I’m planning on writing a more scholarly version of this article eventually, but I figured I’d just flesh things out here, and see what people think, before going all in. Besides, it’s more fun writing a piece like this that’s accessible to as many as possible. The question of what constitutes personhood is an ancient philosophical question. Modern humans generally only consider themselves to be people. But I’m not convinced that we’re the only people in the universe, or even necessarily on Earth.
I do think that personhood is an eidos: a culturally defined role which is related to, but which is distinct from biological traits, in a way that’s similar to what constitutes gender and race. What does or doesn’t constitute a person is largely subjective, and isn’t exactly biological. And yet there’s also a lot to personhood that is related to biology.
One could say that personhood is also the broadest division of humans that exists, and the debate over who is and isn’t a person has had a lot of consequences in our history, and continues to be an issue today. It’s one reason why it is so important to understand the concept. So what is a person? What traits do people have? I think there are a few core traits that determine whether something is or isn’t a person.
Core Traits of Personhood
Agency, the capacity to act by one’s own volition, is a key element of personhood. A computer program can act, independent of the direction of another, at least once set to run, but I’m not sure that I’d consider it a person. Another requirement for something to be a person is that it has the capacity to produce and acquire culture.
Similarly, a car, at least right now, cannot act according to its own volition. But self driving cars are getting a little closer. Eventually these vehicles will be able to make a large number of decisions about its actions, by itself. Still, I don’t think that’s enough to consider an autonomous car a person.
Culture is all learned and shared patterns of behavior. Essentially the sum total of human knowledge and belief is cultural in nature. There are very few instinctual behavioral traits. Language, science, norms and values, are all elements of culture. All our stories, our songs, everything published on Medium is also cultural. Even if we don’t actually share our ideas, we can share them. So they’re still cultural in nature.
The capacity to produce and acquire culture is another core element that I think is necessary to constitute personhood. And therefore the need to be able to innovate and learn are also necessary. But it’s not simply a matter of learning from the environment that’s necessary. A person can exchange information and learn from another person, in an intentional and meaningful way.
Certain primates, aside from humans, seem to have some ability to learn, but they do not generally do so. Their capacity for culture is limited. However, there may be another reason why this issue arises. They may lack the third core element to personhood.
Theory of mind is the ability to understand your and someone else’s beliefs, intentions, and thoughts. It’s the ability to understand why someone does what they do. A chimp may see another chimp using a stick to catch ants, but rarely does that chimp start using the same technique. Perhaps the reason is that the chimp does not have the capacity to understand why the other chimp is using the stick. They don’t understand the other chimp’s thoughts and intentions.
Dolphins, on the other hand, have been seen learning from one another. In at least one instance, a captive dolphin that was released into the wild, spread tail walking to other members. Tail walking is a trick that’s taught to dolphins in captivity, but not something that wild dolphins really do.
Wild dolphins learn to “tail-walk” on the water, yet it’s just a fad — Biology Blog & Dictionary…
Dolphins performing acrobatic tricks have, time and again, fascinated and mesmerized people. As early as 1860s…
Even though this activity didn’t persist indefinitely, it could still be seen occurring, at least in a few instances, a few years later. That’s rather impressive actually. It shows that dolphins can learn unnecessary, yet potentially fun, activities from one another, and that they do so fairly easily.
Dolphins also learn to recognize signature whistles, in a way that’s very similar to learning a name. Dolphins have even been known to use another dolphin’s signature wrestle, potentially in reference to that individual.
People are generally given higher priority in terms of rights and treatment than non-people. We eat other animals, and feel okay about it, in part because they’re not people. Farming, etc of people would be wholly unethical by modern standards. It would be slavery. So the idea that dolphins might be people is a little concerning, given that they are hunted for sport.
While I’m generally okay with hunting, even trophy hunting, I think it might be a good idea to promote the idea that these animals should be off limits while we decide whether they are or are not okay. We should educate everyone on the significant capacity to act with agency, share culture, and think about themselves and others.
Obviously this conceptualization of personhood is not the only one available. What does and does not constitute a person will likely be debated for a very long time. And only when we find enough examples of other organisms that might reasonably be added to the group can we really narrow down what is and is not a person.
Our understanding of personhood will continue to grow, as we learn more about cognition of other organisms. It will grow exponentially if we ever come in contact with alien life, that is close enough to human life to at least identify its sentience. It has to grow, because it is too limited right now.