British philosopher Timothy Chappell first became interested in the idea of personhood when his wife was pregnant with their first child and a good friend said something that profoundly unsettled him.
Chappell recounted the experience for Australian and international attendees of the University of Notre Dame’s Tradition Conference in Sydney last month (July 2-5).
“I found myself arguing the toss about abortion, euthanasia and personhood with a very good friend of mine who has pretty strong liberal views on all those issues,” Chappell said.
“We were arguing about this as if it were a theoretical issue, this issue of personhood.
“At the same time my wife was bearing within her what I took to be a person and what my friend took not to be a person.
“There just seemed to be a kind of disconnect there that made me very unhappy.”
On both the conservative and liberal sides of hotly debated issues, he said, there was something inadequate and inhuman about the standard rhetoric of rationality offered by analytical philosophy.
Chappell was roundly critical of the most prevalent of philosophical approaches to personhood – those that assess ‘personhood’ according to the absence or presence of certain criteria; approaches Chappell collectively labels as ‘criterialism’.
“The idea is that to count as a person you need to be an individual that possesses or possesses enough of these criterial properties.
“If you have those criterial properties then you count as a person. If you don’t have them, you don’t.”
Those properties include rationality, emotion, language and self-consciousness, and were almost always psychological.
“I have never heard a criterialist suggest that being embodied might be an interesting this about persons… since our embodied-ness is already one of the distinctive things about human beings”, he said.
“Why being a human being isn’t one those intrinsic properties [of personhood], I have no idea,” he said.
Prof Chappell’s central objection to the criterialist approach to personhood was that it was totally unreflective of the way people actually experience the personhood of others.
“Unless you are crazy, you don’t spend your time going around sizing up other people, deciding whether they count as persons or not… we don’t treat each other in that interrogative and actually rather hostile way. Nor could we on pain of our own sanity.”
It was reflective of a Cartesian approach to thinking – so named after the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes – of deducing ‘truth’ through thought experiments in ways often unreflective practical experience.
“There is a general fantasy here… that the philosopher should be the heroic explorer all on his own, standing aloft on a mountain top, gazing out on the empty world which he is going to explain, all on his own.
“I think it is very misleading. I think it’s a kind of power fantasy,” Prof Chappell said.
“It is not that sitting all alone in my study with nothing but a pencil and a piece of paper I work out how to do all these things and say “well, it turns out from my logical deduction that abortion’s okay or not okay, or whatever it is”.”
When trying to understand how we become persons in the first place, the image of a lone explorer on a mountain top, discovering truth through his or her own endeavour, was best replaced with that of a mother and child gazing into one another’s faces.
“The truth is we learn to be persons by being treated as persons by those who care for us… We learn to recognise ourselves as individual persons because someone else first treats us that way.
“Think about a mother who says to a baby who is about two weeks old, “what do you think? Should we have some milk now?”
“What is that mother doing? Is she engaging in an idle fantasy? Might she just as well be talking to the wall? Is she on the other hand under the delusion that the two-week-old infant in her arms is capable of understanding her words and it’s capable of giving her a view about whether or not he or she should be given some milk?
“Another case, a boy plonks bricks down in front of his sister and his mother says “that was kind of you to share the bricks with Jane?” Is the mother deceived about the child’s capacity? Does she have to be deceived in order to do this?
“Does she have to think that this child has reasoned it out, “this would be the loving thing to do so I will go ahead and do it?
“No, she doesn’t… On the contrary, what she is doing by seeing the child within that interpretive framework is making that interpretive framework part of the truth about what that child is.
“It’s by being inducted into these practices by other people that we get a grip on this. It’s because people treat us as already fully-fledged members of a form of life that we become part of that form of life.
“It is something that we achieve or something that is achieved for us by the fact that we stand in relationship,” Prof Chappell said.
Prof Chappell said the criterialist approach dominates in philosophy departments at universities throughout the Anglophone world.
“Outside the Catholic system, it is probably what [students] get in Australia. It’s the received view and if you try and offer an alternative to this, I’m speaking from my own experience here, you simply get a quizzical look.
“If people make the connection between what you are saying about criterialism and the fact that you are a theist, as I am – I’m an Episcopalian… instantly they assume that you are on some dogmatic campaign and that you are trying to persuade them of some religious based view…
“That happens far too often and it’s a cheap and easy way of avoiding engagement,” Prof Chappell said.
Humanity was morally central to his own understanding of what constituted personhood, he said, citing the thought of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“Persons matter morally because and insofar as individuals matter… Human persons have a particular place in our interaction with the world which, as things are, members of other species simply don’t occupy.
“We share a form of life with humans that we just don’t share with stick insects or tigers of kookaburras or even dogs.”
Criterialist depictions of the person as autonomous and prior to the kinds of social ties which typify most people’s lives were particularly wanting in the light of the unavoidable experience of dependence.
“We are as [the Scottish virtue ethicist] Alisdair MacIntyre puts it… dependent rational animals.
“Often, we get into relations of dependence on other people which we simply cannot avoid being in because we are disabled or because we are infants.
“We have a place in our form of life for the idea that although humans are all, for instance, rational – all capable of logical reasoning – we are not all master magicians; we’re not all Einstein; some of us are not very bright at all but there is no pass mark here.
“You don’t get your personhood switched off just because you fall ill. It’s becoming increasingly important to insist on that point given the way that a lot of current rhetoric about bioethics is tending to deny it,” Prof Chappell said.
“Rationality is not a criterion in the criterialists’ sense. It’s something we look for in human beings. We think something’s gone wrong if we find a human being who for one reason or another is not capable of rationality.
“Now that might affect the way we treat that individual as an individual [but] it doesn’t affect the fundamentals of the way we treat that human as a person. That person is still in the ballpark of rationality although he or she has gone comatose or gone insane – that person is still in the ballpark.
“There are lots of other examples where a capacity might be lost where it is nonetheless appropriate to go on treating that person.”
When it comes to seemingly intractable debates on the most controversial of issues, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ have a shared interest in understanding how experience and argument interrelate in the formation of their own positions.
“If we want to understand our own views better, and the view of our rhetorical opponents better, we really need to get clearer about what the foundational experiences are that underwrite those views.
“That is going to be a key move if we are going to take forward, in a creative way, in the tradition in which we work.”