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Personhood and the Strongly normative constraint
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1 Personhood and the Strongly normative constraint Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe Department of Philosophy University of the Western Cape ooyowe@uwc.ac.za 1. Introduction What I will be referring to as the normative view in contemporary African discourse on personhood has received substantial treatment and is beginning to exhibit the sort of systematic coherence that I believe Kwasi Wiredu once anticipated.1 Much of this is due to his own and important recent work by Polycarp Ikuenobe, whose most recent articulation and defense of the view appears in this journal.2 My aim is to engage with this way of thinking about what it means to be a person with a view to repairing aspects of it deemed to be most problematic. To this end, I pursue two broad lines of contestation––the one is theoretical, contesting some of the features it takes to be conceptually required for personhood, and the other practical, contesting its attractiveness for culturally and morally diverse modern political communities. Along the way, I distinguish broadly between two ways in which a concept of person can be normative, implicitly throwing argumentative weight behind the one I distinguish as weakly, as opposed to strongly, normative. 2. The strongly normative view The strongly normative view of personhood combines three potentially independent criteria, each of which is necessary and all of which are jointly sufficient. The first two may be regarded as internal, subjective criteria. They refer essentially to facts intrinsic to the individual. To be a person it is necessary that one is a certain type of physical thing, viz. a human being. But more 2 than that, it is required that a human being develops a certain degree of psychological sophistication to count as person.3 Even so, these physical and psychological constraints are not sufficient.4 More specifically, what is further required is a normative, or otherwise, a public, objective criterion.5 It is the requirement that a psychologically competent human being, i.e. with the requisite capacities for higher-order functioning, fully participates in social life and exhibits, in behaviour, appreciation of the relevant moral and social rules and be recognized by others as doing so.6 The normative constraint is not arbitrary. Linguistic employment of the concept ‘person’ in some, if not all, African languages is said to evince it. Besides simply describing the cognitively mature human individual, the relevant terms refer to a human agent who successfully steers her behaviour in line with received norms and is recognized as doing so. Moreover, proponents of the view reason that simply pointing to the subjective physical and psychological features of the individual fails to fully capture the fact that the cognitive maturity of the individual is not possible outside of a human community. ‘Without incorporation into this or that community,’ says Ikuenobe, ‘individuals are considered to be mere danglers to whom the description ‘person’ does not fully apply.’7 And since every human community is characterized by behaviour-guiding norms, it appears that to leave out facts about compliance to relevant norms from the analysis of personhood is to omit something fundamental as to render the resulting view incomplete.8 What emerges, then, is a clustered conception according to which physical, psychological and normative constraints go into defining personhood. Roughly, the normative view is that persons are psychologically competent human beings who have demonstrated in behaviour, compliance 3 to appropriate moral and social norms. ‘A person––taken in its fullest sense––is therefore an individual who, through mature reflection and action, has both flourished economically and succeeded in meeting her (often weighty) responsibilities to her family and community.’9 So defined, two aspects it are worth noting. One, normative considerations are constitutive of personhood, and not merely subsequent to it. As Gyekye puts it, the ‘pursuit or practice of moral virtue is intrinsic to the conception of a person held in African thought.’10 Two, the view is also strongly normative; it requires that substantive norms directly constrain behaviour in such a way that the difference between compliance and non-compliance with respect to those norms amounts to the difference between being a person and being a non-person or being a person to a...


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