The concept of personhood has been a prime focus in contemporary bioethics. Three areas of ethical decision making in particular have been addressed through explorations into the conditions and criteria of personhood: the beginning and the end of human life and the morally relevant boundaries that separate human beings from nonhuman animals. Blending theology with science fiction, the scope of the latter area has been expanded further to include entities ranging from gods, angels, and extraterrestrials all the way down to machines. Although the recognition of personhood traditionally has been based on metaphysical and ontological considerations about sets of (psychological and cognitive) person-making properties, the emphasis is now squarely placed on moral concerns. Simply put, from a moral perspective a person is someone morally considerable who is the subject of moral rights and merits moral protection. The implications of the conferral of person status for moral decision making in medicine, health care, and research are, however, less clear. Problems arise from the fact that the traditional concept of personhood is constituted by three rather different ideas. As David Wiggins has pointed out, the concept of personhood combines in a single focus the ideas of the person as object of science (biological, neurophysiological, and so forth), as subject of consciousness and experience, and as locus of value and moral attributes. It is therefore extremely difficult to neatly separate metaphysical personhood from moral personhood, and vice versa, and to draw morally relevant conclusions without continuously moving back and forth between the different constitutive factors. Thus, moral rights seem to presuppose moral agency, and moral agency is contingent on personal identity, which in turn presupposes some form of physical (including psychological) existence. It is obvious, that differences in the analysis of any one of these constituents of personhood will result in different conceptions of personhood with different implications for ethical decision making. Bioethical disputes about the moral status of human fetuses or of irreversibly comatose patients, as well as of the great apes [End Page 289] and other animals, are notoriously complex because they involve fundamental disagreements about personhood and the most promising strategies for their resolution. Although this has led some to question the usefulness of the concept of personhood for bioethics altogether, others seek remedy through the analysis of moral agency within the context of particular bioethical issues.
The essays in this volume clearly reflect the current state of the bioethical debate on personhood and are representative of its major strands. They evolved from discussions at an international symposium on Bioethics and the Concept of Personhood at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Hong Kong Baptist University, May 1998, that explored the bioethical implications of the concept of personhood in a historical and cross-cultural perspective.
In the opening essay, John Harris gives Locke’s concept of person a new twist by reading his list of criteria of personhood as preconditions of a being’s capability to value his or her own existence. The status of person is contingent upon the possession of the capacity to value one’s own existence; whoever is capable of such valuation is a person (as long such capacity actually exists) and makes moral claims on other persons. On this account, personhood is not co-extensive with human life or the human species, and even transcends other forms of organic life. Harris allows for the possibility that some machines in effect might qualify for person status. Although human life develops gradually and with it the capacity to value existence, Harris rejects both the potentiality argument and gradualism on the grounds that personhood is a “threshold” concept. Accordingly, proximity to the threshold is morally insignificant, and everything depends on actually crossing the threshold.
Tom Beauchamp takes issue with what he sees as the dominant trend in contemporary bioethics to derive moral conclusions from metaphysical accounts of personhood. On his reading, metaphysical theories of personhood are abused in normative analysis by employing certain sets of psychological or cognitive properties to identify persons as bearers of moral rights. He argues that by themselves, without the incorporation of independent moral principles, such properties have no moral implications and cannot confer moral standing. Thus, a being may...