This series of posts is a brief overview of some of the implications of current conversations surrounding ‘personhood’. It is a land mine-ridden subject laden with controversy, emotion, ideology and faith. One of the key difficulties lies in the fact that who the conversations are about and those whom are primarily affected are the very ones often unable to contribute to the discussion. Commonalities of inter-faith dialogue include some form of the ‘golden rule’ as well as a belief that a society is somehow measured by how it treats its weakest citizens. The purpose of these posts is to draw attention to an already-at-risk population and begin to identify the important role faith and culture groups can play in advocating more humane ways of defining and defending personhood. It is hoped that this brief scan will raise both awareness and interest in the public discourse. 

 humanWe start our exploration of ‘personhood’ in the field of philosophy. The ideas of today often become the realities of tomorrow. The Wright brothers had the idea that manned flight was possible. One hundred years later, it is estimated there are 5,000 planes in the air at any given time in America alone. The idea to send an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade was announced by President Kennedy on May 25, 1961. That idea became a reality in July 20, 1969.  It is important to pay attention to the theories of today because they lay the visions for the realities of tomorrow.

One important idea that has been resonating in philosophical circles over the past two decades is a growing conversation regarding the difference between what is ‘human’ and who is a ‘person’. The ideas of what constitutes a ‘person’ are certainly not new. We find the roots of these controversial discussions in the writings of the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Many of the new ‘ideas’ are simply a repackaging of very old ones.  We will look at a few of the more current voices in this debate. It must be noted that due to space only a cursory treatment of the topic is possible. I will, however, seek to identify key points.

Mary Anne Warren (1947 – 2010) was an influential American writer and philosopher.  Arguably one of her most significant contributions was a philosophical establishment of criteria of personhood.[1] Her work has become a benchmark used by many philosophers in their own arguments. Here are the key criteria:

  1. Consciousness of objects and events external and/or internal to the being, and in particular the capacity to feel pain
  2. Reasoning: The developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems
  3. Self-motivated activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control
  4. Capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of type
  5. Presence of self-concept/self-awareness

Her primary argument was that genetic humanity is not sufficient for personhood. She does not state that to be considered a ‘person’ a human being needs to pass all of the criteria, but she strongly suggests that at least criteria 1 and 2 would be the most basic consideration. While her initial argument was primarily related to abortion (which is not our focus here), it quickly moved into implications for those with significant cognitive impairments. These implications can be ascertained from the following quote:

Some human beings are not people, and there may well be people who are not human beings. A man or woman whose consciousness has been permanently obliterated but who remains alive is a human being which is no longer a person; defective human beings, with no appreciable mental capacity, are not and presumably never will be people.

But to ascribe full moral rights to an entity which is not a person is as absurd as to ascribe moral obligations and responsibilities to such an entity.[2]

She goes on to recognize the impact on the ‘unwanted and those with special needs’. She indicates that society does in fact have an obligation to support those who have ‘extreme[ly] severe mental or physical handicaps’. The ground for support, she argues, flows not from the characteristics of those receiving support but rather from those giving it (both the caregivers and society).  The ability to or importance of providing this support is contingent on:

  1. “The source of great pleasure and satisfaction” that some persons get from giving care to such beings and
  2. So long most people feel this way, and so long as our society can afford to provide care for infants that are unwanted, or which have special needs that preclude home care.[3]

One can observe that these criteria provide no permanent or lasting reason why this support should continue to be provided in the future. Mary Anne Warren’s philosophical ideas have had great influence on other philosophers as well as conversations in social policy which we will consider later.

Michael TooleyMichael Tooley is the professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado.   Tooley’s positions have been equally controversial and he builds on Warren’s criteria. He states that “only a being possessing the concept of self as a continuing subject of experience and other mental states [is] itself such a continuing entity that qualifies for uniquely personal status”. He goes on to qualify this belief,

That anything that has, and has exercised, all the following capacities is a person, and that anything that has never had any of them is not a person: the capacity for self-consciousness; the capacity to think; the capacity for rational thought; the capacity to arrive at decisions by deliberation; the capacity to envisage a future for oneself; the capacity to remember a past involving oneself; the capacity for being a subject of non-momentary interests; the capacity to use language.[4]

While he upholds the social moral responsibility[5] for those who are defined as ‘person’s’, his conclusions lead him believe that society does not hold the same social moral responsibility to those who are non-persons or even potential persons.


Next week we will examine some of the challenges to the conception of ‘Personhood’ from the field of Bioethics.

[1] Mary Anne Warren in “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” The Monist, 57, no. 1 (January 1973) 43-61
[3] ibid.
[4] James W. Walter, “What is a person: An Ethical Exploration” University of Illinois Press, United States, 1997 p. 36 quoting Michael Tooley
[5] Singer advocates a social constructed moral responsibility not a theistic defined one.