When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 2)

9:40 AM James 6 Comments

What makes you a person?  Is it your current ability to perform a specific function?  Or does being human automatically make you a person?  As abstract as these questions may sound, they're actually quite practical.  How we answer them affects how we treat other humans.  I'd say that makes them pretty relevant questions, wouldn't you?  If not, listen to what two ethicists recently said on the matter, "[A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life."  They go on to argue that it is okay to kill healthy newborn babies, because they're not actual persons yet.  Still think these are irrelevant questions?

In my last post, I critiqued the logic of the ethicists' argument (hereafter ‘the authors’).  I'd encourage you to read my previous post first, if you haven't already.  In this post I will critique their view of personhood, and draw out some implications.  To give the authors' statements better context, I must quote them at length:
...‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled... Both a fetus and newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’  We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her… [A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.
Notice the authors fully admit the fact that fetuses and newborns are human beings, but still deny they are persons.  That's because they hold to a functionalist view of personhood.  The authors believe that humans are only persons (i.e. have inherent value and a right to life) when they are in a condition to perform a certain function - namely, valuing their own existence.  This means that a human could have the inherent capacity to value her own existence, but if she's not presently in the condition to exercise that capacity - if she is in a coma, for instance - then she is not a person and therefore has no right to life, according to the authors definition.

I don't know about you, but I find that view of personhood unsettling.  I don't like the idea that my right to life depends on what others deem a suitable "condition."  What disturbs me even more, however, is the idea that the most innocent and vulnerable human beings - fetuses, newborns, and those who lack full cognitive function - lose their value and worth simply because they can't perform.  Talk about a cold-hearted, dehumanizing way to view people!  And most disconcerting of all, the authors cite medical practices in The Netherlands where similar views are already being applied to newborns.

I prefer what is called the substance view of personhood.  According to this view, humans are automatically persons by their nature.  All living organisms have, from the moment of conception, an inherent nature that determines the kind of thing they are as well as their ultimate capacities.  To illustrate, a dog is, by its nature, a dog at the moment of its conception.  And its inherent dog-nature determines its ultimate capacities - barking, wagging its tail, chasing the mail carrier, etc..  A dog that never learned to bark, because of some injury or developmental problem, is still a dog.  Its the dog's nature that determines the kind of thing it is, not its ability to immediately exercise its capacities.[1]

Similarly, a human is (by nature) a human from the moment of conception.  This is not simply a philosophical opinion, it is a biological fact.  From the moment of conception, a human fetus has a distinct, human genetic code (different from its mother's or father's) that determines its ultimate capacities for distinctly human things - things like imagination, reason, language, religious belief, math, etc..  A human that hasn't yet learned to read, speak, or value her own existence is still a human, and therefore a person, by nature.  Having a human nature means having ultimate capacities that meet the necessary criteria for personhood (e.g. the capacity to value one's own existence), whether the individual is ever in a condition to exercise those capacities or not.  Thus, on the substance view, fetuses and newborns (and comatose individuals) are all truly persons - by their nature they have the ultimate capacity to value their own existence; they just aren't in the condition to immediately exercise (or perform) that capacity.  But the capacities are nonetheless there. 

I believe the substance view is superior to the functionalist view for many reasons intellectually.[2]  But when I look at the above picture of my daughter (then just a week old), smiling in contentment from her mother's touch, the substance view is also confirmed for me existentially.  True, she cannot presently talk or reason, but those capacities are already in her by nature.  She's simply not able to perform them yet.  Even still, with such a look of peace and happiness on her face, I find it hard to believe that she doesn't already value her existence in some fundamental way.

So what does this all mean?  Well, a number of things.  First, I think most of you reading this would agree that it is morally wrong to kill an innocent person for convenience.  According to the substance view, newborns are persons.  Thus, it is wrong to kill them.  According to the functionalist view, newborns are not persons, so it is okay to kill them.  Choose which view makes the most sense.  But remember, as I pointed out in my last post (and as the authors argue), newborns and fetuses are morally equivalent.  If it's wrong to kill a newborn, then it's wrong to kill a fetus.  Those who are deeply committed to the belief that it is okay to kill fetuses (if the mother so chooses), but also want to believe it is wrong to kill newborns, will experience some cognitive dissonance with this argument.  Logically speaking, you can't have it both ways.

In my next and final post in this series, I will do something ironic.  I will evaluate how ethical it was for our two ethicists to publish their argument.

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Read part 3


1.   Credit goes to Scott Klusendorf for the dog illustration, and for much of my application of the substance view to this issue.

2.  I believe the substance view of personhood is superior to the functionalist view for a variety of reasons: (1) There are clear counterexamples to functionalism.  For instance, a comatose woman is not in a condition to attribute value to her own existence, but that does not mean she temporarily lost her personhood and right to life.  (2) Our moral intuitions regularly presuppose the substance view, as the comatose example proves.  Intuitively, we want to say that the comatose woman is still a person with a right to life.  But that can only be the case if she is a person based on the kind of thing she is (i.e. a human being), which assumes the substance view.  (3)  The substance view better explains other moral facts, like human equality.  If personhood is based on mental development, which comes in degrees, then the right to life must also come in degrees.  But we Americans believe it is a fact that all humans are created equal.  That's only true, however, if humans have a right to life simply by virtue of being human.  The substance view can explain why.  The functionalist view can't.


