Copyright © 2013 by James Leonard Park
Selected and reviewed by James Park, existential philosopher.
These books are listed in order of quality, beginning with the best.
Comments in red are the opinions of this reviewer.
1. Joseph Fletcher
Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics
(Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1979)
In the first chapter Joseph Fletcher,
best known for his Situation Ethics,
presents 15 marks of a person:
1. Minimum intelligence: Below IQ 40 individuals might not be persons;
below IQ 20 they are definitely not persons.
2. Self-awareness: We note the emergence of self-awareness in babies;
and we note when it is gone, for instance, due to brain damage.
3. Self-control: Because a person understands cause and effect,
he or she can effectively work toward fulfilling freely-selected goals.
4. A Sense of time: Persons can allocate their time toward purposes;
non-persons 'live' completely in the present moment, like animals.
5. A Sense of futurity: Persons are concerned about their futures;
persons make plans and carry them out; they build their futures.
6. A Sense of the past: Persons have memories of their pasts;
they can recall facts at will; they honor the past.
7. The Capacity to relate to others: Persons are social animals;
they form bonds with others, both intimate and collective.
8. Concern for others: Persons always reach out to others;
non-persons draw into themselves, even pathologically.
9. Communication: Persons communicate with other persons;
if they become completely cut off, they become sub-personal.
10. Control of existence: Persons take responsibility for their lives;
those who do not guide their own behavior are sub-personal.
11. Curiosity: Persons naturally want to know.
If they lose this desire to know, they are less human.
12. Change and changeability: Persons can grow into new phases of life;
If they resist change completely and totally, they are sub-personal.
13. Balance of rationality and feeling: Persons have both
reason and emotion; one who is distorted either way is not whole.
14. Idiosyncrasy: All persons are different from one another;
the less individuality, the less personhood.
15. Neo-cortical function: Personhood requires cerebration;
if the higher brain is dead, there is no consciousness, no personhood.
2. Joel Feinberg, "Abortion",
a chapter in Matters of Life and Death, edited by Tom Regan
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980) p. 188-189.
Feinberg offers this common-sense definition of personhood:
"What makes me certain that my parents,
are people is that they give evidence
of being conscious of the world and of themselves;
they have inner emotional lives, just like me;
they can understand things and reason about them,
make plans, and act;
they can communicate with me, argue, negotiate,
express themselves, make agreements, honor commitments,
and stand in relationships of mutual trust;
they have tastes and values of their own;
they can be frustrated or fulfilled, pleased or hurt....
In the commonsense way of thinking,
persons are those beings who are conscious,
have a concept and awareness of themselves,
are capable of experiencing emotions,
can reason and acquire understanding,
can plan ahead, can act on their plans,
and can feel pleasure and pain."
3. H. Tristram Engelhardt, , Jr.
The Foundations of Bioethics
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) p. 107, 108.
This book contains two chapters addressing
the issue of personhood,
at the beginning and end of human life.
The author clearly believes that full persons should have higher status
and more rights than pre-persons or former persons.
The ability to make responsible decisions ("moral agency")
is one of the most distinctive marks of personhood.
The following two quotes are from pages 107 & 108 respectively:
"What distinguishes persons is their
to be self-conscious,
rational, and concerned with worthiness of blame and praise.
The possibility of such entities
grounds the possibility of the moral community.
It offers us a way of reflecting on the rightness and wrongness
of actions and the worthiness or unworthiness of actors.
On the other
hand, not all humans are persons.
Not all humans are self-conscious, rational,
and able to conceive of the possibility of blaming and praising.
Fetuses, infants, the profoundly mentally retarded,
and the hopelessly comatose provide examples of nonpersons.
Such entities are members of the human species.
They do not in and of themselves have standing in the moral community.
They cannot blame or praise or be worthy of blame or praise.
They are not prime participants in the moral endeavor.
Only persons have that status."
it is nonsensical to speak of respecting
the autonomy of fetuses, infants, or profoundly retarded adults,
who have never been rational.
