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The Metaphysics of Personhood

The Metaphysics of Personhood

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Published by Eric Lee Brx
With the prospect of genetically-altered beings becoming reality, modern society needs to prepare itself intellectually and ethically for the coming of these new types of humanoids. Fundamental to our legal system of rights and responsibilities is to whom the law applies, for without this, the law is meaningless. I will argue the following:

1. The need for an anthropologically neutral definition of personhood.
2. The recognition that Heidegger's Dasein, i.e. the ontological questioner, satisfies the need for anthropological neutrality and robustness, and thus best defines personhood.
3. The implementation of a classification of ontologically curious beings along the lines of Orson Scott Card's 'Hierarchy of Exclusion'.
With the prospect of genetically-altered beings becoming reality, modern society needs to prepare itself intellectually and ethically for the coming of these new types of humanoids. Fundamental to our legal system of rights and responsibilities is to whom the law applies, for without this, the law is meaningless. I will argue the following:

1. The need for an anthropologically neutral definition of personhood.
2. The recognition that Heidegger's Dasein, i.e. the ontological questioner, satisfies the need for anthropological neutrality and robustness, and thus best defines personhood.
3. The implementation of a classification of ontologically curious beings along the lines of Orson Scott Card's 'Hierarchy of Exclusion'.

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Categories:Types, Research, Law
Published by: Eric Lee Brx on Nov 25, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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05/12/2014

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The Question of Personhood
The concept of individual rights and responsibilities is the basis of the Western democratic tradition.Nowadays, we take the oft-cited phrase from the US Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal”to include all adults in society, including women, blacks, and other minorities.  However, the historic battles of suffrage and civil rights activists to secure equal rights for non-white, non-male citizens shows that thequestion of personhood is far from self-evident.  The question of 
to whom
the law applies is equally, if notmore fundamental than the actual content of the laws themselves, since laws are meaningless unless theyapply to someone.  With the prospects of human cloning, stem cell research, and hybridized DNA creations onour doorstep, we must again call the Question of Personhood into the foreground of legal and ethical debate.What is a person?  Is personhood dependent on DNA, or is the ability to think a better criterion for personhoodstatus?  What is thinking?  Is there a particular kind of thinking that distinguishes persons from non-persons?  Issuch a strict delineation even possible or should personhood be thought of as a scale of degrees instead of ayes/no dichotomy?  If indeed artificial persons are worthy of personhood status, how does the law apply tothem?The first part of my argument will show that the question of personhood must be anthropologically-neutral because our current method of following sexual lineage is inadequate since biotechnological creationsare not grounded in the same genetic framework as regular humans, both in terms of physical origin andgenetic composition.  In order to properly and objectively consider the general Question of Personhood, it isnecessary to step outside the particular personhood within which we find ourselves.  Next, I will show why AlanTuring’s famous criterion for sentience fails to capture the essence of personhood, but that by incorporatingHeidegger’s concept of Dasein into the formula, we can arrive at a definition of personhood that is much morerobust and satisfying.  If we define a sentient being as a Dasein, one with the potential for ontologicalquestioning, we retain the ability to assign personhood status based upon behavior rather than physicalconstitution and yet still can reject mere symbol-manipulating apparatuses such as Searle’s Chinese Room.Lastly, I will draw upon Orson Scott Card's 'Hierarchy of Exclusion' to sketch a method of classifying personhoodand then attempt to place particular real and hypothetical creatures within it.   A being’s place within thehierarchy determines the degree to which it is subject to the protections and responsibilities accorded topersons under the law.
The Case for Anthropological Neutrality 
The concept of equality is implicit in Western democracy and law; it seems to be the epitome of injustice if the Law were to apply to certain members of society and not others.  In certain exceptionalcircumstances such as war or emergency we may grant immunity or far-reaching powers to particularindividuals, but in general the principle of equality means that the law of the land applies equally to all citizensof the state.  However, history shows that the interpretation of the phrase “All men are created equal” is farfrom self-evident.  The original framers of the US Constitution weren’t too sure black men were ‘men’, andthey certainly weren’t going to let women be ‘men’, either.   The struggle for racial and sexual equality underthe law has essentially been a battle over the definition of personhood.  Although the original US formulationof personhood was more or less gender- and race-specific, it has since been re-interpreted to include all adultmembers of the human species.  Our modern perspective makes it difficult to imagine a time when “All men
 
