- This paper (the introduction to the volume):-
- Introduces the general subject and
- Introduces the papers in the volume.
- The first part of the introduction tries to show that underneath the multiple and often unclear usages of the terms person and personhood is a unified topic that can be grasped synoptically. The first question is what is the most important thing that you and I have in common. Two standard answers:-
- We are humans
- We are persons
- Human Beings
Taking the first answer first, just why is being a human being so important? Historically, there have been three answers:-
So, are these the real reasons – as distinct presumably from species-chauvinism – and can they be challenged? Well, they can:-
- Ancient: Human beings are the only rational animals
- Medieval: Only human beings have immortal souls
- Modern: Only human beings have ‘human rights’.
So, the most important thing about us may not be our humanity as such, but the possession of certain properties that fully-functional human beings share (maybe with other beings).
- The only Rational Animals: after Darwin, the human species is viewed as one amongst others. It’s not analytic that the only rational animals are human, and primatologists think the great apes aren’t far off humans in this regard (see "Hurley (Susan) & Nudds (Matthew) - Rational Animals?").
- Immortal Souls: however popular this may be in the population at large, most philosophers deny that there are any such things. But even if they exist, how do we know they are the unique preserve of human beings?
- Human Rights: even if we don’t go along with Bentham to claim that they are “rhetorical nonsense on stilts”, it would be morally dubious to deny such rights to beings that possessed either of the above properties, or other relevant attributes.
Effectively, the concept of personhood combines two of the above conditions, somewhat extended, but omitting immortal souls and abstracting from species. Rationality: is extended to include:-
- Capacity for moral agency,
- Free will,
- Capacity to think,
- Responsiveness to normative demands,
- Fitness to be held responsible,
- Mastery of language,
- Capacity to communicate,
- Capacity to participate in norm-governed practices
Note: See Dennett’s list in "Dennett (Daniel) - Conditions of Personhood".
- Now, if the two attributes of rationality and moral status are no longer connected by being attributes of ‘human being’, why connect them as attributes of ‘person’. Why not rather analyse them separately? Well, the articles in the book argue that rather than forming an artificial mixture we have a real-life intertwinement. To see this, we use a TE.
- We encounter aliens, and our first question is ‘are they persons?’. Sellars unpacks this question as ‘are they part of the same moral community as us?’ – with concomitant right and duties. Or, in other words, should we relate to them in a similar way to the way we relate to one another? John Harris puts it like this – ‘having us for dinner’ should mean dining with us, not eating us. There’s a brief footnote on the issue of eating animals, but it treats the large question of the moral status of non-persons as outside the scope of the present discussion.
- I’m not convinced by the centrality of moral status for this discussion. Animals might be complex, sentient beings, yet until recently it has been (said to be) impractical for mankind to find a sufficient source of protein to survive without eating them. So, this has been deemed morally acceptable – because they are not part of the same moral community. Now there are other human communities that have historically been part of different moral communities – implacable enemies, for instance – and they have been eaten, in certain societies. Yet these meals have certainly been persons, yet not in the same moral community. Was this attitude just a moral error? And, say the aliens were so far in advance of human beings intellectually, that they considered us as pests – and didn’t consider us to be part of the same moral community. So, maybe, they are persons to us – we should consider them – yet we are not persons to them.
- This2 is a bit of a jumble that needs resolution.
- I’m not sure whether “this” refers to my notes or the book – the former, most likely.
- I’m also not sure whether I finished this analysis.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019