I’m Not a Person: Five Reasons
February 25, 2015 — 7:34

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Tags:   Comments: 7

Let’s say someone is a person if and only if he possesses self-awareness, consciousness, rationality, the ability to communicate, and so on.[1] Call that the standard view. The standard view is found in Singer, Glover, Tooley, Lowe, Williams, McMahan, and Parfit and goes at least as far back as Locke. According to the standard view, the property of being a person confers a special moral status on those who instantiate it. Only persons have the full profile of moral rights, so their lives have a moral protection that is not afforded to non-persons.

If I were a person, then all of the following would be true:

1. It is impossible that you might have killed me as a toddler.

2. It is impossible that I might exist and lose my rationality, self-awareness, ability to communicate, etc.

3. It is impossible that I might exist and lose consciousness.

4. It is impossible that I might exist and regain consciousness.

5. It is impossible that I might exist and miraculously recover from Alzheimers.

All of (1) – (5) are plainly false. I am therefore not a person. Despite not being a person–you’re not one either, by the way–I have moral rights, and so do you. I conclude that the basis of moral rights is not personhood.

Comments:
  • Heath White

    Don’t all these consequences refute the view that I am *essentially* a person?

    February 25, 2015 — 11:53
  • Michael Almeida

    Yes they do (as I say expressly in [1]). I take that to be the crucial question concerning my identity over time. So, if you’re looking for what matters to my survival, or to my endurance over time, it isn’t anything to do with personhood. I take it that, as long as I exist, I do have moral rights. I take the opposing view to agree with this, but to insist that I cease to exist when I lose certain intrinsic psychological properties. Since no person exists in that case, the story goes, what remains is not you and has no moral rights.

    February 25, 2015 — 12:02
  • A.P. Taylor

    I don’t think the defenders of the standard view are committed to the truth of 2. What they are committed to is the truth of 2*

    2* It is impossible that I might exist and irreversibly lose my rationality and consciousness.

    But I do not think it is clear that 2 is “plainly false,” because if it were then the standard view would have far fewer adherents.

    Also I do not know of any defender of the standard view, other than Locke himself perhaps, who would accept 1, 3 and 4 as stated. If you wanted to make them compatible with the standard view they would have to be rewritten as:

    1* it is impossible that you might have killed me as a toddler in the actual world.

    1 commits us to the view that no person could have a counterpart in another possible world that was not also a person, but 1* does not. It only states that since, in the actual world, I am a person, you could not possibly have killed me in the actual world. Perhaps I have counterparts in other actual worlds that never become persons, or lose their personhood earlier due to injury or illness. I don’t see why a defender of the standard should deny that this would be possible.

    3* It is impossible that I might exist and irreversibly lose consciouness

    No defender of the standard view, apart from Locke, would agree that the reversible loss of consciousness is impossible for persons. It is only the irreversible loss of consciousness which constitutes the destruction of the person.
    and

    4* It is impossible that I might exist and irreversibly lose and then regain consciousness

    Since no defender of the standard view would agree that the reversible loss of consciousness is destructive of the person, they certainly would not agree that regaining consciousness is impossible. but 4* would be an impossibility.
    Furthermore, I don’t think they are committed to 5 at all. Alzheimer’s is a gradual disease, and in its early stages it does not destroy the psychological functioning needed on the standard view for personhood. In So recovering from early Alzheimer’s would be a problem. Only in it’s late stages is it destructive of personhood on the standard view, so 5 should be reformulated as:

    5* It is impossible that I might exist and recover from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

    But many many who hold the four-dimensionalist version of the standard view (e.g. Hawley, Noonan, Lewis, and Hudson) would deny this. Since their ontology allows for “gappy” persons, since persons are only fusions of thinking temporal parts.

    February 26, 2015 — 7:13
    • Michael Almeida

      I think you’re confusing what those who hold the standard view would like to say with what they are committed to saying. I don’t care what those who hold the standard view “would say”. I’m interested in what they are committed to saying. Let me address a systematic error in the comment. You say that the standard view is not committed to (2), but to (2*)

      2. It is impossible that I might exist and lose my rationality and consciousness.

      2* It is impossible that I might exist and irreversibly lose my rationality and consciousness.

      But that’s false. If I am a person, then I must have the characteristics of rationality and consciousness. I cannot lose them and remain a person, and so I cannot lose them and continue to exist. It does not matter how long I lose them; that’s irrelevant to the metaphysical question. To see this clearly, take two indiscernible individuals S and S’. Assume that S and S’ lose their consciousness and rationality at time t. From time t till time t’ there is no discernible difference in the overall psychological state of S and S’. At time t”, S miraculously recovers his rationality and consciousness and S’ never does (caveat: technically, it is not S that recovers, but that’s another story). If S and S’ are essentially persons, then during the period t – t’, S and S’ are either both existing or both not, since they are indiscernible, and certainly it is their intrinsic psychological states that determines whether they exist. So, either S and S’ both exist or neither does during that time. The standard view must say that neither does, since they cannot admit that S’ continues to exist. I’d say similar things about the rest of the comment, which more or less reiterates this mistake.

      February 26, 2015 — 7:48
  • Michael Almeida

    5* It is impossible that I might exist and recover from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. But many many who hold the four-dimensionalist version of the standard view (e.g. Hawley, Noonan, Lewis, and Hudson) would deny this. Since their ontology allows for “gappy” persons, since persons are only fusions of thinking temporal parts.

    There are a few questions being conflated here. There is the question of what makes something a person. And then there’s the question of what matters in survival or continued existence. It’s beside the point that persons are just fusions of thinking temporal parts, if indeed they are (and I don’t think this can be right, since my cat is thinking). I’m concerned about what makes someone the same individual and so (on this view) the same person over time. And obviously not just any fusion would do. You’d need the right sort of psychological connection between parts, if we are essentially persons. So, I would run the same argument as above, for two continuants S and S’.

    February 26, 2015 — 8:03
  • Dan Linford

    As I understand it, your argument casts doubt on the thesis that we are essentially people and then argues that because we are not essentially people, yet we have moral rights, whatever it is that confers on us the status of having moral rights is not our personhood. Instead: personhood is an incidental property of some individuals that have rights.

    However, I am skeptical of your conclusion with regards to morality. I do not think it is the case that we continue to have the same sort of moral rights for as long as I exist. In other words, I think your argument would work if moral rights were an intrinsic property of humans; but I don’t think moral rights are an intrinsic property of humans.

    First, notice that we do not attribute the same sort of moral culpability to toddlers as we do to neurotypical adults. Of course, culpability and rights are not the same thing, but it does seem significant that there exists a precedent for attributing different moral properties to humans depending on their degree of personhood.

    Second, notice that we do not afford the same rights to all humans and that there might be good reasons for this. For example, some humans are deemed psychologically unfit for making decisions for themselves; we do not afford them the same degree of autonomy as we do for other humans and might compel them to be treated (e.g. the forced hospitalization of individuals whose mental illness makes them a threat to themselves or others). Of course: it is often horrific when folks are attributed fewer rights; but that this has often played out horrifically does not entail that everyone should be afforded the same rights.

    February 27, 2015 — 13:04
  • Michael Almeida

    First, see the continuant argument above for a perhaps clearer argument for the position. Second, nothing I say entails that, no matter the circumstances, everyone should always be permitted to exercise the rights that they have. If someone is epistemically incapacitated, I would not say that he loses any rights. I don’t think rights come and go in that way. I’d say that we are justified in limiting him in the exercise of his rights.

    February 27, 2015 — 13:16
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