There is no autonomy to affront.
Treating such entities without regard
for that which they do not possess, and never have possessed,
despoils them of nothing.
They fall outside the inner sanctum of morality."
Engelhardt goes on to discuss further the
human personal life and human biological life.
He acknowledges that zygotes, embryos, & fetuses
are potential persons, but until they become full persons,
they do not possess the rights of persons.
He also acknowledges that animals have some rights
because they have some level of consciousness.
4. John F. Crosby
The Selfhood of the Human Person
A professor of philosophy explores the
within the Roman Catholic tradition.
Most of the characteristics of personhood he identifies
fall within the area of autonomy in
When is a Person? Pre-Persons and Former Persons by James Park,
which is reviewed at the end of this bibliography.
1. Persons belong to themselves; they cannot be owned by anyone
2. Persons are ends in themselves rather than means for others.
3. Persons have the power to transcend their environments,
which gives them freedom.
4. Persons are autonomous; they act for themselves,
using their own internal moral principles.
5. As individuals become more fully persons,
they cannot be replaced as easily
—as they can be as consumers, employees, or soldiers.
6. Persons are irreducibly subjective to themselves;
they know themselves from the inside as no one else will ever know them.
7. We continue to exist as persons in sleep
—as proven when we wake up as the same persons we were before.
Thus personhood does not depend on continuous consciousness.
Crosby wants to claim (therefore) that some 'substance' of personhood
is independent of consciousness.
But this seems far too metaphysical for this reader.
book contributes to the growing
as one person's intellectual struggle within a normally-rigid tradition.
In the background lurk the questions of abortion for fetuses,
merciful death for former persons,
and the possible existence of the 'soul' after death.
5. Fritz K. Beller & Robert F.
The Beginning of Human Life
(Dordrecht, NL: Kluwer Academic
(ISBN: 0-7823-2165-0; hardcover)
(Library of Congress call number: RG133.5.B44 1993)
Papers from a conference in 1990 on the
of human life.
(1) fetal development.
(2) assisted reproduction technology.
(3) contraception & abortion.
(4) fetal research & fetal tissue.
(5) maternal/fetal relationship—medical, ethical, legal aspects.
(6) defective fetuses & newborns.
editors of this collection are well
of the religious reasons
for raising the question of the beginning of human life.
But they present scientific data as presently known
rather than metaphysical speculations
about the beginning of each human being.
Fertilization creates a unique strand of
in the human egg:
An unrepeatable human genome has come into being.
About half of these eggs will not implant in the lining of the uterus.
Some implanted fertilized eggs will not develop.
Some embryos will divide—forming twins.
Some twins embryos will re-combine after a few weeks
and proceed to create just one individual.
The concept of a human person is much more
than the scientific description of an embryo.
Usually personhood includes
such capacities as thinking and communicating.
We take our idea of personhood from our experience
as adult persons and with other adult persons.
Hence our moral and metaphysical concepts of personhood
may not correlate well with the scientific description
of the development of an embryo, a fetus, & later a baby.
As medical science and technology
we are able to save smaller and smaller babies.
The courts and legislatures have attempted to define
when a fetus will be viable in terms of weeks of gestation
or the size of the fetus.
But there will never be a definite, bright line everyone can agree upon.
At any given weight or duration of gestation,
a few premature babies will survive.
And as the weight and size at birth increases,
more will survive—especially with neo-natal intensive care.
Medical science and technology will
to develop the capacity to 'save' more abnormal fetuses than ever before.
If everything that can be done is done
—which is often the default 'scientific' decision—
the human population will have more and more abnormal individuals.
If we want to prevent this from happening,
we need to make the moral and political decisions
about which fetuses to 'save' and which to allow to die.
People who are not part of the medical team
need to help establish and implement guidelines
for when to end life-supports for defective fetuses and newborns.
In each individual case, the parents must
Setting rigid standards by law will do more harm than good.
"Assisted reproduction" advances every
We human beings have more and more influence
on the genetic make-up of the babies conceived and born.
