Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Problems of Functional Definitions for Personhood

An Introduction to Personhood

A myriad of ethical problems is contingent upon the definition or understanding of what constitutes a person. From an embryological or biological point of view, there is no doubt that human life begins at conception.(1) However, following the footsteps of John Locke, some ethicists make a distinction between a human being and a human person. (2) According to Locke, “person” and “human” are distinct categories. That is, not all humans are persons, and perhaps not all persons are human. Locke defined a person as, “A thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places.” It seems that Locke is furnishing us with a functional definition of personhood, which describes a person as one who is capable of rationality and self-consciousness.

Similar functional definitions of personhood are likewise described by contemporary ethicists and moral philosophers. Some had argued that the early detection of fetal brain waves is the key to defining the beginning of personhood, which is positioned roughly at 40 to 43 days gestation. (3) Still others define a person as a being who can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, reasoning or the ability to solve complex problems, self-motivated activity, and having a self-concept plus self-awareness. (4) Apparently, this would place the unborn child outside the class of persons, and would even justify infanticide. L. W. Sumner, however, argues that the fetus is not a person until it is sentient and possesses the ability to feel and sense as a conscious being. This generally occurs during the middle of the second trimester of pregnancy, and undeniably by the end of that trimester. (5)

While the criteria for personhood varies from ethicist to ethicist, functional definitions for personhood share a common denominator: each definition states that if and only if an organism functions in a particular manner as defined by the criterion of personhood, we are otherwise not warranted to call that organism a person. In other words, unless the fetus (be it born or unborn) acquires a set of functions - be it sentience, consciousness or brain waves - it is not entitled to be called a person. These ethicists do not deny that fetuses or embryos are alive and are human beings, but they reject the claim that fetuses or embryos are persons according to some arbitrary criteria.Thus, fetuses and embryos are denied moral status.

Some Problems of Functional Definitions for Personhood

Let us arbitrarily take a personhood criterion for the purpose of our discussion here. For example, Mary Anne Warren defines a person as a being who can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems or the ability to reason, self-motivated activity, and having a self-concept. (6)

In her essay, Warren does not argue that each of her five conditions is individually sufficient for personhood. (7) She thinks that some of them may be, and that the conjunction of these three - consciousness, reasoning, and self-motivated activity - is probably sufficient for personhood. In other words, it is probably true that if a being is conscious, able to reason, and engages in self-motivated activity, then that being is a person. The fulfillment of all three of these conditions is sufficient for being a person.

It must be noted that Warren does not maintain that any of her five conditions is individually necessary. (8) But she does insist that the disjunction of the five conditions is necessary; that is, a necessary condition for personhood is that something satisfy at least one of these five conditions. She argues that if none of these five conditions is true of something, then that being is not a person. This criterion is controversial at best, as we would discover below.

For the sake of our discussion, we would look at Warren’s criterion logically, albeit simplistically. Putting her criterion into a conditional statement, we have:

If A then B.

Where A = “A being can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept,” and;

B = “It is a person.”

Therefore, according to Warren, if “a being can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept,” then it is “a person” (also known as modus ponens). Here, we give Warren the benefit of doubt that her criterion in modus ponens is valid.

Perhaps Warren is saying that A is a sufficient condition for B. But this does not mean that A is a necessary condition for B. Although it is considered a given (for the sake of argument) that certain “cognitive acts” are sufficient to define a person, it does not follow that those “cognitive acts” are necessary conditions for personhood. Furthermore, they might be other criteria that suffice as conditions for personhood without even resorting to the identification of cognitive abilities.

In other words, “cognitive acts” might constitute a part of a set of conditions that are (jointly) sufficient without being individually necessary for personhood. In view of this distinction between sufficient and necessary conditions, “if not A, then not B” is a logical fallacy (called denying the antecedent). It does not mean that, if “a being cannot engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept,” then it is “not a person.” There might be another criterion that qualifies the being as a person even though it cannot perform cognitive acts. My Uncle Sam might be sleeping (or even comatose) and cannot, in that particular state, perform cognitive acts. It does not follow that he is consequently not a person.

This fallacy must be further differentiated from its valid counterpart, modus tollens:

“Not B, therefore not A,” i.e. it is “not a person,” therefore, it “cannot engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept” is valid logically. For example, the table is not a person, therefore, it “cannot engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept.”

