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Who Gets to Be a Person?

Written by Muriel Leuenberger


The question of who gets to be a person is one of those old but never outdated classics in philosophy. Throughout history, philosophers have discussed which human beings are persons, when human beings start to be persons, when they are no longer the same person, and whether non-human beings can be persons – and the discussion continues.

The task of defining the concept of a person can be approached from a purely ontological angle, by looking at what kind of entities exist in the world. There are those beings we want to call persons – what unites them and what separates them from non-persons? This ontological project has, at least at first sight, nothing to do with how the world should be and purely with how it is.

But many moral practices are connected to this concept. Persons deserve praise and blame, they should not be experimented on without their consent, they can make promises, they should be respected. The status of personhood is connected to a moral status. Because of the properties persons have they deserve to be treated and can act in a certain way. Personhood is what can be called a thick concept. It combines descriptive and normative dimensions. To be a person one must meet certain descriptive conditions. But being a person also comes with a distinctive moral status.

Defining thick concepts is particularly tricky. Those definitions are not just judged for their descriptive plausibility but whether they imply acceptable moral practices. In the debate on personhood, philosophers have repeatedly drawn boundaries on the descriptive level that lead to normative implications they do not want to support. Notably, individuals who they would like to see treated as persons do not meet their criteria for personhood because they do not have certain cognitive capacities.[i] Most recently, this happened in this year’s John Locke Lecture by Susan Wolf on Selves like us.[ii] She argued compellingly for a definition of character as a complex of dispositions and tendencies that reflect and express one’s distinctive way of seeing the world. She furthermore seemed to imply that certain types of attitudes, such as resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger, or love (Strawson’s reactive attitudes[iii]), can only be directed towards ‘selves like us’ which meet her definition of having a character. In her account, character requires cognitive faculties of “active intelligence”. Because of this, the question arose what this implies for individuals with cognitive disorders. She replied that she would certainly not want to exclude them from being appropriate objects of reactive attitudes and would have to do more research to work out how they would fit in her framework.

There seems to be a disparity between our intuitions and opinions on who should be treated as a person and descriptive definitions of the term. One attempt at fixing this problem has been to stipulate that while the suggested definition of personhood excludes, for instance, people suffering from dementia from being persons, this does not undermine their moral status.[iv] But because the normative and descriptive dimensions are intertwined in thick concepts, such attempts at separating them do not seem to be successful. It’s too little too late to reassert the moral status of an individual whose personhood has just been denied. The rhetorical power of denying that someone is a person should not be underestimated – a reassurance that this does not affect their moral status seems insufficient to counteract it.

Personhood is usually defined via capacities, such as moral agency, autonomy, self-awareness, narration, or rationality. Those capacities require certain brain functions – they are tied to biological facts about the individual. But biology is fuzzy, gradual, and full of multiple but slightly different solutions for the same problem (e.g., for realizing a capacity). As David DeGrazia[v] argues, those capacities are multidimensional and gradational. For instance, there are different kinds of self-awareness (bodily, social, introspective) and they come in degrees. To know whether, for example, great apes are persons, we would have to define arbitrary cut-off points for the capacities that are defined as essential to personhood. Thus, personhood is a vague concept, meaning that there is no non-arbitrary way to define whether an individual is a person. Because it is also a thick concept, arbitrary cut-offs are particularly worrisome since they can have far-reaching normative implications.

In the face of those considerations, we should be aware of and thematize the limits of definitions of personhood (or selves). Marginal cases can and should remain undecided. This does not mean that philosophy has nothing to say about what is distinctive of persons. Identifying common properties of clear, paradigmatic cases of persons can make salient in which way marginal cases differ. Differences in moral practices can be accounted for through distinct properties, instead of an overarching term like personhood or self. This allows for more nuance in our moral practices.

Pattern theories of personhood or self, which take a range of properties and capacities into account, can be particularly helpful in this regard.[vi] According to a pattern-theory, personhood or self are constituted by a cluster of dimensions that interact with each other and that take a different value and weight for each individual. A self might, for instance, be constituted by embodied, experiential, affective, behavioral, intersubjective, and narrative dimensions. Someone becomes a person through the dynamic interaction of a range of capacities, such as, moral agency, autonomy, self-awareness, narration, and rationality. Changes to one dimension may cause modulations in others. Concepts like personhood or the self are not reducible to any one of these aspects but are complex systems that emerge from the dynamic interactions of those constituents.