This capacity to influence the genetic make-up of the next generation
could be used for good or bad purposes,
to achieve trivial or meaningful changes.
Who—if anyone—should control such future genetic powers?
Fetuses brought into the world without any
can be used for organ-donation to other infants
who have brains but are missing some other important parts.
Should we define fetuses born without brains as born dead?
Should permanent lack of consciousness be a sufficient criterion of death?
How shall we decide these extreme cases
—as well as the cases of fetuses born with less severe limitations?
The uses of fetal tissue has in the past
with the emotional debate about abortion.
Opponents believe that allowing the use of tissue from abortions
will encourage more abortions to be performed.
The answer to this worry is to make absolutely certain
that the decision for an abortion is completely separate
from any later decision about the use of the fetal tissue.
However, even tho these are completely separate decisions
—made by different people for different reasons—
there should also be some coordination of timing,
so that maximum benefit can be achieved
from the donated organs and tissues.
reviewer observes that people are especially
—and often irrational—when it comes to fetuses and newborns.
It is especially difficult for a prospective mother
—who may have invested tremendous emotional hope in her fetus—
to decide to donate 'her baby' so that someone else might live.
She does not want any (additional) 'harm' to come to her baby
—even if it was doomed from before birth.
public education about fetuses who cannot
and the need for their organs and tissues
would better prepare disappointed would-be parents
for donating the organs and tissues of their defective fetuses
so that other babies—and sometimes adults—might live.
Sometimes the interests of the fetus
with the wishes of the pregnant woman.
When—if ever—does the state have the right
to intervene to protect a fetus?
And if a fetus has rights that can be asserted
against the rights of the pregnant woman,
does this not make the right to abortion meaningless?
Sometimes health authorities have put
woman in jail
to prevent them from using drugs and/or alcohol,
which would harm the developing fetus.
Since the state will end up paying for the care of a damaged fetus,
this could be the basis of any claim of the right to intervene.
But in most cases, the state does not attempt to intervene.
The pregnant woman has a right to abort her pregnancy.
But usually the state has no power to intervene to protect the fetus.
A more rational society would license most adults to be parents.
Then, in the most extreme cases such as an alcoholic pregnant woman,
the woman would probably not have a license to become a parent.
If the health authorities are going to take the baby
from the unlicensed mother at birth in any case,
then the state has a right to protect this fetus
from further harm by the alcoholic pregnant woman.
If the state
has a proprietary interest in
this might be compared to the interest of a father who knows that
the child will become entirely his responsibility after birth.
He will then do everything possible to prevent harm to the fetus,
including putting the pregnant woman into some confined situation
to prevent further harm from alcohol and/or drugs.
liberty interests of the pregnant woman
should also be taken into account.
But if the fetus has already been declared a ward of the state,
—even if the fetus is not a person with any legal rights—
then the pregnant woman could be forced to choose
between going to some confined situation until the fetus is born
(for the protection of the fetus) or having an abortion now.
Another conflict between parents and the
concerns the failure of the doctor to detect malformation in the fetus.
All would-be parents want perfect babies.
And when their baby is born with a defect,
they feel the urge to sue someone—usually the doctor.
If the doctor could have discovered the defect before birth,
the parents would have selected abortion
rather than having a defective baby to care for.
This leads to 'wrongful birth' lawsuits,
even sometimes by the persons born with burdensome defects.
Modern doctors now have a duty to detect
At least, they have the duty to offer to do tests
that could detect such abnormalities.
If the parents refuse these tests,
then they give up their right to sue if the fetus is defective.
A specific example:
We now know a great deal about the brain development of fetuses.
If the neural tube does not fuse by an early date in gestation,
the fetus will never be a person who can think and feel.
It will be a vegetable.
Given such a prognosis,
most prospective parents would terminate the pregnancy.
The other option is caring for an organism
that will never be able to think or respond,
perhaps like keeping a large fish in an aquarium at home.
To help them consider their options, the prospective parents
should be shown videotapes of such 'children'.
