What in fact do we value, is it a matter or manifestation? If we consider manifestation to be morally and legally relevant than it is more than crazy to argue that something so small as an electron has inner life and that we should radically rethink our understanding of matter. Why should we bother with truth of matter if it cannot oblige us?
Recently I had a chance to read one of the most screened blog article of Professor Philip Goff where he argues for panpsychism according to which “the smallest bits of matter – things such as electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.” Starting point of his arguments is inability of accepted method of physical science to tell us what matter is, not just what matter does. Quite fairly he maintains that “it is one thing to know the behavior of an electron and quite another to know its intrinsic nature: how the electron is, in and of itself.”
Well, if he is correct then what law should do in respect to electron? Should it be grated with personhood?
If you ask philosophers about it the person-essentialists would enumerate you different cognitive proprieties like self-motivated activity, the capacity to communicate, presence of self-concepts, the capacity to feel pain, the capacity for self-consciousness, etc. as if those are decisively important features of person. The naturalists would argue for genetic equipment for moral agency as if it is sufficient for one to be a right holder. That genetic basis does not have to be exclusively human, as long as it enables an entity to satisfy the criteria of personhood. Apparently, former system ascribes moral relevance to the species-specific behaviour (first grade manifestation) while the latter recognizes moral relevance to the biological matter which is expected to be able to imitate typically human behavioural patterns (second grade manifestation).
The key criterion for the philosophers to resolve the conflict “between fact and value” is human-recognised manifestation of the fact, not the fact in itself. This is more than obvious on the example of the debate on legal status of animals. Peter Singer as one of the most prominent advocate for animals’ liberation insists on legal recognition of animals which had demonstrated human-specific behavior, or more precisely human-detectable behavior like ability to calculate or to recognize meaning of human words. Other scholars empathetically insisting on legal recognition of animals that are able to suffer like humans. Also, very successful NGO “Nonhuman Rights Project” advocates for the change the common law status of appropriate animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “legal persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity. And when I ask them what are appropriate animals the answer was that those are animals able to demonstrate human-specific characteristics like great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales (personal communication). So if the Electron cannot manifest human-assimilated behavioral patterns, it is only an electron not the person.
If you ask lawyers about it, they would turn you back typical legal question “Who’s asking?” (any similarity with Pilates reasoning is intended). The key criterion for the lawyers to resolve any kind of conflict is ability of the party concerned to impose obligations upon (us) them. Without of appropriate conflict potential no(thing)one cannot be recognized as formal holder of the rights. No claim – no rights. So, if the Electron cannot demand its status like blacks, women and indigenous did, than it will remain mere thing not the person.
Both answers are suffering from the innate inability to recognize anything else but own image in the mirror. Personhood is nothing more than chauvinistic human invention. It is a mere “selfie of the privileged ones that have succeeded in institutionalizing their accumulated power.” Otherwise, we would not have confusion if all life is alive or at least the answer to that dilemma wouldn’t be relevant. There would be nothing to prevent us from granting legal protection to life from the moment of its onset since the conceptus does not upgrade own matter through the developmental path she/he only magnifies it. Insist on personhood for the purpose of the right to life protection is to insist on size not on matter.
So, my answer is that panpsychism is an answer to environmental as well as to legal and ethical challenges and it should but it cannot find its reflections within chauvinistic legal frameworks.
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the HAS Centre for Social Sciences.