When Do Persons Begin and End?
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: Distinguished Faculty Lecture, December 5, 2005
Paper - Abstract

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Summary & Comments


  1. Introduction
  2. What is a Human Person?
  3. When Does a Human Person Come Into Existence?
  4. When Does a Human Organism Come Into Existence?
  5. Life and Death
  6. When Do Persons and Organisms Die?
  7. Conclusion

  1. This paper is effectively the application of Baker’s Constitution View1 of personal identity – that human persons are constituted by, but not identical to, their bodies – to the questions “when does the life of human persons begin and end”, together with some ethical consequences for our answers.
  2. Lest the they get lost in the recounting of the arguments, the quick answers to these questions are
    • The life of a human person starts when that human becomes a person – which is (for Baker) when that human achieves a rudimentary first person perspective2, which (she says) is at birth, or maybe just before.
    • The life of a human person ends when that (rudimentary or robust) first person perspective3 is irretrievably lost (barring “life after death4”).
  3. Baker is insistent that human persons are ontologically separate from the human animals5 that constitute them, and so the beginning and ending of the lives of the two are not necessarily coincident.
  4. She starts by correctly pointing out the basic irrelevance of the 98.6% genetic similarity between humans and chimpanzees.
    • While it is true that this is 10 times closer that the genetic similarity between rats and mice, this isn’t all there is to the story.
    • Baker doesn’t really follow up on the remark that what we have here is encoding for proteins, which is not at all the same thing as mental life (say).
    • We are – perhaps slyly – referred to "Povinelli (Daniel) - Behind the Ape's Appearance: Escaping Anthropocentrism in the Study of Other Minds". Povinelli – in contrast to much of the modern trend – is a supporter of the cognitive distinction between humans and the other Great Apes, and in particular with the suggestion that the Great Apes are cognitively equivalent to human 2-year-olds.
    • Povinelli points out that our 50% genetic similarity to the garden pea does not make us cognitively 50% similar.
    • But his main point arises from his experimental tests of chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities, leading to his claim that the great distinction between the cognitive capacities of humans and the great apes is that the latter cannot form abstract concepts, nor does he think they have a theory of mind6.
  5. Baker has no great interest in any of this, as she claims that while biologists / geneticists ask: what makes people human organisms, philosophers ask: What makes human organisms people?
  6. The fundamental question, assumed but wrongly answered (says Baker) in the bioethics debates is: In virtue of what is an entity a human person?, answers to which depend on what kind of beings we human persons most fundamentally are .
  7. Baker has a useful footnote on the term “human being7”.
  8. Baker’s view is that our natures are not exhausted by our biology, and however thin the biological line is between us and the other Great Apes, there’s a great ontological difference in the type of beings we are.

What is a Human Person?
  1. Baker thinks we are not identical to our bodies12. Nor are we Cartesian13 bipartite “Bodies plus Minds”. Instead, she sees a third way, that of Constitution14.
  2. According to the Constitution View15 we human persons are material beings, but are only constituted by our bodies, and our animal natures don’t exhaust what we are16.
  3. She gives an example of the statue17 and the piece of marble that constitutes it, and shows they are not identical by pointing out their different persistence conditions18 and – important for this paper – that they are not coterminous.
  4. We are referred to "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View" for an explanation of (Baker’s version of) Constitution.
  5. As is well known, Baker thinks that the identity of a person is determined by a unique First-Person Perspective19 (FPP20), which is both necessary and sufficient for its identity (“biological continuity” being cited at the analogue for organisms). The key attributes are “an inner life”, namely the ability to reflect on our thoughts, motives, beliefs, desires and actions and the ability to exercise self-control. This catalogue of abilities makes for a person with a robust FPP21.
  6. Baker contrasts persons with Phase Sortals22, and her analogy is important. She says that being a wife is not essential to wives, whereas having a FPP23 is essential to being a person, as a person ceases to exist without a FPP24, whereas a wife does not cease to exist on ceasing to be a wife. Is this argument sound? I don’t think so.
    • The FPP25 is had by the human animal26, just as the smile is had by the Cheshire Cat, and cannot exist without it.
    • Being a person is a property of another thing, reflecting that thing’s capacities, and is not a thing in its own right.
    • There are some issues of reference here. “Wife” is a relational term – of a female human being to a male. If there is no longer a marriage, then there is no longer a wife, though the female human being still exists.
    • Analogously, if the FPP27 permanently ceases, there is no longer a person. But that no more means that the person is ontologically separate from the human being than the wife is.
    • The analogy maybe isn’t perfect (but then Baker introduced it, though not with this intent). Is the FPP28 a relational term? It seems so to me – it is a relation between a human animal29 and the world (something Baker doesn’t mention), as well as to itself.
  7. Baker correctly points out that a human animal30 can live without a FPP31 (which is why Eric Olson claims that psychology is irrelevant to personal identity (given his claim that human persons are animals. She then claims that a person cannot live without a FPP32: but, this strikes me as an error that recurs in her philosophy. She uses “life” and “death” – which seem to me to be biological terms, except as figures of speech – in non-biological settings. If a person is not fundamentally biological, then these terms don’t apply to it. Better to use begin / cease (to exist) or some such.