Another common fallacy we encounter in bioethics debates is the converse error (affirming the consequent):

If A, then B.


Therefore A.

To put it within the context of Warren’s criterion for personhood, it is not true that:

“It is a person,” therefore, “it can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept.”

As hinted before, my Uncle Sam (who is arguably a person) could have been hit on the head with a baseball bat by a vicious burglar, and for a period of two weeks lost consciousness and all cognitive abilities. Intuitively, he did not cease to be a person when he was comatose. Eventually, he woke up fully functional, and gleefully free from any cognitive disabilities. Intelligibly, we ought to think that Uncle Sam was the same Uncle Sam before and after the period of coma. If this is what we think, than we should assume that Uncle Sam continued to exist as a person even during his period of coma. If we deny this, then Uncle Sam would have ceased to exist as a person upon going into a coma, and a new person (who looked, sounded, felt, and smelt like Uncle Sam) had popped into existence upon his recovery. Obviously, the latter thesis is quite absurd. If Uncle Sam have existed prior to, during, and after his coma, then his personhood (and his existence as a person) is not dependent upon his ability to perform those cognitive abilities stated by Warren. But if one were to adhere to Warren’s criterion of personhood, then it would be difficult to see why it would be wrong for physicians to kill Uncle Sam while he is in a coma.

Now let us take this example a little further. Suppose we argue that Uncle Sam’s life is valuable because he functioned as a person prior to his coma, and he most probably will continue to do so after his recovery from his comatose state (c.f. a fetus who has never been cognitively-abled). But what if Uncle Sam wakes up from the coma with severe disabilities e.g. losing all his past memories, language skills, and rational thought? In this case, he might never recover his cognitive abilities, although it might be possible that he recovers them eventually. The point is: in his comatose state, Uncle Sam is like a fetus in his mother’s womb - devoid of any past memories and cognitive abilities as defined by Warren, while retaining a potential to develop these functions upon recovery. Would it then be justified to kill Uncle Sam?

Or suppose Uncle Sam had a his twin brother, Ham. Sam was born, attained full self-consciousness, but subsequently lapsed into a coma; he recovered ten years later. Ham, however, never attained self-consciousness; he lapsed into a coma, and recovered at the same time as Sam did. Using the functional definitions of personhood, Sam was a person before he became comatose, whereas Ham was not. Sam had at one time achieved personhood (according to functional definitions), but his twin brother did not. Would it then be permissible to kill Ham but not Sam while they were both in a comatose state?

Ontological and Logical Problems

The aforementioned examples only serve to emphasize the fact that functional definitions do not even begin to elucidate the depth and breadth of the sufficient and/or necessary conditions for personhood. They fail to capture the full meaning and true essence of a person who deserves moral status and protection from harm.

The problems with the methodology of using functional definitions for personhood are both ontological and logical in nature.

1) Ontological Problems

Intuitively, the functions of a human being do not make him a person; a human person does not come into existence simply because certain functions are being demonstrated or attained. Rather, he is a person, and therefore, he exhibits certain functions. More specifically, it seems correct to think that it is the being of a person (or him being a person), and not his or her functions, that confers moral status.

Every living organism or substance has a nature (essence) that enables the organism to attain certain functions or abilities in the future. It is the nature or essence of the human being that makes certain functions or abilities possible. According to Moreland, “A substance’s inner nature is its ordered structural unity of ultimate capacities. A substance cannot change in its ultimate capacities; that is, it cannot lose its ultimate nature and continue to exist.” (9) Take for example the tiger cub. Because of the tiger nature or essence present in the tiger cub, it has the capacity to develop the abilities of hunting and roaring. The baby tiger might die before full maturity, and might never acquire the ability to hunt or roar, but it is still a tiger. On the other hand, we do not say that a chipmunk lacks something if it cannot roar like the tiger, for the chipmunk nature in it does not anticipate the development of such an ability. Nevertheless a tiger that cannot roar, perhaps due to some laryngeal pathology, is still a tiger because of its nature or essence.

