Personhood: A Matter of Moral Decisions

- Sahin Aksoy, MD.
Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Manchester University Humanities Building, Oxford Road, M13 9PL, UK.

(Ed.- Sahin Aksoy is a research assistant in Department of Medical Ethics, Faculty of Medicine, Harran University, Sanliurfa, Turkey. He is currently a doctoral student at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Manchester University, United Kingdom; where he is working on "Ethical Aspects of Decision Making on Handicapped Prenates and Newborns".)

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 3-4.
Today, one of the widely discussed problems in bioethics is the definition of personhood, and the time of the beginning and the end of a human individual's life. The consequences of this discussion are vitally important, as they may help to articulate more adequate arguments on some bioethical issues, like the definition of the moral status of embryos, abortion, IVF (test tube babies), embryo research, organ transplantations and terminating the life of patients in PVS (Persistent Vegetative State).

Both personal approaches and the understanding of major teachings on these issues are involved in coming to an appropriate conclusion. Many philosophers and scientists have argued about the definition of personhood and the time for the beginning of a human individual's life, however an acceptable explanation has not been provided yet. In this article I will try to explore this issue from different perspectives. To begin with, we can agree, as pointed out by Mason and McCall Smith, that what constitutes the state of being a person, or personhood, is a matter of moral decisions and is not one of scientific facts (1). The relevant arguments are therefore primarily based on some moral, philosophical and theological hypothesis. However, even these arguments are informed by the scientific knowledge we have recently obtained about the condition and development of the human embryo. Insofar as the question is a moral one, arguments fall broadly into two groups.

According to the writers in first group, namely 'bioethicists' (2), the basic criterion for being a person is being capable of valuing one's own existence. And the moral difference between a person and a non-person lies in the value that people give to their own lives. Through language a person can comment on and declare awareness of awareness or fully developed self-consciousness. So, the presence of language is definitive evidence that the beings who possess it are persons (3). On these arguments pre-embryos, embryos, fetuses and even infants, are living beings even human beings, but definitely are not human persons. So, morally, we owe them nothing.

In his widely read article 'A defense for abortion and infanticide' Tooley observed that it is important to be very clear about what makes an entity a person, what gives that entity a right to life. He went on to define five necessary properties; 1) the capacity to envisage a future for oneself, and to have desires about one's future state, 2) the capacity to have a concept of a self, 3) being a self, 4) self-consciousness, 5) the capacity for self-consciousness (4). As unborn babies, very young infants and PVS patients do not fulfill these requirements, they would not qualify as human persons. Singer, in a forceful line on personhood, made a point of comparing human 'animals' with 'non-human animals', arguing that there could be a person who is not a member of our species and, conversely, there could also be members of our species who are not persons (5).

Those writers who are considered in the second group argue that there is a spiritual side of a human individual. The history of this belief goes quite far back. There are many thinkers who believe human individuals consist of body and soul. Pythagoras (c. 580-497), being one of these, maintained "The earthly soul is said to be a temporarily fallen divinity, immortal in character, and the most essential and enduring part of each person's identity" (6). Plato was also one of the ancient philosophers who accept ensoulment as the beginning of human life. However unlike the Pythagoreans, Platonists and Neo-Platonists denied the ensoulment of the fetus in utero. They argued that the soul, being the special divine entity, had to enter the body from without (perhaps through the newborn's first breath) (7). Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) considered the first thinker who spoke explicitly of human life as beginning, wrote: "the soul is the cause and the first principle of the living body" (8). He suggested that, when first formed, the embryo replaced in due time, as a result of the causal influence of the specific semen's pneuma, by the sensitive soul. Finally, in the case of a human, the rational soul would appear to complete the generation of a human offspring.

Aristotle associated quickening and differentiation into distinct parts of 40 days for the male and 90 days for the female, and so has been traditionally interpreted as placing the beginning of the individual boy and girl at those times respectively. Aristotle's ideas on this subject influenced many philosophers and scientists from prior to Christian times right through to the Middle Ages, notably Thomas Aquinas (d.1274 A.C.) and for several centuries afterwards. His ideas also shaped the views of philosophers and scientists from the Islamic World and the East. For example, according to Musallam, Ibn-i Sina (Avicenna ,d. 1037 A.C.) consisted of bringing Aristotle's facts up to date, and then re-starting the original Aristotelian arguments on the basis of the new facts (9).

