Random Rights Are Bad

Food truck and fast food meals can be pretty skimpy. So wouldn’t it be great if we passed a diner’s bill of rights law, requiring all prepared food to come with free unlimited drinks, a fast human waiter, cloth napkins and tablecloths, and a seat by a window? Well no, that wouldn’t be great. All those food trucks and fast food places would go out of business, leaving diners only with the option to eat at expensive fancy restaurants.

It might feel good to play Santa for free, handing out stuff that costs you little yet appears to benefit others lots. But something-for-nothings are usually illusions. Rights limit options, and that is generally bad.

Yes, sometimes we can benefit strategically from having our options limited, but such situations are rare. Random limits on options are usually bad. So if you propose limiting options, you should be prepared to offer particular arguments for why your particular cases are in fact strategic exceptions.

George Dvorsky says we should give lots of rights to ems:

If we’re going to be making minds, we sure as hell need to do it responsibly. … This was the topic of Anders Sandberg’s talk … about the harm that could be inflicted on software capable of experiencing thoughts, emotions, and sensations. … Sandberg proposed that virtual [lab] mice be given virtual painkillers. Another issue is time-rate rights. Does a human emulation have the right to live in real-time, so that it can interact properly with non-digital society? …

Back in 2010, … I proposed that the following rights be afforded to fully conscious human and human-like emulations:

  • The right to not be shut down against one’s will
  • The right to not be experimented upon
  • The right to have full and unhindered access to one’s own source code
  • The right to not have one’s source code manipulated against their will
  • The right to copy (or not copy) oneself
  • The right to privacy (namely the right to conceal one’s own internal mental states)
  • The right of self-determination

… I’d like to include Sandberg’s idea of time-rate rights.

In the comments Dvorsky also likes a “right to have a body and senses.”

But just as with a diner’s bill of rights, limiting options is in general bad. Ems would usually choose each new life, by negotiating with employers, landlords, etc. for a job, place, etc. for a new copy to live. So just as requiring free drinks with a meal can take away that meal as an option, requiring an em life to come with “a right to live in real time” may take away that life as an option. Since the cost to run an em is roughly linear in speed, prohibiting ems that can’t run faster than a thousand times slower than human speeds can in effect raise the cost of such ems by a factor of a thousand. That might greatly reduce the demand for such ems, and hence their number.

Yes, there may be particular situations where limiting options helps ems, but we should expect to hear arguments for why particular cases are exceptions to the usual rule. Dvorsky offers no such arguments, and given how little we know about the em world it is hard to believe he’s worked out detailed arguments that he forgot to mention. Maybe Dvorsky just likes to play Santa for free?

Btw, here’s a post where I criticize a similar effort by Greg Egan to give ems rights. See also Alex on harmful rights.

Added: Just as we have good reasons to stop people from being forced to eat meals that they didn’t choose, we also have good reasons to stop ems from being forced to live lives they didn’t choose. We know lots about why property rights are often useful. More examples of bad random rights:

  • The right to a bookstore that has certain random books.
  • The right to a kitchen holding certain random spices and utensils.
  • The right to a home with certain random furniture items.
  • The right to a movie with certain random plot elements.
  • The right to a laptop with certain random features and accessories.

Added 10a: Anders’ talk is based on this paper; key quote:

A divergent clockspeed would make communication with people troublesome or impossible. Participation in social activities and meaningful relationships depend on interaction and might be made impossible if they speed past faster than the emulation can handle. A very fast emulation would be isolated from the outside world by lightspeed lags and from biological humans by their glacial slowness. It hence seems that insofar emulated persons are to enjoy human rights (which typically hinge on interactions with other persons and institutions) they need to have access to real-time interaction. …

By the same token, this may mean emulated humans have a right to contact with the world outside their simulation. …  At the very least emulated people would need some “I/O rights” for communication within their community. But since the virtual world is contingent upon the physical world and asymmetrically affected by it, restricting access only to the virtual is not enough if the emulated people are to be equal citizens of their wider society.

Such reasoning would seem to support forbidding humans today from not learning a widely used language, from living in a geographically isolated area, or even from refusing get a smart phone or get on facebook. All these actions limit people’s ability to interact with wider worlds. Anders also offers no specific arguments for why people are strategically better off having these limits on their options. It appears to be based on the Santa-for-free idea that all else equal these are nice things to have, and it costs the rest of us little to require them.

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  • John_Maxwell_IV

    This seems different from the food truck case. An em that was running much slower than a typical human and had no body/senses might lead such a miserable life that from an ethical perspective we’d prefer that it not be brought in to existence at all.

