The Coming Good Society


Civilization is undergoing tremendous technological change. Computers and the internet have opened huge new areas of information and surveillance opportunities. Biotechnology and genetics have made medical advances that a generation ago were only the realm of science fiction. And the continuing growth of human population has brought on challenges to the litany of human rights already recognized today. In The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights, authors William F. Schulz and Sushma Raman explore these new realms of knowledge and technology and begin to parse out what society will need to do to address human (and other) rights in the face of this onslaught of change. They also provocatively question where future rights will be needed and whether rights should be extended to entities beyond humans themselves.

This is no small task, but Shulz, past executive director of Amnesty International USA and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, who was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 2000, and Raman, present executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, have the background and expertise to frame the questions and then explore some of the possible answers.

After a brief discussion of where rights come from, the book is essentially broken into two parts. First the authors address topics related to long-standing human rights, such as privacy and health, that are under significant pressure due to technology and how these rights need to be revised or expanded. The second part looks at “entirely new rights that have not yet been addressed by rights treaties or most domestic rights laws.” These include animal rights, nature’s rights, and maybe the most novel of all—robotic rights.

As to a definition of rights, they address the philosophical question: “Are rights something that humans and other entities have or something we and they are given?” By coming down firmly on the side of rights being an evolutionary process rather than coming from a god or even natural law, the authors quickly and convincingly argue that human beings construct the rights they have. “Rights are rights because the international community has recognized them to be integral to the common good, to a good society. Deny them if you like, but if you do, you will be flying in the face of significant worldwide consensus.” This approach squares with the history of changes in our understanding of rights and with how the evolution of rights has really worked. “Those changes did not come about through a sudden realization that God or natural law required them. They came about because of changing consensus and changing norms, often over centuries.”

With this in mind, their move to an overview of the need for emerging rights is smooth and fairly obvious, but no less important as they parse through what new technologies mean in chapters dedicated to sex and gender, privacy in the age of computers, and questions brought about by DNA development and gene editing and altering technologies. For instance, do you own your own DNA? And if so, when and how are you allowed to change it? These questions would probably occur to anyone with a passing knowledge of the advances of gene technology (think CRISPR) or, in the case of computers, anyone who is on Facebook. But while many readers may have thought of these questions, what’s helpful in this book is the in-depth review of the issues involved, how they may relate to rights already in place, and how they might actually conflict with those rights, all informed by the authors’ expertise and resulting insight.

After an interesting excursion into why the right to be free of corruption should be recognized as a new human right, the authors then move on to explore a very different set of rights, which even they identify as “the most controversial in this book.” The last three main chapters explore what rights should be recognized for non-humans.

They begin with one category that is actually not a huge stretch—animal rights. These, as the authors recognize, have a history dating back at least to 1635 when the Irish Parliament prohibited attaching a plow to a horse’s tail. Many organizations already advocate for rights of animals, with a recognition that at some level animals are sentient beings that feel pain and for whom many people have empathy. But the authors use this chapter to help identify just when rights should be assigned and to whom. Are dogs given more rights than fleas, and if so, why? Are chimps who are capable of some rudimentary language skills and abstract concepts deserving of more rights than a beloved house pet? And when and in what circumstances should those rights give way to human rights and needs (such as for food)? As they sum up: “The burden of this chapter has been to establish that animals are far more than automata and that, sharing our world community as they do, they are eligible for considerations when it comes to the rights that characterize a good society.”

But the next chapter really enters the world of the controversial. Should robots have rights? This may seem like far off science fiction territory, but the authors suggest it’s a question that we may need to confront far sooner than we think, and we had better start to consider it now. With the rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) resulting in robots that are increasingly able to “learn” on their own, the authors suggest we might “need to reconceptualize what it means to be a being who can claim rights.” Using a similar scale as that used with animals in the previous chapter, they explore just what sorts of rights might be extended to robots as they continue to progress in abilities.

The eighth chapter is entitled “Should Rocks Have Rights?” and that serves as a pretty good summation of it. This is a comprehensive chapter that, to me at least, seemed to be in more familiar territory than the chapter on robots. The basic question is how nature should be treated, but breaks that down into more individual areas such as what rights a particular tree or body of water should be afforded. In some ways to discuss this in terms of “rights” seemed a bit of a stretch. Still, the authors’ points are well drawn and definitely serve as a jumping off point for needed discussion.

A final chapter of just a few pages outlines several more areas that the authors feel may yet be subject to expansion of human rights, such as refugee rights, a right to die, or a right to a guaranteed income.

The book is clearly written and well argued. It is not a strictly academic work and is aimed at a more general audience, but it does have the flavor of an academic work. Its design is not to entertain but to study and update the rights that the world must wrestle with as the “new realities” of the subtitle come to fruition. And study and update them we must, for as the authors note in their introduction, “if rights fail to be adapted to new realities, they will be eroded as readily by indifference and irrelevance as they are by defiance.” This book is a useful step in the right direction.