PBA205H: Personhood and Human Rights

FIXME formerly “Functionalism” - now modifying to do a personhood 2.0 following from PBA100Y


  • functionalism - valuing humans as human beings, not human doings
  • Response to the speciesism claim? Or put that in Singer seminar?
  • FIXME Stories to include to illustrate things?
    • Nick Vujicic - our humanity and value should not be based on our abilities…

We know that science has established that the pre-born are human beings. The question we must now ask is a philosophical one: Do all humans have human rights? Do we have human rights and personhood by virtue of our existence as humans, or by virtue of our features and abilities?

Human vs. Person: What's the difference?

  • Abortion advocates such as Mary Anne Warren claim that the pre-born child, while scientifically a human being, is not a person and therefore not a member of the moral community. Warren asks, “What characteristics entitle an entity to be considered a person?”, and then lists criteria such as the immediate capacities for consciousness, reasoning, and self-awareness.
  • The objection is that pre-born children lack some function which born human beings have, and are therefore not “persons.”

The first question we need to ask is, What is a person? Why should anyone accept the idea that there can be such a thing as a human being that is not a human person? What’s the difference?

Who gets human rights?

“… the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” - Universal Declaration of Human Rights1)
“…the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth” - UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child2)

FIXME human rights documents - why do they not say “person”? Because of historical discrimination, WWII.

We know the history of legal personhood. We know that denying “personhood” to some human beings has always been a catastrophic moral error.


  • Second, even if Warren is correct about the distinction between human being and a human person, she fails to tell us why a person must possess self-awareness and consciousness in order to qualify as fully a person.
“I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of [the criteria] was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is”3)

In other words, she merely asserts that these traits are necessary for personhood but never says why these alleged value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place. Warren employs functionalist arguments in order to deny the personhood of the pre-born.

  • Functionalism establishes arbitrary criteria to deny some human beings their fundamental human rights – this is an attack on personhood, and an attack on the very notion of human rights. Don't all human beings have human rights? Furthermore, basing personhood on functionality dehumanizes not only the pre-born, but also many born people who fail to meet functionalist “criteria”.

Consciousness and Sentience

FIXME distinctions between terms: sentience vs. rationality vs. self-awareness…they are all different things, but in typical conversations get lumped under the same vague umbrella

FIXME brief intro to Peter Singer

  • If the immediate capacity for self-consciousness makes one valuable as a subject of rights, and newborns (like fetuses) lack that immediate capacity, it follows that fetuses and newborns are both disqualified. You can’t draw an arbitrary line at birth and spare newborns. Hence, infanticide, like abortion, is morally permissible.
  • Peter Singer in Practical Ethics bites the bullet and says there is none, that arguments used to justify abortion work equally well to justify infanticide and the involuntary euthanasia of some disabled persons. Abortion-advocates Michael Tooley and Mary Anne Warren agree4).


Argument: the pre-born won't suffer when we kill them :. not “harming” them “ :. abortion is OK

  1. Wrongness of killing isn't based simply on pain. Is it OK to kill a toddler as long as you give her anaesthetic first?
  2. Kianna's story re: is it wrong to rape a comatose woman if she can't feel it, won't remember it?
    1. wrongness of rape isn't just about suffering, it's about violating another person's bodily autonomy
    2. similarly, wrongness of killing isn't just about suffering for the victim or others; it's about depriving the victim of their life and their future

Ageism and Other Forms of Discrimination

  • To define personhood based on functionalist criteria such as sentience, viability, or life experience is to define it based on one’s level of development. And an individual’s development generally corresponds with her age: The older one gets, the more developed she becomes. The younger she is, the less time has passed for her to develop the structures necessary to perform various functions.
  • So the question we must consider is this: Do those of us who are older have a right to kill those who are younger? Clearly, to select age-related criteria for personhood is arbitrary and discriminatory. It pits older humans against younger ones.

FIXME https://www.instagram.com/reel/C5jSIx6vJLr/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link pretty good example of talking about personhood/ “human + X”

Insert Oriyana's testimony about sentience - amoeba vs. embryo
  • Now some abortion advocates may argue they aren’t discriminating based on age, pointing out that some older humans never develop as they should (and should be classified as “non-persons”), and some younger humans develop more rapidly than normal (and should be classified as “persons”).
  • The question, they may ask, is not, “How old is she?” but instead, “How well does she function?” Even here, though, one identifies discrimination: ability-based discrimination. Why should the able-bodied be allowed to hurt the less capable? And who determines to which degree one is “able” versus “disabled”?
  • Lincoln raised a similar point with slavery, noting that any argument used to disqualify blacks as subjects of rights works equally well to disqualify many whites.
“You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.”5)
  • Furthermore, aside from conditions and disabilities which impede normal development, how one functions is usually related to how old someone is: The human species follows a general growth trend where at certain age ranges, a function begins (e.g., a heartbeat begins at 3 weeks following fertilization). So to select a criteria for personhood which someone simply cannot attain because of her age (a day-old embryo is too young to have a heartbeat) is unfair.
  • If humans have value only because of some acquired property like skin color or self-consciousness and not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, then it follows that since these acquired properties come in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees. Do we really want to say that those with more self-consciousness are more human (and valuable) than those with less?
    • Philosophically, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature. Humans have value and inherent rights simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property that they may gain or lose during their lifetimes. If you deny this, it’s difficult to say why objective human rights apply to anyone.
Dialogue about Personhood: “Who gets human rights?” FIXME condense this? Or does someone else have a better one?

