Let’s start with a question. What do a chimpanzee, a Labrador retriever, an adult man, an adult woman, a fetus, a parrot, a dolphin, an orangutan, a corporation, and a river all have in common? The answer is that they may all be considered persons. Of course if you answered that maybe none of them should be considered persons, that’s also correct. Welcome to the difficult discussion about personhood!
If all – or none – of those things listed above may be persons, then how do we understand personhood and, more importantly, the way personhood gets assigned to particular things? These questions highlight the many difficult problems we run into when we try to discuss and understand just what a person is. It is a core problem in humanist and post-humanist ethics, and over the last few years as Taiwan has debated changes to legislation governing stem cell research and genetic therapies, it’s also become a problem that many here have begun to struggle with. So just how do we go about understanding personhood?
In his 1975 book Animal Liberation, the (in)famous Australian philosopher Peter Singer questioned why we approach life in such a binary way, giving special dignity and worth to human life and placing all animal life at a lower level. For Singer there are many instances where the value and interests of animal life could overlap and even exceed human life. For example, is it logical to value a long-term comatose patient or an anencephalic infant (a child born missing part or all of its brain, such as those from the recent Zika virus epidemic) above the alpha male of a large and intricate chimpanzee community? Should a human be given privileged status regardless of its life condition, simply due to its inclusion in the group of homo sapiens?
In his analysis of this “speciesism”, Singer emphasized an important distinction between “human persons” and “human material”. No one mourns the hair on the floor of the barber’s shop, and while amputees may indeed mourn the lost utility of a missing limb, no one would suggest holding a funeral service for a severed foot. Some “materials” may be connected to human life, but in and of themselves they don’t reach the level of personhood.
For Singer, a human person is a subject of understanding and will – and not all human life will reach that criterion. Embryos, the fetus, the severely mentally handicapped, the brain dead, and sufferers of severe dementia are examples of human life that exists at the borders of human “personhood”. Even our common language betrays this. A wife at the bedside of her comatose husband may well express her conviction that “the person I knew is gone”. The body continues and the human material persists, but there seems to be a lack of “personhood” in that hospital bed.
Conversely, the argument goes, other creatures that do exhibit characteristics or traits such as self-awareness and intentionality should be granted the status of persons (and some or all of the benefits that go with such a label) even though they are not human. In recent years there have been mixed legal results in the attempt to assign a measure of personhood to dolphins and whales, chimpanzees and orangutans. But we hardly have to enter the court room to see the expansion of personhood to non-humans.
Many pet owners instinctively categorize their dogs and cats not as things but as members of the family, and relate to them (and even dress them!) accordingly. Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers once wryly lamented that under the law “An animal is a thing and a thing has no rights, only a person has those. So you can just as easily break the legs of your dog as those of your table” – a thought that would horrify most pet owners. The word “person” itself comes from the persona or “mask” worn by actors in ancient Graeco-Roman theatre, a mask that not only built a social role and connection with others on stage but also hid a secret and inaccessible dimension behind it. For many dog owners, the eyes of their pet hide behind them just such a hidden dimension of will and person-ality – something that is missing behind the eyes of a comatose patient.
What we see in all these examples is the fluidity of personhood and, more specifically, the way that personhood can be socially attributed – and withdrawn. Understandably, this idea makes us nervous. It’s unsettling enough when courts demand the right to define for themselves whether women or indigenous peoples can be counted as persons, and we have seen countless examples through history of the atrocities that arise when people have their personhood revoked. But personification and de-personification also happen far outside law courts. Society is already involved in this living process of defining personhood in everyday contexts. And again this makes us nervous, because we want the security of an absolute definition of “person” disconnected from social whims. The lofty declarations of human rights discourse confidently announce that human rights are inalienable. But in the grubby to and fro of everyday life, things are rarely so rosy. The rank of personhood is easily denied and withdrawn from particular groups who may be reduced to fauna and furnishings or at best be classed as human material. Again, this realization makes us deeply uncomfortable because we realize that society as a whole as well as in its subcultures can use its systems and criteria to define who or what counts as a person. At its deepest level personhood is a social construction that is attributed by some to others, and also regularly withheld.
Returning to the debate on stem cell collection and genetic therapies, if we recognize that personhood is a socially attributed construction then we can recognize why for some subcultures an embryo or fetus may count as a “person”, and why for others they are merely “human material”. Importantly, if personhood is socially attributed we have to accept that both views have their own measure of validity. If a society can allow for named and personified family pets to be buried in cemeteries with liturgies of dignity and mourning, then should a state defend its definition of a miscarried fetus as “clinical waste” and forbid parents from naming and burying it?
While a lot of ethical debates in this area wrangle with the definition of personhood itself, in my Enhancing Life Project I have found it to be far more productive to ask instead: If personhood is indeed socially defined, then who do we allow to define personhood and under what conditions and with what checks and balances? It’s natural and unavoidable that in any pluralist and complex society there will be differences in who and what is counted as a person. But within this network of perspectives, whose views take precedence? How do we balance the varying perspectives and demands of physicians and parents, donors, recipients, and legislators? Rather than focusing so much on the social construction of personhood, we really need to better understand the social actors and systems that are at work influencing our definitions of the person.