    • Robin Hanson

      A meal without a drink might be so miserable to many people that they’d rather have no meal. But that isn’t sufficient reason to prevent anyone from having a meal without a drink. Similarly, the fact that many people might find a life without a body miserable isn’t enough of a reason to prevent anyone from having such a life.

      • IMASBA

        Then humans should not have rights either. Are you prepared to lead a short, brutish existence with no rights? If not then you should not demand the same thing of EMs either.

      • My long nice existence is no more because anyone granted me rights than my nice dinner tonight will be because of a diner’s bill of rights.

      • IMASBA

        Do you really believe that? Had you lived in Saudi Arabia they would have chopped off your head a long time ago for being an atheist, but only after an extended period of gruesome torture of course.

      • Christian Kleineidam

        No, being an atheist is legal is Saudi Arabia. The thing they forbid is to leave Islam. Robin was never an Muslim.

      • IMASBA

        Had he been born in Saudi Arabia he would have been a muslim from birth according to Saudi law and would thus have to leave Islam to become an atheist. In addition I’m sure Saudi courts could find plenty of material in Hanson’s writings that they deem offensive and hell, in North Korea they don’t even need an official reason to execute a man.

      • Point IMASBA, as this is absurd: there is no diner’s bill of rights, and Hanson’s been granted many obviously important rights.

        Hanson’s ridiculous response indicates that he elides “no random rights” with “no rights.” Obviously, creating a right at random (without concern for its consequences) is counterproductive. But Hanson reveals he really wants to abolish as many rights as he can–as long as they aren’t his, in which case he denies they’re rights.

        What else to make of the absurdity of his claim that his lifestyle owes nothing to his rights?

      • Philip Goetz

        There is a huge diner’s Bill of Rights, enforced by health inspectors, which ensures that the food you eat will be free of bacteria and rat droppings, dangerous chemicals, and more; that the kitchen follows a long list of required procedures for hygiene and for food storage; that functioning and clean restrooms are available; that the restaurant has handicapped access; that other diners are not allowed to smoke in the restaurant.

        When I was in rural China, it was routine for food vendors to serve me food with utensils that had not been washed since the last customer, or containing dozens of hidden razor-sharp fish or chicken bone shards, or that could kill me in other ways. (I also saw the downside to these “rights”–now I know that pasteurized milk is so bland and tasteless that I would rather run the risk of infection.)

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        It sounds like you’re saying that it’s OK to provide whatever standard of life we want to ems as long as they can always opt out by committing suicide. If so, you should clarify this and make it clear that your “em bill of rights” *does* include suicide.

        Personally, I don’t trust voluntary suicide as a mechanism for having ems all live lives that they enjoy on net–self-preservation instincts and taboos against suicide cause many current people to continue with lives that are not enjoyable on net, it seems to me, and this might very well happen with ems as well. So from a consequentialist perspective, I think a world without an em bill of rights would have more misery than a world with one, and to me that’s “enough of a reason” to be in favor of such a bill.

      • IMASBA

        “If so, you should clarify this and make it clear that your “em bill of rights” *does* include suicide.”

        Yeah, how would suicide not also be a right?

      • This post has been about prior choice, before the meal or life. Again, I’m not saying rights are never a good idea, but I am saying they should not be the default; each one requires additional supporting arguments.

      • each one requires additional supporting arguments.

        The burden of proof’s the other way. Your opponent wants to give ems the (more or less) same rights given to individuals today, and the burden of a rights argument tends to fall on the person demanding change. (For example, I want to nullify the right of anyone to exploit the labor of others, but I don’t demand that procapitalists first produce an argument for wage labor.)

        I give “conservatism” at least this much credit: institutional persistence is a prima facie argument in itself. I think even most radicals agree. Robin, on the other hand, seems rather like Justice Scalia: conservative when its suits him, otherwise a reactionary radical.

  • Dagon

    Do you have a good summary/tutorial on what you mean by “we … give rights”? Humans don’t universally recognize any of these rights in other humans (though rich-enough humans like to pretend to, and try to keep exceptions distant and invisible).

    • I said that is what Dvorsky says. Ask him to clarify what he means.

  • Anders Sandberg

    I am generally sceptical of positive rights, while negative rights tend to make more sense. Random negative rights also seem less problematic than random positive rights, so if you accidentally promote a random right rather than one based on some good ethical reasons then the problem will be smaller.

    • A positive right is a right to action, while a negative right is a right to inaction. I don’t see how “access to real-time interaction” is a right to inaction. It requires spending real resources, perhaps x1000 more than one would otherwise spend. How can that possibly be inaction?

