WestWorld and the rights of Non-Humans

HBO’s new series WestWorld explores the age-old subject of what it means to be human generally, and the notion of sentience in particular.

I love sci-fi because it helps remove an audience enough from their current situation to catch them off guard and see present-day concerns in a different light. Westward does this particularly well, challenging us to examine our prejudices and question our treatment of others.

The AI of Westworld: Created for our pleasure

WestWorld is a theme park populated by eerily human android “hosts” who are there to entertain visitors.

The hosts are tasked with giving pleasure to the visitors, whether through sex, violence or any other host of experiences. Guests can have a Wild West adventure or spend their time at the saloon. It’s up to them. While in the park, the guests are free to treat the hosts however the please with impunity.

In one episode, a young man visiting the park responds to the emotions he perceives in one of the hosts.

William: She was terrified.

Logan: That’s why they exist. So you can feel THAT.

This same sentiment is expressed several episodes later within the facility where the parks creators work. A lead behavioural expert, Bernard, reminds his underling, Elise, she needs to be careful about inferring the hosts are expressing real emotions.

“The hosts don’t imagine things” Bernard warns her “You do.”

The idea is that the hosts (androids) don’t have feelings or imaginations. It’s inappropriate to suggest such a thing is possible. Doing so is merely the anthropomorphizing instinct of human beings. It’s seen as the desire to see ourselves in other creatures.

Frans de Waal and Animal Intelligence

I’m currently Frans de Waal’s most recent book: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal’s book challenges the narrative we receive of animal intelligence as inferior when compared with that of humans.

De Waal’s book repeatedly implies that the greatest threat to our understanding of animal intelligence is not anthropomorhism. In fact, scientists have far more reason to demean and objectify animals than to attribute real emotions to them. This is one reason that so little scientific research relates to animal intelligence.

Frans de Waal is not vegan – he’s not even vegetarian. But he is willing to look at animal intelligence in an open and curious way. This has led to discoveries that challenge our idea that intelligence and socio-moral behaviour are unique to humans.

Of course, as soon as we know other creatures (whether synthetic or natural) have feelings and desires, it changes how we can treat them.

Ethical Implications of Animal Sentience

If we stop underestimating animals, it has huge ethical implications.

Perhaps that’s why, outside of children’s stories, animal sentience is not a common topic for fiction. It’s far more comfortable to imagine sentient robots than pigs with feelings. Charlotte’s Web is fine for kids. But adults should confine themselves to sympathizing with robots.

Of course, people connect with the androids in shows like Westworld, because they look like us. And animals are a little more challenging. Accepting the truth of animal sentience requires suspending judgement and opening our minds and hearts. But I think it’s worth it.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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