Likewise, we can envisage a human person who lacks much cognitive abilities. A paranoid schizophrenic called Adam Hitler might have lost all sense of reality. He lacks all sense of social inhibitions (like controlling his carnal urges), is not aware of self, is unable to communicate, is not able to make rational decisions or any form of reasoning, and is rambling unintelligibly day in and day out. He develops hyperpyrexia and goes to bed after taking some paracetamol - presumably fed to him by his cognitively-abled mother. This places him within the category of being “unconscious.” According to Warren’s criterion of personhood, Adam Hitler is not a person. Does that mean that he has no moral status, and is therefore not entitled to the rights of personhood? Would it then be justified for the mother to kill Adam Hitler, as he is not a person by definition, and would his mother be not guilty of homicide if she were to kill him? Intuitively, killing Adam - before, during or after the period of his high fever - is to be regarded as homicide. Adam deserves moral status, not because of his abilities or disabilities, but by virtue of his being.

Let us take this example a little further. What if there is a robot that qualifies for personhood according to some functional definitions? Perhaps passing the Turing Test would be considered a sufficient, though not a necessary, condition for “personhood.” If so, then it would be morally right to kill a comatose human or an Adam Hitler, while it would be morally wrong to destroy a robot which passes the test.

A human being deserves moral status; a human being has a human nature that allows him to have the “ultimate capacities” of a human person. You were once a zygote, then a fetus, then a neonate, then an infant, a toddler, a teenager, and eventually an adult. It is obvious that you have changed physically, mentally, and psychologically. But it is still you - whoever you are and whatever your identity - who have changed; you have remained you throughout all these years of development. If you have moral status now, yesterday, and the day before, it seems extremely arbitrary and unreasonable to say that the same you have no moral status as a fetus or as a zygote some years ago.

2) Logical Problems

Furthermore, those who deny moral status to certain human beings by saying that these humans do not qualify as persons according to some arbitrary criteria of personhood, however well argued, seem to be committing the fallacy of reification. In reality, the concept of personhood is an artificial category or idea in the mind, and it obviously does not have the metaphysical property of existence in nature. There is no single occasion in time where the fetus or conceptus becomes a person. Such a moment cannot be pinpointed or observed because the event does not literally happen. I would even argue that there seems to be no valid distinction between the terms “human being” and “human person,” and such a distinction is apparently arbitrary and unnecessary.


Finally, from our discussion thus far, functional definitions (and cognitive theories) do not justify the apparent distinction between a “human being” and a “human person.” It is ironical that ethicists like Beauchamp, who hold pro-choice positions on abortion, have rightly perceived that, “Cognitive theories all fail to capture the depth of commitments embedded in using the language of "person.'" (10). But instead of adhering to the substance view of personhood and rejecting arbitrary criteria of the same, Beauchamp replaces "metaphysical personhood" criteria with an arbitrary "moral personhood" alternative. The concept of personhood therefore, by the hands of a myriad of ethicists, dies the death of a thousand qualifications, or rather, criteria. Beauchamp furnishes us with a frightening alternative. He laments, "There is one obvious solution to this problem of vagueness in the concept of person: Erase it from normative analysis and replace it with more specific concepts and relevant properties" (11). The consequence of erasing the concept of person from normative analysis is well articulated by Beauchamp himself, that is, "we will need to rethink our traditional view that these unlucky humans [fetuses, anencephalics, etc] cannot be treated in the ways we treat relevantly similar nonhumans" (12).


1. See my previous post.
2. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. R. Woolhouse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1997), II. xxvii.
3. See Baruch Brody, Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: A Philosophical View (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975).
4. See Mary Anne Warren, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," in Do the Right Thing: A Philosophical Dialogue on the Moral and Social Issues of Our Time, ed. Francis J. Beckwith (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996), 171-175.
5. See L. W. Sumner, Abortion and Moral Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).
6. Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” 171-175.
7. Definition of sufficient: A condition A is said to be sufficient for a condition B, if (and only if) the truth (/existence /occurrence) [as the case may be] of A guarantees (or brings about) the truth (/existence /occurrence) of B.
8. Definition of necessary: A condition A is said to be necessary for a condition B, if (and only if) the falsity (/nonexistence /non-occurrence) [as the case may be] of A guarantees (or brings about) the falsity (/nonexistence /non-occurrence) of B.
9. J.P. Moreland, “Humanness, Personhood, and the Right to Die,” Faith and Philosophy 12.1 (1995): 101.
10. Tom L. Beauchamp, “The Failure of Theories of Personhood,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9, Number 4 (December 1999): 309. Beauchamp argues for moral personhood, whom he defines as follow, "a creature is a moral person if: (1) it is capable of making moral judgments about the rightness and wrongness of actions; and (2) it has motives that can be judged morally." Ibid, 315.
11. Ibid, 319. Emphasis mine.
12. Ibid.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Based upon the Sciences of Embryology and Cell Biology, Human Life does Begin at Conception

