A Conversation on Persons
(or Beings with Moral Standing)

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Revised: March 29, 2010

Persons of the Dialogue

John (named after John Noonan and John Paul II1): The class of beings with moral standing (or possessors of a full set of rights) is identical to the class of human beings.

Don (named after Don Marquis): Beings with moral standing are just those beings that have a possible future that they might come to value.

Tom (named after Tom Regan, but incorporating ideas from Bernard E. Rollin2): Morally significant beings, those who have rights, are just those individuals that are "experiencing subjects of a life." He means to cover all animals (including human animals) and only animals.

Hedda Eudora: A hedonist utilitarian. What is important for her is not whether a being can think, but whether it can suffer. (Position somewhat like that of Peter Singer.3)

Mary Ann (named after Mary Ann Warren): Persons are socially responsive members of the human community.

Carl (named after Carl Cohen): Rights-bearing individuals are members of the (human) species. The basis for this claim is that normal humans are moral agents, i.e., members of a community of moral beings capable of recognizing moral duties that govern us.

Michael (named after Michael Tooley): Persons are self-aware animals.

Aldo (named after Aldo Leopold,4 whose position is similar to that of Devall and Sessions): Not only animals but also plants, species, and ecological systems have moral standing in their own right.

Schuyler the Skeptic: Schuyler is skeptical about the philosophical assumptions most of the others make about individuals.

Olivia, the ethical objectivist, acting as the Moderator.

The Conversation

Olivia: Let's start by seeing what you think this conversation is about.

John: Who has rights, such as the right to life, and cannot be killed without very strong reason (such as self-defense). Deciding who is a person, or who has a right to life, is important in discussions about the permissibility of abortion, mercy killing, capital punishment, etc.

Olivia: The rest of you agree with that?

(Most of them do.)

Mary Ann: I would add that such beings not only should not be killed without very good reason but that we have a moral duty to protect them and even, when possible without violating our other duties, to nurture them.

Olivia: Why not talk about rights-bearers, or something like that, instead of persons?

Mary Ann: Because in spite of ambiguities in the understanding of the word, "persons" is a more familiar, less technical word than any of the alternatives we might use.

Tom: I am concerned about the way using the word "persons" stacks the deck in favor of the most familiar morally significant beings, that is, human beings. Focusing on persons seems to prevent us from considering that non-human animals might have rights. I would rather talk about beings with inherent value, or use the phrase "morally considerable beings." At least we could debate whether all and only humans belong to this group.

Carl: I agree with Tom that "persons" can be misleading. I would prefer to talk about moral agents. My view is that what is significant is that some beings can, and others cannot, form a community of beings capable of recognizing moral duties.

Olivia: Maybe it would help if each of you would say how you want to distinguish persons or bearers of human rights (or beings with moral standing), from beings that are not. John, please start.

John: A being with moral standing is a biological member of the human species, a being with a complete set of DNA that makes him or her biologically human.

Olivia: I've investigated the history of the word, and found this influential definition in the work of the late Roman philosopher Boethius: "a person is an individual substance (i.e., individual being) with a rational nature." I don't find any hint of that in your definition.

Mary Ann: I agree. It is reasonable to look for the defining traits of persons in the area of mental life. I believe that's part of what Boethius had in mind when he defined person in that way. Mental life includes, among other things, consciousness, reasoning ability, memory, self-awareness, responsiveness to members of the community of similar beings.5 Back before Boethius, the term "persona" was used to refer to characters in a drama and to the plaintiff and defendant in a legal case. The connection between person and conscious, interacting human beings is obvious in such cases.

John: A morally significant being defined as I have defined him is typically capable of developing these features as he or she matures.

Don: My definition captures that point. Morally significant beings if you like, are those with a possible future that they might come to value.

John: That's not too far from my view.

Don: The difference is that I do not tie the definition to a specific set of genetic information. On my view, the science fiction character E.T. would have moral standing, including a right to life. (Many of you have seen the movie "E.T." about the homely but sociable extra-terrestrial stranded on Earth.) He was obviously not human and he may not have possessed genetic material similar to human genetic material. Still he thought of himself as having a future and it mattered to him where he spent it: he wanted to go home.