Then they can ask themselves whether they want to devote
a significant part of their lives to caring for such a creature.
preceding summary and responses
emerged by the first chapter of The Beginning of Human Life,
which was written by the editors.]
The concept of "person" has also been
to legal definition.
For example, a slave was not a person in the early United States.
Only after slavery was abolished in 1863
did former slaves become legal persons.
Likewise women were not recognized as persons who could vote until 1920.
On the other hand, the law has long defined corporations
as "persons" for many purposes.
Just when a fetus becomes a person is a
in academic, legal, & religious contexts.
Does a person born alive have a right to sue
for something that happened to it several months (or years) earlier,
while it was still in its mother's womb?
What is the personhood-status of a fetus
that is temporarily removed from its mother's womb
(but still attached by its umbilical cord)
in order to permit surgery, and then is returned to the womb?
At what size or weight will personhood be declared
for fetuses that are raised in 'test-tubes'?
Gestation is not yet possible in artificial wombs,
but someday this is likely to be possible.
When would such fetuses gain various rights?
Opponents of all forms of abortion
want to define a fetus as a person from the moment of conception.
Some would like to amend various Constitutions to enshrine this view.
And one court even decided to define a fetus as a person,
even tho this went against hundreds of years of court usage.
If brain-death is defined at the end
of brain-stem activity,
perhaps 'brain-life' could be defined as the beginning of human life.
This would mean that once the neural tube has closed to form the tissues
that will later develop into the brain-stem of the fetus,
this organism should be declared a person.
Others suggest that the emergence of detectable brain-waves
should be defined as the beginning of a human person.
But since brain-waves exist even during sleep,
we know that brain-waves alone
do not indicate the presence of consciousness.
If we believe that a person must have a brain,
then clearly personhood does not begin at conception,
since a single cell does not have a brain.
Which defective infants should we attempt
A common standard used in the United States
(but not in other advanced countries) is a 5% survival rate:
If 5 out of 100 fetuses in this condition will survive with treatment,
it should be done, even tho the other 95 fetuses will die
no matter how well the treatment is applied.
If the costs of the treatment is $100,000 per infant,
the total cost of treating all 100 infants is $10 million.
If this cost were assigned only to the 5 surviving infants,
it would come to $2 million each.
Does anyone believe this is too much to pay for a baby?
And even many of the surviving babies will have life-long problems,
which will have to be borne by the parents
and the individuals themselves.
And what about the effect on the parents whose infants die?
95 sets of such parents will suffer thru many weeks of treatments
—only to be completely disappointed in the end,
because those 95 fetuses will die no matter what is done for them.
If these families had to bear the medical costs themselves,
most would 'pull-the-plug' much sooner.
There would be little point in putting all the family's money
into one defective newborn,
who will probably have a poor quality of life even if it does survive.
Here is a more extended discussion of this issue:
No More Million Dollar Babies.
and doctors should decide
about defective newborns
—not lawyers and judges.
The parents will consult people they know and trust
—such as family, friends, & clergy-people.
Doctors will have a closer look at this particular baby,
perhaps consulting the medical literature to see what has happened
in similar cases to other babies with similar problems.
But lawyers and judges with spend their time looking at legal definitions
and the particular wording of laws, rather than looking at the baby.
The law necessarily deals with abstractions.
But a defective newborn is not an abstraction.
When lawmakers are asked to write new laws
about the care of defective infants,
they will always 'choose' to affirm 'life',
no matter how painful and limited that life might be.
They too are governed by abstractions rather than by compassion
for the actual individuals involved in this very difficult decision.
review has discussed only some
issues raised in this book.
If the beginning of human life is a live issue for you,
this is one book that will set your mind thinking
in many different directions.
6. Michael Tooley
Abortion and Infanticide
(Oxford: Claredon, 1983)
This is a careful philosophical exploration
of the concepts and
moral arguments concerning the practices of abortion and infanticide.
Tooley takes the position that there is no moral offense
in ending a human life up to about 3 months after birth
because earlier than that the infant has not yet become a person.
