The question of personhood in ethics and other fields remains vague, even confusing, because we have inherited a grab-bag of inadequate notions and have often developed vested interests in them. The inadequacy is a result of drawing premature conclusions from inadequate data; and the vested interest often comes from incorporating them in religious views that were unfortunately made dogmatic.
Our religious views, mostly Christian, are often a thousand years old and constrained by the notion of “special creation”; and our scientific and philosophical views often suffer from being pre-Darwinian (non-evolutionary, mechanistic, and dualistic). Since most of us are specialists, it becomes necessary to borrow from one another to improve our awareness of what is going on. Unfortunately, we are all somewhat impaired and the use of our reason is a part-time thing. Progress is slow, but not inconsequential.
My view is naturalistic (without recourse to outside agency); eclectic, not original. And though still inadequate, it may be helpful.
So long as we lacked a perspective on our origins, such as provided by Darwin’s concept of evolution so recently as 1859, all we could do was guess and invent answers to our persistent questioning. Having mostly escaped the rule of instinct that guided our predecessors, the unifying principle of existence for early humans was based on the projection of “unconscious” feelings as myths. Even so, a thousand years before our own Western era a few people in China, India, Persia, Greece and Israel learned to organize their reflective consciousness as centers of experience. They became “axial”, i.e., more centered, more value-laden, more aware of dependence and attendant responsibilities.
The history of our views of personhood is thus long. But for Americans, it can probably be refocused in the views of Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) since they guided our Founding Fathers. The views of the German, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), for better or worse, have been “foundational” for much modern thinking. Fortunately, the 20th Century initiated a reappraisal.
Locke recognized that, like the term individual, the word person is forensic, an aid to discussion. We impute descriptive characteristics, but these are vague, subjective, and partly idealistic; and we practice or exemplify them more or less. Hence the need for specialist sciences.
As A.N.Whitehead saw, science seeks to modify common sense by harmonizing our ideas with what was perceived. Philosophy seeks a more adequate criticism, a self-correction by consciousness of our excess of subjectivity. Religion, at its best, seeks to stretch individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity. In the end, the human task is to develop an appreciative and responsible self. Progress is slow because we are easily distracted, have embarked on many detours, and because we are only now waking up to the fact that we humans are the most complex system the evolutionary processes have so far produced. Understanding is cumulative knowledge, and it takes a long time to test our multitudinous ideas. We are very special, but not often for the reasons prior generations thought.
Locke described personhood as applicable “only to intelligent agents capable of law, and happiness and misery.” This is still primitive, but since Kant accepted it and built on it, we may leave Locke behind, though his influence was great in the English-speaking world.
Kant, we too easily overlook, was perhaps the last of the great Medievalists, a defender of Christian views against the underminings of the Newtonian sciences of his day, and probably not nearly so Olympian as the neo-Kantians of the 20th Century insisted . Granted that we seldom study all of another’s ideas and that we inevitably remain poor judges. His influence, too, was great.
Kant specified that it is because persons are capable of imposing limits on themselves, through laws for example, that they are worthy of respect. But this is too narrow, still another version of the notion of Special Creation. He did, however, see that humans, ideally viewed as persons, should never be treated as means, but only as ends in themselves. This was a great advance.
Of course, in a social species like ours, making our views effective is a political task. Kant saw the need for moral entitlements, but remained provincial in spelling them out. He joined Locke in urging us to agree to a Social Contract to protect one another from infringements of our desired liberties. In our day, John Rawls expounded on this theme in A Theory of Justice (1971). In America, at least, he dominated the field for a generation.
But he remained a utilitarian..
Martha Nussbaum (in Frontiers of Justice, 2006) refreshingly critiques both Kant and Rawls in seeking to advance the discussion of what we owe one another, and other members of the animal kingdom. But not, unfortunately, the evolutionary system itself, what we loosely call Nature. She lacks a process view of the systems we are caught up in.
Whitehead had already shown that every existing living thing, since it is an evolutionary accomplishment, is worthy of respect. He wrote, “Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Indeed, since we borrow most of what sustains us, he thought that because the world itself is based on such valuational interaction, “We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.” (see Modes of Thought, 1938, p. 111, a much more accessible text than his Process and Reality, 1929). Though somewhat dated, Whitehead’s writings are basic to a rounded understanding. He repaired the rift created by Kant, who took nature out of philosophy.
Robert C. Neville, a prolific and stimulating writer, sought to update Whitehead.
Practically, of course, we will value up or down, but Whitehead refocused awareness from the lone individual—whether seen as soul or person---to the continuing creation processes that produce us. Since we are currently victims of an exaggerated individualism, we have not much appreciated this holistic reminder that the creative task of individuals is to exemplify the ideals of the community. What might we become?
The intellectuals, whether theologians, philosophers, or scientists have so far only shown how complicated the concept of personhood is, historically and existentially. We may be on the verge of spelling out proper moral entitlements, but not yet. There is, however, already a valid working formula in our experience of feelings for one another. Feeling always precedes cognition. This formula is our supreme valuational act, love.
Paul Tillich saw that, basically, to love is to wish you to be. It is the highest compliment we can pay, but in reflecting our capacity to value, it also confirms us. We focus our hopes and our intentions in loving someone; we learn to relate as an I to a Thou. Call it eros or libido, this is the tender element in our world. It has, so far, been honored only fitfully. Given our dangerous technologies, our future perhaps depends on learning to extend it from one another to the whole creation and its processes.