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What’s Personhood Got to Do with it?


Consider a binary afterlife, wherein some people go to Heaven, others to Hell, and nobody goes to both. Would such a system be just? Theodore Sider argues: no. For, any possible criterion of determining where people go will involve treating very similar (possible) individuals very differently. Here, I argue that this point has deep and underappreciated implications for moral philosophy. The argument proceeds by analogy: many ethical theories make a sharp and practically significant distinction between persons and non-persons. Yet, just like in the binary afterlife, this involves treating very similar individuals very differently. I propose two ways out. The first is to deny that such theories are strictly speaking true, but to claim that it is practically best if people adopt them. The second is to modify such theories so as to allow for continuous variation in the scope and strength of the moral obligations arising from personhood.

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  1. Sider (2002)

  2. See Williamson (1994).

  3. For a few examples, see Williams (1973); Waldron (2017); Sher (2014); Wallace (2010)

  4. Kant (1996), G4:429.

  5. Kant (1996); Wood, (2007); Wood (1999).

  6. Scanlon (1998).

  7. Rawls (1971), 442.

  8. Waldron (2017), 105.

  9. Korsgaard (1996), 114.

  10. Piaget (1965), 27.

  11. Piaget (1995), 85–86.

  12. Tomasello and Vaish (2013).

  13. Tomasello and Vaish, 250.

  14. Cushman et al. (2013), 16.

  15. Kagan (2018).

  16. See for instance, Wellman, 1990.

  17. For a discussion of some of these stages, see Rochat (2018).

  18. Harman (2003); Schapiro (1999)

  19. Rawls (1971), 446.

  20. Appleman (1979), 188.

  21. See de Waal (2006).

  22. Of course, the worry that any demarcation of personhood is “arbitrary” in some sense has been raised in the literature, especially in the context of the ethics of abortion – see for example, Tooley (1972). Merely repeating that point is not saying something new. What I want to emphasize in this paper, however, is the injustice of hanging a lot, in an all or nothing manner on a sharp demarcation, where the underlying property is either scalar or vague.

  23. The respect in question is what we might call recognition respect, following Stephen Darwall. See Darwall (1977).

  24. Scanlon (1998), 219–20.

  25. Scanlon, 153.

  26. Famously, Singer (2011).

  27. McMahan (2002), 265.

  28. Nozick (1974), 39.

  29. Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011).

  30. Konieczka (2011).

  31. Dougherty and Poston (2008).

  32. See Rawls (1971); Waldron (2008).

  33. For more on this line of argument, see Carter (2011).

  34. It might be thought that utilitarians face this problem as well. For Jeremy Bentham, the crucial property is not rational nature, but rather the capacity to suffer. See Bentham (1996). And of course, the capacity to suffer comes in degrees. However, utilitarians have not been committed to hanging an all or nothing practical distinction based on the capacity to suffer. A squirrel has less capacity to suffer than the average human – and utilitarians are happy to adjust the strength of reasons we have towards either being proportionately. Moreover, the duties we have towards either being are not fundamentally different in kind as the Kantians hold. Rather, they’re both ultimately duties to reduce suffering and promote pleasure.

  35. If this is right, morality might be ‘esoteric’ in the sense that philosophers articulating defenses of utilitarianism have suggested. It’s a familiar worry that perhaps if utilitarianism were widely familiar and accepted as true, then aggregate utility would not be maximized. Thus, utilitarianism itself would recommend that it not be widely known. See Sidgwick (1874). The point holds for consequentialism in general. See, for example, Parfit (1984).

  36. Parfit (1984); Sidgwick (1874). See also: Driver (2011).

  37. See Grosseries and Parr (2018).

  38. To some extent, this has been appreciated and incorporated within the abortion debate. Mary Anne Warren, for instance, writes: “It does seem reasonable to suggest that the more like a person, in the relevant respects, a being is, the stronger is the case for regarding it as having a right to life, and indeed the stronger its right to life is.” Warren (1973).

  39. For a helpful recent treatment, see Flanigan (2017).

  40. W.D. Ross’s deontology based in prima facie duties might have an especially easy time accommodating all this, since such duties can continuously vary in strength. Ross (1930).

  41. See McMahan (2008); Husi (2017).


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Correspondence to Hrishikesh Joshi.

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Joshi, H. What’s Personhood Got to Do with it?. Philosophia 48, 557–571 (2020).

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