The Central Feature of Personhood
Forrester (Mary)
Source: Forrester - Persons, Animals, and Fetuses: An Essay in Practical Ethics, 1996, Chapter 1
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  1. Issues like abortion1 and animal rights2 are commonly held to depend upon whether the individuals in question are persons. If the human fetus3 is a person, then abortion4 is certainly wrong — perhaps even murder. If some animals are persons, then we have no right to eat them or perform experiments on them. The presumption is that persons are entitled to being treated in certain ways, that they have rights which ought to be protected, and that they have a higher moral standing than other things which are not persons.
  2. The task before us sounds simple enough. First find out what characteristics make something a person. Then find out whether animals, fetuses5, etc. have those characteristics. If they do, then they have the same rights that other persons have. If they don't, don't worry about them. This is much too simple a picture, however. First of all, the fact that an individual isn't a person doesn't make the way we behave toward it morally indifferent. Most people, for example, don't consider cats and dogs to be persons. On the other hand, they do think it wrong to cause them pain —at least under most circumstances.
  3. I will discuss this point much more fully in Chapter 9, but for now, I want to concentrate on another difficulty with the plan of action outlined above. This is that it ignores a crucial question. Let us suppose that persons have properties A, B, and C. The next step in the plan is to treat anything found to have A, B, and C in certain ways. The question ignored is, 'Why does the fact that X is A, B, and C make it right to treat X in these particular ways?' Why shouldn't things which lack one of these properties be treated the same way, and why would it be wrong not to treat those that have them in those ways? In short, we need to know what difference having A, B, and C makes to how we should treat an individual.
  4. What is needed is to show that A, B, and C are morally relevant characteristics. Many things which are true of individuals make no difference in how they ought to be treated. For example, the color of your hair, or your height, or how musical you are have nothing to do with whether it would be all right to eat you or do experiments on you or deny you the right to vote. Of course, if you are tall, a coach might be justified in choosing you for a basketball team over someone else just as competent otherwise, but short. And if you play a violin well, an orchestra would be justified in hiring you rather than someone who plays badly. So there are a few circumstances in which these characteristics might make a difference in how it would be right to treat you. But their application is very limited. And they apply in these limited circumstances because they are, in those circumstances, special cases of a type of characteristic which is morally relevant: namely, one's capacity to act in certain ways.
  5. Other characteristics which are morally relevant are one's needs and interests, as well as one's past actions. It would be wrong to eat you because (among other things) doing so would make it impossible for you to fulfill the plans you have for your future. If you were a carrot, you wouldn't have any plans and it wouldn't matter to you whether or not you were eaten. It would be wrong to perform experiments on you if they would hurt you, or cripple you, or if they were done without your consent. Pain and crippling are contrary to your interests. It is generally wrong to do things to an individual without her consent because consent indicates the individual's willingness, and if one is willing for something to happen, it is probably not seriously contrary to her interests. If you were some kind of rock, there would be no limit to what experiments would be all right to do upon you, since you would have no interests and nothing that happened would matter to you.
  6. Likewise, it would be wrong in general to deny you the right to vote. But there are situations in which it would be acceptable to do this: for example, if you were not a citizen of the country, if you were a small child, or if you had committed certain crimes. Being a citizen is relevant, because citizens have to live with their elected officials and put up with whatever taxes, wars, or other burdens they might impose; their interests are affected by who is elected. If you were a small child you would presumably not have the capacity to judge the qualifications and behavior of the candidates. And if you were a convicted criminal, your actions against the state, one might argue, make you undeserving of participation in its political processes.
  7. Now suppose that 'person' means having certain characteristics. Some defining characteristics that have been suggested are being human, having a soul, being rational, and having the capacity to speak a language. But these characteristics are not all had by all and only those usually considered persons. Many humans are not rational, and there are reasons to think some animals may be rational. Most religious people think of God as a person; Christians, in fact, think He is three Persons. Many people have thought animals have souls, and many other people don't believe in souls at all. In short, there is some confusion and disagreement as to what characteristics make something a person, and this makes it difficult to solve practical problems.
  8. Furthermore, even if we could agree on what characteristics persons have, this doesn't necessarily tell us why persons are entitled to being treated in certain ways. We would also need to know whether these characteristics were morally relevant. What does being a member of the species homo sapiens have to do with how one should be treated? What does speech have to do with what one is entitled to? Why would the possession of a soul matter as to how one ought to be treated?
