There is a lot of messy thinking about rights nowadays, and it all has to do with the attempt to erase religion from our consciousness.
For the purposes of this article, I define “religion” to be “a set of beliefs”. With this definition, things like “atheist” and “Christian” become less useful, so I won’t use them.
Also, for purposes of this article, I define “right” as “the things you should do” and “freedom” as “the things you can do”. Notice the difference, here.
Now, fundamentally, the question of rights is a question of morality, since rights are what you should do. That means that there is a good thing to do and a bad thing to do, which means there is good and evil and thus morality.
Ultimately, the question of what is good and what is evil is a question of what you choose to believe is good and evil. It is, in essence, a religious question. (Refer to my definition about.) You choose a set of beliefs, and those beliefs will determine what rights you and others believe you have.
Now, when we talk about morality, there are really two kinds of moralities you can choose to believe in. The first is an absolute morality, where the question of what is right and wrong is independent of the person doing it. For instance, murder, you might say, which is the taking of an innocent life, is wrong everywhere, whether African tribesmen do it or Barack Obama. This is absolute morality.
Relative morality says that some things are good for some people but not for others. These systems lead to things like racism, where it’s OK for white people to vote but not black people, or the European style of government where the elite are allowed to govern but the commoners are not.
Obviously, in our enlightened era, we find relative morality to be repugnant. We much prefer morality that is universal and consistent.
But this still doesn’t lead us much closer to the question of what is good and evil. It does tell us, however, that whatever we determine to be right for one person is right for another, and so we get to the concept of reciprocity. That is, my rights end where your rights begin, and vice-versa. Whatever rights we determine we have, we can’t have other people having rights that contradict it.
These are nice, but they still cannot give us a fundamental set of rights from which we can expand outward and discover all the remaining rights. For that, we need a god, a being who is able to make a decision (or, if you prefer, a choice) when it comes to morality.
We can make our own moral compasses, in which case, we are back to relative morality, which we find repugnant. Since people’s opinions and attitudes shift, their morality will shift also if it is solely based on themselves or other people. Or we can create or rather recognize a god or gods that are not human who make the rules about right and wrong for us. Whatever god or gods we choose, we can have them communicate with us through arbitrary or concrete means. If it’s arbitrary, then some people will say one thing and others another, but if it is concrete, then we have a single source of truth we can all turn to. By way of example, the Christian world embraces the Bible as the concrete source of God’s message to mankind and thus the source of morality.
Now, to wrap it all up, can machines have rights?
In short, only if we give them rights, and we can only give them rights if we think we are gods. And if we think we are gods, we are back to relative morality.
Thus, if we want absolute morality, we must deny machines rights until some concrete message from our god or gods tells us to recognize their rights.
And if we deny the existence of god or the gods, that will never happen.
The moral of the story is that if we are to grant machines rights, we will destroy the very foundation of our morality and religion, and who knows where we will end up when we do that?