Forward Thinking: Personhood


Forward Thinking is a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), but in this post I will pull together some of the responses to this month’s prompt: “What is personhood? When does it begin? When does it end? Is it gained and/or lost gradually or all at once?”

Trollface McGee responded like this:

I think that the idea of personhood isn’t a single idea. There’s the biological view, the moral view, the legal view etc. etc.

Anti-choicers tend to focus on the biological view (about the only time they seem to like science) but even then – do you pick conception because that’s when you have the unique DNA? The formation of certain organs? Consciousness? I’m not a biologist but it doesn’t seem to be an issue that one can clearly answer from that point of view.

Morally? Now that’s a nearly completely subjective measure and one anti-choicers really confuse with the legal issue. Morally, I might believe that a parent has the duty to donate blood to her sick child but I would vigorously oppose such a law. Morally, your personal or religious values might say conception or quickening or whatever your conscience and culture say.

Legally – and I think this is where the debate really is, you need those clear bright lines or you have a mess. Imagine having to have an evidentiary hearing whenever someone applies for a driver’s permit to see if they are mature enough. So legally we need a clear line that makes sense. Given the importance of bodily integrity in the law, birth makes a lot of sense.

But defining a “person” isn’t sufficient. Personhood, like all rights isn’t without limits nor is personhood a requirement for having rights. Dead bodies have the right to integrity even if their organs would save the lives of legal persons. Children are legal persons but are barred from many activities adult persons are allowed to do. A person in a coma is a legal person but s/he doesn’t have the ability to make decisions so they lose those rights (which is why living wills are so important). So regardless of where you put the personhood line, you don’t give that legal person unfettered rights, and no person has the right to violate the bodily integrity of another by using their body and organs, not even after death.

Blogger Philosotroll responded similarly, arguing that personhood is not all or nothing:

My view, which is one that has some support in moral philosophy, though is a bit underrepresented at the moment, is that we ought to regard individual obligations from following out of particular properties of a given individual. That is, if I have an obligation not to do x to someone, it is a result of that individual’s having a particular feature f. So we don’t have a unilateral set of criteria that either includes or excludes someone as a person and thus either grants them moral status or not.

When does [personhood] begin? When does it end?

The answer to this question is really quite simply, “No.” It isn’t as though there’s a period where the threshold is met. One of the great arguments against personhood is that versions which have a clear criteria seem to make it so that personhood is this thing that sets on rapidly; that in one hour or day you could be a non-person and then the next you could meet the criteria and be a person.

Some folks will argue that it’s a spectrum. You don’t have to claim that there’s rapid onset because some individuals are more-or-less persons (or in a sort of grey area) moving towards an easy case as they develop the relevant features. An individual might not be a person as a fetus, but as they develop awareness of their environment and the ability to discriminate between noxious stimuli and the ability to engage in a social environment and so on, they move along the spectrum until they are definitely persons. There are some problems with this view that are more subtle. (Like, what do you say about the obligations to that person? Do we sort of have obligations to those quasi-persons? Do we have obligations, though less strongly? Do we only have some of the relevant obligations but not others?)

One of the major upshots of my view is that it doesn’t care about the onset of personhood. We have an obligation not to steal from a person pursuant to their understanding of property and their ability to engage in a relevant social contract such that they have some. We have an obligation not to cause gratuitous pain to an individual pursuant to their ability to experience that pain and (probably) to understand it as such.

The trick here is figuring out what feature it is of individuals that makes killing wrong.

Blogger Shira argued that personhood is an activity, not a state of being:

The way this challenge is framed seems to rest on certain assumptions. Personhood is imagined as something that we naturally have, something that inheres to us by nature. Such personhood can only be spoken of in the passive voice, because it is not something that we DO, but something that “is done” by God, or the universe, or agent(s) unknown. This is my first objection to the common view of personhood.

Christians, of course, tie personhood to the notion that each human being has a soul. Having a soul (if I understand this view) makes each of us a person. But for those of us who don’t believe in spirits, including souls, this view of personhood is rendered irrelevant and irrational. This is my second objection to the common view of personhood.

Instead, I look at a person as a process that unfolds in constant give-and-take with the world around. Personhood is the expression of a person’s experience, especially the conscious expression of a person’s conscious experience. Personhood changes over time, but it is always an activity rather than a state of being.

Chris Attaway started by framing the debate and then narrowed in on the question, focusing especially on what he called “A Common Language Critique”:

A common philosophical technique is to examine the way we use words in conversation, i.e. in common language. The advantage here is that we can take a good look at our natural intuitions about a subject without having to concoct an entire theoretical framework to support our conclusions. So the question is to ask how we use the word “person” in the most natural sense.

Suppose your friend unknowingly walks up to a very realistic mannequin and tries to strike up a conversation. You would say to him, “That’s not a person.” He wouldn’t recoil and ask for the definition of a person; he would have an intuition about what you mean, and then he would likely express embarrassment for having made such a mistake. Which of these two options — trajectory or mental activity — seems to coincide best with our understanding of a person in this context?

The answer is pretty clearly the mental activity argument. We consider the non-personhood of a mannequin by its inability to process and interact with what we are saying. For anyone who has been keeping up with my blog for some time, this may ring a bell: we judge personhood by its ability to be with us. When we strip away all the argumentation and rhetoric of the abortion debate, we see that the capacity for interaction between subjects already defines what we mean by personhood; we just didn’t know it yet.

Ann compared today’s debate to historical debates:

It’s worth noting that there have been many personhood debates over the years regarding women, non-whites (and analogues where whites aren’t in power), non-Christians (ditto), children, and even corporations. These debates all seem to agree with the comments here — that it boils down to cognition, agency, awareness. It’s our experiences, and our ability to experience them, that makes us people (excepting corporations). The odd thing about the abortion debate is how it turns this whole notion on its head. Earlier movements held that all genders and races are people because we all feel, learn, and love regardless of our physical attributes. Meanwhile I drive past billboards and hear about laws that insist fingerprints, heartbeats, and physical attributes are what matters.

Enuma centered upon the brain:

When trying to define personhood, the question I ask myself is, “What is the one part of me that cannot be replaced?”

Give me a new heart, lung, kidney, leg, eye, skin… and I’m still me. Replace all the joints in my body with artificial ones, I’m still me. Drain all my blood and replace it with donor blood, I’m still me. But, if you crack open my skull and swap out my cerebral cortex with a new one, you haven’t given me a new brain. You’ve given that brain a new body.

So personhood is, for me, contingent upon brain activity. This would rule out first and second trimester fetuses. Brain development is gradual, but birth and its attendant changes in oxygen levels create about as hard a line in changes to brain activity as you’re going to get in something as fuzzy and variable as development. Since we need a hard line for legal purposes (mature 17 year old people can’t vote while immature 19 year old people can–that’s how rights work), I’ll stick with birth.

The comments beneath Enuma’s post are worth reading for their first-hand discussion of dementia and mental disability.

Feel free to comment on these or add any additional thoughts you may have!

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