Pattern theories can illuminate how a range of properties and capacities interrelate to produce characteristics typical of clear cases and make salient in which ways other individuals differ. Instead of either ascribing marginal cases the status of personhood or not, pattern theories can describe them in terms of different types of persons (with gradual transitions in-between) which warrant distinct moral practices. Thereby, they can help us to avoid the philosopher’s compulsion to draw clear lines where there are none.


[i] On the other hand, definitions of personhood can of course also appear to be overly inclusive.

[ii] Self and person are often used interchangeably. Definitions of the self face the same problems because the self tends be considered as a thick concept as well (albeit less obviously than in the case of personhood).

[iii] Strawson, P. F. (2008). Freedom and resentment and other essays. Routledge.

[iv] Schechtman, M. (1996). The Constitution of Selves. Cornell University Press.

[v] DeGrazia, D. (1997). Great apes, dolphins, and the concept of personhood. The Southern journal of philosophy, 35(3), 301-320.

[vi] Leuenberger, M. (Forthcoming) A Narrative Pattern-Theory of the Self. In: Personhood, Self-Consciousness, and the First-Person Perspective. Edited by Markus Hermann. Brill mentis.

Gallagher, S. (2013). A Pattern Theory of Self. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 443-443.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Will read this again, this afternoon. I try not to make hasty assessments before 10:00 am. Or while I am still asleep. Nor do I comment on profound matters, before coffee.

  2. What a “person is” actually says more about the observer/judge than it does about the subject.

    One obvious issue that has to be resolved is communications.

    I think it can be taken as accepted that few mamals would consent to being treated as machines for disasembly if they could communicate that in what we as the observers consider a lucid way[1].

    But a subtle issues arises behind communications one of the more obvious of which is a sense of tense, past, present and future. It causes enough issues in human communications even when the same first language is in use by the communicating parties.

    The simple fact is if I remove the communications side channels we rely on daily in communications you effectively end up with a “Turing Test” which thirty years later was shown to be questionable by Searle’s “Chinese Room”. Which effectively proved that ChatBots like ChatGPT, Tay and many others apparent “personalities” were the result of the environment they were placed in[2].

    If we apply the same “strip back to fundementals” logic to any “personality measurement” method we hit the same problem. That is the “side channels” are a necessity and most often we have no idea which are valid and which are not.

    Thus “persona” is not just a nebulous concept, we actually lack not just the tools but reliable measurands. Thus we can not address the issue in a scientific or engineering sense.

    Which in turn begs the question of what practical use is having a persona?

    The answer sadly reflects badly on mankind. Some require methods of establishing hierarchies of dominance. Thus their choices of what constitutes a persona is chosen to put them at the top of the hierarchy.

    Therefore any such system will be cognatively biased from the begining and significant preasure will be brought to ensure that those who have selfselected themselves to be at the apex will remain there. Further what they would describe as “the natural order” would be enforced untill those below somehow emancipate themselves (which is a whole different discussion).

    [1] Given a funny but horrorfic counter example by Douglas Adams in hitchikers where they “meet the meat” in “The restaurant at the end of the universe”. Showing a clip or reading it out from the book and asking questions of the audience makes for intetesting responses even with just pre-teen audiences.

    [2] People should dig into ChatGPT and Tay’s functioning and find the real “human homunculus'” behind the AI’s trying to ensure the AI’s stay within projected societal norms.

  3. Well, I will make an exception. Mr. Robinson has said it quite well enough. Kudos! Philosophy and philosophers do create so-called hard problems (no scare quotes needed). Self, or personhood; consciousness; free will, or the absence/impossibility thereof. It is a tradition attaching to the philosophy culture…part of the, uh, philosophical mystique. So far as hard problems go, and for the intentions underpinning them, the label is not harmful. Their putative insoluability adds to the tradition. The reality, seems to me, is hard problems that are insoluble rate more precisely as conundrums or enigma. It is, as pointed out, a communications matter. It used to be said one should never say never. That is right about many things, but not so much for a whole lot more. Understanding of problems is often attainable. Resolution and explanation of them may be a taller order.

