Personhood Essay

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What it means to be a “person” is a question that has intrigued philosophers for millennia. At least two major schools of thought in philosophy have considered personhood: deontology and utilitarianism.

Deontology, sometimes called “duty-based” or “rule-based ethical theory,” was advanced by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant, building upon the work of Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, thought that the intrinsic worth of man was based on his ability to reason and to exercise rational autonomous choices. The Greek philosophers considered speech to be a defining characteristic of personhood and that women, children, and slaves were capable of only limited reasoning and were, therefore, not full persons.

A serious problem with the Kantian approach is that, by these standards, many humans are not persons; the most vulnerable populations (i.e., infants, children, people with advanced forms of autism or Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders) do not have the rational, self-reflective capacities associated with the Kantian idea of personhood. The failure to acknowledge moral status or respect for these vulnerable populations led to a rejection of a purely Kantian approach.

Classic utilitarian theory regards the ability to experience pleasure and pain, not ability to reason, as the defining quality for personhood and the minimum criteria for moral concern and regard. Originally proposed by David Hume (1711-76), and developed more fully by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73), utilitarian theory laid the groundwork for careful consideration of how we treat other beings, whether they be nonhuman, infants, or the cognitively disabled. Bentham argued that a horse or a dog was far more rational than an infant child and that the law should extend protection to all, because they all have the same ability to suffer.

The primary drawback to utilitarianism, some people argue, is that it puts humans and animals on equal footing. However, neither classic nor modern utilitarian theory requires the equal treatment of human and nonhumans; rather it argues that what does matter is that suffering counts equally, be it human or nonhuman.

The tension between deontology and utilitarianism is reflected in the current state of the law. Traditionally, the law divided entities into two categories: persons or property, and one had to be human to be a person. The difficulty arises, however, when one looks back at the history of the law and realizes that women, children, and slaves were once considered as mere property under the law. At the same time, corporations, municipalities, and even ships were declared to be “persons” under the law. Although the law has evolved to ban slavery and recognize the legal rights of women and children (in the United States, at least), new challenges face the courts, legislatures, and law-making bodies. Laws are evolving to recognize categories that fall somewhere in between property and personhood, creating a continuum.

Three areas of emerging technology challenge traditional concepts of what it means to be a “person”: assisted reproductive technologies, transgenics, and human-machine mergers. Some current examples include the legal status of fetuses and embryos, companion animals, and great apes. Examples of future challenges include human-machine mergers (popularly known as “cyborgs”), artificial wombs, and intelligent transgenic creatures.


  1. Glenn, Linda M. 2003. “Biotechnology at the Margins of Personhood: An Evolving Legal Paradigm.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 13(March):35-37.
  2. Walters, James W. 1997. What Is a Person? An Ethical Exploration. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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