Tom: Well, I think the definition offered by John is far too narrow. It is speciesist, because it tends to stack the deck in favor of human beings, his own species. It's true that John's definition allows for the possibility that a not-presently rational being has inherent value. I am referring to human fetuses, which at first are not aware of anything. Still, John's definition goes too far: the fertilized human ovum is probably neither sentient nor rational. Nothing can matter to it at that stage. Things can matter to sentient beings. They have interests.

John: The fertilized human ovum is potentially a rational being.

Tom: So is a mass of chemical elements in the right proportions.

John: But the probabilities are vastly greater that a fertilized human ovum will become a rational being than that a mere mass of chemicals in the right proportions will.

Tom: At least Don's definition recognizes the relevance of consciousness, but, curiously enough, it does not have to be actual consciousness. A human fetus could be said to have a future that it might come to value, even if right now it is completely unaware of itself and its environment.

Olivia: Tom, I think we can guess what your view is, but state it for us again now: What is a person, or a being with moral standing?

Tom: My criterion is whether a being is an experiencing subject of a life. Such a being is normally aware of its environment and is capable of feeling pleasure and pain. This covers animals generally, not only humans.

Hedda Eudora: The question we should ask is not "can it think?" but "can it suffer?" My interest, as a utilitarian, is in minimizing suffering to sentient creatures generally.

Tom: In my view, sentient beings, that is, animals, are not merely containers of pleasure and pain, but individual subjects of a life whose inherent value we should respect. I have no hesitation in speaking of animal rights. Utilitarians do.

Olivia: Michael, what's your view?

Michael: I don't think mere consciousness or sentience is enough. To be a person and to have moral rights, an individual animal must have the actual capacity of self-awareness.

Mary Ann: This criterion would exclude human fetuses.

Michael: I agree.

Mary Ann: It would also exclude newborn babies. Developmental psychologists tell us that self-awareness develops only some time after birth, probably several months. If newborns lack rights, then killing them would not violate their rights.

Michael: Your logic is correct, Mary Ann. I would only point out that killing infants would normally violate the rights of self-aware persons, such as their parents, and in cases where the parents were not able to care for them, it would show disrespect for persons interested in adopting them.

Olivia: What is your view, Carl? Isn't it close to Michael's?

Carl: It is and it isn't. I agree that self-awareness is an important characteristic of persons. The term I would prefer to use, however, is moral agent. A moral agent is an autonomous being, a member of a community of beings capable of recognizing moral duties that govern themselves and others. One could not recognize these duties without self-awareness.

Olivia: That does sound like Michael's position.

Carl: But I add that this (quoting his article from 19866): "Persons who are unable, because of some disability, to perform the full moral functions natural to human beings are not for that reason ejected from the moral community." Humans are of such a kind that they are capable of making voluntary choices as moral agents. My position is that infants have basic rights, like the right to life, as do severely retarded people who cannot fully participate in the moral community.

Michael: I understand why Carl wants to extend the moral community to include infants. He does not want to hold a view that is obviously unpopular today, as I admit mine is. But I think the logic of my view is superior. Sometimes the superior, more logical position is not obvious to the majority of people. I fail to see how the external physical similarity, and the genetic similarity, between the self-aware human and the severely retarded human can be morally relevant. There are physical similarities between humans and primates too and Carl does not want to extend rights to primates.

Olivia: Mary Ann, you've not given us your criterion.

Mary Ann: My view is that anyone who is a socially responsive member of the human community is a person, or morally significant being. There's plenty of evidence that most infants, virtually from the moment of birth, or shortly thereafter, are responsive to human beings around them. This responsiveness is apparent long before there is evidence of the formation of self-awareness. Right from birth most humans give signs of becoming responsive, that is, of becoming persons. The safe criterion, here, is to make birth the criterion.

Olivia: So, on your view, infanticide would be a violation of somebody's rights.

Mary Ann: Yes, not just anybody's--the infant's.

Olivia: Some people make viability of the embryo the criterion.

Mary Ann: That criterion is close to mine, but still different. A viable human being could survive in physical independence from its mother's body. Once it is physically independent, we can start treating it as a human member of the moral community; people start speaking to it and it starts responding, even if it may be hard to decode at first the meaning of the response. On the other hand, a viable embryo is still inside its mother. As long as the embryo is inside the woman, there is the possibility of a real conflict of rights. Such a conflict does not exist once the human being is outside the mother's womb. Prior to its birth, the human being can have full rights only if the mother's rights are not full. I endorse the full rights of the woman; she is already a socially responsive member of the human community.