  4. Further:
    Almost everyone who walks, talks, interracts and thinks is a person. Enemies may view her differently but everyone, interests, preferences and motives notwithstanding, has a point-of-view. The distinction(s) arises/arise as to whether an individual stands as a person, or as a personage. Personages are more noticeable, due to intellect, reputation, wealth and so on. Ordinary people are consistently overshadowed by personages. That accounts for somewhere around ninety percent of us, roughly estimated. Being a personage carries its’ own set of expectations, obligations and responsibilities. The word, elite, comes to mind. So, not every person is also a personage. Very few, actually.

  5. Defining thick concepts IS tricky. Identifying thin distinctions is at least equally problematic. I tried to assess this by taking a strict societal approach regarding class, wealth, intellectual acumen and so on. But, here again in numerous situations, our labels fail. Art and science cross boundaries between the clever, the genius and the public intellectual. None of those designations, of a course, lead to or enable another. I wrote and shared an essay on this with my brother, claiming this. They are, as Gould once asserted, non-overlapping magisteria. It was an unpopular observation, coming from a paleontologist who also talked about philosophy. But, when S. Jay Gould talked about NOMA, the religion-science wars were only heating up. Both sides disliked his candid assessment. He died far too young—that is the fate of good people. The rest of us suffer through longer lives. I am engaged in a dichotomous outlook on postmodernism. It seems, simultaneously, good and evil to me. Of course, my outlook on contextual reality is, likewise, contradictory. That, is another thick concept…accompanied by thin distinction. So it goes.

  6. Paul,

    With regards,

    “I tried to assess this by taking a strict societal approach regarding class, wealth, intellectual acumen and so on. But, here again in numerous situations, our labels fail. ”

    There is the old question of,

    ‘What is wealth to a poorman, or poverty to a king?’

    Their personal Points of View are so far appart they are almost alien to each other. Worse they probably have no measurand in common to help reach a meeting of the mind let alone a consensus.

    A little look at history shows that ‘labels’ were sufficiently problematic in the Victorian era, they merited a page or so in a supposadly childrens story (and apparently Queen Victoria was amused).

    Labels are allegedly a short hand to identify an object, but in reality we often use them as a form of hiding or safe place. Even in the case of jargon to identify in-group and out-group individuals.

    Why mankind almost always weaponises anything and everything including communications has always caused me to ponder the reasons. Is it secrecy, is it security, is it hate, the list goes on, each has a modicum of merit, but none satisfy. Especially when you realise mostly humans trust blindly without reason or even caution.

  7. Clive:
    As to your wondering about weaponization, I’ll offer this. I am a strong believer in the continuing power of origins. You may have read what Dawkins and others have thought about memes and phenotypes; beavers’ dam building, termite castles, bower birds’ elaborate courtship rituals. When I refer to origins, I am including animal characteristics, pre-homo sapiens. All the way back to that reptilian brain, still mentioned. Kill or be killed is an enduring survival trait, seems to me. Not only a time-worn metaphor. I suspect this has crossed your mind. It would be interesting to know what Sir Richard thinks about the extended use of the term meme in today”s megalog?

  8. Paul,

    Re : Sir Richard.

    The last time I met him was at a party in Islington back almost exactly 31 years ago.

    It was in Douglas Adam’s house, and his 40th and coincidently my 30th. Behind the bar was “Dr Who” Tom Baker who I also vaguely knew from having accidently knocked him over in the doorway of Foyles book shop, and spending the rest of the day with him in a small drinking club swapping stories. He was accompanied by Lalla Ward, who was not as I would have expected.

    Richard did say that Douglas was his one true success at converting people to his way of thinking.

    From what I can remember of it, it was a very interesting party, but Tom ensured via some evil concoctions that yet again my memory was hazy at best the following day or so.

  9. Closest I ever came to Islington was a subway station in Toronto. I fear to think what may have been in that concoction you mention. There was some black African hashish, years ago. The effect? Suspension of temporality, and concomitant suspicion of reality. Working on that last piece.

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