Unthinkable: Who decides what it means to be a person?
Can either science or philosophy provide a satisfactory definition of personhood?
Confucius: China has a concept of humanity in the Confucian tradition that bears remarkable similarities to ours
The history of western civilisation has in part been a history of disputed personhood. At different times and in different contexts, certain categories of human – including slaves, Jews, and the targets of terrorism – have been treated as non-persons.
There are impassioned debates these days about abortion and end-of-life care in which conflicting definitions of personhood are advanced. A further challenge at this time is how to guarantee common protections for people across international borders.
- Unthinkable: Can a machine have a mind of its own?
- Unthinkable: Who decides what it means to be a person?
- Unthinkable: Who’s running the show, you or your brain?
- Unthinkable: How far should we go to improve ourselves and our morality?
- Unthinkable: Is the passing of time just an illusion?
- Unthinkable: Is scepticism a sustainable philosophy?
How is personhood defined?
Dermot Moran: “In medieval times, the rationality of human beings was what was used to distinguish them from other animals. But there are a lot of human beings who never fully acquire rationality, or who lose it. There are, for example, people in permanent vegetative states, or in comas, or with degenerative diseases who lose their rationality, or people with various disabilities who never really get it.
“In our more inclusive society, we want to call all of these people ‘persons’, and therefore we can’t rely on the old definition of personhood, which was exclusively one based on rationality. The problem is that modern definitions of the person are not much better.”
Is this a question that should be answered by philosophers or scientists?
“I think the sciences cannot answer this question, although they can provide a huge amount of background information and clarification. The question is really either a metaphysical question or a philosophical question that has a moral implication.
“It’s a bit like membership of a club. The fact that we include or exclude certain people from the club is a matter of decision. It might be based upon physical characteristics, or some other characteristics that are identifiable by the sciences, but the concept of being a member of a club is not a scientific concept. There is no brain investigation that is going to find some little molecule where we can say: ah, that is where a person comes from.”
What solutions have philosophers provided?
“There are a number of different answers that are clashing with one another at the moment. There is a strong emphasis still on the concept of the person as autonomous, and this autonomy – an ability to make free decisions and choices – can be there even with relatively minimal rationality.
“There is another view that what makes human beings persons is the ability to have what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt called second-order desires and beliefs – in other words, to have beliefs about your beliefs – but, again, it wouldn’t apply to people in a coma, so it wouldn’t be all-inclusive.