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Archetypes and Qualifiers

Having introduced one reason for thinking that our common concept of a person supervenes on a cluster of psychological capacities but not on human species membership, I now want to deepen the argument in favour of such an approach. I made the point above that arguing about personhood only by way of exchanging reductio ad absurdum examples has the drawback that it might only replicate deep-seated disagreements about the boundaries of the concept. Perhaps a better starting point might be to look to where we undoubtedly agree and extrapolate the core conditions for personhood from that. But where can any such agreement be found?

One possibility is to begin by focussing on the idea of the archetypal person. Although we know that people disagree on what it takes to qualify as a person— the threshold conditions—we can expect broader agreement on what personhood looks like in its fullest instantiation—the person archetype. This question holds out more promise for unearthing common ground between discussants who endorse different basic conditions for personhood, since those who stipulate radically different threshold conditions are still likely to agree about what the archetype, the paradigmatic example of a person, will be like.

As with all of our concepts, the core instantiation of a person can be differentiated from the example at the outer boundaries. There are core and penumbral instances of most things, and not every individual that qualifies as a person need be an archetype. Still, if anything about the nature of personhood can be gleaned through thinking about the nature of the archetype, it may form the basis of an argument that appeals to discussants who endorse drastically different qualification conditions. In a similar vein, we can also consider the most uncontroversial examples of things that are non-persons, and look to see what underlies universal agreement in those cases.

The key questions to ask, then, are whether there are any identifiable examples of archetypal persons, and what it is that makes them obvious archetypes. There are, I think, certain kinds of creatures about which it is true that if they are not persons, it is not clear what is. This is most obviously true of normally functioning, mature human beings. If someone were to refuse to acknowledge that this class of beings at least are persons, one could reasonably accuse him of having no grasp whatsoever of the concept. Equally, there are examples of creatures and objects that could not, on any reckoning, seriously be thought to fall within the concept of a person, like rocks or insects.

In virtue of what, then, is the archetype—the normal, fully matured human being—such an uncontroversial example of a person? Why is it that this case commands universal agreement? It seems clear that fully matured, normally functioning human beings are paradigm examples of persons because of certain psychological capacities which they possess: their high level of sentience and conscious experience of the world, capacity for language, intelligent learning and communication with others, reasoning ability, and exercise of intentional action and agency. Typical, mature human beings are able to appreciate and act on reasons, to plan and desire things, and to understand and evaluate their own desires and behaviour, as well as those of others. They also possess a sophisticated concept of the self ‘as a subject of continuing experiences’, Tooley’s core requirement for moral status. If asked to explain why typical mature humans are such uncontroversial examples of persons, these are the kinds of traits to which I believe most people would point.

It will be noticed that the selection of traits I have enumerated is not all that dissimilar from Warren’s list. I would, however, make a key addition. As well as cognitive capacities like intelligent learning and reasoning ability, the range of complex emotions enabled by those capacities also, I believe, account for the undisputed personhood of mature humans. Warren omits specific reference to emotional experience in her list of criteria, preferring to focus on cognitive powers. However, I think it apparent that the breadth and depth of emotional experience typical of mature human beings is distinctive of personhood in its own right, and an important part of what explains their status as the least contestable examples of persons. Embarrassment, elation, disappointment, empathy, guilt, relief, exasperation (to name but a few examples) are all sophisticated states of feeling that go far beyond the primitive experience of pleasure or pain. The ability to experience these sophisticated states of emotion strikes me as another capability of the paradigm person. Being a person is not just a question of thinking like a person but of feeling like one.29 To be sure, there are adult human beings who either partly or entirely fail to experience the complex range of emotions that characterize the person archetype. But such complex emotions are germane to the archetype all the same. Psychopaths, who lack empathy, lack a capacity which, although not essential for personhood status, clearly amounts to an impoverishment relative to everything that being a person can and should be. Part of what defines the archetypal person is the possession of a trait which the psychopathic individual lacks. [1]

Conversely, as soon as we reflect on why it is preposterous to the point of the conceptually incoherent to imagine that rocks or insects could possibly be persons— why it is that they are not even contestable, borderline cases—I think it abundantly clear that it is because they lack any of the traits outlined above. It appears to follow from these reflections that our concept of a person must at least be rooted in capacities such as these, even if its inclusion criteria stretches beyond them. As with most classifications, there are archetypes and there are qualifiers. We have not here established that fetuses (or indeed infants) could not be qualifiers. But reflecting on what the archetype is like, and what it is that makes something an archetype, nevertheless provides us with an insight into the core constitutive features of a person—the necessary starting point from which to think about qualification criteria.