When Does a Human Person Come Into Existence?
  1. Baker’s answer is “a rudimentary FPP”33. Rudimentary is contrasted with Robust, introduced earlier.
  2. There seems to be a degree of arbitrariness about all this, as will appear later. It seems to me that Baker has a time in mind (near birth), and other organisms she doesn’t want to be given status as persons (namely, the Great Apes) and she fiddles her criteria in order to achieve these objectives. If PERSON was an ontological category, there would be more discovery and less stipulation about this.
  3. She expatiates a bit more on the robust FPP34, as it is clearly not applicable to infants, whom she wants to be accounted persons even though they would fail most tests. They don’t have moral or rational agency or language35; they don’t evaluate or change36 their desires or assess their goals. In fact they are in a much worse state as far as the attributes of a robust FPP37 than are the Great Apes. What’s to be done?
  4. She notes that the brain has to be fairly well-developed even for a rudimentary FPP38, so rules out embryos39 as persons, though is agnostic about 8-month40 fetuses41.
  5. Baker defines a rudimentary FPP42 as needing to satisfy three sufficient conditions
    • i. She is a conscious, sentient being, and
    • ii) She has a capacity to imitate;
    • iii) Her behavior is not fully explainable except by the attribution of beliefs, desires and intentions.
  6. The trouble with this collection is that while (i) and (iii) are sensible enough, they are satisfied by most higher mammals and (ii) is both plucked out of the air and may both not be satisfied by infants and also satisfied by the Great Apes.
  7. By way of immediate justification (by condition):-
    • i. Rather scarily, Baker notes the NY Times article: ”Study Finds 29-Week Fetuses43 Probably Feel No Pain and Need no Abortion44 Anesthesia”, August 24, 2005 (Link), on account of the “probable45” lack of neurological development.
    • ii) Baker claims that the capacity to imitate involves differentiation of self and other. Maybe it does, but do new-borns really have it, and do the Great Apes really not have it? There’s a footnote to the effect that the capacity to imitate has been linked by developmental psychologists to some form of self-recognition that does not require a self-concept. So, this is a proxy for a self-concept, which new-borns (unlike the Great Apes) most likely don’t have,
    • iii) Baker says that the offshoot of this condition is that a rudimentary person46 must be an intentional agent. There’s a supportive verbal assurance by some medic to the effect that “pediatricians take the slightest signs of communication as the sine qua non that an infant is a person. Such signs satisfy the criterion of intentionality”. Firstly, anecdotal support is feeble. Secondly, if “the slightest signs of communication” signify a person, then dogs are persons; which they are not.
  8. Baker claims that “The properties that make up a rudimentary first-person perspective47 are themselves specifically personal (and not merely biological) properties”. Well, I agree that they are “not merely biological“, but have the following concerns48:-
    • The ontological element: the thought that a new thing comes into existence, rather than an existing thing gaining new and important properties – seems completely upside-down to me.
    • The evaluative element: how are we to treat these “rudimentary persons”? Is it important49 that (under normal circumstances) that they will develop into robust persons?
    • Consistency: it is important that no speciesism or fixing the boundaries to be species-specific50 creeps into the analysis.
  9. Baker claims that human new-borns satisfy her three conditions and so are rudimentary persons.
    • The first and third conditions are incontrovertibly satisfied (though satisfied to a lesser degree than in most other young mammals of the same birth-age due to human infants effectively being born prematurely).
    • The second condition is more controversially satisfied, or at least the import of the activity is far from obvious. It seems human new-borns will imitate gestures of mouth opening and tongue protrusion. No doubt they will, but what does this signify? That new-borns have a sense of self and other, or that this is some sort of reflex51?
  10. Baker recognises that cats and dogs appear to have rudimentary FPPs52, and that chimpanzees can be trained53 to recognise themselves in mirrors.
  11. Baker has a footnote to the effect that Although more evidence is needed about the cognitive development of chimpanzees, there is no clear evidence that chimpanzees54 have the capacity to construct higher-order representations that would allow conceptions of themselves as having pasts and futures. Now, this has nothing to do with the possession of a rudimentary FPP55 (just when do human children achieve this cognitive development?), but – if true – would probably make it unlikely that the Great Apes can become robust persons56.
  12. Because Baker’s three conditions allow in some non-human mammals into the fold of rudimentary persons, and an individual with a rudimentary FPP57 is a person “period”, she needs a reason to kick them out again.
    • She holds that human infants are persons while the non-humans aren’t, because of the normal developmental potential of humans, and the lack thereof for primates.
    • Leaving aside for the moment the empirical claim that the Great Apes can never attain a robust FPP58 (and doubtless even robust FPPs59 come in degrees), there’s still the question why – if normal developmental potential is the issue – Baker doesn’t just stick with embryos60, which have an identical potential.
    • The reason, I suspect, is a tension between her ontological claim about persons and her binary claims about rights. She can’t claim a person – as a new ontological entity – comes into existence before any of the persona attributes – but she doesn’t want to leave this emergence so late as to leave human infants without rights.
    • She clearly would not give up on her ontological claim, so it might be better for her to either give up on rights altogether (and replace them with the duties of moral agents), or to allow gradation of rights, so that rudimentary persons (of whatever species) have some rights, but less than those of robust persons. She might still end up with the favoured pecking order when we sadly can’t save all of the baby, the chimp and the dog.
  13. So, Baker’s thesis is
  14. She notes that the temporal designation “at t” is necessary because – while (for Baker) persons are essentially persons, human animals63 – which (may) constitute human persons – are not essentially persons – indeed they are not persons (derivatively) when they are embryos64.
  15. Baker notes what appears to be a change from "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View", where she had it that a human animal65 becomes a person when it develops ether the actuality of, or the structural capacity for, a robust FPP66. I’m not sure whether (HP) is stricter or more lenient – it would depend partly on whether the structural capacity for a robust FPP67 develops before or after the realisation of a rudimentary FPP68, but see the following bullet.
  16. Baker is insistent that a severely retarded individual with a rudimentary FPP69 – even though that individual will never develop a robust FPP70 (and therefore presumably never develops the structural capacity for one) – is a person, because it is of a kind whose normal members develop a robust FPP71; whereas a Great Ape, with maybe a stronger – but still rudimentary FPP72 – is not a person. This is nothing but speciesism, it seems to me.
  17. Baker allows that there may be persons other than human persons – for instance silicon73 persons (constituted by “silicon74 items”) or God (not constituted by anything).
  18. She also notes that – if her thesis is correct – anti-abortion75 arguments based on the premise that human foetuses76 are persons are unsound.
  19. She makes an interesting point about the timing of origins. A human person begins to exist when it “comes to have” a rudimentary FPP77. She doubts there’s an exact moment, but thinks that nothing that we know of in the natural world clearly and unmistakably comes into existence at an instant.
  20. An abiding worry for me about all this is that ontology ought to be a process of discovery not of stipulation. She takes persons to be a kind78. But, according to Baker, the (vague) time at which certain individuals of that kind come into existence has
    • (a) Something to do with the developing properties of a then numerically distinct individual of a different kind but also
    • (b) A dependency on the normal capacity-development of individuals of that different kind.
    (a) probably has its analogue in the statue and the clay79, but (b) just seems to be a stipulation that has consequences that Baker likes, but others might not.