His exploration of personhood might be the most original part of the book.
7. Edd Doerr & James W. Prescott
Abortion Rights and Fetal 'Personhood'
(Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1990—Second Edition) 151 pages
This is a pro-choice book of essays
from a conference sponsored by Americans for Religious Liberty.
Personhood is understood here only in the legal sense.
A fetus becomes a person
when someone in power and authority declares it to be a person.
There is some attention to 'viability'
—the point when a fetus could live independent of its mother's body,
but this seems to be the closest the authors come
to an empirical concept of personhood.
Does a fetus have any rights?
Under most systems of laws on Earth, no.
But a fetus could have rights if such were granted by law.
What about brain development before birth?
Other animals have pre-birth brain activity,
but they never become persons.
In most cultures the birth of a baby
welcomes it into the human community.
But infanticide was often permitted.
Each culture defines the status and rights of the baby.
Different cultures recognize personhood beginning at different points:
When does an aborted fetus deserve to be be buried as a person?
Even in Roman Catholic hospitals,
small fetuses are not buried with the rites and honors of a person.
Historically, different cultures have different points
at which the baby is recognized as a member of the community:
baptism, naming, walking, clothing, doing certain actions, etc.
And there might be many levels of personhood up to adulthood.
Some cultures have a 7 or 8-day waiting period
between biological birth and presentation to the community,
when the baby is brought outdoors.
Usually the death of a fetus before
is not considered as great a tragedy as the death of a child.
Here again, people are defining
the moment a new-born becomes a person.
Sometimes coming into personhood coincides with naming the child.
In Western cultures, this generally takes place before baptism.
conference mostly omitted empirical
about the personhood of the fetus,
which is a theme of the last book in this bibliography:
When Is a Person? Pre-Persons and Former Persons.
Perhaps the next such conference can ask questions
like those embodied in that book.
8. Daniel Dennett, "Conditions of
in What Is a Person? edited by Michael F. Goodman
(Clifton, New Jersey: Humana Press, 1988) p. 145-167.
Dennett describes six interlocking
that make human beings persons:
1. Rational beings.
2. Have intentional states of consciousness.
3. Are regarded as persons by others.
4. Capable of reciprocating with others.
5. Capable of verbal communication.
9. Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg
Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind
"Persons and Personae" p. 27-46.
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1988)
Rorty first offers 7 themes she has
in prior attempts to construct a concept of person:
1. Beings worthy of respect by other persons as persons.
Sometimes this has excluded 'barbarians' (foreigners) or slaves.
2. The person as defined by law:
having continuity thru time
being the same body thru time
being responsible for its acts
having memory of its former stages of life.
The insane and the senile do not quality as persons under the law;
or they are diminished persons, with fewer rights and responsibilities.
The law can also definite a corporation as a legal person,
with many of the same rights and responsibilities as a natural person.
But a corporation does not have all the rights of persons,
for example, it has no right to marry.
3. Being an autonomous agent:
capable of defining itself
capable of making plans
capable of carrying them out.
4. A being that takes part in social interactions.
The interactions of persons are intentional, not merely accidental.
The weather and animals also interact,
but their interactions do not make them persons.
Persons take others seriously.
They can enter into meaningful relationships.
5. A being with a shaped, structured life, a life-plan and
Persons have histories in a deeper sense than countries or canyons.
If a being cannot devise and follow a life-plan of its own,
then it is a not a person.
6. Genetic individuation, having its own unique DNA.
But this is not a satisfactory definition of a person,
because plants and animals also have unique DNA.
7. A person experiences himself or herself as I.
We are more than disjointed series of experiences.
We experience ourselves as the object and subject
of a continuing series of experiences, some simultaneous.
The I constructs its world and its coherent place in that world.
Entities not capable of self-conscious reflection are not persons.
On page 43 Rorty offers her own definition of a person, in Italics:
person is a unit of agency, a unit that
(a) capable of being directed by its conception of its own identity
and what is important to that identity, and
(b) capable of acting with others, in a common world.