An objection might be raised at this point. It might be replied that a typical, mature human being is an archetypal person for the plain reason that we all happen to agree in her case, as we all just happen to agree that insects are not persons. Yet, depending on one’s views about the nature of a person, one need not agree that the fully matured human is more of a fully instantiated case of a person than other examples. In particular, a defender of the species membership criterion may insist that the zygote is as paradigmatic an example of a person as a mature human species member, and that the fact that there is widespread agreement only in the latter case is just a function of the fact that many hold to erroneous criteria for personhood. On this view, the mere fact that there is disagreement about the fetus does not make it a borderline case of a person—something which could at most be a qualifier, but never an archetype. The disagreement is, rather, between those who view the fetus as firmly outwith the category of persons and those who take it to be as central a case as any other, in light of its human species membership. For those holding the latter view, disagreement about the fetus does not make it any less a clear case of a person.

I struggle, however, to see how defenders of the species membership criterion could reject the notion that a fully matured, normally functioning human being is a paradigm example of a person, and is such a paradigm because of her developmental capacities.This is especially difficult to accept when considering our hypothetical alien above, where everything distinctive of paradigmatic persons is retained except human genetic makeup. In fact, a particular problem for such theorists arises from the fact that their very defence of species membership as the core constitutive feature of personhood proceeds only by appealling to the developmental capabilities that typical, mature members of the human species possess.

So-called ‘nature-of-the-kind’ arguments about moral status define the category of persons as those that are related in a particular way to a further category of beings who are paradigm persons. As McMahan describes them, such accounts argue that all human beings have a status higher than any animal ‘by virtue of being members of a species whose nature, as determined by what is characteristic of its normal or typical members, is to possess certain status-conferring intrinsic properties’.30

Kaczor’s own rendition of this argument, what he terms the ‘flourishing like ours’ account, claims that all creatures whose flourishing would consist in the cognitive capabilities typical of mature humans are for that reason in possession of the same strong moral rights owed to typical mature humans.31 Being unable to read, or reason, or speak is a ‘painful handicap’ for a girl but not for a dog, because it is a failure to realize the abilities that would amount to flourishing for her. Kaczor argues that all individuals who have a ‘flourishing like ours’—by which he means, like typical, mature human beings—‘are individuals who have the right to life, and that, since all human beings have the genetic orientation towards this kind of flourishing, this includes all human beings from conception.32

On Kaczor’s account, then, the ‘qualifiers’ (all human beings that count as persons because of their species membership) are defined by relation to an archetype: a typical, mature human being, flourishing in quintessentially person-like ways. It is undeniable, then, that the archetypal traits of personhood, which I have defined by way of both cognitive and emotional capacities, are the starting point for the species membership view of personhood—and indeed, its defenders do not deny it. The question for us is whether there is any defensible basis for extending the category of persons out from the archetypal case to every creature related to it in this precise way: that it is a member of a species the typical, mature members of which are clearly persons.

McMahan has attacked the nature-of- the-kind argument for presupposing, against its own conclusion, that ‘the essential properties for membership in the human species are not themselves status-conferring’.33 Those supporting the argument are, he suggests, in something of a bind. For, if human biology itself were sufficient for personhood, then there would be no need for them to argue, as they do, that ‘all human beings have a higher status than any animal by virtue of belonging to a kind whose normal or typical members have certain evidently or recognizably status-conferring intrinsic properties’^4 Instead, all human beings would have that moral status no matter what normal, mature members were like. The very fact, then, that such proponents need even appeal to the typical traits of mature members in their theorizing amounts to an admission that there is nothing intrinsically valuable about human species membership alone. Put more succinctly: if the cognitive capacities of typical humans is the thing which makes human species membership matter morally, why are those capacities not the basis for moral status, rather than human species membership?

