“Persons” in the Moral Sense

by Tim Sommers

Computers are not alive. Hopefully, we can agree on that. It’s a place to start.

But if anyone succeeds at creating a program that exhibits true artificial general intelligence, wouldn’t such a program, despite not being alive in the biological sense, deserve some kind of moral consideration? Or, at least, if we loaded the AI into a robot body, especially one capable of experiencing pain-like discomfort, wouldn’t it be wrong to use it as a slave? (Ironically, the word “robot” comes from a 1921 Czech play, R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) by Karel Čapek, and specifically from “robata,” which is just the Czech word for “slave.”)

But if an AI exhibited certain characteristics, like human-level intelligence, we would consider it, I hope, a person in the moral sense, despite its not being alive. On the other hand, presumably streptococcus or human sperm, while clearly alive are not persons. If that’s right, then being alive, in the biological sense, is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a person in the moral sense.

If friendly, intelligent aliens showed up to help us out with global warming, they would probably be alive, unless they were robots. And they would, of course, not be human (unless they seeded the Earth long ago with their DNA and they are us). But if they are intelligent, able to communicate, and act with admirable intentions, they would deserve to be treated as “persons” in the moral sense, surely? Similarly, if we succeed at decoding dolphin language, or find that some other nonhuman animal exhibits intelligence on par with human intelligence, shouldn’t we think of them as persons? Non-human persons, sure, but persons nonetheless.

Since whether you are human or alive does not settle the question of your personhood, we are going to need some other criteria. But, first, what do we mean by personhood in the moral sense?

To be a person in the moral sense is, most basically, to be “covered” by, or the proper subject of, morality. From the Stoics and early Christian, through Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, “persons” are moral equals. “All modern political theories assume that persons are in some relevant sense moral equals,” is a common sentiment in political philosophy. Ronald Dworkin famously argued all modern theories of justice share the same “egalitarian plateau”.

What does moral equality look like in practice? Here are just two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum.

If the right thing to do is whatever produces the most pleasure minus pain (Hedonistic Utilitarianism), then moral persons are anything capable of feeling pleasure and pain. Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, took this quite seriously and, as consistency demanded, believed that any animal capable of experiencing pain was a person morally on par with all other persons.

On the other hand, if the right thing to is something like follow rules that could be consistently willed to be the rules always followed by everyone (Kant) or the rules that could be the subject of informed, unforced general agreement (Contractualism), then moral persons are the potential participants in, and beneficiaries of, such a procedure. “Those who can give justice are owed justice,” as John Rawls put it. That would seem to leave out many children, people differently-abled in certain ways, and maybe others. One way to finesse this, since it’s all hypothetical anyway, might be to have people represented in the procedure by third parties. But, off hand, this seems overly demanding as the basis of personhood. (If you wonder how a purely hypothetical agreement could define justice or morality, anyway, see “The Other Kind of Social Contract Theory”.)

Maybe, it’s better, however, to start looking for what makes us persons in the moral sense, independently of any particular moral theory. I think it’s fascinating to work through these criteria with a group and in-person, but, in lieu of that, here’s my proposal, from (I think) the least demanding to the most demanding. (1) Sentience – able to feel, at a minimum, pleasure and pain; (2) Consciousness – in both the everyday (they are awake) sense and the “hard problem” sense (the lights are on/they are not a philosophical zombie); (3) Self-Consciousness – might be the same as (2), but I mean in the sense that you are aware of yourself as a “self” and the world as separate from you (Hume and Parfit deny that any of us ever are, but that’s another topic); (4) Language ability or ability to communicate in some way; (5) Rationality – capable of using reason and giving and responding to reasons; (6) Moral – Able to understand and follow moral rules.

There’s plenty to argue about here. But only so much space. So, I’ll just mention a couple of other lists for comparison.

Here’s Daniel Dennett’s list. Persons exhibit “rationality, consciousness…[a] capacity for reciprocity, capability for verbal communication, and…self-consciousness.”

Here’s philosopher Mary Anne Warren’s. The “traits which are most central to the concept of personhood . . . are, very roughly, the following: 1. consciousness . . . and in particular the capacity to feel pain; 2. reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems); 3. self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control); 4. the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types . . . ; 5. the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness. . . .”

The interesting bit to me is that it seems that all attempts to define “personhood” end up being either too inclusive or too exclusive. If personhood is just sentience, it might include cockroaches, definitely rats. If everything on Warren’s list is really required, many people are 30, or older, before they come anywhere close.

Why does it matter?

I must confess. I really didn’t want to write this article. Sorry, if I tricked you into reading this far. It’s about to be about abortion. But I feel everybody has to say something. What’s happening right now is genuinely terrifying. And I am not even the one being stripped of my rights.

