Picking up where I left off, lets consider the rest of the candidates for personhood, and lets see why some of them do not quite make the cut.

The bad candidates

Candidate 5: A sea sponge
Ok, so the first four have been slam dunks, and this one is too. A sea sponge is clearly not a person. It does get classified as an animal, for various scientific reasons, but it lacks all of the key features for personhood. It has no complex nervous system such that it would even be capable of sentience. Lacking a nervous system it undertakes no real deliberation, if it can even be said to make choices at all. Finally, sea sponges are just terrible at communicating or indicating their intentions in any way. We can also extrapolate and use the sea sponge as our paradigm, but it should be quite clear that most animals are not persons. In fact we might be hard pressed to find non-mammals that indicate personhood. Though just about any creature with a sufficiently complex nervous system should be a good candidate, we generally stick to mammals. Birds, reptiles, and fish all seem to be too simplistic in their thought process, and they seem to lack deliberation, or at least seem unable to indicate their intentions. So most animals will not be good candidates for personhood since most animal’s nervous systems are far too simple to carry out the complexities necessary for personhood. In conclusion, candidate 5 (and most forms of animal life) is clearly not a person.

Candidate A: Any naturally occurring non-organism
This is really just a big catch all category for minerals, chemicals, compounds, molecules etc. that are non-organic. It might seem a bit much to lump them altogether but to keep things simple, we can eaily conclude that all naturally occuring non-organisms are not persons. (The only possible exception here might be a synthetic person or an artificial intelligence, but they get their own category so stick around.) Candidate A (and all of its ilk) is not a person.

Candidate B: Any plant
Now plants easily fall off the chart of possible persons because all plants seem to lack deliberate choice, and/or the means to indicate intentionality. Some plants may have basic, or rudimentary, sentience. After all plants like the venus fly-trap seem to respond to diverse sensations. Yet plants like that are exceptional, and barring some kind of alien plant which can jack into our spinal cord, we just do not have any real indication, and no scientific data, which would classify anything we now consider to be a plant as a person. Candidate B (and all vegetation of which we know) is not a person.



The Borderline Candidates

Candidate 6: The Artificial Intelligence
Setting aside for the moment that as far as we know there is no such thing as an artificial intelligence or a synthetic person, let’s consider the possibility of one. If we fit our android with sufficiently complex sensory apparatus then they should be able to process various kinds of sensations in order to come up with the basics of sentience. This will depend on our technological limits, but we already have technologies which are capable of recording infrared light, subtle temperature fluctuations, and subtle seismic disturbances. An android should also be able to indicate its intentions, just some simple robotics could do the trick there. The problem with the android is that it might not have true deliberate choice.

An android is going to do whatever it has been programmed to do, and so even if its programming structure is incredibly complex its choices are never free. Its choices are always determined by its programming. Yet in a more complex way we might even say that the android lacks reason, and cannot truly deliberate. Programming languages rely on logic and analysis, but not all human decisions are arrived at logically. We make emotional choices, impulsive choices, and reactionary choices. All of these are done from some kind of deliberative process. This process does not always accord with the rules of logic which a programmer would need to create a complex programming language for an artificial intelligence. So because an android lacks deliberate choice, then candidate #6 is not a good candidate for personhood. (Though we might still have an ethical relationship to a being which is logical, sentient and communicative, even if it is not quite a person).

Candidate 7: The Human Fetus
The most controversial candidate on the list is the human fetus. On the one hand people are tempted to grant the human fetus personhood based solely on its genetics, the fact of it being human. This is a bad idea, however, since clearly human corpses, genetically human, are not persons. We do not grant personhood to mummies, nor to dismembered body parts. If I clone a human ear in a lab, I do not grant personhood to that ear based solely on its genetics. A fetus needs to be a person according to the same criteria as everything else, and the trouble with that is that a fetus lacks many, or even all, of the features of personhood at various stages of its development. A zygote is clearly not a person, it has no sentience, no intellectual capacity of any kind, and no ability to communicate or be intentional. A sponge is a better candidate for personhood than a zygote, since a sponge at least has more complex sensations than a zygote does. The embryo has the same problems as the zygote, but even more so. We like to claim that embryos have potential personhood, insofar as they could develop into persons if implanted in a healthy uterus. Yet an non-implanted embryo will not ever develop into a fetus and thus a frozen embryo remains in a perpetual state of non-but-still-potential personhood. Now a fetus is an embryo that has begun to develop into a full blown infant and a recognizable human being. Yet prior to the development of at least the nervous system and brain, it is not clear that the fetus has sentience. Clearly the fetus has no deliberate choice prior to the development of the brain, and without the brain its not clear that the fetus has any intentionality to indicate.