When Does a Human Organism Come Into Existence?
  1. Baker takes the question of when a human organism comes into existence to be a biological question (on which biologists have the last word), but that of when a human person comes into existence to be a philosophical question (on which empirical data is relevant but not conclusive). I have my doubts80.
  2. She notes that fertilisation can take 20+ hours, so if this is when a human organism comes into existence, there is no exact moment. We are reminded that everything in the natural world comes into existence gradually, and we are referred81 to "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Everyday Concepts as a Guide to Reality".
  3. But, this worry aside, the suggestion that fertilisation is the occasion a human organism comes into existence is – she says – logically impossible because of the possibility of twinning82,83.
  4. Baker discusses the Roman Catholic position:-
    • The RC Church is agnostic on the ontological question whether or not an embryo92 is a human organism.
    • Nevertheless it takes the moral stance that the zygote93 be treated as a person, to be protected with the utmost care, abortion94 and infanticide being abominable crimes.
    • This stance95 is independent of “the time of animation96 or the “infusion” of a spiritual soul”.
    • The stance of the RC Magisterium rests entirely on the (presumed) authority of the Church, and is a “pure decree” not reliant on any philosophical argument.
    • Baker’s concern with all this seems to be motivated by the RC Church’s lack of philosophical argument or ontological claims – so they don’t contradict her position because they don’t engage with any philosophical position.
    • But she does have a footnote that mentions a RC claim that the fertilized ovum would never be made human if it were not human already. She notes that for this argument to have force, “human” would need to be “human organism”, which has not been argued. All human cells are “human already” but are not thereby given especial protection.
  5. So, there can be no human organism until the implantation of the blastocyst, and even then the organism doesn’t come into existence instantaneously, and she thinks there’s no clear line of demarcation. She suggests that when97 the primitive streak appears, the embryo98 becomes a human individual rather than just a mass of cells.
  6. Since 60-80% of embryos99 spontaneously abort100 without anyone knowing, she doubts they can be as precious as persons in the eyes of God. Who but an RC could disagree!
  7. She quotes with approval Michael S. Gazzaniga, to the effect that this statistic means that in IVF we’re doing what nature does, in creating many fertilised ova, but only implanting a few.
  8. Baker’s parting shot in this section is that if there are sound arguments against aborting101 a 20-week-old fetus102, they ought not to be based on the premise that such a fetus103 is a person.

