The next stage of my discussion will be Part 2.1: Rights and the Good Candidates for Personhood.

Prior to listing the candidates, however, I need to explain something I left off of my definition of person. I need to explain why I did not also say that a person automatically has rights. The reasons for this may not be completely obvious, and since rights are an important issue with persons I will need to explain myself.

A preliminary definition of rights will suffice for now. A right is a claim or entitlement which a being is owed based on its affiliations, actions, or nature. So I tend to think I have the right to free speech as a citizen of the United States, so that would be a right based on my affiliations. I also think I have a right to live in the house on which I pay rent, so that would be something I am owed because of my action which creates the legal agreement of the lease. Finally I might also claim that I have certain “human” rights, and therefore I am entitled to certain things simply based on my biological nature, or the set of essential facts about my person. We may need to revise this definition but based on this then we should understand why persons do not automatically possess rights.

First, persons do not automatically have legal rights. This should not be too controversial since it is within the purview of each legal body to determine to whom they will give out rights and privileges. Sometimes this includes persons, and sometimes not, so it cannot be an essential part of the definition of a person that they have legal rights. This should also be clear when you consider that persons may live and function outside of legal societies, in which case they would have no legal rights since they have no legal membership. Legal rights tend to be based on affiliations, and/or actions. Contractual rights, and the rights of citizens are good examples of legal rights. Yet legal rights are rarely, though occasionally, based on nature. The reason for this should be easy enough to grasp. If a legal body grants some being rights based on their natural biological state, then that legal body would have to grant such rights even to beings which fall outside of their legal jurisdiction, and even possibly within the legal jurisdiction of other societies. Basically in order to have legal rights, one must be a member of a legal society which grants you rights as a member of that society.

Second, persons do not automatically have moral rights. The basis for moral rights will be obscure and controversial, depending on one’s system of ethics and morality. So I might have moral rights simply because I have a certain biological nature. Or I might have moral rights so long as I act in a good and moral way. Or I might have moral rights so long as I am a member of the right groups and or religions. There is no single universal set of rules, to which everyone agrees, for granting or denying moral rights to beings. Indeed part of the issue of personhood in the first place is the idea that if I am able to define a being as a person then that person now has moral rights, and possibly also legal rights. However I also tend to think that persons may give up or forfeit their rights, as they choose, so a person may have forfeited, of their own free will, the rights I think they deserve. Moreover a person may have moral rights which are overridden by the rights of another person. That is presumably the criminal has a moral right to freedom, but that right may be overridden when they pose a danger to other citizens who also have the right to freedom. In any case there is no universal consensus as to how a being gains access to moral rights.

 Having dispensed with the problems of rights, we may return to the idea of a person as a sentient, deliberate, intentional, chooser. We do this now in order to try to consider some of the criteria for possible candidates for personhood.


The Good candidates

Candidate 1: Myself
It might not be a foregone conclusion that I am a person, so I should determine to what degree I fit the criteria. I am clearly sentient, insofar as I can experience a broad range of sensations. My senses and feelings are acute enough to detect the contours of the keys on this keyboard or hear the clack-clack that they make as I strike them. I can even further feel the coolness of the air, and the texture of the clothes currently hanging on my body. Yes I am sentient. I am also a deliberate chooser. I deliberate and think about which words to type and how best to express my thoughts. I choose the words which will best convey my meaning and I avoid frivolous or vulgar language in expressing my rationality. Yes I am deliberate, and yes I make choices. I also indicate my intentions quite easily. Typing words and posting them on the internet is a rather complex way to communicate my thinking, planning, and desiring, but it does have the desired effect. I put these words here so that you may read them and know that I have intentions and all that is rather effective communication. So yes I indicate my intentions quite well.
Candidate 1 is a person, and it is a person in very clear and distinct manner.

Candidate 2: My partner
My partner is the next best candidate here since my partner resembles me in all the superficial physical characteristics. My partner is humanoid, engages in speech and communication, and interacts with me in both an intellectual and physical capacity. My partner exhibits personhood in all the same ways that I do, but with one key difference. I observe these ways indirectly. I can directly know for myself that I am a person simply by having direct access to my thoughts, but I can only know my partner’s personhood by observing her actions. She gives off a variety of reactions to different sensible objects and situations, so she is clearly sentient. She often pauses and looks contemplative before beginning a course of action. She will even engage me in conversation to let me know that she is deliberating about making a choice. Sometimes I assist her in these deliberations and sometimes I do not but in any case it is easily apparent that she is engaged in deliberate choice. Finally she indicates to me that she has intentions, by touch, gesture, speech, written notes, and body language. It is also worth noting that I am easily able to discern her personhood because she indicates personhood in all the ways that I do.

This brings up an important point. The most significant criteria in determining whether a being is a person is the degree to which they can indicate or communicate their intentionality. It will not suffice that a being looks like me, since statues look like me and are not persons. It will not even suffice that a being has the same biological structure and genetics as myself, since human corpses are not persons either. No, a being must indicate their personhood. So, candidate 2, my partner, is a person and she is a person in a very clear and distinct manner. Also all other such beings who are similar enough to my partner are also clearly persons, so almost all human beings can easily be classified as persons. (I say almost all, since I may yet run across a human being which lacks some of the key elements of personhood, but that is a point I will consider more in future.)

Candidate 3: A Chimpanzee
Our basic tendency is to stop looking for persons once we have decided that human beings are persons but this would be wrong since there are in fact many creatures which fit the category of personhood. Chimpanzees exhibit clear signs of sentience, deliberate choice, and they are quite effective at communicating and indicating their intentions. Also, we tend to not eat chimpanzees, probably because we are weirded out by the idea of eating something that is so person-like. Yet it would be fair to extend this to all of the great apes, especially given how complex their social interactions are. Candidate 3 (and all great apes) are persons in a very clear and distinct manner.

Candidate 4: A Bottlenose Dolphin
This one is almost as easy as the chimpanzee since dolphins also exhibit clear signs of personhood. Just try looking up some information about the behavior of dolphins and you are going to find clear signs of sentience (echolocation alone is fascinating), deliberation (dolphins kill sharks by ramming them in their vulnerable little weak spots, their gills, that is freaking smart), and dolphins even have what appears to be a complex language of squeals and whistles. We generally do not worry about dolphins being persons, since we do not often interact with them. However if dolphins, and other marine mammals, are clearly persons then perhaps we should revise the way we use these creatures for our entertainment. Candidate 4 (and many other marine mammals like whales and orcas) are persons.

Next time, in part 2.2 (of 2.2) we will look at the bad candidates and the borderline candidates.