We the bloggers of DDP are fundamentally concerned with personhood. If someone is a person, just like you, then they are worthy of your respect and moral consideration, and you must treat them as such. You wouldn’t brake to avoid hitting an ant, but you would brake to avoid hitting a person. As soon as you view someone as less than a person, though, that opens the door for oppression and abuse.
So how do we define who is a person – and who isn’t?
On the face of it, this may seem simple: any member of the species Homo sapiens is a person. But I don’t think this is good enough. First off, there are plenty of people who think we ought to grant personhood to chimpanzees, and have some strong arguments for this we must address. Second, membership in a species has no moral dimension, and comes off as a completely arbitrary guideline for what we ought to treat as a person or not. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek, but what if we go out to space and meet some Vulcans? They’re not Homo sapiens – does that mean they’re not people and we should therefore treat them with the same consideration we give to ants?
For some perspective, let’s look at the ways in which philosophers have defined personhood. One definition of personhood that has shaped much of our legal code is the Enlightenment ideal of the individual, as defined by John Locke and others. In this concept, an individual is an rational consciousness, aware of its past and future, born with natural rights, capable of participating in the social contract.
Another influential idea about personhood was articulated by Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton. His definition of personhood, an extension of Locke, is based on two qualities: mental capacity and communication. The mental capacity part is explicit in his definition: a person is an autonomous being that is self-aware and rational. The communication part is implicit, because the definition assumes that we are easily able to determine which beings are self-aware and rational and which aren’t. Singer uses this definition to argue that some non-humans, such as chimpanzees, are people, and that some humans, such as newborns and the severely mentally disabled, are not (source).
Now, isn’t it painfully obvious that these definitions were written by white men? Damn it, this is why we need more diversity in philosophy.
A definition of personhood grounded in autonomy is a definition written by someone who has never had to care for a dependent. Someone who was once a dependent child, and took that care for granted. Someone who’s never given an elderly person a bath, or guided a blind person down the street, because that responsibility never fell to them. In other words – a man.
I’m not saying that no men have ever cared for dependents, but that work falls overwhelmingly to women, for little or no pay. And to women, it becomes clear that independence is an illusion. We’re all dependent to some degree or another; children, the elderly, and the disabled are simply more so. Even Locke himself was not independent, for surely he could not have maintained his lifestyle as an English gentleman without the work of many servants. The work of women and the lower class, however, becomes invisible to men of privilege, maintaining the illusion of independence.
The white part – well, when your people has been removed from a country and forced to undergo unspeakable degradations in another, it becomes clear that rights aren’t something you’re born with. They’re defined collectively by a community, and they can change drastically from one to the next.
I’m white too, and that will make me ignorant of some things. But I’m also a woman with a disabled brother who is going to be dependent on me for all my life. So, I feel I must give a reply to Peter Singer, who argues that my brother is not a person.
There are some human beings who can’t speak, and who don’t have the mental infrastructure to have rational thought as we know it. Though it’s hard to know for sure, some of these human beings may not be self-aware. These human beings can’t participate in the political process or consent to a social contract of governance. But I believe they are people deserving of moral consideration, and not just because they’re members of my species. So why is that?
As I’ve said, rights aren’t something you’re born with, but something made by a community. And being a part of that moral community is what makes someone a person. My brother can’t participate in the process of creating those moral standards, because he doesn’t have the ability. But he is an important member of a family and a broader community; he loves us, and we love him back. That’s what makes him a person. That’s what makes me a person. That’s what makes Spock a person, if we ever get to meet the Vulcans.
In other words, I think the Enlightenment ideal of the individual has it exactly backwards. It’s not our independence that makes us people. It’s our interconnectedness.
Endnote: If you’re interested in feminist scholarship on personhood, I highly recommend the philosopher Eva Kittay, who has a daughter with disabilities. This essay is a great place to start.