Life and Death Die?
  1. Baker doesn’t think we should follow the philosophical community and ask what life and death are, because the meaning of these terms (she says) depends on the individual whose life or death we are talking about.
  2. She defines104 the life of x as all the events x is a part of. And, for us – who are most fundamentally persons (she claims) – our life is that of a person.
  3. Baker admits that philosophers have generally thought of life as a biological term. However, she list the following dissenters:-
  4. Baker says that life is a property that can be had by different kinds of being.
  5. In particular, the life of a person is not identical to that of the human organism that constitutes it (whose life starts earlier and – we will see – may finish later); yet it is important to note that there are not two110 lives going on.
  6. Baker has a slightly curious footnote on the “right to life”.
    • Her view is that only persons have a right to life.
    • So, she thinks that the “life” to which there is a right is personal life, the sort of life only had by persons.
    • But she mentions the option of the “right to lifers” of extending the right to the other Great Apes. So, presumably this is granting a right to biological life (as Baker doesn’t think the non-human Great Apes are persons) in the special case of the Great Apes (as granting it to all life would be extravagant and impractical).
    • And even the right to personal life is not absolute, she says, though her example is strange.
    • She considers a premature baby whose life can only be prolonged temporarily by extraordinary procedures that leave it in excruciating pain. She – correctly and humanely – says that this is unspeakably cruel, and that it would be better to let the baby die – or (even better) to hasten its demise by a lethal injection, despite the fact that it is a rudimentary111 person. All well and good, though somewhat consequentialist in its ethics. But has this anything to do with a “right to life”? It seems more to do with there being no absolute “duty to live112”.
  7. Baker has another footnote where her concept of some Great Chain of Being is mentioned.
    • It seems that persons are of a higher primary kind than are organisms, as organisms constitute persons, and not vice versa. Constitution provides a collating sequence.
    • So, biological life is just one aspect of personal life, but personal life is not an aspect of biological life, though she concedes that it may be so “derivatively”.
  8. Baker now turns her attention to death113.

When Do Persons and Organisms Die?
  1. As for Baker death is simply the end of a career: different kinds of entities die under different circumstances.
  2. For organisms, death is cessation of biological function.
  3. A footnote refers us to "Feldman (Fred) - Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death", where “her colleague” argues that a dead animal is still116 an animal.
  4. Baker thinks that a person – as distinct from an organism – dies117 when there is a permanent loss of the FPP118. While it is still physically possible to recover the FPP119, the person – even if unconscious – still lives.
  5. Baker offers two means of person-death: permanent cessation of higher-brain functioning or, more commonly, of general biological functioning. Either will result in permanent loss of the FPP120.
  6. Baker notes that there are different criteria for the death of the human animal121, but only mentions whole-brain death122, the symptoms being irreversible coma, no brainstem response, no EEG activity and inability to breathe independently.
  7. Brain-death is to be distinguished from a PVS123, where the patient can breathe independently, but the cerebral cortex has shut down so there is no cognitive functioning.
  8. Baker asks whether the person has died if the human animal124 is in a PVS125. The answer – according to the CV126 – depends on whether it is physically possible for the patient to recover. If not, then the person – but not the organism – has died. Post-mortem showed that this had indeed been the case with Terri Schiavo (see Wikipedia: Terri Schiavo case).