McMahan also thinks there is a flaw in the logic by which we ascribe moral status to some human beings that derives from the status of other members of their species. As we have already seen to some degree, this derivative moral status is sometimes defended on the ground that everything belonging to the human species has the same basic nature, captured in a natural, genetic orientation towards rationality and other higher cognitive powers. But McMahan counters that one cannot simply impute characteristics into an individual species member’s nature in this way. He argues:

The morally significant properties characteristic of a kind do not get to be a part of an individual’s nature simply because that individual possesses the closely but contingently correlated properties that are essential to membership in the kind. Properties that are inessential to membership in the kind do not define the nature of the kind, even if they are characteristic or typical.35

For McMahan, the nature-of-the-kind argument fails because it cannot bridge the logical gap between the morally significant properties that are characteristic of an individual’s kind and morally significant properties that are part of the nature of every individual member of that kind. If typically person-like characteristics are not essential features of all human beings, then how is it that they are part of the nature of all human beings?

As McMahan also points out, ‘nature-of- the-kind’ arguments are far more appealing when they ‘level up’ moral status than when they ‘level down’. Awarding individuals the moral status of typical members of their species is appealing when it implies that radically cognitively defective human beings ought to be given full moral standing, but far less so where it implies, for example, that a uniquely intelligent chimpanzee who, through conditioning and training, has managed to attain the IQ of a ten-year-old child, possesses only the same moral status as typical chimpanzees.

McMahan’s rebuttal of the nature-of-the-kind argument is compelling. But so too is the notion that the category of morally protected beings extends beyond archetypal persons to those related to them in a particular way. Surely infants or the radically cognitively disabled are qualifiers for personhood even if they are not archetypes. If moral status does not extend out in this kind of way, it seems that we will indeed struggle to include such individuals within the class of persons. If embracing a ‘nature-of- the-kind’ theory, however, we would instead have to consider why fetuses and embryos do not equally qualify for strong moral rights, though they are by no means person archetypes.

In an article which partly reflects the nature-of-the-kind view, Shelly Kagan has argued that our common intuitions seem to support the belief that rights-holding beings are those which, in some intelligible way, could have been persons in the paradigmatic sense.36 Kagan terms this view ‘modal personism’. He argues that most of us are in fact committed to ‘modal personism’ in that we count as especially important the interests not only of persons (in the archetypal sense) but also of those who are not and perhaps never will be persons, so long as it seems to us that they could have been persons. Being a member of a species the typical adult members of which are persons is one clear way for a creature to be a modal person, on Kagan’s reckoning. It matters to us that a severely cognitively impaired human being is a member of a typical ‘person species’ (Homo sapiens) because it enables us to see her

  • 35 ibid 358.
  • 36 Shelly Kagan, ‘What’s Wrong with Speciesism?’ (2016) 33 Journal of Applied Philosophy 1.

as someone who might have been a person had she not suffered the misfortune of being so impaired. Kagan is determined to stress that the ‘modal personism’ view is not open to the speciesism charge, since it does not privilege the human race per se. What matters, on Kagan’s account, is not that a creature is a human being, but that it is a member of a person species, and the ‘metaphysical’ fact which follows from this that it ‘could’ have been a person. It is consistent with this theory that there are non-human person species, and hence non-human persons and modal persons. The human race is just, perhaps, the only known, or only clear, case.

Furthermore, it is not an implication of modal personism that any interest possessed by a member of a ‘person species’ counts for more than any different interest possessed by an individual lacking that quality. This is not true of paradigm persons either. If I am more morally considerable than a cat, it does not follow that my interest in getting a hot cup of coffee this instant trumps a cat’s interest in being free from torture. Kagan’s suggestion is only that all other things being equal, modal persons count for more than non-persons. Thus, a cognitively impaired human’s interest in being free from pain would trump the exact same interest of a chimpanzee whose cognitive abilities are exactly the same (assuming that chimpanzee is not a person species). Kagan adds the caveat that actual personhood remains, on this theory, a sufficient condition for moral rights.37 Hence, a creature which possesses all of the core qualities of a person (is intelligent, self-reflective, and so on), is not stripped of her personhood because she does not belong to a person species. A cat injected with a magical serum which enables it to talk and reason is a person, despite not belonging to a person species.

