Dissertation Abstract: 

The Value of Persons


        Most people take it to be significant whether or not a given entity is a person.  This significance shows itself in many ways, perhaps chief among them the substantive positions we take on prominent moral issues.  Thus, much contemporary thinking about the morality of abortion surrounds the question of whether or not a human fetus can rightfully be said to be a person and a significant strand of the animal rights debate likewise centers around whether the concept of a person can be confined to homo sapiens.  For, according to some, the thought that all and only members of homo sapiens are persons amounts to nothing more than an unjustified speciesism—i.e., confining personhood to one’s own species is the moral equivalent of confining personhood to members of one’s own race.  

        Despite their differing conclusions, all parties to these debates seem to adopt an approach to persons and their moral significance that has become deeply entrenched, both in philosophical circles and in more popular thinking about various moral questions.  Thus, people on both sides of the abortion issue wrangle about the capacities of human fetuses and animal rights advocates and critics alike appeal to empirical research concerning the abilities of non-human animals to reason and to acquire and use language in support of their respective positions.  Not only is it important whether or not a given entity is a person, it is also widely believed that the only way to settle that question is by determining whether or not an entity possesses some set of clearly identifiable properties—properties that can, in principle, be identified apart from any commitment to the moral significance of the entity whose nature is being investigated.  For it is only in virtue of those kinds of properties that (a) we could say something true in saying that an entity is a person and (b) moral debates that involve the concept of a person could have satisfyingly objective answers.

        My overall aim is to call into question the methodological presuppositions of contemporary discussions of personhood—in particular, the view that whatever the necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood turn out to be, those conditions must be spelled out impersonally—and to lay the groundwork for an alternative.  For it is my contention that the terms in which the topic is currently discussed do little to facilitate a deeper understanding of the value of persons.  And since nearly everyone takes persons to have a distinctive value, a failure in this regard constitutes a significant mark against the plausibility of the most prominent theories on offer. 

        To put the point somewhat more forcefully, in their reluctance to appeal to our engaged and personal perspectives on the world, many theorists of personhood obscure entirely from view the distinctive value that attaches to persons.  By regarding our personal attachments to, and characteristic engagements with, others as irrelevant to their theoretical purposes, they dismiss the intimate and complex relationships in the context of which the value of persons is most perspicuous.  An emphasis on impersonally identifiable properties therefore cuts us off from what we care about when we care whether or not an entity is a person and in so doing, cuts us off from the very concerns that motivate and guide our inquiry into personhood in the first place.  In proceeding along these lines, contemporary theorists may have articulated what they believe to be clear and objective conditions of personhood.  But in so doing, they may have also precipitated a change of subject.  A more fully satisfying account of personhood must, therefore, give sufficient credence to the personal and engaged perspectives of individuals if it is to provide any insight into the distinctive value that attaches to persons or the debates in which personhood is thought to play such a decisive role.