When I was studying philosophy in college, I was fascinated by metaphysical problems (how we define existence, real world objects and their properties, time and the like) and, most especially, applied ethics. I loved the everyday life puzzles that we were given, whether in business, the environment, or medical situations, and that we could read, discuss, and debate the issues as a way of trying to pinpoint one right answer (even if it was agonizing that our professors refused to ever tell us what they thought). That there might be one morally right answer and that we might be able to eventually find it through reasoning interested (and still does interest) me; I can’t say that I’ve found all the answers yet, but I still very much appreciate opportunities to discuss and consider when they arise, although I’ll admit that thinking philosophically generally takes the back burner amidst the daily tasks of caring Nora and helping to support our family.
This past week, I was reminded of how much more I want to be using my philosophy education. Lisa Belkin wrote on the Huffington Post about a child with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome and whether or not a child with such a severe genetic disorder should be put on an organ transplant list. My response was similar to the responses of many who commented and similar to Lisa’s opinion itself: in the unfortunate situation we are in, where organs for transplant are, as Lisa said, “among the rarest and most precious of the world’s resources” (which means giving an organ to one person means it does not go to another), we must consider the individual’s quality of life and the likelihood of an organ to successfully lengthen and improve that life, including possibility of rejection and side effects when determining if someone ought to be placed on a transplant list.
In the case Lisa provided, the little girl, Amelia, needed a kidney (which can be provided by a living family member or other designated donor) so she doesn’t have to be placed on a transplant list; however Lisa’s post was a spring board for a discussion on organ transplant lists and whether some individuals ought to be given precedence over others when choosing to whom to give transplants. There is a very fine ethical line when trying to choose between persons and identifying one person as having more of a right to a transplant than does someone else, although I agree with Lisa that it is an unfortunate reality of our world until there are unlimited organs available for transplant. I think most reasonable people would agree that some choice has to be made, although we might not all agree on the criteria for said choice.
What most interested me about the comments, and what I have been mulling over for the past week, is a discussion which followed from this necessity of choice: the discussion of whether all “humans” are “persons” with the same moral rights. Since about the eighteenth century, our political and philosophical discussions have centered around rights of two types: legal and moral. Legal rights are those we have agreed upon as a society and which are protected by law, but which may vary from culture to culture; moral rights, by contrast, exist independently of, and form the basis for, criticizing or justifying legal rights. Moral rights are universal, the same from one society to the next, and are generally thought to stem from our status as persons. The right to life is one such universal right; one which seems relevant in a discussion of allocating organs for transplant — when we must determine if one human has more of a right to life than another — and which reminded me of the problem of personhood.
Both moral and legal rights are afforded to persons, who are generally identified as different from humans although how and to what degree is a subject of great debate. Personhood arguments crop up across a broad spectrum of bioethics discussions, including abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. In my comment on the Huffington Post, I shared a quote from Mary Anne Warren’s article, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” which addresses the question of whether genetic humanity is sufficient for moral humanity. Warren states that we need to have a criteria for identifying persons as a means of determining how to act when confronted with a completely alien being. Essentially, we have to know whether something is a chair, a dog, or a person to know if and what type of rights it has and how to act morally towards it. The traits she identifies as central to personhood are:
- consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
- reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
- self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control); perhaps derived from, the assumption that genetic humanity is sufficient for membership in the moral community.
- the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;
- the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.
These traits combined comprise a “full” person according to Warren, but she doesn’t believe that all attributes must be present to consider someone a person in some sense. “(1) and (2) alone may well be sufficient for personhood,” she states, and though she does not insist that any one of the criteria is necessary, she does seem to believe that reasoning is both a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood. Notice, she does not talk about appearance or genetics, which leaves open the possibility that some thing which does not look at all like a human being could be a person and have the moral rights that goes along with personhood (like a computer or, for example, Bicentennial Man), and also allows for the fact that there can be some things which are genetically human but not persons. The latter category would include, says Warren, fetuses, embryos, and even infants who are not yet persons but have the potential to become persons, severely handicapped or other “non functional” (her words) humans, and individuals in comas or persistent vegetative states who were persons but are no longer for one reason or another.
I’ve thought a lot about Warren’s argument this week. It’s been quite awhile since I had this discussion with anyone; I’ll admit I’m a bit rusty on both sides of the debate, and I had forgotten how controversial is the idea that not all genetically human beings are persons. A handful of people who read my comments on the Huffington Post were upset by it; a few of them even emailed me and, interestingly, blogged about it. Not all of the responses I received were polite, civil or well-thought out, but I do understand how hard it must be to separate out emotion when you’re in the thick of it, and there were some people who were willing to discuss it evenhandedly; who gave me a lot to think about (especially thanks to you, Lauren!). Despite the controversy, discussions on the definition of personhood are important to have.
What makes us who we are?
Why do we have the rights we have?
What distinguishes us from animals, especially higher-functioning ones such as dolphins and other primates?
How do we apply the answers to the questions above to ethical dilemmas, whether medical, environmental, or legal?
For a variety of reasons, I support Warren’s argument. I believe the things which differentiate persons from non-persons are reasoning, consciousness, and the like, and I think that such a distinction is necessary because otherwise we would not be able to justify assigning different rights to humans than to animals or plants, which we do every day. I believe that there is a hierarchy to rights: all sentient beings have them, but those that are conscious and reasoning, etc. take precedence when two beings’ equal rights (such as the right to life) conflict with one another. None of that is to say that non-persons are not valuable; they have value because of the value we place upon them and because of the role they can play in our lives. Someone on the Huffington Post pointed me toward this article, which is a wonderful example of how individuals who might not qualify as persons can still be very valuable in our lives.
Since I’ve been pondering the puzzle of personhood this week, I thought I would put the question to you. Do you enjoy thinking about tough philosophical questions? Are you interested in sharing your thoughts on what makes us persons and affords us the rights that come along with personhood? I’d love to continue the great conversation I’ve been having with a few people, and want to invite anyone else to chime in. You don’t have to agree with me, just please remember to be considerate and respectful in your responses.