Who Gets to Be a Person?

Defining thick concepts is particularly tricky. Those definitions are not just judged for their descriptive plausibility but whether they imply acceptable moral practices. In the debate on personhood, philosophers have repeatedly drawn boundaries on the descriptive level that lead to normative implications they do not want to support. Notably, individuals who they would like to see treated as persons do not meet their criteria for personhood because they do not have certain cognitive capacities.[i] Most recently, this happened in this year’s John Locke Lecture by Susan Wolf on Selves like us.[ii] She argued compellingly for a definition of character as a complex of dispositions and tendencies that reflect and express one’s distinctive way of seeing the world. She furthermore seemed to imply that certain types of attitudes, such as resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger, or love (Strawson’s reactive attitudes[iii]), can only be directed towards ‘selves like us’ which meet her definition of having a character. In her account, character requires cognitive faculties of “active intelligence”. Because of this, the question arose what this implies for individuals with cognitive disorders. She replied that she would certainly not want to exclude them from being appropriate objects of reactive attitudes and would have to do more research to work out how they would fit in her framework. The question of who gets to be a person is one of those old but never outdated classics in philosophy. Throughout history, philosophers have discussed which human beings are persons, when human beings start to be persons, when they are no longer the same person, and whether non-human beings can be persons – and the discussion continues.
[ii] Self and person are often used interchangeably. Definitions of the self face the same problems because the self tends be considered as a thick concept as well (albeit less obviously than in the case of personhood).
Pattern theories of personhood or self, which take a range of properties and capacities into account, can be particularly helpful in this regard.[vi] According to a pattern-theory, personhood or self are constituted by a cluster of dimensions that interact with each other and that take a different value and weight for each individual. A self might, for instance, be constituted by embodied, experiential, affective, behavioral, intersubjective, and narrative dimensions. Someone becomes a person through the dynamic interaction of a range of capacities, such as, moral agency, autonomy, self-awareness, narration, and rationality. Changes to one dimension may cause modulations in others. Concepts like personhood or the self are not reducible to any one of these aspects but are complex systems that emerge from the dynamic interactions of those constituents. [iv] Schechtman, M. (1996). The Constitution of Selves. Cornell University Press.
In the face of those considerations, we should be aware of and thematize the limits of definitions of personhood (or selves). Marginal cases can and should remain undecided. This does not mean that philosophy has nothing to say about what is distinctive of persons. Identifying common properties of clear, paradigmatic cases of persons can make salient in which way marginal cases differ. Differences in moral practices can be accounted for through distinct properties, instead of an overarching term like personhood or self. This allows for more nuance in our moral practices.
[v] DeGrazia, D. (1997). Great apes, dolphins, and the concept of personhood. The Southern journal of philosophy, 35(3), 301-320.
[vi] Leuenberger, M. (Forthcoming) A Narrative Pattern-Theory of the Self. In: Personhood, Self-Consciousness, and the First-Person Perspective. Edited by Markus Hermann. Brill mentis.
[i] On the other hand, definitions of personhood can of course also appear to be overly inclusive.
But many moral practices are connected to this concept. Persons deserve praise and blame, they should not be experimented on without their consent, they can make promises, they should be respected. The status of personhood is connected to a moral status. Because of the properties persons have they deserve to be treated and can act in a certain way. Personhood is what can be called a thick concept. It combines descriptive and normative dimensions. To be a person one must meet certain descriptive conditions. But being a person also comes with a distinctive moral status. Written by Muriel Leuenberger
[iii] Strawson, P. F. (2008). Freedom and resentment and other essays. Routledge.
Pattern theories can illuminate how a range of properties and capacities interrelate to produce characteristics typical of clear cases and make salient in which ways other individuals differ. Instead of either ascribing marginal cases the status of personhood or not, pattern theories can describe them in terms of different types of persons (with gradual transitions in-between) which warrant distinct moral practices. Thereby, they can help us to avoid the philosopher’s compulsion to draw clear lines where there are none.
There seems to be a disparity between our intuitions and opinions on who should be treated as a person and descriptive definitions of the term. One attempt at fixing this problem has been to stipulate that while the suggested definition of personhood excludes, for instance, people suffering from dementia from being persons, this does not undermine their moral status.[iv] But because the normative and descriptive dimensions are intertwined in thick concepts, such attempts at separating them do not seem to be successful. It’s too little too late to reassert the moral status of an individual whose personhood has just been denied. The rhetorical power of denying that someone is a person should not be underestimated – a reassurance that this does not affect their moral status seems insufficient to counteract it.
Gallagher, S. (2013). A Pattern Theory of Self. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 443-443.
Personhood is usually defined via capacities, such as moral agency, autonomy, self-awareness, narration, or rationality. Those capacities require certain brain functions – they are tied to biological facts about the individual. But biology is fuzzy, gradual, and full of multiple but slightly different solutions for the same problem (e.g., for realizing a capacity). As David DeGrazia[v] argues, those capacities are multidimensional and gradational. For instance, there are different kinds of self-awareness (bodily, social, introspective) and they come in degrees. To know whether, for example, great apes are persons, we would have to define arbitrary cut-off points for the capacities that are defined as essential to personhood. Thus, personhood is a vague concept, meaning that there is no non-arbitrary way to define whether an individual is a person. Because it is also a thick concept, arbitrary cut-offs are particularly worrisome since they can have far-reaching normative implications.
The task of defining the concept of a person can be approached from a purely ontological angle, by looking at what kind of entities exist in the world. There are those beings we want to call persons – what unites them and what separates them from non-persons? This ontological project has, at least at first sight, nothing to do with how the world should be and purely with how it is.