It is an established fact in cell biology that living organisms perform vital biological functions such as nutrition, transport, respiration, synthesis, assimilation, growth, excretion, regulation, reproduction, and metabolism. Incontrovertibly, the human embryo performs similar life functions which are analogous to that of humans in later developmental stages, and should be regarded as a living organism. More precisely, the human embryo is not only a living organism, but also the earliest developmental form of a unique human being. As the late Professor Hymie Gordon of Mayo Clinic has aptly commented, “By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.” (1)

Furthermore, medical students are taught in embryology that life begins at conception, that is, the time when the female oocyte is fertilized by the male sperm. A non-exhaustive perusal of contemporary embryology textbooks would shed more light in this matter.

Bruce Carlson, the Professor Emeritus of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan, explains, “Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote) ... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.” (2) Likewise, Sadler believes that the developmental human begins with fertilization, “The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.” (3)

Concerning the embryo as an unique individual, embryologists Moore and Persuad emphasize, “Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm ... unites with a female gamete or oocyte ... to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” (4) In another textbook, the same authors describe the zygote as the beginning of a human being, “This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr. zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The common expression 'fertilized ovum' refers to the zygote.” (5)

Finally, we read from O'Rahilly and Müller’s textbook that a distinct human is formed at conception, "Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a 'moment') is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte." (6)

From the aforementioned examples, it is therefore apparent that embryologists are in general agreement that human life begins at conception, and not after an arbitrary period following fertilization.

In an attempt to minimize the personhood of the early embryo, the term “pre-embryo” was coined in 1979 by the frog embryologist Clifford Grobstein. This term has not only been unanimously rejected by Clinical Embryologists, but also dismissed by the Nomenclature Committee of the American Association of Anatomists for inclusion in the official lexicon of Anatomical Terminology, Terminologia Embryologica. All scientific evidence point to the presence of a living, unique person at the moment of conception. In fact, this developmental individual exhibits a cline or continuum of human development which continues throughout life until death. (7)

Consequently, it is of no surprise that the late Dr. Jerome LeJune, Professor of Genetics at the University of Descartes in Paris, testified to a US judicial subcommittee in 1981 that, “After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. It is no longer a matter of taste or opinion, and not a metaphysical contention; it is plain experimental evidence." (8)

The conviction that human life begins at conception is therefore a scientific, rather than a religious, belief. The Hippocratic Oath (470-360 B.C.), in its explicit respect for the sanctity of human life, is consistent with the findings of contemporary embryology when it states, “I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion. With purity and holiness I will pass my life and practise my art.” Correspondingly, the Declaration of Geneva (1948) Physician's Oath of the World Medical Association expresses a similar reverence for human life at conception, “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of its conception, even under threat. I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.”

Since current embryological evidence points to the conceptus as a distinct, albeit developing, human being, it seems that the moral quandary in the current abortion debate is ultimately this, “Should the law continue to sanction the abortion of a preborn child, which is unequivocally recognized by embryologists as human life, so as to improve the convenience, financial status, and perhaps the overall wellness of the woman based upon her choice?”

In view of the biological and embryological evidence that the early embryo is actual human life, I beseech Parliament to take this fact into account when the abortion law is eventually reviewed.


1. Report, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Sen, Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session 1981.
2. Bruce M. Carlson, Patten's Foundations of Embryology, 6th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), 3.
3. T. W. Sadler, Langman's Medical Embryology, 7th edition (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995), 3.
4. Keith L. Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th edition (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998), 18.
5. Keith L. Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects, 4th edition (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993), 1.
6. Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), 8.
7. See Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), p. 88 for embryological reasons for rejecting the terminology “pre-embryo.”
8. Report, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Sen, Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session 1981.