we do not expect anything to be private, then nothing will be.

“Reasonable expectations of privacy” are also key to defining privacy rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court’s latest engagement with the question of just what expectations of privacy are reasonable, in R. v. Gomboc, 2010 SCC 55, [2010] 3 S.C.R. 211, produced something of a mess. The issue was whether the installation without a warrant of a device that measures the electricity consumption of a house breached the owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Four judges said no, because general information about electricity consumption does not reveal enough to make it private. Three said no because the law entitled to owner to ask the utility not to hand over such information to the police, and he had not exercised this right. Two said that the information was private. But what seems clear is that for Canadian law too, what we think about our privacy and what we do about it, individually and collectively, matters.

Are we then doomed, as Judge Kozinski suggests we might be? Perhaps not. With respect, his claims are a little too pessimistic. Judge Kozinski collects a great many frightening anecdotes about people’s willingness to wash their – and others’ – dirty laundry in public. But anecdotes seldom justify sweeping conclusions. And some studies at least seem to show that people do care about their privacy more than the pessimists assume,  if not always in ways or to an extent that would satisfy the pessimists. Old expectations of privacy might be fading, but new ones could emerge, along different lines. Judge Kozinski is right that the law cannot do much to protect people who do not care. But we must hope that he and his colleagues, as well as legislators on both sides of the 49th parallel, will be mindful of the possibility that changes in privacy expectations can go in both directions.

Purely Hypothetical Dragons

Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. …  The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way.*

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Much of the Conservative government’s legislative programme seems driven by fear and distrust of judges. Such reactions to judicial decisions are often justified by concern about “judicial activism.” But judicial activism is something like the dragon of constitutional theory. It doesn’t exist, although its distinct kinds nonexist in entirely different ways. Or so I am tempted to conclude after reading an exchange at the Volokh Conspiracy (which, by the way, is 10 years old today) between prof. Orin Kerr and prof. Randy Barnett.

Prof. Kerr argues that the expression “judicial activism” can have a variety of meanings, some of them more interesting than others. A decision can be described as activist if 1) it rests on the judges’ personal (including political) views; 2) it expands the power of the judiciary vis-à-vis the other branches of government; 3) it departs from settled precedent; 4) it strikes down a statute or an administrative decision; or 5) it is wrong. Prof. Kerr believes that the meanings 1) to 3) are useful because “the terms allow us to have a useful debate about the proper role of the courts.” On the other hand, 4) and 5) are to be avoided; the former, because everyone (in the US, but I suppose this is mostly true for Canada too) agrees with (some) judicial review, the latter, because we don’t agree about what decisions are right.

Prof. Barnett responds by arguing that given its multiplicity of meanings, useful or otherwise, the term “judicial activism” is best avoided – but not without venturing yet another meaning for it, applying it to describe any decision which contradicts clear constitutional text.

(I have given the bare bones of both posts, which are very interesting, especially if you are conversant with or curious about US constitutional debates.)

It seems to me that prof. Barnett is right that we ought to avoid using the term “judicial activism” if at all possible, since it can mean so many things to different people. Prof. Kerr’s categories of judicial activism are very interesting, and no doubt capture much of what people mean when they use the term, but why use the vague, and vaguely pejorative, “judicial activism,” even in one of the useful meanings prof. Kerr identifies, when we can say more precisely what we mean? Judicial activism does not really exist, but we should keep in mind that it does not really exist in a number of different ways.

* As I recall it, in the Russian translation of the Cyberiad which I read, the three distinct kinds of dragon were said to be the nil, the negative, and the imaginary. If anyone knows what the Polish original was, I would love to hear about it.

How to Argue about the Death Penalty

The NY Times has an interesting story today about two men who are leading a campaign in support of a ballot initiative that would abolish the death penalty in California – and who, in 1978, played key roles in the adoption of a ballot initiative that was meant to increase the use of the death penalty. They have changed their minds, and hope the people of California will, too. What is remarkable, beyond this change of heart, is that the reasons they give for it have only to do with the costs of the death penalty system: as one of them puts it, “$185 million a year … to lawyers and criminals.” Not a word about the morality of the death penalty, including the risk of killing innocents. Apparently, it is not a political winner, although this post by Janai Nelson at Concurring Opinions suggests otherwise.

It might seem wrong, perhaps even perverse, to argue about the death penalty without discussing its justice. But such argument actually has a very long history. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides  describes the deliberations of the Athenian assembly on the question of what to do with the Mitylenians, who had revolted against them, and whom the Athenians had again subdued. The first debate on the matter was dominated by Cleon, who argued that the entire male population of Mitylene ought to be butchered (a word Thucydides – or his translator – repeatedly uses; no euphemisms here). His argument was in part consequentialist – “teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death” – but mostly appealed to the people’s sense of justice, offended by the Mitylenians’ revolt and clarmouring for treason to be punished with death. The next day, however, the opponents of the butchery succeeded in re-opening the debate. Their case was made by Diodotus, on purely consequentialist grounds. Indeed Diodotus argued strenuously that justice had nothing to do with it: “we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but [expediency].” Justice might say the Mitylenians are guilty and deserve capital punishment, but that would serve no useful purpose, contrary to Cleon’s claim. Death penalty is not a good deterrent: “It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be owned that this restraint is useless.” On the other hand, mercy would induce future rebels to lay down arms rather than to resist to the bitter end, and thus save Athens blood and treasure. Diodotus’ arguments prevailed, and only the leaders of the Mitylenian rebellion were executed, rather than the entire people.

Perhaps this story need not change our intuitions – if we have any – about the value of purely consequentialist arguments about the death penalty. But they can work in the political arena if not in philosophy seminars, and in cases where the issues of justice are too politically explosive, they might be the only ones about which rational deliberation and changes of mind among the opposing sides’ supporters are possible.