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The Problem of Personhood

Modern accounts of personhood fail because they do not explain deep-seated moral intuitions about the value of human life

Trent Horn

The 2008 film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (based on a novel of the same name) is a fictional story about the friendship between an eight-year-old son of a Nazi concentration camp officer and another eight-year-old who is one of the camp’s prisoners. The boy, named Bruno, thinks the camp is merely a farm and asks his father why the farmers “wear pajamas” (which are actually inmate uniforms). Bruno’s father begins his answer, ominously:

“The thing is Bruno, those people . . . well you see they’re not really people at all.”

Genocide is only possible once the perpetrators have depersonalized the victims. The Jews of Nazi Germany were called “parasites” and the Tutsi victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were likewise called “cockroaches.” It’s no surprise that some defenders of abortion sneeringly refer to the unborn as “just fetuses,” “clumps of cells” and “parasites.” When pressed to defend their slurs these advocates say, “Even if a fetus is human, it’s not a person so abortion isn’t wrong.”

How do we avoid this “problem of personhood?”

Some pro-lifers say we should just abandon the concept of personhood. They say “person” is a term that confuses the issue and so we should just stick to the argument that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings and since the unborn are innocent human beings it follows that it is wrong to kill them.

But abortion defenders can undermine this approach by appealing to the common intuitions we have about “persons” that are separate from our intuitions regarding of human beings. For example, in her 1973 article “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” philosopher Mary Anne Warren asks us to consider this example:

Image a space traveler who lands on an unknown planet and encounters a race of beings utterly unlike any he has ever seen or heard of. If he wants to be sure of behaving morally toward these beings, he has to somehow decide whether they are people, and hence have full moral rights, or whether they are the sort of thing which he need not feel guilty about treating as, for example, a source of food. How should he go about making this decision?

Warren goes on to say our space traveler would probably look for at least one of the following five criteria: Consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, communication about an indefinite number of topics, and self-awareness. I agree with Warren that if Superman or Yoda really existed then they would be persons and we’d know that because they exhibit these criteria. This shows that the terms “person” and “human being” are not synonymous but that human beings are a kind of person.

Some pro-life advocates may object: Superman, Yoda, or any “extraterrestrial person” are just the stuff of fiction – we have no reason to believe there are any other persons besides human beings, so there’s no reason to entertain the personhood concept when we are debating abortion. But the Christian pro-life advocate can’t accept this reasoning because he knows of at least one kind of non-human person: angels.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition” (328). Angels are intellects (or what we might call “persons”) that do not have physical bodies (330). The Trinity would be another example of non-human persons (253).

Regardless, most pro-lifers would have to agree with Warren that “person” is a class to which human beings belong, which then opens the door for her and other pro-choice advocates to argue that maybe only some humans belong to that class. She concludes, “All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of [the previous criteria] is certainly not a person.”

Warren’s argument fails, however, because it would exclude many born people from being considered persons.

For example, animals like rats have rudimentary consciousness, but a human being in a reversible coma meets none of Warren’s criteria, yet most people would agree that such a patient would only have lost the ability to function as a person, not personhood itself. In addition, if the criteria are specified to exclude the minimal consciousness of animals like rats and only required the rationality unique to human beings, then infants would not be persons.

In fact, nearly ten years after its initial publication Warren added a post-script to her article saying, “One of the most troubling objections to the argument presented in this article is that it may appear to justify not only abortion but infanticide as well . . . There are many reasons why infanticide is much more difficult to justify than abortion, even though if my argument is correct neither constitutes the killing of a person.”

Warren goes on to say that infanticide is only wrong because of practical reasons, like because we as a society value infants and “so long as most people feel this way, and so long as our society can afford to provide care for infants which are unwanted or which have special needs that preclude home care, it is wrong to destroy any infant which has a chance of living a reasonably satisfactory life.”

Contemporary bioethicist Jacob Appel echoes Warren’s acceptance of infanticide when he says there’s no practical way to implement a strict cut off date for infanticide in the same way you can draw the line for permitting abortion at birth. He says “for a practical, realistic way of running the world, we couldn’t live in a world where we euthanized them” (which leaves open the chilling possibility of a future where technology makes such barbarism quite practical).

We can now circle back to the historical examples of genocide I cited earlier as exhibit A for why it is dangerous to ground people’s rights and values merely in how society currently values them. Instead, we should identify persons not as individuals who currently have certain valuable abilities (which can be gained and lost over time), but as members of kinds whose nature is to develop those valuable abilities. We can summarize it this way: a person is an individual member of a rational kind.

This definition includes all biological human beings, angels, and extra-terrestrials like Superman and Yoda. It also includes all kinds of infants, be they human, kryptonian, or even a “Baby Yoda.” There’s also no good reason to reject this criteria for personhood especially since it explains many people’s intuitions about why it’s wrong to kill an infant but not wrong to kill a rat even if the rat is, in a particular moment, cognitively superior to the infant: the former belongs to a kind whose members are persons, but the latter does not.

Finally, the prominent bioethicist Jeff McMahan points out that if our intrinsic value comes from our rational abilities, and this property comes in degrees so that some humans have more rational abilities than others, then we can’t have equal intrinsic value since the property that gives us this value isn’t distributed equally among human beings.

It seems virtually unthinkable to abandon our egalitarian commitments, or even to accept that they might be justified only in some indirect way—for example, because it is for the best, all things considered, to treat all people as equals and to inculcate the belief that all are indeed one another’s moral equals, even though in reality they are not.

All of this shows that modern accounts of personhood fail because they do not explain deep-seated moral intuitions almost everyone has about the way the world works: All human beings, including infants and young children, have the same basic rights and dignity. While the modern view leads to what McMahan calls “distressingly insecure foundations,” the classical view of human dignity and the nature of personhood (which logically entails the pro-life position) is our best chance at securing the equal rights and dignity for all members of the human community.

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