are created equal” was meant to apply, implicitly or explicitly, only to white males, but the reality of ongoingapartheid and genocide around the world suggests that our Western definition of personhood is not so clearlya given assumption as we might believe.Let us politically correct ourselves then and say that “All persons are created equal”, so as to include allmembers of the human species.  However, we must not forget the caveat that children under the age of majority face additional limitations (e.g. driving an automobile, buying alcohol) and protections (e.g. the YoungOffenders’ Act, inability to give consent) under the law.  We tolerate age-based personhood discriminationbecause we recognize that a certain level of experience and guidance is required to make proper decisions.  Aperson who is not yet fully formed needs protection from dangerous situations that they themselves may notrecognize, and society as a whole needs protection from children who may not comprehend the consequencesof their actions.  Most people under the age of majority who commit crimes in Canada are tried under theYoung Offenders’ Act
1
.  The rationale for this is that young people who do not yet realize the full gravity of theiractions should be treated more leniently than someone with the ability to distinguish right from wrong.However, in particularly vicious cases such as murder and sexual assault, the court can override the YoungOffenders Act and try sixteen-year-olds as adults.  On the other hand, adults with psychological ordevelopmental problems can be given special consideration and leniency by the court in order to recognizetheir limited or impaired ability to understand the consequences of their actions.   This indicates that theconcept of maturity and status as a fully-formed person is more dependent on behavior than age, with agebeing used as a guideline rather than an absolute limit.The idea that personhood is dependent on behavior rather than physical characteristics is a logicalconsequence that follows from the extension of civil rights towards people with different skin tones and sexorgans.  We haven’t bothered to update our species-chauvinist ways because determining personhood hasalways been phenotypical: if it comes out of a female person, it’s a person!   The prying open of the humancode by human hand, eye, and machines infuses us with a confident sense of ourselves.  We have discoveredand decoded the actual formula for ourselves and we hold it in our hands.  The precise specification of geneticlineages, inherited diseases and fatherhood is now taken for granted, which makes the question of personhoodseem like a relic of a bygone era.  While on the one hand we possess the unprecedented ability to identify andclassify, at the same time we inherit the ability to manufacture, create, and shape the building blocks of natureand ourselves.  The fusion of science and actual human material opens up the question of personhood in waysthat we must prepare to deal with, but we are dazzled by the glimmering light of our technologicalachievements.  We don’t bother asking about personhood because the answer seems simple: check the DNAtest!  However, we haven’t yet devised a way to delineate the limits of personhood from the standpoint of acceptable deviation from the norm, and it seems doubtful whether a DNA test for personhood makes sense.It seems a rather simple process to establish certain parameters that would serve as a genetic outlinefor the human race.  The problem with this is that such parameters may assign personhood to a wider range of beings than is prudent.  If a person is anything with human DNA, what about stem cells and embryos?  We stillneed to draw a line between what constitutes a person, and what we consider to be a part of person, or a not-yet person.  The idea of hybridized organisms, the correction of genetic diseases, and the idea of parentsselecting characteristics of their children makes the question more difficult to ascertain.  How muchmodification is tolerable within the genetic parameters?  Would an otherwise ‘normal’ person found to beoutside the acceptable DNA limits be stripped of their personhood status?  What would they then become?
1 Young Offenders Act in Canada. Http://www.lawprotector.ca/youth-criminal-justice.html
 
I believe a more adequate and common-sense solution is to consider the question of personhood froma behavioral rather than a genetic point of view.  The possibility of encountering entirely new and strange typesof human beings is a prospect that Western culture hasn’t had to deal with since the opening up of the NewWorld in the sixteenth century.  We recognize the colonial injustices done and we continue to see therepercussions of the violent first encounter between First Nations peoples and Europeans in North America,yet we still haven’t formulated a proper account of what went wrong and what we would do again in a similarsituation.  If we examine the question from both sides of the conflict, as conquerors and as conquered, we willrecognize that our perception of the genetic ‘others’ as somehow less human is a trap that leads to violenceand war.  Surely a new formulation of the question of personhood must take into account the atrocities causedby our past inability to consider personhood from an objective, universal standpoint.  If we are prejudiced byour own biology, we will be forced to admit that no alien species, no matter how intellectually, ethically, ortechnologically superior could ever be worthy of the same respect we grant to our own geno-comrades.Anthropomorphism prevents us from asking the general question of what it means to be a person because itdoesn’t allow us to get outside of our own communities, cultures, countries and genetic composition to auniversal perspective.
A Modified Turing Test +Dasein
The need to step outside of our genetic prejudices necessitates examining the question of personhoodfrom a behavioral rather than a physical perspective.  Alan Turing's Turing Test is a convenient point of departure to imagine what a behavioral model of personhood might look like
2
.  Turing asks whether a systemof machine-based logic could ever be considered to possess intelligence, with the implication that, givenenough computing power, a machine capable of thought would require us to rethink our conception of sentience and personhood, and possibly extend these concepts to include artificial intelligence.  The TuringTest is a modified version of ‘The Imitation Game’, a simple party game where an interrogator and two players,one male and one female, are isolated from each other, with the sole method of interaction being writtencommunication, e.g. a pen and a pad of paper or a computer terminal.  The interrogator asks questions toplayers A and B in order to ascertain which player is the male and which is the female.  One of the playersattempts to trick the interrogator into making a false identification (by pretending to be the other sex), whilethe other player tries to aid the interrogator.  In the Turing Test, the male and female participants are replacedby human and computer roles, with the computer attempting to fool the interrogator into thinking that it is ahuman.  Turing argues that if the success rate of an interrogator playing the modified human vs. computerImitation Game is equivalent to their success rate playing the original male vs. female version, then there aregrounds to believe that the computer exhibits intelligence.  It is interesting that Turing's attempt to define themind from a strict materialist perspective (as opposed to a dualist perspective, with the belief that aspects of the human mind cannot be described in physical terms, i.e. the soul) leads him to define intelligence bybehavior rather than physical constitution.One problem with Turing's conception of intelligence is raised by John Searle in his famous 'ChineseRoom' response
3
.  Searle imagines a computer program that is able to pass the Turing Test, and in this case ithas the ability to speak fluent Chinese.  Since the program follows a set of computer-language instructions to
2
Oppy, Graham and Dowe, David.  The Turing Test.  Stanford Encyclopedia of  Philosophy,http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/turing-test/
 
, 2008.
3
Hauser, Larry.  Chinese Room Argument.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,http://www.iep.utm.edu/chineser, 2005.

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