Human Personhood and Human Dignity
Several thoughtful commenters have asked me to say more about human personhood and human dignity after yesterday’s post on Rand Paul’s argument against abortion on the grounds that human life begins at conception.
As I argued there, the fact that human life begins at conception doesn’t actually do any heavy lifting with regard to questions about human personhood or rights. Being a person means more than simply being alive. Think, for example, of the patient in the hospital whose cerebrum is fundamentally injured. The continued existence of the patient is not open to question: so long as she is breathing and her heart is pumping — functions that are regulated by the brainstem rather than the cererum — she is living.
At issue, though, is that the person who existed before the traumatic brain injury is now no longer in existence. All the things that made the patient who she was have left the body of the patient. These things are far more integral to our coneption of personhood — and of life itself — than the mere animal functioning of brainstem, heart, and lungs (which can be duplicated by machine). What cannot be duplicated or replaced is the sense of self, the “I” that I argue makes us persons and from which human dignity, the source of our human rights, is derived.
I don’t want to suggest that we achieve dignity through rational thought or action, i.e., that we earn our dignity in the way that Kant suggests; instead, my argument is that dignity arises from our higher brain function. In particular, dignity is a function of our self-consciousness, our ability to talk and think about ourselves.
The Greek δόξα, from which dignity is derived, is defined as “the opinion which others have of one, estimation, repute.” While this ancient concept was thought to rely on the way we were perceived by others, I want to argue that of far greater importance is the opinion we have of ourselves and, in particular, the stories we tell about ourselves. My dignity is bound up with my answer to the most fundamental identity question, “Who am I? [which] will normally address what is most salient in one’s sense of self.” This narrative identity, David DeGrazia notes, “involves our self-conceptions, our sense of what is most important to who we are.”Bound up with my narrative identity is the sense that I can make something of myself; it is the ability to posit a future that I have a hand in shaping (which can be traced back at least as far as Nietzsche and has been updated by contemporary theorists like Ronald Dworkin and Richard Rorty). DeGrazia puts this especially cogently: “Much of what matters (to most of us, anyway) is our continuing existence as persons—beings with the capacity for complex forms of consciousness—with unfolding self-narratives and, if possible, success in self-creation.”
Ultimately, then, I argue that personhood and dignity are bound up together, that one cannot be a human person without the ability — derived from organized cortical brain activity — to feel as though there is a “I” in the center of one’s brain, pulling levers and adjusting dials (even though we know that, in fact, this is simply an evolutionary strategy developed by our genes to make ours brains better, more clever ones). This “I” amounts to a feeling of selfhood that, finally, accounts for our having dignity and being persons. As I conclude in my book, “It is, in my estimation, the feature that separates human persons from human animals and, so far as we know, from all other animals.”
Though the patient with the traumatic brain injury and the person she was before the injury are the same biological animal, the person died when her cerebral cortex, the self-creating part of her brain, stopped functioning. The patient with the traumatic brain injury is no longer a rights-bearing person because the patient does not possess the equipment necessary for personhood and dignity. The same is obviously true of the blastocyst, insofar as it’s simply a ball of cells and has no brain whatsoever.
In the end, I think human life alone is not enough to provide us with rights, that a heartbeat — which can be accomplished entirely by machines — doesn’t require governmental action on my behalf. Indeed, in the cases at issue here, the idea of “my” in “my behalf” doesn’t really have any meaning, as without higher brain function, I cannot conceive of myself at all. That’s why I argue that our rights hinge not simply on our bodily functions but on our dignity. Certain fetuses, on my reading, cannot properly be understood to be bearers of dignity and are thus not the bearers of rights.
While I have no doubt that some people will want to suggest problems with this argument — and I look forward to hearing them! — I think it’s a much stronger position than the one put forward by people like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, or my thoughtful commenters. First of all, it contains an explanation about why human persons have special rights that require governmental protection while other living animals do not. Secondly, it provides us with the measuring tool of higher brain function — which ensoulment clearly does not provide — for making decisions that would potentially infringe on the rights of women. And, finally, it keeps religious belief away from a heated public policy debate, ensuring that people who believe that blastocysts are the beloved children of God are entitled to that belief but are not entitled to enforce it on anyone else.
Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 444.