Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Trent Horn on "The Problem of Personhood"

Dear Mr. Horn,

Someone kindly alerted me to the fact that you discussed some of the arguments I have reviewed on the topic of abortion on your apologetics podcast. Thanks for that discussion there!

I hope you watched those videos that I made for classes, read our book Thinking Critically About Abortion, and have reviewed some of my other materials that are especially relevant to what you said, such as my reply to Christopher Tollefsen on what might (and might not) follow, morally, from our having “rational natures,” and my review of Francis Beckwith’s book.

I’ve taught logic, philosophy, and ethics at the college (and, occasionally, medical school) level for 20 years or so, and I’ve published a fair amount on this issue and many others.

My main motivation for engaging these issues is just that I believe many academic philosophers know a lot about them and so should share their knowledge to help improve the quality of engagement on these issues (and, of course, people who honestly don’t know much about these topics should learn about them from experts). Given that, I want to briefly respond to some of the things you say about personhood, at least in the transcript that I read. 

First, although I’m not sure you are endorsing this reasoning, you mention that some people seem to argue this way:
1. Some people have been wrongly not recognized as people; some people have been wrongfully considered non-persons.
2. Therefore, there is something bad or problematic about the concept of person.
This is a bad argument. The problem is that it depends on this false premise: 
3. If a concept can be or has been misapplied, then it is a bad or problematic concept.
The problem with misapplying a concept is the concept is misapplied. If someone calls a brick a person, or a person a brick, the problem isn’t with any concepts of “person” or “brick”: the problem is the person’s misuse of the concepts.

That some people fail(ed) miserably at recognizing the personhood of certain people doesn’t show any problem with the concept of personhood: the problem is (and was) these people’s mistaken misunderstanding of personhood or their ill-will in applying what they know about it or other relevant mistaken beliefs about the people they claimed aren’t (or weren’t) persons. (This point applies to almost anything: take any concept “X”: that some people misidentify things as X’s doesn’t mean that X is a problematic concept or that nothing is an X or anything like that.)

To get to the more important issues, you asked these important questions:
  • “So, how do we define persons?
  • How do we come up with a proper definition?”
I want to point out that - although perhaps I missed it - you don’t seem to directly respond to your second question, which seems to be about what methods one would use to find the correct definition of “person” (or anything else). Instead, you seem to just propose a definition, instead of first asking how one would best answer the question.

In our book, we offer some thinking-activities or discussion questions to help people reason towards definitions of persons. Here they are:
1. We are persons now. Either we will always be persons or we will cease being persons. If we will cease to be persons, what can end our personhood? If we will always be persons, how could that be? 
2. Make a list of things that are definitely not persons. Make a list of individuals who definitely are persons. Make a list of imaginary or fictional personified beings which, if existed, would be persons: these beings that fit or display the concept of person, even if they don’t exist. What explains the patterns of the lists?
These activities can lead someone to reasonably accept a broadly psychological explanatory theory of what persons are: persons are conscious, aware beings. Such a view has been popular ever since John Locke, although it has been modified and improved, especially in recent decades: the theory doesn’t require “rational abilities,” if this means pretty fancy thinking; it can allow for just consciousness or awareness, that there is a way it is for that individual to be, from their own point of view.

Additional support for this type of hypothesis also can come from considered judgments about the ethics of killing and allowing to die various human beings such as brain-dead human beings and anencephalic newborns: if they are persons, but persons are prima facie (meaning, usually, or unless there's a good reason) wrong kill or let die, but these human beings can permissibly be treated in ways very different from how most children and adults are treated, then something has to go: some belief here has to change. (Update: this type of view agrees with what you, Mr. Horn, say, that its "not of what you are currently able to do, but in virtue of just what you are," that makes you have, say, rights.) 

You propose that persons are “individual member[s] of a rational kind.” Maybe, but why? And how does one come to a reasonable answer on this type of question anyway?

This type of theory needs to be adequately explained: what exactly is a kind? Why is our kind the “rational” kind and not something else, since there are other options? (These questions come up in with some arguments about ethics and animals). Most importantly, however, what follows and does not follow, morally, for being of a “rational kind”? If an answer is “the right to life,” why not also a right to autonomy? Why not any rights related to responsibility? There are hard questions here about this type of proposal and at least unbiased, rational inquirers want good answers if they are to believe anything on these matters.

For better or worse, I haven’t here reviewed every, or even many, details of what you wrote or said, although I would be willing to take the time to do so.  If you are interested in a seeking-to-be-very careful, patient, honest, and, I hope, intellectually-virtuous discussion of these issues, let me know. Nobody should be a "drive-by critic" in these days of the internet since misunderstandings can so easily be corrected and positive discussion and interactions promoted. If you are interested in that, let me know! Thanks!


Nathan Nobis, Ph.D.

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