Aristotle's concept about the soul, being the cause and the first principle of the living body, is also common to all monotheistic religions with little divergence. Despite significant differences on other points, these religions share common views about the moral importance of soul and ensoulment. However, they differ in their understanding of when this happens and what it means (10). Aristotle's argument of 'the soul is the cause and the first principle of the living body' should not be dismissed as a religious myth. Something is lacking in all our reflections on the subject if we take into account only the material existence of living beings. Although life is a continuous process, the physical existence of living beings is finite. If a human is taken as an example, every single cell in a human body has a limited (and programmed) lifespan. Some cells live a couple of hours, others live a couple of days, weeks or months. After that they die and are shed. It is now known as an incontrovertible fact that, with the exception of some brain cells, almost all the cells in a human body are replaced with new cells every two years. Thus, in two years time, as regards my physical and material existence, I will be a completely different being from one I am today. So, if I murder someone today and am caught after two years, I might say; "It was not me who did the crime. It was not exactly 'this brain' that planed it, not 'these feet' that walked to the scene, not 'this finger' which pulled the trigger". This defense is logical and acceptable if I am only a material being. Of course, our current legal systems are not based upon the (false) assumption that a person is a merely physical being and therefore I would be unable to deny responsibility on these grounds. It is possible to consider this analogy comparing with wooden ship example, that is cited in Parfit's book, in which the wooden ship is repaired from time to time while it is floating in harbour, and that after 50 years it contains none of the bits of wood out of which it was first built. However it is still supposed as one and the same ship (11).

There should be something beyond merely physical existence that makes me, me. Parfit discussed the nature of a person and sought answers to such questions as: What makes a person at two different times one and the same? and What is necessarily involved in the continued existence of a person over time? . He defines two kinds of sameness, or identity: qualitatively identicalness (or exactly alikeness), and numerically identicalness (or one- and-the-sameness). He writes, "Two white billiard balls are not numerically but may be qualitatively identical. If I paint one of these balls red, it will cease to be qualitatively identical with itself as it was. But the red ball that I later see and the white ball that I painted red are numerically identical. They are one and the same ball" (13). According to Parfit, a person is a separately existing entity, distinct from his brain and body, and his experiences. What makes a person at two different times one and the same person is psychological connectedness and/or continuity, with the right kind of cause. The psychological connectedness is the holding of particular direct psychological connections. And, the psychological continuity is the holding of overlapping chains of strong connectedness. Parfit, addresses these and similar matters extensively and intelligently in his 'Reasons and Persons'.

All monotheistic religions and some philosophers name that which provides the necessary continuity to make a person as soul. According to them, a living human being consist of body and soul. Soul cannot manifest its existence without a body, and a body cannot be animated and survive without a soul. They are like glove and hand: just as the glove is a piece of cloth until the hand enters it, so the body becomes a human person only when the soul enters it. Likewise, just as when the hand is removed, the glove reverts to a piece of cloth, so too the human body ceases to be identifiable as a human person when the soul departs. Aristotle expresses the soul in this famous graphic image: "For if the eye was an animal, then sight would be its that when sight leaves it is no longer an eye except homonymously, much as we might say of a dead body that it is our friend; in one sense it is but in a very different sense it is not" (14).

In sum: when the body meets with the soul it comes to be a human person, with all the attendant rights, especially his basic right to life. Under the light of these information our duty, now, should be to search for the exact time of ensoulment, that may prevent us from terminating the lives of actual 'human persons', namely by abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.


1. Mason, J.K. and McCall Smith, R.A. Law and Medical Ethics, Butterworths, London, 1984, p. 107.

2. I owe this term to Anne Maclean, The Elimination of Morality: Reflections on Utilitarianism and Bioethics, Routledge, London, 1993, p. 9.

3. Harris, J. The Value of Life, Routledge, London, 1985,

pp. 19, 21.

4. Tooley, M. 'A defence of abortion and infanticide' in Feinberg, J. (ed.) The Problem of Abortion, Wadsworth Publication Company, California, 1973, pp. 51-91.

5. Singer, P. Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 87.

6. cited in, Carrick, P. Medical Ethics in Antiquity, D. Reidel Publishing, Dordrecht, 1985, p. 110.

7. ibid. p. 113.

8. Aristotle, On the Soul (De Anima), tr. W.S. Hett, London and Cambridge, Mass.: W. Heinemann, 1957 edn., p. 415b.

9.Musallam, B. 'The human embryo in Arabic scientific and religious thought' in Dunstan, G.R. (ed.) The Human Embryo: Aristotle and the Arabic and European Traditions, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 1990, pp. 32-46.

10. I have addressed this elsewhere; Aksoy. S. 'What Makes A Person?', The Fountain, 2:14, pp. 28-31.

11. Parfit, D. Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984, p. 200, 203-4.

12. ibid. part 3.

13. ibid. p. 201.

14. Aristotle, De Anima (On the Soul), H. Lawson-Tancred (tr.), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 412b.

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