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!

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Chris

    Thanks for including me in the compilation. Some interesting submissions, here. Just FYI, your link to Dan’s page takes you through Facebook — might clean it up =)

  • doctormaybe

    I’m always bemused with such projects. I applaud the interest in the question as well as the goal of involving a lot of people in the conversation about its answer(s), but I am baffled by the fact that there is no preliminary discussion of existing literature on the issue. It’s sort of like when “news” shows poll a bunch of people about some issue on which they are almost certainly ill-equipped to opine, like what to do about the economy or how to handle some foreign-policy issue. Their answers are generally more revealing of the structure of the question and/or their general class/race/gender biases than anything. Similarly, in this case, I’m not certain there’s substantial probative value in the uninformed responses of masses, at least with respect to the question at hand. That’s not to insult any of the respondents, only to highlight the difficulty of the question in these cases, such as the current example. Lots of very smart people have spent years, decades, even (in some form, at least) centuries wrestling with this question – is there some reason we ought not first avail ourselves to the fruits of their labors and THEN open a discussion on the matter?

    • Gillianren

      Because this is a blog, not a book club, and there’s no reason to assume we’ve all read the same work?

      • doctormaybe

        But there could be a discussion, or at least a canvass, of the existing work already out there on the issue, before a discussion is thrown open, to at least allow for the possibility. And if not, why assume the project should proceed? Are we really so enamored of ourselves that we think our opinions – informed or otherwise – are so obviously valuable? Why think that there’s anything useful to be gained from it? An uninformed discussion of a complex issue is pseudo-informative: it presents as if it generates insights into the issue, but it’s much more likely that all it tells us about are which unreflective views on subject are encoded into which segments of society, which is not quite the same thing.

        I teach philosophy for a living, and I can tell you that when we have a class discussion about issue (x) without the class having done any reading on (x), what we basically come up with is a catalog of sociocultural biases, not any real exploration of (x). When we actually start from some readings on the subject, then we start getting some arguments, and analysis of those arguments, and we make some progress into the issue.

        I’m not saying a blog should be structured like a philosophy class, but by the same token I want to be clear about what’s going on – I don’t want a “sharing session” on the question of personhood to be mistaken for an actual analysis of the issue. There are hard questions to be answered, and they aren’t going to be answered by a seventy-three random people who may or may not have ever read ANYTHING on the issue before each posting something that starts with “I’ve always felt that…” and not reading what anyone else wrote, which is pretty much what will happen when a “group discussion” is started on the Internet. There may be therapeutic value to this sort of thing, but I think there is very little epistemic value to it, and it’s important to be aware of that distinction.

      • Gillianren

        Since we’re not going to solve anything by it, why not start with what we all feel? I mean, let’s be honest, here–no one with any authority cares what we think, even if we’ve all done the same reading. If I want to know what, say, St. Thomas Aquinas said on the subject, I’ll read St. Thomas Aquinas. However, the intent here was not to reach an Ultimate Conclusion but to find out what various people think. Therefore, the preexisting literature is basically irrelevant.

      • doctormaybe

        Well, I absolutely agree with you that if the intent is to find out what various people think, then the pre-existing literature is irrelevant. We are in 100% agreement on that. But that’s not what the project is billed as. It’s billed as a way to “develop values” and “grapple with thorny questions.” Now, the latter could be interpreted in a therapeutic sort of way, which case we likewise would not necessarily need to address the pre-existing literature. But the conjunction of the latter phrase with the former suggests that the project is supposed to yield actual insight into the issues involved – that it’s supposed to produce real understanding and real answers. And you just don’t get real understanding of a complex issue by polling a self-selected group on their opinions with no prior discussion of what has already been said. You just don’t.

        Look, I am in favor of self-expression. I want people to be able to put their ideas and their opinions out there. I think that’s great. But let’s not confuse that with a productive discussion on a problematic issue. It’s a nice thing to do, but it’s not useful for getting or forming answers to the questions at hand. Mind you, it does give people a chance to feel like they’re being heard, and that has value, but not epistemic value. As a means of “forming values” or “grappling with thorny questions” (in the epistemic sense), a project like this just increases the noise:information ratio. It’s not helpful, and arguably anti-helpful when considered under that rubric.

        Let’s call things what they are. If this is a chance for people to express themselves, great. Call it that. If this is an actual attempt to gain real understanding, though, let’s treat it like one and actually try to structure it in a way that will work to that end.

      • Sophie

        You seem to be making a lot of assumptions about the people who are part of this project. You have no idea of our academic, work or personal history. Also you assume that no one reads the comments that came before, how does that work when many of the comments were threaded discussions with people replying to what others said? This project has been very interesting, seeing other people’s beliefs and questioning them, as well as having your own challenged can be very educational.

        And since you seem to be convinced that none of us have any relevant knowledge of the topic nor have we ever read any of ‘very smart people’ you speak of, I shall share my background with you. I started my nursing degree in 2008, which included modules of psychology, sociology and ethics. As these modules of work were geared towards nursing, abortion and end of life treatment were important topics. I also spent half my time doing placements on wards where I cared for many very premature babies and I saw some of the children I cared for die. So ‘Personhood’ is something I have given a lot of thought too.

        To be honest your opinion of this project comes across as academic snobbery, you seem to think because these discussions are not happened in an academic environment then there are not valid. But people discussing our own life experiences and what opinions we have formed because of those experiences is one of the ways humans learn. Life experience is how the theory of gravity was discovered, as well as the idea the world was round or that the earth revolved around the sun. So yes I think a load of people discussing their opinions, and how they reached them is a valid exercise because we are learning from one another.

  • Trollface McGee

    Thanks for featuring my comment, my trollface is honoured :)

    • Libby Anne

      It was a well-thought-out comment!