Now the real problem with the human fetus is that if it is able to develop fully then it will, in a relatively short period of a few months, become a functioning person. A fetus does indicate its intentions, after a certain period of time, through kicks flips and punches, and spontaneous labor is nothing if not a clear indication of a fetus’ intent to be born. A fetus has clear sentience also, since after a certain stage of development the fetus will avoid the sonic waves of a fetal heart monitor or an ultrasound machine. Now does a fetus give off clear evidence of deliberate choice? That is probably the most difficult to prove since a fetus is not really able to choose to do anything other than move around. Yet a fetus does seem to choose motion, and choose sleep at certain stages of its development. Though admittedly such choices may be mere instinct, and we might not develop true deliberate choice till we are toddlers.

The only other way around the apparent lack of personhood which a fetus, embryo, or zygote has is to posit a spiritual personhood. One can say that a zygote is en-souled, that is it gains an eternal spiritual essence in the form of the soul, at conception. Thus from conception the zygote has a fully developed mind, intellect, sentience, and desire because all of these traits of personhood reside in the soul rather than in the body. However even if I posit that this is possible there seems to be no way for the zygote or embryo to indicate this to me. An en-souled human in the early stages of its development lacks the ability to communicate its intentions, and thus lacks one of the essential elements of personhood.

I can further get around that problem by claiming to have a divine revelation, or a spiritual insight into this issue, but consider the following. None of the major monotheistic religions claimed that life began at conception prior to the 19th century. That is, none of the mystics, mediums, priests, prophets, founders, or significant figures in any of these religions knew, based on their sacred texts, when life began. Then in the 1800’s certain figures decided to reinterpret those sacred texts in light of advances in medical science so that the date of personhood could be moved back further. In fact for most of recorded history in both religious and medical circles life was presumed to begin at the quickening, the stage at which the mother can feel the fetus move.

So in conclusion, candidate 7 is a person, but only minimally so, and only after the development of its brain and nervous system. If ensouling is what makes something a person, then candidate 7 still lacks full personhood until it can effectively communicate its personhood through self-directed movement.

Candidate 8: God

Leaving aside for the moment, the question of whether God is real, God actually seems to be a genuinely bad candidate for personhood. Religions and theologies do not agree on exactly what God is but the general idea of the supreme monotheistic deity has certain basic similarities. God has no body, or at least God is not bound by the limitations of a body, so strictly speaking God is not sentient. God does not feel sensations, but rather most thinkers tend to agree that God knows sensations. That is, for God sensations are known in perfect clarity as pure abstract thoughts, but they are not experienced in the limited way that people experience them. Also God has a difficult time indicating its intentions. There are numerous sacred texts and a universe full of potential clues to God’s ideas, and God is even claimed to make appearances and speak and communicate to people. Yet the profound lack of consensus on exactly what God wants makes God a rather poor communicator. Or else God is evasive on purpose, but evasiveness may be mistaken for disinterest or even worse, non-reality. If the store is always closed whenever I go to visit it I may begin to suspect that it is not a real store, despite whatever my friends say about what it is like when it is open. Yet God is supposed to have deliberate choice, and God’s choice is supposed to be supremely deliberate since God is said to be omniscient and thus knowing everything. That might actually make trouble for us, since if God knows everything then does God know what God is going to do, thus removing the choice element from God’s deliberation?

Setting aside my theological confusion about what God is, or whether God is, God does not seem to be a good candidate for personhood. Though most theologians will back that up by saying that God is better than a mere person, God is supreme and beyond petty little personhood. Fair enough, but God can at least act like, or take on the form of, a person when God so chooses. This is also found in all the major religions, and God manifests or appears to persons in a form they will recognize, the form of a person.

Of course if there is no God then this point is moot, but it is still worth considering. So in conclusion Candidate 8 is not a person, but we are generally ok with this since candidate 8 is able to act like a person when they interact with us.

Candidate Y: The Alien
This candidate could also be said to cover bigfoot, fairies, ghosts, water kelpies, or any other kind of fantastic creature which human persons claim to have run into at various points in history. If any of these things are persons then they will also be sentient, deliberate, intentional choosers. To a certain degree many of these creatures do seem to indicate personhood, thoughmaybe not Wendigo or sea monsters. Certainly bigfoot, fairies, ghosts, and aliens all seem to be great candidates for personhood. They all fit the signs quite clearly, but the problem here is a simple one. It does us no good to assign personhood to fictional beings. Fictional beings depend entirely on the directions and actions of their authors and creators, and thus lack deliberate choice, even if they have the other essential features of personhood. So fantastic creatures are not persons if they are fictions, hoaxes, or inventions of a fevered imagination. These creatures must be capable of independent choice, and so they must be independent and real beings in order to be considered for personhood. So candidate Y has the strong potential to be a person (as doe all fantastic creatures) but we must first prove that this candidate is real, since non-real entities are not able to be persons.


This section ended up being much longer than I thought and I have essentially answered the question I meant to pose in part 3 of my original outline. So, no, a human being is not automatically a person. But there are still some issues to be considered in trying to make sense of human personhood. So section 3 will continue as planned.