  1. I very much appreciate this and your last post and look forward to the next in the series.

    I have two somewhat lengthy thoughts on the topic.
    1. If we choose to define a person as "an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence...value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her" does this change the way we view those who are capable of attributing value to their existence but choose not to? For instance, those with clinical depression, especially if they are suicidal, often view themselves as essentially worthless. Are they voluntarily disqualifying themselves from personhood? Would that make it morally acceptable to kill them?

    2. Isn't the biggest flaw in the authors argument that they are deciding for someone else whether or not that person attributes value to their own existence? Just because a fetus or infant is incapable of expressing the value he finds in his existence does not mean that he finds none, or that being deprived of this existence does not represent a loss to him.

    1. Rambler, thanks for your comments. You offer some excellent thoughts! The points you bring up are real problems for the authors' argument, I think.

      You're right, the authors appear to assume that persons are only individuals in the right PHYSICAL condition (i.e. those with the proper brain development) to attribute value to their own existence. But they say nothing about those who are not in the right PSYCHOLOGICAL condition to value their own existence; such as your example of a suicidal person. I think you're correct that the authors' definition of persons leaves room for a suicidal or clinically depressed individual to, as you say, voluntarily disqualify themselves from personhood.

      Your second point is good as well - the authors aren't in a position to know the things they say they know. Which is exactly what I will address in my final post of the series. Stay tuned!

  2. James,

    Excellent post and I look forward to the conclusion.

    Can I ask your thoughts on the apparent dissonance between a substance view of personhood and capital punishment?

    Yes, a newborn child is innocent and thus not culpable in the way that, say, a convicted killer is. But even with the guilt of another's blood on his hands we can't deny that a killer is still a person, right?

    I believe strongly that individuals should be held accountable for their actions, but I can't see how forfeiting a person's life under any circumstances -- even if that person is a murderer -- isn't at odds with a substance view of personhood.


    PS: Glad to see you're getting back on the "Karamazov" horse!

    1. Paul,
      The state would not execute a convicted murderer because the murderer is no longer a "person" (as defined by the substance view). Rather, the state would specifically be RECOGNIZING the murderer's personhood by punishing the murderer as a moral agent -- moral agency being a "person-like" quality. In this instance, the murderer has the "person-like" quality of the moral knowledge that murdering another human is wrong but still committing murder. The state is punishing the murderer for this act because it violates both the murderer's and victim's personhood (without regard to whether the victim has any "functional" value).

      In this sense, the state is (at the very least implicitly) following the substance view. This also explains why a person who kills another with an "excuse" (for example, an insanity excuse) is not executed by the state for such a killing. The insane killer has not violated his own "person-hood" qualities because he lacks the moral ability to be culpable at least with respect to capital murder -- though he is still a person. To be sure, the insane killer may be punished for a lesser crime than capital murder, such as manslaughter or second degree murder (likely on the theory that the insane killer has still violated the personhood of the victim). However, he lacks the moral agency (a person-hood quality) to be executed for the crime.

      Your contention seems to focus upon the appropriate "level" of retribution/punishment the state may be allowed to inflict upon a person for committing a crime, as opposed to whether capital punishment is at odds with the substance view. As stated above, the theory underlying capital punishment seems to endorse the substance view.

      Interestingly (and somewhat unrelated to the specific point you raised), under the functionalist view, the murderer's punishment should be equated with the "function" the victim provided to himself and to society. Thus, if a person murders a homeless drunk/drug addict that has little "functional" value to himself and society (by the way, who decides this level of value, the jury? - scary) his punishment would be less than if he murders a productive businessman or senator who provides much "function" to himself and society.

      It seems the functionalist view would fail in this scenario as well, at least according to my intuitive moral assumptions. Where do those pesky intuitive moral assumptions come from anyway? Perhaps another post on this, James?

    2. Anonymous (I wish I knew your first name at least), you raise a great point! Punishing someone for a crime actually presupposes the substance view by recognizing that individual as a moral agent (i.e. someone who knows the difference between right and wrong and is able to act accordingly) - moral agency being one of the criteria of personhood. I hadn't thought of that!

      Of course, people will disagree on whether or not death is a just punishment for murder. But surely we can all agree that holding someone morally responsible for their behavior (no matter what the punishment is) actually assumes that individual is a person!

      Thanks, Anonymous, for your thoughts!

  3. Paul, excellent question! I don't think there is any dissonance between capital punishment and the substance view, per se. The substance view (when applied to humans) simply attempts to offer a metaphysical account of what a person is, not what rights (if any) a person has. That's different. For instance, the substance view tells us that a horse that can't neigh is still a horse by its nature; even though it can't perform a distinctly horse-ish function. But the substance view says nothing of how horses should be treated. That's a different question entirely.

    In my post, I used the substance view to argue that newborns (and by extension, fetuses) are persons because they have a human nature. Then I appealed to a common moral assumption: "It's wrong to kill innocent persons for convenience." I very purposefully specified "innocent persons for convenience," because we could think of all kinds of scenarios where some might say it's okay to kill persons, such as in a case of self defense.

    In regards to capital punishment, I don't think anyone in their right mind can deny that murderers are persons. But people have all different matter of opinion on how persons who take the life of other innocent persons ought to be treated, in order to sustain order in a society. And that's more of a moral question than a metaphysical one. So, all that to say, whether someone is for capital punishment or against it, I don't think it contradicts the substance view.