Philosophy: The nature of persons
Philosophy: The nature of persons

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Philosophy: The nature of persons

1 Introducing the concept of the 'person' and 'persons'

This course explores what it is to be a person. There are several philosophical questions around the nature of personhood. In this course we will be exploring what it is that defines the concept. As you read on, you will notice that this area of enquiry has evolved its own semi-technical vocabulary. The plural of ‘person’ is, in this area of enquiry, standardly ‘persons’ rather than ‘people’. It is not difficult to see the reason for this. The question ‘What are people?’ is potentially confusing. It could mean ‘What is it to be a people (as opposed to simply a collection of individuals)?’ This, like the question of what it is to be a state or a nation, falls within the province of political philosophy. This is not the question we want. Instead, we want ‘What is it to be a person (or one of the kind of thing that are persons)?’ There is a lesson to be learned here. As we have seen, in writing philosophy the overriding aim is clarity. Clarity is generally best achieved by writing in plain English. Technical or semi-technical terms should only be used when – as in this case – plain English provides no easy way around a potential confusion.

Why is the question as to the nature of persons a question for philosophers not biologists? In ordinary language, ‘person’ is often used synonymously with ‘human being’. For example, we find out how many persons are in a crowd by counting the number of human bodies. If we accept this, we would sort out the nature of persons by sorting out the nature of human beings, and the latter task certainly is best conducted by a biologist. However, in ordinary language we sometimes do distinguish between ‘person’ and ‘human being’. Consider, for example, someone who has suffered some catastrophe that has put them in a permanent coma, a ‘persistent vegetative state’. Their biological classification has not altered; they are still a human being. They have lost something, however. In a sense, they have ceased to exist. It is tempting to say that they are no longer a person. Another sphere or argument in which this use occurs is in the debate over abortion. This sometimes comes down to the question of whether or not a foetus is a person. These are philosophical rather than biological questions.

A being in a persistent vegetative state is a case of something human that might not be a person. Could there be examples of entities that might be persons that are not human? There is evidence that some of the great apes – gorillas, for example – have quite sophisticated psychologies, sophisticated enough, perhaps, for them to count as persons. Another example of non-human persons would be intelligent life on other planets. If there are such beings they might very well be persons although it is very unlikely that they would be human beings.

This course is concerned with the use of ‘person’ that is not equivalent to ‘human being’. Arguably, there are human beings that are not persons (those in a persistent vegetative state). There might also be persons that are not human beings (the great apes and intelligent beings on other planets). We are going to try to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. In other words, we are going to try to complete the sentence: ‘x is a person if...’.

There is a tradition in philosophy, which includes Rousseau and Kant, which holds that there is a normative aspect to personhood. This would mean that specifying the nature of personhood would not simply be describing how we are in fact, but rather describing how we ought to be. According to this tradition, a person ought to be an ‘autonomous being’. What constitutes an autonomous being is the subject of much debate. According to one recent commentator, ‘at a minimum, the agents must be able to act for reasons, reflecting on facts and interests across time’ (Hill 2000, 241). We can think of an autonomous being as one who is able to determine the ‘shape’ of their life through reasoned free choices.

The notion of autonomy can be clarified if we think about some concrete cases. Does a cat have autonomy when it notices, and then races after, a mouse? Presumably not, as the cat does not act for reasons. It does not consider whether it wants to be the kind of animal that chases mice; rather, it just does it. Are we exercising autonomy when, in Britain at least, we drive on the left rather than the right? This appears not to be an action we perform through our own free choice; rather, we are ‘forced’ to do it. This question of whether obeying the law violates our autonomy is a big question in political philosophy – too big for us to consider here. An example of a different sort are prisoners. Prisoners have freedom of thought, but not freedom of action. Hence, they are autonomous in some ways, but not in others. Another difficult problem emerges in cases in which someone is ‘forced’ to act from the strength of their desires, rather than from reasons. Does an alcoholic, for example, have autonomy when they spend their taxi fare home on a last drink? Presumably, if they are acting solely on their desires, and against their reason, they are like the cat; they are not shaping their lives through their own free choice. To that extent, they are not exercising their autonomy.

Autonomy depends on being able to make choices that are free from certain forms of interference. In particular, if our goals set by the coercion of others or by the strength of our unreasoned desires, then we are not autonomous. Respecting autonomy – respecting a person’s capacity to act for reasons – is part of what it is to treat someone as a person. We should not act in such a way that someone else is not able to exercise this capacity. This means that we should not mislead them so that they are incapable of acting on reasons and we should not override the choices they make as a result of their exercise of reason. On the other hand, if another human being is not acting autonomously, it might be appropriate not to treat them as a person. For example, it might be appropriate to override the choice of an alcoholic for another drink if we are convinced it will kill them. Prison warders override the choices of those in their charge for other reasons. These are some specific conditions in which we should shape others’ lives for them. Could there be a general condition that undermined our reason for treating each other as beings capable of reasoned free choice? Everyone agrees there are reasons for not treating some individuals as autonomous, but some people think there is a general reason for not treating anyone as autonomous. They claim that our freedom of choice (and hence our autonomy and thus our personhood) is always and everywhere an illusion. The claim that this is the consequence of determinism is the subject of Peter Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment’. To understand this, you will need to be familiar with some of the background of the particular debate.


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