  9. Joel Feinberg has, in fact, suggested that there are two different senses of the term 'person6.' First there is the descriptive sense, which refers to individuals having certain characteristics that we normally associate with persons. Characteristics he suggests include consciousness, the ability to plan, having a concept of self, emotions, and the capacity to reason.
  10. The other sense is normative. 'Normative' is a term that refers to rules, values, and what is right or wrong. The normative sense of 'person' refers to what individuals are entitled to certain kinds of treatment, rather than the characteristics those individuals may have. Feinberg thinks these two senses of 'person' are related, and so do I; but they need not be identical. For my purposes, the normative sense of 'person' is the most important, for the following reason.
  11. This book is concerned with practical questions about how certain sorts of individuals such as animals, fetuses7, or comatose humans ought to be treated. What matters is the moral relevance of the characteristics of those individuals: i.e., whether they make it right to treat them in one way rather than another. To find this out we need to specify first of all what the moral treatment is that persons are believed to deserve. Following this, we need to see what characteristics would make it reasonable and right to treat an individual having them in those ways. Individuals which have those characteristics would, then, be persons in the normative sense. They might or might not be persons in the descriptive sense as well. But since the book is concerned with how certain types of individuals should be treated, what matters most for my purposes is the normative sense.
  12. I shall start from the assumption that any individual who is entitled to certain treatment is a person. The reason is that, whatever else people believe about persons, they agree that persons have a privileged moral position. In other words, they accept the normative sense of 'person,' even though they may not agree on the content of the descriptive sense. I will then examine what characteristics would entitle an individual to that privileged sort of treatment. Any individual who has those characteristics I shall suppose to be a person.
  13. This approach has a possible drawback: namely, that the characteristics which would entitle a person to moral treatment might not be those which we normally associate with persons. That is, the normative and descriptive senses may not coincide. I don't consider this a serious drawback, however. This book is concerned with practical questions: in particular, how we ought to treat particular groups of individuals. It is not greatly concerned with whether or not we call these individuals persons. I shall` refer to individuals which are entitled to full moral consideration as persons. If, however, the reader thinks that these individuals do not all fit the concept of personhood, or that the concept applies to other individuals which I do not consider persons, he or she is welcome to substitute another word. I will argue in Chapter 8, however, that the characteristics which entitle an individual to full moral consideration happen to be those which are most commonly thought to be characteristics of persons.
  14. Using the normative sense of 'person' has another advantage. Someone might argue that whether or not a particular group of individuals are persons is irrelevant to what it is morally acceptable to do to them. For example, an anti-abortionist8 might claim that he doesn't care whether a fetus9 is a person or not; it is just wrong to kill one. Or, certain animal rights10 activists could say that experimenting on animals is immoral, whether or not they are considered persons.
  15. This objection works, however, only if one is using 'person' in the descriptive sense. Suppose for the sake of argument that 'person' means (descriptively) 'human being which has been born alive.' Does it follow simply from this definition that it is all right to kill fetuses11 or experiment on animals? Certainly not. It could follow from the definition only if being alive born human was the single morally relevant characteristic of individuals, which sole characteristic entitled them to certain treatment. The same could be said of any other descriptive definition one might propose.
  16. If, however, we use 'person' in the normative sense, this problem does not arise. 'Person' then means 'an individual entitled to full moral consideration.' If it can be shown that an individual is entitled to full moral consideration, then we show both that she is a person and that it is wrong to kill and experiment on her. Indeed, as I suggested above, we could eliminate the term 'person' from the discussion altogether and use instead the expression 'individual entitled to full moral consideration.' I won't do this because 'person' is a lot less cumbersome. At any rate, the fact that an individual is entitled to full moral consideration, whether or not she is called a person, is not irrelevant to how she should be treated.
  17. Recently Ronald Dworkin has argued that the debates over such crucial issues as abortion12 and euthanasia have little to do with our beliefs about what a person is. Rather they are grounded in beliefs about the sacredness of human life. If we hold human life to be sacred, we will consider it at least prima fade wrong to destroy it, regardless of what the best interests of the individual in question may be, or of the effect of his life on others, or on whether he is a person. At the same time, however, holding human life to be sacred also involves wanting the fulfillment of each such life. Thus if a teenager like Michelle is pregnant13, an abortion14 will destroy a life; yet not to abort15 may result in a blighted life both for the girl and her child. For this reason, Dworkin says, there are moral reasons both for and against abortions16 which are independent of the question of whether the fetus17 is a person.
