The idea of moral personhood under fire

Next week, on November the 10th and the 11th, there will be a philosophy conference at the FLUP, the Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto (Portugal). You can check the complete program of the conference here. The conference is organized by the Mind Language and Action Group.

I will be speaking at this conference. You can find below an abstract of the talk I will be giving. It’s a long abstract, which presents the main arguments why I think we should get rid of the concept of moral personhood, in particular given the way it’s currently understood.

The idea of moral personhood under fire

The concept of moral personhood plays a central role in a number of ethical theories. It is used to distinguish those entities that have certain capacities that are morally relevant. In these theories, moral persons always have moral status. According to some views, only persons are morally considerable. According to others, they deserve some special consideration other entities are not worthy of.

The capacities that render an entity a moral person are usually believed to be the same ones that make it a person in a metaphysical sense. But these are not the only two meanings of the word ‘person’. The term is also used in the legal realm to refer to those entities that have the capacity to sue. As we all know, it is also used in common language to refer to those beings that belong to the human species.

It is commonly assumed that persons in the metaphysical, legal, moral and common sense meanings coincide, that is, that they are the same entities. The picture that results from this is one in which humans (and only humans) are entities of a certain kind, the kind of beings that are morally considerable or deserve special moral consideration.

This entire picture is untenable.

First, the domain that the term ‘person’ has in common language and in the moral, legal and the metaphysical realms differ significantly. There are legal persons who are not metaphysical ones or moral ones, there are legal, metaphysical and moral persons who are not human beings, and there are humans who are not moral or metaphysical persons.

Second, the division between animals and persons, which is often made in theories of personal identity, is confusing, since it may lead us to think nonhuman animals are not persons. According to this view, animals are somatic entities while persons are psychological ones. But we have every reason to believe that nonhuman animals who have mental states are metaphysical persons.

Third, the capacities that are relevant when deciding who deserves moral consideration are possessed not only by human beings, but also by other conscious animals.

Fourth, the whole idea of moral status should be rejected. If the concept of moral status were simply a synonym of “moral consideration”, it would be a superfluous one. However, it is commonly used in a different way, to claim that those individuals who have certain capacities that grant personhood are to be morally considered in a privileged way. Against this view, what we should take into account is simply the weight of the morally relevant interests different individuals have. This renders the idea of moral personhood either superfluous or unjustified.

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4 comentarios sobre “The idea of moral personhood under fire

  1. Maybe this talk would be appropriate for the audience that you are speaking to. But speaking for me as a vegan scholar, I fail to see how the arguments that you sketch, argue against anything more then the anthropocentrism that is apparent within the way in which the term person is commonly, legally or otherwise understood.

    That of course is a very valid point but it’s however quite different to what I expected from the title where it first appeared to me that you would argue against any concept of personhood. If that was the case, then I simply fail to see the argument or the structural reasons, why the obvious anthropocentrism within the hegemonial concept(s) of personhood could not be overcome.

  2. Hi goiken, thanks for your comment and sorry for this late reply.

    As a matter of fact I have two purposes with this presentation. One of them is, as you say, to question anthropocentrism (as I mention in points 2 and, in particular, 3).

    However, I also want to point out that the idea of moral personhood should be abandoned, for further reasons, regardless of this. In point 4 I say: “the whole idea of moral status should be rejected. If the concept of moral status were simply a synonym of “moral consideration”, it would be a superfluous one. However, it is commonly used in a different way, to claim that those individuals who have certain capacities that grant personhood are to be morally considered in a privileged way. Against this view, what we should take into account is simply the weight of the morally relevant interests different individuals have. This renders the idea of moral personhood either superfluous or unjustified.”

    This point is not aimed at conceptions of moral personhood based on the idea that those capacities that most humans have are morally relevant. It applies to any view that defends moral persons exist and are defined by the possession of certain capacities.

    According to this, to know how to act when we can affect some entity, we need to know if it’s a moral person. It’s an all or nothing feature.

    I reject this. I think there are individuals who have different interests. Some of them are more important than others. In order to see how to actwhen we can affect some entity we just need to look at what interests she appears to have. Nothing else is needed. The concept of moral personhood is, therefore, unnecessary.

    Moreover, if the fact that someone is a moral person will impede that all we consider is her interests, or that we simply weigh those interests against those of others simply according to the weight they have, then the concept is morally misleading and shouldn’t be accepted.

    Then, in point 1 I wrote that “the domain that the term ‘person’ has in common language and in the moral, legal and the metaphysical realms differ significantly. There are legal persons who are not metaphysical ones or moral ones, there are legal, metaphysical and moral persons who are not human beings, and there are humans who are not moral or metaphysical persons.”

    What this point aims at is showing is that the idea of moral personhood is defended by assuming that moral personhood has some actual ontological correlate. But this is mistaken. It might make sense to speak of moral persons, if only to simplify our moral language, if there existed certain kinds of entities that were persons (simpliciter, or metaphysically), so being a moral person was one attribute implied by being a person. But this is not so. This deprives this concept of the basis that those who use it usually think it has. This is a substantive claim in itself regardless of whether or not it questions anthropocentrism.

    (One note on this: this doesn’t mean we need to get rid of the idea of legal personhood or of metaphysical personhood. I think it would be better to set them aside too, but different arguments need to be used for that.)

    So, if only humans existed, these arguments would still apply, in my view, to conclude we shouldn’t use the concept of moral personhood (and of moral status) in our moral decisions.

  3. Olá!

    Tenho muita pena de não ter ido assistir à tua comunicação ao Porto, mas tenho tido tanto que fazer…

    Sabes quando e onde vai ser publicada?

    Um abraço amigo,

    Lúcia

  4. Olá Lúcia!

    Muito obrigado, ainda não sei quando será publicada pois ainda estou a trabalhar na forma definitiva desse artigo.

    Um abraço!

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