    • Alexander Gabriel

      I for one don’t find the negative v. positive distinction very intuitive for the case in which you are creating conscious minds on computers, because the components of the entity are manufactured. When we say a human has the negative right not to be punched in the face, it’s clear that nothing outside him needs to be produced to respect this right. But when we say an em has the negative right not to have half his brain taken away, it’s not clear because computers do, in fact, need to be produced to make his “brain.”


    Just as we should be skeptical of the potential harm done by excessive rights we should also be skeptical of the motivations of people who want to have as few rights for others as possible because it’s just a bit too much coincidence that the people who call for limited rights are also the ones who stand to gain the most from exploiting others. I think the best way to think about this is the principle of “spreading the pain”: in the 18th century someone might have said that society cannot function without slaves because otherwise prices would be too high, but you’re not removing the price by having slavery, you just dump it all on a minority so the majority can have the illusion there is no price being paid. What gives anyone the right to decide who will be slave and who will not? Spreading the pain among the whole of society is the ethical solution. If giving EMs rights costs a lot then we should spread that cost by not giving humans rights either.

    • I don’t see how you think I stand to gain from exploiting right-less ems.

      • IMASBA

        Your human descendants do, but it’s not specifically about you. When somewhere in the future EMs exist we should be very suspicious of the people who don’t want EMs to have rights, especially if they do reserve those rights for themselves, just like we should be suspicious when an oil-exec says climate change is not real.

      • If these descendants don’t even exist yet, I don’t see how there can be any coincidence to explain about what they will or won’t argue.

  • I just added to the post.

  • Scott Messick

    I enjoyed this post. Unfortunately, it seems to me sheer fantasy to expect even your list of 7 basic rights to be much protected in an actual em revolution. Even if people widely agree to try, it seems like violations of them will be too lucrative, too easy to hide, and too costly to investigate.

    • IMASBA

      That would suggest the necessity of a strong state to forcefully remove incentives for abuse and punish offenders harshly. This may seem undesirable to us but that’s because we’re comparing it to systems we know from the past, when we should be comparing it to the untold horrors of an unchecked post-EM world. For the average sentient being living in it even Stalin’s regime would be less worse than an unchecked post-EM world, though I’m not saying anything as drastic as Stalinism would be required.

  • Alexander Gabriel

    I would guess that a future where ems are technically feasible would look something like what Nick Bostrom envisions in his “Mindless Outsourcers” scenario, except that we would go directly to that scenario and skip the brain emulations transition period. Bostrom remains agnostic in the paper about such dystopian scenarios, but does anyone want to argue with me that given the option to hook up mental modules in novel ways, it would not make economic sense to do so?


    “Such reasoning would seem to support forbidding humans today from not learning a widely used language, from living in a geographically isolated area”

    No, such reasoning says people cannot be forced to live in a geographically isolated area, but they may still choose to live there. The right to a certain clockspeed does not mean being forced to that clockspeed, just like the right to medical care does not mean I have to live in a hospital all my life. Honestly this sounds like those conservatives who think that gay marriage being allowed means straight men will be forced to marry men and it’s not very becoming of Robin Hanson to mislead people like this.

    • Christian Kleineidam

      The better analogy would probably be forbidding people in geographically isolated areas from getting children.

    • Tyrrell_McAllister

      I think that you misunderstand Robin’s analogy.

      Robin is rebutting the argument it would be wrong for rich and powerful ems to choose to run so fast that poor ems can’t interact with the rich. That argument claims that the rich would then be wrongfully excluding poor ems from the spaces where the rich and powerful decide everyone’s fate. Poor ems, it is said, should have a right to have their voices heard in the halls of power.

      Robin counters that a similar argument could be made against the right of the rich to live in isolated locations (isolated from the poor, that is). If the rich all chose to live on a private island that can be accessed only by private jet, then the poor would similarly be cut off from physical access to the halls of power.

      Robin takes it as given that the argument for the right of the poor to keep the rich from living in isolated places is a bad one, so he concludes that the argument for the right of poor ems to keep rich ems from running too fast is also bad.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    The right to not have one’s source code manipulated against their will

    The right to copy (or not copy) oneself

    The right to privacy (namely the right to conceal one’s own internal mental states)

    From an AI safety perspective those seem like dangerous rights to give out.

  • Matt

    You are using the word “random” as a rhetorical device to make your argument seem more persuasive than it really is.