Me: Do you believe in human rights?

Him: Yeah.

M: And who gets human rights?

H: Hmm…I think that humans who are rational and self-aware should get human rights.

M: I’d agree that our rationality is one of the things that makes humans special. I’m not sure though that it’s the reason we get human rights. Think of it this way: imagine there’s a man who’s in a temporary coma—for, say, 9 months. The doctor tells you that for those 9 months the man will be totally unconscious, but he’ll regain consciousness afterwards. Would it be OK to kill him during those 9 months, since he’s not self-aware?

H: No, that’s a good point. I guess it’s more about whether or not we a person is going to be happy and functional.

M: Well, imagine that tomorrow, you got into a car crash with some family members. Some of them die, and you become a paraplegic. You wouldn’t be very happy or functional, right? But wouldn’t you still get human rights?

H: Yeah, I don’t like that definition [of who gets HRs] either.

M: Isn’t it most philosophically consistent to say that all humans should get human rights?

H: Yeah, I guess so. [Pause] So why are you here showing pictures of aborted fetuses?

M: I’m here because throughout history, humans have been denied human rights and personhood for so many reasons. People have been discriminated against because of their race, or gender, or their sexual orientation. Today, in Canada, an entire class of human beings are denied rights and personhood because of their age. Because they’re living in the first 9 months of life.

H: Yeah—all the arguments go back to their age. [Pause] Well, if your goal was to get me thinking, you’ve definitely succeeded.

- Maria at UTM

Human Beings--Not Human Doings

  • Functionalism versus Essentialism6)
    • one can fail to function as a person and yet still be a person.
      • How many functions can I lose and still be myself? If I lose my sight, am I still me? If my legs and arms are lost, am I still me? If I cannot speak or hear, am I still me? What if I can no longer play chess or think critically? What if my IQ is less than 50? Wouldn't I still be a person with value?
      • FIXME Maaike's “what makes a dog a dog?”
    • People under anesthesia or in a deep sleep cannot feel pain, are not self-aware, and cannot reason. Neither can those in reversible comas. But we do not call into question their humanity because we recognize that although they cannot function as persons, they still have the being of persons, which is the essential thing.
  • Inherent Capacities vs. immediate capacities
    • the rights of individuals in our society are not based on their current (actual) capacities, but on their inherent capacities
    • no one doubts that newborn humans have fewer actual capacities than do day-old calves. Baby humans are rather unimpressive in terms of environmental awareness, mobility, etc. Yet this does not lead us to believe that the calf belongs in the nursery while the infant can be left in the barn. To the contrary, we understand that although the infant currently lacks many functional abilities, it nonetheless has the inherent capacity to function as a person.

What kind of world do you want to live in?

  • functionalism dehumanizes not only the unborn, but also many people outside of the womb.
  • it's actually about the strong depriving the weakest, most vulnerable humans of their rights. This flies in the face of our moral intuition to care more for the vulnerable, not less
    • (Maria - testimony - not giving water to a 2yo vs not giving water to a 17 yo)
    • Or look at public transit….the seats at the front are reserved for those with mobility issues, it's actually the law that you have to give up your seat to someone more needy in that part of the bus. Why? Because they need the seat more

Once we draw the line anywhere later than fertilization, there is nothing that grounds our views regarding rights. Because if humans only have rights due to some acquired property rather than by virtue of being members of the human family, all we are left with is arbitrary definitions of personhood that always leave some humans out. In the past, and in Canada currently, the strong deny personhood to the weak in order to victimize those individuals. A civil society should protect all humans and not discriminate against the youngest and most vulnerable humans.

FIXME What grounds human rights and human equality? “It can’t be that all of us look human, because some have been disfigured. It can’t be that all of us have functional brains, because some are in reversible comas. It can’t be one’s ability to think or feel pain, for some think better than others and some don’t feel any pain. It can’t be something we can gain or lose, or something of which we can have more or less. If something like that grounds rights, equal rights don’t exist…There is only one quality we all have equally—we’re all human.” - Steve Wagner

https://www.endthekilling.ca/blog/2015/04/15/bad-ideas-and-bloody-consequences –> re: Maaike's debate with Sumner

FIXME sort through these remaining notes

FIXME https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/