Olivia: It seems that there are no absolutely clear dividing lines in nature.

Mary Ann: Birth is one of the clearest, though of course, no moral line you draw on these matters will entirely rule out cases that seem to be on the line or on both sides of it.

Aldo: I want to register a protest here. Most of you seem to be assuming that a being has to be a conscious living organism to have inherent value and to be worth preserving for its own sake. Why is consciousness so important? Cannot things without consciousness have value in themselves?

Carl: They can be valuable to humans.

Tom: They can be valuable to other sentient beings, to other animals.

Aldo: You are thinking of instrumental value, value as a means.

Mary Ann: Not only as a means. We can value a tree, just as we value a sunset, for its beauty.

Aldo: Aesthetic value and instrumental value, then, for humans.

Tom: Or for nonhuman animals: at least on my view, the instrumental or aesthetic value of things for nonhuman animals is a reason for defending the existence of endangered plant species and ecological systems.

Aldo: That's not enough for me. I believe that any complex being capable of producing new existence has inherent value, and when the new existence it can produce is life, it has even more significant value. For that reason, plants have inherent value, at least at the species level. (Of course I am not denying that animals have to eat them or blaming them if they do so.) Not only plants, but also ecological systems, including air, water, soils with minerals of various kinds that compose such systems, have inherent value.

Carl: I don't think this position is ethics any more. It's a new religion.

John: And it's the wrong religion.

Olivia: No religion is in a privileged position here. Let's engage civilly with all the positions civilly expressed here.

Aldo: I read somewhere that the word "worship" originally meant to assign value to something. In that sense, we are all engaged in worship. I want to add that unlike the solar system and the galaxy, whose awesome creative power is worthy of our admiration and respect, ecosystems and plants are fragile. And animal and plant species are endangered, often by human activity. If it is correct to say that they co-created us humans by means of the evolutionary process and continue to nurture us, then we owe them better treatment.

Carl: There is too much metaphor, too much poetry in Aldo's argument.

Schuyler: I'd like to add another perspective, related to Aldo's but raising a deeper objection. Most of you seem to be assuming that persons or morally valuable beings are independently existing beings. That assumption goes all the way back to Boethius and his definition of person as an individual substance with a rational nature. Whether you regard morally valuable beings persons as biological individuals or sentient beings or moral agents you seem to understand them as basic realities separate from each other. Even Aldo, who wants to extend ethics to include respect for the value of the ecological community itself, does not directly challenge the idea that biological individuals, or persons found within the bodies of biological individuals, are primary, at least sometimes. Yet one can easily argue that they are not independent either from their natural or their social surroundings.

Mary Ann: Persons may be primary for the purposes of understanding who or what has moral rights and moral responsibility, that is, for ethical purposes, while not being ultimate causes, or primary from a more inclusive natural-historical perspective.

Olivia: It looks like we are out of time. Thank you for coming and for sharing your perspectives.


1. Unless otherwise mentioned, the authors associated with the names of the characters of the dialogue are mentioned in Judith A. Boss, Analyzing Moral Issues, 3rd edition (McGraw-Hill, 2005) and/or are represented by an article in her chapters covering abortion or nonhuman animals and the environment.

2. Bernard E. Rollin, "Environmental Ethics," in Social Ethics: Morality and Public Policy, eds. Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty (McGraw-Hill, 2002), pp. 506-513.

3. Peter Singer, author of "Animal Liberation," in Judith A. Boss, Analyzing Moral Issues, pp. 731-39.

4. Aldo Leopold, "The Land Ethic," in Social Ethics: Morality and Public Policy, pp. 501-6.

5. In her 1973 article reprinted as "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," in Social Ethics: Morality and Public Policy, p. 16, Mary Ann Warren lists as central to the concept of personhood "consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal . . . ); reasoning . . . ; self-motivated activity . . . ; capacity to communicate . . . messages of an indefinite variety of types . . . ; presence of self-concepts and self-awareness."

6. Carl Cohen, "The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research" in Social Ethics: Morality and Public Policy, p. 460; article originally published in 1986.