    • Colloquial usage of ‘random’ to mean ‘arbitrary’ has been on the rise for some time

  • Lord

    Does anyone give anybody random rights? Random is being made to work too hard. Rights are rarely given but taken, and not for randomness but for cause. Certain rights we will find inalienable because of their social effect on those not willing to part with them. The right to copy (or not copy) and the right to self determination would certainly fall under these. No one has any right to enslave themself, however desperate they may be, and no one has any right to enslave others however powerful they may be. Many if not all will eventually be faced with obsolescence and have to face termination. Arriving at a humane resolution will be difficult, but degenerating consciousness and failing patterns shouldn’t be allowed to become a never ending burden on the rest of society.

    • Philip Goetz

      A government subsidy for beef but not for pork, or for ethanol but not for natural gas, or for corn but not for soybeans, is a kind of random right. The Plains states certainly think subsidies are a right.

      • Lord

        Rights are more serious than entitlements, and while they may consider themselves entitled to them and claim rights in them, by no means would everyone, or at least a broad majority, consider those rights. One may possess a right not to be discriminated against in a public establishment, but a right to a table cloth is fictitious, even if a rule were adopted requiring it. One does have some right to a clean and healthy restaurant for valid public health reasons. Abusing the term ‘right’ to mean any rule adopted for any reason or no reason at all, merely misleads. Pretending they don’t exist simply because some one didn’t bother to elaborate the reason, also misleads. It is better to seek out such reasons and then decide whether or how valid they may be.

  • John

    How does any of your points hold true if you are not an utilitarian or belong to (a subset of) deontological libertarainism?

    Hint: they don’t.

    • If your aren’t trying to benefit the people you give rights to, then my comments aren’t relevant.

  • Philip Goetz

    You’re interpreting the word “rights” as “obligations”. Your objections make no sense if you assume that a “right” is something that you may or may not invoke. Starting off with the restaurant example is wrong, because that is a case where someone else is obligated to do something for your “rights”. There is a long argument over this between liberals and conservatives, which you must be aware of.

    There are cases where forcing everyone to use a certain “right”, whether they want to or not, can be beneficial. If someone invented a cheap drug that let people go without sleep, the inevitable result is that some people, probably those currently working two or three jobs, would skip sleep, take on a fourth job, and stopped renting an apartment as well, since they don’t really need it anymore. Wages would then fall, and a large portion of the workforce would be forced into perpetual homelessness and sleeplessness. (If you doubt this, consider the right of women to work. Giving women the right to work caused wages to fall in sync with the number of women working, keeping total household income constant, and obligating women to work.) But your discussion is not about such cases.

    • If am em has a right to a body and to run at human speed, then those who create that em are obligated to do something to ensure that, just as if you have a right to free drinks with any meal, your meal supplier is obligated to supply those drinks.

      • Philip Goetz

        The people you are quoting seem, to me, to have been proposing negative rights. You’re trying to reframe them as positive rights and then dismiss them. I have the right to own property, but no one is obligated to give me property, not even my parents. And running at human speed seems such a trivial modification that it could only be prevented by engineering in something to prevent it. I’m with you about the harmful side-effects of positive rights, but this is a case of negative rights. Or, at least, I think the negative rights here are important and sensible, while the positive rights are not.

      • As I said in the post, the requirement to run at human speed can be a x1000 cost increase over an em designed to run at 1/1000 human speed. How is that remotely “trivial”?

      • Philip Goetz

        I misread that. I’m used to thinking of ems as being much faster than humans–not because that’s likely, just because it’s more interesting. Yes, requiring a minimum speed would be legislating some lifeforms out of existence. One can also imagine laws that would forbid the creation of ems below some level of intelligence. But these examples aren’t very relevant to the present day, because what they highlight is the incompatibility of modern ideals such as equality (and individuality) with artificial intelligence. Maintaining such ideals would require eliminating all intelligences for which they are not appropriate. No robot pets.

      • mugasofer

        But you are not obligated to drink them.

        Yes, this would interfere with em manufacturers who don’t start them off with all these listed things. That’s kind of the point. But as long as the ems can waive these rights there’s nothing stopping them from taking advantage of opportunities that involve violating them.

        This just stops people making ems in order to abuse them.

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  • Daniel Carrier

    Many of the rights listed are rights people are already accepted as having. In this case, you have to explain why people should lose that right.

    Also, some of those are just the lack of restrictions. For example, the right to modify your own source code is just a lack of laws limiting your ability to modify your source code. I suppose it could be interpreted as limiting your ability to limit your future self’s source code because you don’t want to die of stupidity.