What Makes an Individual a Person: Summary
Forrester (Mary)
Source: Forrester - Persons, Animals, and Fetuses: An Essay in Practical Ethics, 1996, Summary of Part III
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  1. In Chapter 1 I made a case for defining persons as individuals which ought to be treated with full moral consideration: i.e., be treated in accordance with all sound moral principles. In Part III concluded that all sound moral principles are instances of beneficence, which is acting to increase the happiness of individuals, or of fairness, which is having one's interests considered equally with those of others. Being considered equally means that one's interests cannot be sacrificed to promote the equal or lesser good of other persons. In order to determine whether something should count as a person we need to know whether it has characteristics which would make it right to apply the principles of beneficence and fairness to it. Any individual which possesses these characteristics is what I call a natural person.
  2. Obviously, we could not be beneficent to individuals which are not capable of happiness or unhappiness. Consequently, we cannot be beneficent toward something we are reasonably sure is not conscious. Nor can we enhance the happiness of individuals that might be conscious but with whom we cannot communicate or have any idea of what might make them happy. Therefore, inanimate objects, plants, lower animals, and even intelligent machines or extra-terrestrials with whom we cannot establish communication, would not count as persons.
  3. This leaves, however, many individuals who are not yet ruled out as natural persons. These include human beings from some time in fetal life until death or permanent unconsciousness occurs, the higher animals (with whom we can communicate in non-verbal ways and about whose interests we can have knowledge), and machines and extra-terrestrials which have interests that we might be able to fathom. I argue, however, that not all of these are natural persons. A further requirement for being a natural person is possession of a very specific sort of rationality. We could be fair to non-rational, but sentient, or conscious, beings by treating their interests as equal to ours, but if we tried to do this for all such creatures, we would be unable to give fair attention to our own interests. The reason is that a person can be treated fairly only when others share the burdens he takes on for maintaining institutions and practices which are beneficial for all members of a group. Otherwise, those who benefit do so at his expense. Individuals who are unwilling or unable to share in the upkeep of such institutions and practices benefit at the expense of those who do share.
  4. Non-rational creatures are unable to assume these costs because they cannot understand the reasons behind acting fairly. To fully comprehend what fairness involves, an individual needs to be able universalize: to think of what would happen if everyone in like circumstances did the same kind of thing he or she is contemplating. It is this capacity for universalizing which enables a person to understand the unfairness of lying, for example, even if no one is hurt by the falsehood. Grasping the concepts of `everyone,' and of what makes circumstances relevantly similar, is necessary to be a moral agent and for assuming fully the burdens of maintaining beneficial institutions. If creatures which cannot grasp these notions and act accordingly are allowed to benefit from all our institutions, they would benefit at the expense of rational beings. I use as an example of what might happen a fanciful attempt on the part of humans to set up a treaty of non-aggression with mosquitos. Treaties between warring nations certainly fail all too often, but mosquitos do not have even the rudimentary characteristics needed to understand or honor a treaty. Since we couldn't make a treaty with the insects, they would continue to bite us and give us diseases, even if we refused to swat and spray them, and gave their lives the same consideration we give those of humans. We would obviously be the losers.
  5. Thus if we were to attempt to give the interests of all non-rational beings equal consideration with those of rational beings, rational beings would suffer with respect to the non-rational unless they received some sort of compensation. I argue that by giving equal consideration to some non-rational beings we do gain compensation, but that we could not have compensation if we attempted to treat all non-rational beings as persons. Those beings to whom we could extend full moral consideration without losing more than we gain include small children and mentally disabled adults. In Part IV I will consider whether the same is true of animals, fetuses1, and humans who are permanently unconscious.
  6. Non-rational individuals that it would be advantageous for us to treat as persons I call extended persons. It is good for us to treat children not only with beneficence, but with fairness, because children so treated will be more apt to grow up fair-minded. Since we all look with horror on the possibility that we will, when old and senile, be sent to a nursing home where we will be ridiculed and physically neglected, we have a strong interest in insuring that the senile are given equal consideration. The same remarks apply to all forms of mental disability, for no one knows what may happen to his own mind in time to come. Because we want to have our interests considered equally with those of others throughout our lives, we also have a strong interest in insuring that personhood once granted to a group of individuals is never taken away.


Part III: What Makes an Individual a Person

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