What Rights Does Sentience Provide or: The Case of Rocky the Pitbull
Part of a continuing series dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating whenever the hell I feel like.
I recently started running a superhero game for some friends and the latest session turned into a real humdinger of a moral quandary for the party. Superheroes are relatively new to the world, having only appeared in the last ten years, and things are decidedly in the realm of science fiction or science fantasy rather than a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy. There’s no Dr. Strange/Fate/etc running around fighting thinly veiled Elder Gods or Blade analogs fighting hordes of vampires.
Since the superhero world is relatively young, heroes are often on the forefront of strange and new discoveries that cause larger problems. The characters in this game are a mentalist named Polybius (after the urban legend not the Greek historian), an old man in a body enhancing tech-suit named the Gray Noble, and a medical researcher who got turned into an ooze monster called Dr. Ooze (who was originally supposed to be The Incredible Ooze). Their first adventure revolved around breaking up a drug ring that lead them to a human experimentation laboratory where a biotech company was trying to create superpowers and better understand why sometimes lab accidents create superpowers instead of something reasonable like killing the person.
Not long after that, one of Dr. Ooze’s coworkers (he is able to transform back into something that looks likes his human self) was kidnapped from her lab and the lab was ransacked. While there were some red herrings involving her current research (relating to how to use traditional disease vectors like vermin to fight disease rather than spread it) and the awkward fun of superheroes having to explain how they know of a crime that hasn’t been made public without revealing their secret identities, the actual problem centered on the coworker’s former project and its sole survivor: Rocky the Pitbull.
The coworker had originally been working to increase animal intelligence to create better companion and working animals. This created a number of intelligent pitbulls and one exceptionally intelligent one named Rocky. Rocky displayed human genius level intelligence and quickly developed mental powers of his own (namely telekinesis and telepathy). Realizing that he was a lab experiment, and thus a slave and prisoner, Rocky broke out and took to the streets. Not wanting to be some pet that would be further abused by humans, he eked out a living on the streets until realizing that with his vast mental powers, he could carve out a criminal empire of epic proportions for himself.
The one hitch in all of this was that Rocky was unaware the rest of his litter died because of complications with the experiments that made them intelligent. Rocky’s complications were much slower and didn’t manifest for years, and having no choice, he had his mind-controlled thugs kidnap his creator and convinced her to help him. When the party arrived, he fought them tooth-and-nail to protect himself before the mentalist discovered the truth behind everything by reading the mind of kidnapped doctor.
Rocky was willing to surrender in exchange for being cured and pinning the whole thing on his mind controlled thugs. The problem, of course, was that Rocky had been running a large criminal empire from his Greenpoint warehouse and the fancy loft he had constructed above it. While Polybius was willing to look the other way in exchange for Rocky turning over his drugs, dismantling his organization, and turning over a new leaf, Dr. Ooze and the Gray Noble were not as easily satisfied. Both of them believed that Rocky was too dangerous to live.
No prison could hold a creature like Rocky. He had immense strength from telekinesis, he could mind control anyone, and he also possessed the ability to alter a person’s very personality (along with their memories). The very idea of putting him before a judge was dangerous, since he could control the judge or jury’s mind. This is all on top of him being a pretty adorable dog.
This lead to a tense standoff between Rocky and two of the heroes, where he pleaded his case for existence as well as argued that there was nothing heroic (or just) about them killing him without anything resembling a trial. Eventually, against Dr. Ooze’s protests, the Gray Noble decided to not be party to fighting Rocky, and they allowed the pitbull to live with the stipulation that they would be acting as his parole officers. Any slip up and they would not hesitate to kill him.
There’s a lot that can be pulled out of this session.
As always, I’m one to dwell on the question of what exactly makes a person a person. It’s often easy to think of a person as a human being, conflating the two together because we live in a world where that is seemingly the case. However, thanks to intelligence studies on other great apes and dolphins, we know that several other species have startlingly complex minds and even show clear evidence of culture (and tool use, long thought to be what separated man from everything else). In addition, some of the best science fiction (and several episodes of Star Trek in particular) have grappled with the question of what rights should be afforded non-humans that are clearly sentient.
Rocky as a dog, but especially as a pitbull, is not something that we would give a second thought to ‘putting down’ if it become dangerous. Rocky presents a special case though, since he is quite clearly intelligent. It’s the same problem that we face when looking at our basic human rights. Do not all sentient creatures deserve a certain level of respect and dignity? That very idea is what drives us to create laws regarding how we treat suspects, convicted criminals, and conduct war. One could argue that recognizing the sentience of others is the basis of most moral law.
No one would ever suggest killing a criminal outright as the morally right course of action in every situation. It is something that happens and we accept it as part of a tragic situation, but it is not what we agree upon as the standard. Which is the other problem with Rocky, he’s clearly a criminal (he stole a homeless man’s identity so he could buy property and launder money) but he also was performing graduate or post-doctoral level genetic research into himself, trying to deal with the greatest question of life: what am I and why am I here?
Bringing us back to the question of what should be done with him?
How do we imprison that which cannot be contained? How do we give a fair trial to something that can literally control the minds of others? Killing Rocky is clearly a logical conclusion, he is the definition of being too dangerous for prison. Yet, as we have discussed before, the death of a criminal is not justice. Justice is a complex and oft confusing subject, but the ending of one life does not repair the damage that that life might have done. This is why many systems of justice and resolution have been about penance and rehabilitation.
Rocky was ready to admit that he did things that were wrong and he was ready to pay for those crimes in a fair and reasonable way. As he said, he did not ask to be made nor did he ask to be given a disease that was rotting his body from the inside out. What drove him was the need to survive, and the goal of self-determination, to face life on his own terms. Is there anyone who can say they would want different?
Of course, maybe in his heart of hearts, Rocky was just doing it all for himself.