A person is that interactive member of a community,
reflexibly sensitive to the contexts of her activity,
a critically reflective inventor of the story of her life."
10. G. E. Scott
An Essay in the Philosophy of Moral Psychology
(Albany, NY: State University of New York
1990) 202 pages
(ISBN: 0-7914-0321-1; hardcover)
(ISBN: 0-7914-0322-X; paperback)
(Library of Congress call number: BJ1031.S37 1990)
Most of this book focuses
the capacities of persons
which are grouped under "autonomy" in the last book in this bibliography.
Persons freely form intentions, purposes, desires, & projects
—and fulfill those plans responsibly.
"Moral" in the title does not mean behaving in socially-approved ways.
Rather, we are persons in the moral sense
when we are recognized as making choices
on the basis of personal, internal values and principles.
Personhood is very abstract and
it nevertheless supports common-sense views about when we are persons
—and when we have lost "higher order intentional capacity".
11. Frans deWaal
The Origins of Right and Wrong
in Humans and Other Animals
MA: Harvard University Press,
1996) 296 pages
(ISBN: 0-674-35660-8; hardcover)
(Library of Congress call number: BJ1335.W33 1996)
primatologist explores the social behavior of animals.
They have complex family and clan structures.
They show caring toward other members of their groups.
However, does this behavior rise to the level
that might accurately be called "empathy" or "altruism"?
Troop animals do cooperate
for hunting and mutual protection,
even when sometimes one individual dies for the good of the group.
Several stories support the thesis that primates do respond
to the special needs of others in the group,
when an individual is injured, for example.
Primates usually live in
which have well-understood ranking among the various individuals.
They seem to operate according to rules,
even when some of the rules were imposed by zoo-keepers, for example.
Each animals knows the others.
They have fights and reconciliations.
They do form alliances with one another,
which enables them to know who will fight on their side if need be.
And they sometimes seem to care about keeping peace in the community.
They both share some foods
and deceive others in the
in order to keep more food for themselves.
In summary, this is a very
good book about primate behavior,
especially as observed in captivity.
They have 'moral' systems of their own.
And they teach one another to follow the social rules.
But they do not have an abstract culture,
which would depend on abstract language,
which they can pass on to the next generation by means of words.
With respect to the four
tests of personhood,
primates pass only two: consciousness and memory.
But they have no abstract language
and no autonomy to create their own reasons for living.
Thus understood, primates are not persons.
12. John P. Lizza
Persons, Humanity, and the Definition of Death
Johns Hopkins University Press: www.press.jhu.edu,
2006) 212 pages
(ISBN: 0-8018-8250-8; hardcover)
(Library of Congress call number: RA1063.L59 2006)
(Medical call number: W820L789p 2006)
This book is a philosophical
exploration of hypothetical possibilities
that could never happen in the real world:
brains being transplanted into empty skulls;
brains being replaced 1% at a time;
computer reconstructions of complete memories;
heads being transplanted into new bodies;
a soul existing inside a single human cell;
persons being defined by their DNA, even if consciousness is over forever.
As such it will be of interest only
to other philosophers,
not to people who must make real bedside decisions in hospitals.
It might be better for these thinkers to apply their minds
to everyday problems of medical ethics.
But this book might still be of interest to readers
who like to think of the most extreme possibilities.
When Is a
and Former Persons
Existential Books: www.existentialbooks.com,
2009) 68 pages
(ISBN: 978-0-89231-810-0; paperback)
(Library of Congress call number: BD450.P37 2009)
This small book
four major criteria for personhood:
(1) consciousness, (2) memory, (3) language, & (4) autonomy.
Each section contains several questions
which can be asked and answered by ordinary people
(such as proxies trying to decide whether a patient is still a person)
to help determine the degree of personhood of any human being.
The complete text of this book is available free
of charge here:
created March 2001,
updated January 2002; 11-10-2006; 8-27-2007; 11-2-2007; 8-1-2009; 8-12-2010; 2-15-2012; 4-11-2013
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