This whole personhood discussion feels a bit puny in this context, but it’s what I know. Before I go back to it, let me just say that there are lots of reasons to favor limiting state inference with women’s, and other pregnant person’s, reproductive health care. (It’s not clear how much bans lower abortion rates. Enforcing such a ban means we get to live in dystopian hellhole), but also there are at least four fundamental liberties at stake that don’t depend on whether or not a fetus is a person.

(1) A right to control your own body.

(i) A uterus, and whatever is inside it, is part of a person’s body.
(ii) One of, if not the, most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control your own body.
(iii) Therefore, persons have a right to control their bodies, including their uterus, no matter what’s in there, including a violin player.

(2) Freedom of religion.

The idea that some tissue in a uterus at a very early stage of pregnancy is a “person” is a religious idea. It’s usually based on the claim that something becomes “ensouled” at conception. Which is a theological view (mostly confined to Catholicism until pretty recently), on par with the idea that bread and wine can become the body and blood of Christ sometimes. So, reproductive rights are a freedom of religion issue, too – which is another fundamental right.

(3) The right to make your own medical decisions.

The specific bans on abortions that some states are putting in place will also prevent people from getting medical treatments that are not directly related to abortion, but forbidden by law if, as a side effect, they could potentially interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg. The right to make your own health care decisions is also a fundamental right. This is a violation. That’s three fundamental rights violations so far.

(4) Equal Protection

If people don’t have the ultimate say over when they carry and conceive children, they are at a fundamental disadvantage in school, at work, and pretty much everywhere, compared to those who do have that control. This is a violation of equal protection under the law. Also, a fundamental right. That’s four.

Why, then, bring personhood into this at all?

Because even on the most inclusive definition of personhood, sentience, a view so inclusive it includes pretty much the whole nonhuman animal kingdom as persons, a fetus can’t possibly be a person until almost six months into the pregnancy. On a more plausible definition of personhood even marginally more demanding, I don’t think a fetus is ever a person in the moral sense. Of course, it’s not about what I think.

(a) Either individual people, based on their own moral and religious views, decide whether, and when, their fetus is a person, and whether, and when, they want, and think it is morally permissible to get, an abortion; or (b) the government decides.

In a liberal democracy, the government is supposed to leave room for everyone to lead their own life in their own way and is supposed to remain neutral on what the best sort of life to lead is, on what people’s religious beliefs are or should be, and what people should think about most things, for that matter. Democracy and the Bill of Rights are not compatible with the state supervision of women’s uteri, especially, in the service of some other people’s religious beliefs.

I don’t decide. You don’t decide (unless you are the pregnant person). The pregnant person decides for themselves. Or the government decides. That’s the issue.

Notes/Final Thoughts

The “All modern theories…” quote is from Brighouse, Harry and Swift, Adam, “Egalitarianism”, The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Macmillan, 2018, p. 3560. Dworkin’s oft-quoted phrase, “egalitarian plateau,” is from “In Defence of Equality”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 1983, p. 24.

The version of contractualism I mention is based on T.M. Scanlon’s theory of “wrongness” which is basically a generalization of Rawls theory of justice minus the “veil of ignorance.” The Rawls quote is from A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 446.

Dennett’s “personhood” criteria are from Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Prentice-Hall, 1981, pp. 269–271. I left out the “intentional stance” bit, which his most original contribution, but too confusing in this context. Basically, he thinks we could drop the question of when a person, or whatever, has intentions, in favor of when should we take an intentional stance toward them. Mary Anne Warren’s criteria are from “On the Moral Legal Status of Abortion”, The Monist, 1973, pp. 43-61.

(1) The response I would expect to the argument here is that it’s not about persons, anyway, it’s about potential persons. I can only offer two quick thoughts on that. The first is that the one thing that you can say about a potential bicycle, a potentially intelligent AI, an acorn or a fetus is that they are not a bicycle, not intelligent, not an oak tree, and none are persons. The other is that if we are weighing potential persons against actual existing persons, doesn’t that suggest weighing things in favor of, you know, actual persons?

(3) One extra for the philosophers, from Stacey Holland. Many think of sentience as sort of the ethical ground floor of personhood. But Holland raised the following issue in response to this column. What if someone is in an accident, for example, and afterwards can’t feel pleasure or pain, or, to expand that a little, maybe they can’t feel anything? (We know that some people are born without the ability to feel pain, often with horrifying results. (Too horrifying to link to. Goggle it yourself, if you want, but, be warned you may not want to if you are sensitive to disturbing images.). (There’s also an interesting novel on the subject.)) In any case, it seems that such a person would still be, of course, a person, yet lack the most basic necessary condition thereof (according to many philosophers). Thoughts?