  18. I agree that there are such moral reasons, and will discuss them more fully when considering the abortion18 issue in Chapters 13-15. These questions are not answered exclusively by deciding who counts as persons. If fetuses19, animals, and comatose people, for example, are persons, however, we will know that it is wrong to treat them contrary to the moral laws that govern our treatment of all other persons. Abortion20 and painful experiments would then be known to be wrong. But I don't hold that just because some individual is not a person that it is morally acceptable to treat him, her, or it in whatever way we please. The discussion of these issues, however, will indicate which considerations determine what are morally relevant reasons for deciding how nonpersons should be treated; and these reasons include the value we place on human life.
  19. Treating someone with full moral consideration means treating him in accordance with all the moral rules which are recognized by those with whom he interacts. He is entitled to full moral consideration if he ought to be treated in accordance with all valid moral principles.
  20. Some individuals may be treated in accordance with some moral principles but not others. They are not being treated as persons. For example, in the present day United States of America dogs are not held to be persons. There are some moral rules by which we think humans, who are considered persons, ought to be treated, but which we do not believe we have to apply to dogs. One is the rule against deceit. Most of us think it wrong in nearly all cases to deceive another person, even if no one is harmed by the deception. We do not, however, think it wrong to deceive a dog.
  21. We once had a dog named Oscar. Now and then Oscar would escape from our house or yard and roam about town, knocking over garbage, and chasing cats, postmen, and even the dogcatcher. One day when Oscar got loose, I chased him, waving his leash. As soon as he saw me with the leash, Oscar came running and was quickly captured. To him the leash meant I was going to take him for a walk — something he loved even more than running about on his own. I was in a hurry, however, and had no intention of taking him for a walk. Instead I shut him up in the back yard.
  22. Did I do something morally wrong? I think so, because Oscar was disappointed and sad. He also quickly learned not to fall for that trick again! But the wrongness of my action was not due to the fact of having deceived him. Had I treated my children in a similar fashion, I think most people would agree that I had wronged them, not just because I disappointed them, but also because of the deceit. As evidence of this, I have related this story many times without feeling much shame, and others have found it amusing. If I had so deceived my children, I would have probably been ashamed to tell others, and, if I had, other people wouldn't have laughed.
  23. The point of this example is not to say that it is morally acceptable to deceive dogs, or that dogs are not persons while children are. It is simply to illustrate the fact that when an individual is not considered a person by a group of other individuals, those other individuals do not feel themselves bound to treat him by at least some of the moral principles by which they consider themselves bound to treat those they do hold to be persons.
  24. The plan for the remainder of the book is this. First I shall spell out what I think full moral consideration is. This involves showing what basic moral principles should govern our behavior towards others. The basic principles determine what characteristics of individuals are morally relevant. Thus if one moral principle is that we ought not to cause pain and frustration unnecessarily, one morally relevant characteristic is that an individual be capable of experiencing pain and frustration. If it is a principle that we ought (at least in general) not to lie or break promises, another morally relevant characteristic is that of being able to communicate with other individuals. What individuals are persons is then determined by whether they have these morally relevant characteristics.
  25. This book is divided into four parts. Part I is the introductory material just concluded. Part II is an argument for a basic moral theory, which indicates the major principles which ought to be followed, and which are in fact accepted by the great majority of people. Part III argues that, given what these principles are, individuals which are entitled to be treated in accordance with them have certain characteristics. Individuals with these characteristics are what I will call 'natural persons.' I will argue that there are some individuals which do not have all of these characteristics, but that there are good reasons for considering as persons as well. Part IV applies these conclusions to some difficult moral questions.
  26. Different readers may wish to approach this book in different ways. Those who are concerned primarily with the practical conclusions may wish to read only the summaries at the beginnings of Part II and Part III and then go directly to Part IV. Those who are interested in the overall rationale for the practical conclusions will probably want to read all of Parts II and III. Many technical points, which will be of interest primarily to professional philosophers, are found in the extensive endnotes.


Part I: Problems and Persons

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 6: See "Feinberg (Joel) - Abortion".

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