On Persons

By Dr Simon Longstaff AO
Executive Director, The Ethics Centre

Simon Longstaff asks what it means to be a ‘person’ and how this relates to ethical status, rights and responsibilities. He proposes that species should be valued in terms of their ‘most excellent form’, which gives a special status for humans as persons. However, this should not blind us to considerations beyond our species. One of the pivotal ethical questions that must be answered by individuals and communities is that of “who counts” — or to be more specific, “who or what should be recognised as a ‘person’?” For, to be excluded from the realm of ‘personhood’ is, by tradition and practice, to occupy a lesser place within the ethical universe. In thinking about ‘persons’, the first thing that we should note is that the concept belongs entirely within the world of ethics (often with a close tie to theology). That is, the concept of being a person cannot be derived from an understanding of any other type of knowledge and certainly not from biology or any other science.1 This is because personhood is a special ethical category that includes all of the beings that can claim the full scope of rights and responsibilities; not because of what they do but because of what they are — beings that possess intrinsic dignity, beings that belong to what Kant called “the Kingdom of Ends”. Persons cannot be used by others merely as a means to some other end, they cannot be enslaved and they cannot be owned. Rather, they enjoy personal autonomy and a particular dignity that is unrelated to race, gender, age, religion, capacity, etc.

Human beings have been widely held to be persons but, tragically, not all human beings at all times have been accorded this status.

Human beings have been widely held to be persons but, tragically, not all human beings at all times have been accorded this status. The world has witnessed the sickening horrors of mass enslavement, oppression and genocide — always accompanied by a belief amongst the perpetrators that their victims have not been ‘fully human’ (another way of saying that they were not ‘persons’). It is this malicious belief that has made possible what is otherwise inconceivable — that someone can leave their family hearth, a place filled with a gentle love for kith and kin, and enter into the world to torture and butcher his fellow beings. This can only be possible, when the victim of violence and oppression is seen to exist outside the ethical pale. It is precisely for this reason that warring parties so often seek to ‘dehumanise’ their enemy.2 So, what makes for a ‘person’? Historically, there have been various claims about what confers this dignity. The most common foundation for personhood has been located in the theological claim that, “Man is made in the image of God”. The original Hebrew version of this claim was not that there is some kind of physical correspondence but, rather, that Man was made in the ‘moral image’ of the Creator — notably endowed with the defining capacity to exercise free will. Indeed, the ability to transcend the demands of instinct and desire in order to make conscious choices has been a central idea, associated with the concept of persons, across all societies influenced by the great monotheistic religions growing out of Judaism. Even those who have not ‘bought’ the theological and metaphysical claims of religion have still anchored the idea of ‘personhood’ in some aspect of thinking and choice — for example, in the capacity to exercise reason or to form preferences. However, there are now growing concerns that the concept of ‘personhood’ has been applied too narrowly and that it should be expanded to include other forms of being. For example, Peter Singer (a committed Preference Utilitarian) has argued that if the index of personhood is the ability to form preferences, then we should include in the sphere of ‘persons’ a large number of animals that share that capacity with humans. Peter Singer’s arguments are not merely that humans should be kind to sentient beings. An injunction against the cruel treatment of animals can stand strong without taking this step. It is enough simply to recognise that animals feel pain for us to be drawn — by empathy — to seek to eliminate (or at least minimise) their suffering and enhance their enjoyment of life. There are many people who are committed to this cause without believing that animals should have the same ethical status as human beings enjoy as persons. It could be argued that drawing a ‘bright line’ between humanity and all other sentient creatures is simply a matter of hubris or self-interested prejudice. It might be asked if this is not just the same mistake as made by those who once owned human slaves, or who subjugated women as lacking sufficient capacity for reason or who embarked upon genocide and eugenics to rid the world of humans deemed to be defective because of race, religion or physical or mental capacity. It may be that humanity will one day be deeply ashamed of our treatment of those creatures with whom we share the world (and of the world itself). However, I do not think that this shame need be associated with a broad extension of the concept of ‘personhood’ to all forms of being endowed with a capacity to experience pleasure and pain or to form preferences. Individual human beings vary in their capacities — and this sometimes gives rise to arguments that some humans may not, in fact, be persons because they lack the ability, say, to form preferences or to reason, etc. In response, I would argue that a better approach is to consider differences in ‘types of being’ — assessed in terms of what constitutes their ‘most excellent form’. This would see us compare, say, the ‘most excellent form’ of dolphin being with, say, the ‘most excellent form’ of human being — which will include the likes of Bach, Marie Curie, Margaret Olley and The Buddha (to name an eclectic bunch). The point is that to be a human (of any kind) is to participate in a form of being (human being) that has the capacity (realised in particular individuals) to engage in the most extraordinary acts of imagination and creativity (and, to be fair, their equivalents in evil and destruction). Now it could be argued, in response, that I have just demonstrated the very kind of prejudice that humans use to privilege their position in the world. A ‘dolphin critic’ might look at the greatest works of humanity and scoff at them with disdain as vain and worthless. Some things yes — but our art, our science, our philosophy and above all, our consciences seem to have no known parallel — unless one combines all the natural world into one being and endows it with conscience. As noted above, a special regard for humans as persons should not lead us to be to be indifferent to the plight of other forms of being and to the world at large. We do not know if other forms of being are endowed with the capacity for conscience. We do know that we are. We need to listen to the ‘still, quiet voice’ of conscience with close attention. It should not be allowed to fall silent in the face of overwhelming complexity or the ‘dictates of necessity’ or the avalanche of rules and regulations that would make responsible decisionmaking irrelevant. Above all, we should recognise in the face and form of envy, other human beings — irrespective of their race, colour or creed — another person, one who shares our form of being, whose dignity is intrinsic and who is endowed with a conscience. 1. As I have written elsewhere, there are good reasons for thinking that an earlystage embryo in not a person. To claim otherwise is to confuse a biological fact (when does human life begin) with an ethical fact (when does a ‘person’ begin). 2. This observation lay at the heart of the Ethics Centre’s submission to the Commonwealth Attorney General, the Hon. Senator George Brandis QC, concerning his one-time plans to amend the Racial Discrimination Act. The Centre argued in favour of a ‘rebuttable presumption’ in favour of free speech — limited by the exception that the intrinsic dignity of no person be called into question.


Originally published at www.ethics.org.au.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated The Ethics Centre’s story.