  1. The CV127 implies that both the beginnings and endings of persons and human organisms may differ.
  2. Baker allows that – if there is an afterlife128 – a person may continue to exist after the destruction of the human organism, but is silent on whether such continued existence is continuous, or involves an intermission of existence.
  3. Many ethical matters are beyond the scope of Baker’s paper; but, she allows that the mother’s life – in addition to that of the fetus129 – is morally relevant in questions of abortion130. Her aim has merely been to establish which entities are persons.
  4. She closes by suggesting that the CV131 harmonises Darwinian biology – whereby human persons are biological beings continuous with the rest of the animal kingdom – with the concerns of philosophers, who recognise what biology doesn’t – that the FPP132 – even if it evolved by natural selection – distinguishes persons from all other beings.


See Link.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 6: This was rather surprising, but then so was his reporting that chimpanzees will use gestures to beg for food from blindfolded carers (or those with buckets on their heads).

Footnote 12: It is rather sloppy in my view, to fail to distinguish bodies from organisms. In the text here, she equates the two, but she means “organisms”. We are not most fundamentally animals.

Footnote 13: My rendering is compressed, but Baker doesn’t seem to represent Descartes’ view that we are most fundamentally “Thinking Things”, and indeed simple substances, and not anything combined at all.

Footnote 35: There’s no discussion of the possibility of an innate language of thought here or elsewhere. See Click here for Note.

Footnote 36: We might mention wantons here.

Footnote 40: Well, babies are often born much earlier than this, so presumably this question should not be in doubt – we can test the ones that are born to see whether they satisfy her criteria.

Footnote 45: Footnote 46: Baker actually uses the expression “a being with a rudimentary first-person perspective”.

Footnote 48: Some of these issues are addressed by Baker later in the paper, but it’s worth logging them here.

Footnote 49: Footnote 50: Footnote 51: Such as the sucking reflex, though the imitative behaviour is much more sophisticated. In any case, I’ve no doubt that mothers can “connect” with their babies, and in the absence of significant motor-coordination in a baby, mouth and tongue are their only method of communication (beyond squawking). But don’t mother dogs “connect” with their puppies?

Footnote 53: ”Trained” is a weasel word as it could imply associative learning. Do apes have to be “trained” to pass the “mirror test”, or do they do it spontaneously? See "Desmond (Adrian) - The Ape's Reflexion", and later works. It seems that the Great Apes just need time to acclimatize (as do human infants) rather than training as such. Monkeys, however, may never “get it”. See "Gallup (Gordon G.) - Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition".

Footnote 54: So, she claims that it looks as if the scope of the self-concept that Gallup postulated to explain mirror behavior is really quite limited, contrary to Gallup’s speculation. This relies on Povinelli, as against Gordon G. Gallup.

Footnote 56: Baker has it that there are persons – who have rights – and non-persons – who don’t. This binary system strikes me as pernicious. It may make decision-making easier, but leads to needless injustice and cruelty.

Footnote 80: Footnote 81: This appears in an interesting issue of The Monist which discusses Coming into Being and Passing Away. The other papers, which include one by Olson, are:- Footnote 84: Footnote 86: Footnote 88: Footnote 95: Footnote 97: This claim just comes out of the air.

Footnote 104: Footnote 105: Footnote 106: Footnote 109: So, Baker favours the rights of the mother over those of the “unborn child” – but only because she doesn’t consider the fetus a person, and so it has no rights (according to her).

Footnote 110: Footnote 111: Does she allow the same latitude to robust persons, one wonders. If not / so why not / so?

Footnote 112: So, we have no right to force the baby to live when it would (most likely) prefer not to.

Footnote 114: Again, my view is that “death” is a purely biological term, and reflects the irrevocable cessation of biological life, so only biological organisms can die. Application of the term to non-biological individuals is purely metaphorical.

Footnote 116: Footnote 117: As I’ve said before, this seems an incorrect use of a biological term. It’s also stipulative – not something that has been discovered.

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