December 9, 2021

Personhood and moral status: the debate continues

Two insightful articles recently published in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy may provide much needed clarity in philosophical debates about personhood.

Personhood debates have dominated much of the bioethics discourse for the past few decades, yet little consensus has been reached. Two insightful articles recently published online in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy may provide much needed clarity on the issues involved.

In an essay on ‘moral status questions’ about embryos, ethicist Shane Maxwell Wilkins of Fordham University debunks a series of criticisms made against proponents of the inherent moral status of embryos.

Ethicists like Robert P. George and Christopher F. Tollefsen appear to have been misrepresented by a number of their most vocal critics. As Wilkins writes, George and Tollefsen are often criticised for making an ostensibly illicit inference from the biological peculiarity of embryos to the morally unique status of embryonic cells. This, however, is a caricature of their position:

“[George and Tollefsen] deploy the concept of an ‘active disposition’… If an active disposition to develop into an adult human being is morally salient, then it makes sense to say that the one-celled embryo has moral status, whereas every individual cell of an adult human being in isolation lacks it.”

Wikins also refutes the view that embryos are not sufficiently distinct from a mother’s uterus to be considered independent entities. Wilkins distinguishes causal independence from ontological independence, saying we don’t need the former to prove that the child is a distinct entity. “[all that the argument] requires is the much weaker claim that the embryo is ontologically independent of the mother.”

In a similar essay to Wilkins, Andrew McGee of Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Ethics and Health Law has critiqued arguments advanced by Jeff McMahan and Derek Parfit, which try to make a case for the non-personhood of embryos and patients in a persistent vegetative state. 

McMahan offers two key arguments for the non-personhood of embryonic and PVS humans.

The first involves the rare case of dicephalic twins who share almost all vital organs, but have distinct brains and assumedly distinct mental lives. McMahan says that cases like these are good reason to locate personhood not in the body but in consciousness. He then proceeds to use this as evidence to suggest that embryos and vegetative patients are not persons, but rather ‘human organisms’ sans the moral standing of persons.

Yet as McGee points out, McMahan does little to justify his conclusion that the twins are somehow one human organism. There is a good argument to be made to say they are actually two organisms despite being closely connected (or alternatively, there may be just one organism with two heads).

McMahan’s second argument relies on a hypothetical thought experiment about twins, of whom one has his brain transplanted into the corpse of the other (yes, it is rather crazy). McMahon claims that the twin who receives the new body is still the same person, despite losing his old body. And this, he suggests, is evidence that it is not a person that is killed in early term abortions or the withdrawal of a feeding tube from a PVS patient; it is rather a mere “human organism”.

McGee takes issue with McMahan on this as well. As McGee states, in ordinary circumstances the word “person” has built into it assumptions about the centrality of bodily continuity to personal identity.

 “our current concepts of person and personal identity include both bodily identity and psychological continuity…McMahan leaves this criterion [i.e. bodily identity] out of his account, not realizing that he has subtly dropped one of our current criteria for the identity and identification of persons”.

Person in the way we use the word it is not just about psychological continuity, and so the transplant argument doesn’t get off the ground. 

Personhood and moral status: The debate continues
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
stem cell research
withdrawal of life support