Saturday, May 08, 2004

Personhood, Family Resemblances, & Abortion

(Update: just to clarify, throughout this post I use 'person' not in the philosophical sense, but merely as synonymous to 'human')

It strikes me as obvious that a single-celled zygote is not a person. It seems similarly clear that there is no relevant difference between an 8-month old foetus and a newborn baby. So when does the magical transition to 'personhood' occur?

It's almost like a (sort of) sorites argument - e.g. the paradox of the heap:
1) A single grain is not a heap.
2) If n grains is not a heap, then neither is n+1 grains.
3) Therefore, [insert absurdly large number here] is not a heap.

Of course, this is not a particularly strong analogy, because all sorts of important developments take place during foetal development (eg first heartbeat, brain activity, pain sensitivity), any of which may be used to draw a line between "clump of cells" and "person". But any such partition seems just as arbitrary as those previously discarded. What are we to do?

"Is a foetus a person?" - It's a yes-or-no question, right? Maybe not. Maybe the best answer is "sort of".

Perhaps there is no defining characteristic of 'personhood', no perfectly necessary or sufficient conditions for analysis to reveal. Instead, it could be a set of loosely-connected concepts, what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances".

Take the concept "game". There isn't anything all games have in common. Many are competitive, but not ring-around-the-rosie. Most are played for fun, but not professional sports. Often they involve many players, but not solitaire. So we have this fuzzy idea of a 'family resemblance' - each instance of a 'game' tends to have something or other in common with the other family members, but they may have many differences also.

So I think that 'personhood' may be another category which involves family resemblances. Most people have 46 chromosomes, but genetic disorders (e.g. Down's syndrome) may alter that without making you a non-person. Rationality? Empathy? Ten fingers and ten toes? We could come up with counterexamples to any of these suggestions. There simply is no single defining characteristic of humanity.

What are the implications of all this? Well, I think it shows that there is no metaphysical 'essence' behind the concept of 'person'. It is not a natural category (perhaps there are no natural categories, in this sense?). It's an artificial concept we made up to help us make sense of the world. To decide whether a specific object should be called a 'person', we simply judge whether it has enough of the relevant family characteristics, for it to be useful for us to class it as such in this particular context.

In other words, 'personhood' is one of those interesting concepts that must be decided, not discovered. We could know all the empirical facts about foetuses (their biology, neurology, psychology, etc), and still be at a loss as to whether they are persons or not.

In terms of the abortion debate, what we're asking is whether foetuses should be given the legal rights (particularly the right to life) normally accorded to persons. Within this context, to ask whether a foetus is a person is simply to ask whether a foetus should be given those rights. That is, the status of a foetus (as human or not) is not a part of the abortion debate, but a consequence of it.


  1. [Copied from old comments thread]

    Harry Frankfurt thinks that the single defining characteristic of a person is that, out of all thier conflicting 'wants' (ie want to take drug because of addiction and dont want to take drug because of a philosophy exam) they have a preference as to which is excersized as thier will... ie the drug addict might want to take the drug but they do not want that desire to result in action (to result as thier will). If you accept his definition of person (hmm, i dont really think i do either) then a baby, or indeed a child would not be a person. Let alone a foetus. Personally I think person (arg - too many persons in one sentence) IS a sliding scale type system... and foetusses (foeti?) are closer to person than tables. But then, dog is closer to person than tables as well and we make life or death decisions about dogs with little moral confusion.
    Patrick Kerr | Email | 9th May 04 - 8:25 am | #


    hehe, yes, though I guess it's made easier by the fact that dogs don't grow into adult humans

    That stuff you mention about 2nd order desires (i.e. desires about desires) is interesting - but I wonder if it is really confined to humans?

    I'd have thought some of the higher apes (at least) would be capable of some degree of reflection like that? Or even if not, it wouldn't be too hard to create a computer program which can prioritize between various possible goals (which are behaviourally equivalent to desires, right? So unless you insist that consciousness is somehow built into the definition of desire...?)

    For example: Imagine a chess program, which desires (has an initial goal to) to capture the opponent's Queen. However, it also has a (stronger) desire to checkmate the King. In a case where the two desires conflict, the program should judge that the queen-desire is less important, and should be ignored for the sake of winning the game. That is, the program has a preference as to which of its "wants" it acts upon.

    Would Frankfurt think this program a person, or have I misunderstood something?
    Richard Chappell | Email | Homepage | 9th May 04 - 11:47 am | #


    I'm not sure what he would say to that, except that I think he intended his definition to encompass any sufficient non-humans as well, apes and any intelligent aliens mainly I guess :P

    I'm not sure if checkmate the king counts as a second order desire... The second order desire would be to actually *want* the 'checkmate the king' desire to always win out - manifest itself as the computers will. I'm not sure if merely having 2 desires such that one always wins out counts.. I think we have to demarcate 'want to do' and 'do' here. If the computer always chooses one desire over another, is it also true that it *wants* that desire to win out?

    I'm getting a bit confused here so I'll stop before my brain melts.
    Patrick Kerr | Email | 9th May 04 - 1:22 pm | #


    Since we recently covered Frankfurt in class, I should clarify that this post is NOT about him or his ideas at all (I'd never heard of him when I wrote this).

    By "person", he was talking about a moral agent. I'm not concerned with that here; instead, I really just mean "human".

    I should also mention that my earlier comments about second-order desires were somewhat misled. So if anyone from my phil 233 class is reading this, do NOT trust my above interpretation of Frankfurt!
    Richard | 13th May 04 - 2:07 pm | #


    Oh i see. Sorry about sort-of hijacking that topic. Now, about human... I think I would like to be able to say that a single human cell is human. But the point you are making is whether I would call it *a* human... and, now that I think about it, I'm not sure if I would at that. I think I would call a foetus of a certain (problematically arbitrary) size a human though, which definately opens up that 'heap' can of worms!!!
    Patrick Kerr | Email | 13th May 04 - 8:24 pm | #


    No worries, it was an interesting side-topic! (I just wanted to be clear in case someone else got confused by my post).

    About the single human cell... wouldn't that mean that every time you get your hair cut, hundreds of little humans are falling to the floor? Or if you scratch your finger, several little humans are scraped off & die? It doesn't quite seem to work

    There's also the problem that most zygotes actually get flushed out the woman's body instead of sticking to the wall & growing safely. Should we be trying to save their lives?

    Those are rhetorical questions, by the way... you said (and I fully agree) that human cells are human, but not *a* human. So those questions are directed not at you, but at anyone who disagrees about that.
    Richard | 13th May 04 - 9:43 pm | #


    yea, that would be problematic

    Although, I think we would have to back up the proposition that its morally right to save human life (in all cases). Or else, we have to show with other arguments, why it would be right to save those zygotes (or rather why it would be wrong to let them die).

    Even without that moral problem, I still think that its very problematic to say that skin cells are little men. hehe.
    Patrick Kerr | Email | 16th May 04 - 7:23 am |

  2. It strikes me as obvious that a single-celled zygote is not a person.

    You are begging the question - there are hundreds of millions of people who would disgree. Now, I would say that most people would agree that a particular sperm and a particular egg does not constitute a person. In resolving the ensuing paradox of the heap, the most logical way out is to collapse the distinction between biological existance and personhood. Then there is a clear transition between person and non-person, which happens to be the same as the transition from not-alive to alive - and the paradox is resolved. We already have no problem saying that a person becomes a corpse upon biological death, so it strikes me as extremely odd to say anything different at the other side of the continuum.


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