Kagan’s ‘modal personhood’ proposal bears clear similarities to Kaczor’s ‘flourishing like ours’ basis for moral status, in that it looks to everything that a creature’s species membership suggests it can and should be when determining its moral standing. Kagan believes that our common intuitions support the conclusion that actual personhood counts for more than modal personhood—hence, the death or the pain of a person counts more than that of a modal person. The important element of modal personism is only that ‘the death of a modal person counts more—is worse—than the death of a mere animal with equivalent mental


But Kagan’s proposal raises yet further questions. Kagan is clear about the fact that the ‘modal personism’ theory is meant only to expound a common intuition about moral status, rather than to explain and justify that intuition. And there are plenty of questions arising out of the very notion of a ‘modal person’ and exactly what counts as a creature which ‘could have’ been a person in the relevant way. Why does this include only members of a person species, for example, and not members of other kinds of groups the typical members of which are persons (take, for instance, a tortoise who, as a college pet, is made an official member of a college the typical members of which are persons)? Kagan’s answer to this is that, differently from membership in other kinds of groups, membership of a person species is salient to the question whether or not an individual could have been a person. It is species membership, rather than anything else, which defines what one ‘could have been’.

Depending on how this idea is unpacked, though, perhaps not all human beings are modal persons. We might think, for instance, that all human beings are modal persons because they carry the genetic coding for personhood, even if that coding is, for some reason, unexpressed. But human beings whose radical cognitive impairments are owed to congenital defects appear to lack that genetic coding. Perhaps modal personhood is a quality of all creatures that, we might say, could have had the genetic basis for personhood. But again, it is difficult to see how one might elaborate the relevant sense of ‘could’ without inviting more and more creatures into the category of modal persons. These are just some of the answers we might need a fully fleshed-out theory of modal personhood to provide.

Even, however, if something like the ‘flourishing like ours’ account or modal personism were correct, it is far from clear that gestating human beings qualify for higher moral status according to their terms. In particular, it could be argued that fetuses are not creatures which ‘could have been’ persons in the same way that radically cognitively impaired human beings could have been. Their relation to the person archetype is different. For one, it is clear that fetuses do not have a ‘flourishing like ours’. Granted, they are members of species the typical, mature members of which have a flourishing which includes the distinct capacities associated with personhood. But Kaczor does not adequately explain why that same flourishing ought to be imputed to embryos and fetuses. On no sensible account can fetuses be said to be ‘failing to flourish’ by being unable to read, write, or speak, since none of these things are yardsticks for flourishing qua human fetus. Unborn humans always lack those distinctive person-like characteristics. Quite unlike severely disabled human beings, the inability of a fetus to communicate is not a painful disadvantage but rather par for the course of being a fetus. There is a notable asymmetry, therefore, in how Kaczor’s particular criterion of moral standing applies to the cognitively defective, mature human being, and how it applies to the the typical, immature one. Only in the case of mature humans does the failure to achieve certain capacities equate to a failure to flourish as a member of her species. Continuing to survive and develop normally are the only criteria for flourishing in the womb. It is true then that a human fetus does have a flourishing, and that this entails continuing to survive. But as much is true of all living creatures.

Likewise, we might ask in what sense fetuses are creatures that ‘could have been’ persons for the purposes of Kagan’s modal personism. We cannot say that the human embryo or fetus is a creature which could have been a person if not subjected to some misfortune. If it survives (presuming a bodily criterion of numerical identity), it could become a person. The question is whether this has the same moral force on Kagan’s account. My inkling that it has not derives from my sense that it is morally salient on Kagan’s theory that the modal person could currently be a person in a counter-factual where she did not suffer some clear misfortune. In this respect, the radically cognitively defective are differently situated. We can conceive of counter- factuals in which someone afflicted with a severe cognitive impairment was not so afflicted. But there is no way to imagine that a fetus might currently be a thinking, communicating person. The rub, of course, is that neonates are like fetuses in this regard, not like the radically cognitively impaired.

  • [1] It might be pointed out that many non-human animals also experience emotion to a considerable degree, particularly the higher mammals. They can panic, become aggressive, get excited, and, insome cases, mourn. And we are surely likely to underestimate the depth of emotional experience ofwhich non-human animals are capable. My argument is not that fully matured humans are unique inthe basic capacity to experience emotion (I do not even wish to here rule out the possibility that somenon-human animals are persons), but that the archetypal person is partly identified as such throughthe diversity and depth of her emotional repertoire. Even so, certain emotions like nostalgia, sentimentality, and shame do seem to be elusive in the rest of the animal kingdom, although many kinds ofemotional states are more common.
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