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Author Topic: What features are essential to personhood?  (Read 5820 times)
MoQingbird
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« Reply #15 on: 01/01/11 @ 15:32 »

Isn't it interesting that philosophers take the example of how to define the boundary between blue and green as an example of how difficult it is to partition a continuum, while out in the real world we'd just call such a troublesome color blue-green : )

One last thing on colors: it is very common for shades to be named after some real world referent (duck egg blue, magnolia, forest green, lime green, etc.).  We may not be equipped with an objective color sense, but we can roughly agree on what color a magnolia is (though I'll bet 90% of people get their definition of magnolia from the paint and not the flower).  Meanwhile, in the specialist world of graphic design there are rather more systematic color distinctions, like the pantone reference charts.  As soon as one has a need for greater color discrimination, a system for discriminating is developed.  This would seem to the normal, pragmatic response where ever people need to partition a continuum into discrete chunks.  This problem feels like a close relative to the Sorites Paradox.

Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Feeling-What-Happens-Emotion-Consciousness/dp/0099288761, describes several neurological phenomena that seem to 'take out' various aspects of consciousness, suggesting to me that personhood is formed from a complex interaction of many discrete capabilities.  Take out any one of these attentional, intentional, emotional,  self- and/or other-aware faculties and the person stops behaving like a person.  For instance, in the case of epileptic automatism, an absence seizure leaves the individual physically ok - their eyes are open and they maintain muscle tone, i.e. they don't fall to the floor - but they are completely unresponsive to the world.  The absence seizure is then followed by a brief period of absence automatism in which the 'person' can perform basic tasks like drinking a cup of water, getting up and leaving a room, even walking down the street.  At the end of the absence automatism period they 'come to', confused about where they are and how they got there, and they have no recollection at all of what they did during the seizure.  Were they persons during the seizure?  It's as if their brains were rebooting one layer at a time from the bottom up, and that last layer was the one that was able to respond critically, and in a goal directed way, to the environment and others.

Once upon a time we would have classified people into three groups: persons, the insane, and the savage.  Personhood would only go to the first, on the grounds that they were functional human beings within our social context, and even then persons with the wrong skin color might have been ejected from that category on the grounds of skin color rather than functionality.  Nowadays, the savage has disappeared to be replaced by people with different cultures, and the insane are subject to a much more refined classification system.  And we've added a new category: the living dead.  100 years ago we didn't have respirators and heart-lung machines.  A person subjected to severe trauma either lived or died, more-or-less according to their natural ability to recover.  Our improved care for the injured has generated the need for a more refined idea of what constitutes a life worth maintaining vs. one that should be terminated by pulling the plug.

Why pull the plug?  Because the unresponsive patient is tying up resources that could be better used to support responsive patients.  Turning people off for financial reasons seems like a 'slippery slope' place to be, but I would suggest that it has always been so.  A modern intensive care unit is phenomenally expensive to run, but it is a good way up slope from where we were 100 years ago - it buys a body time to heal when the same body would have died back in the day.  In the past, the live or die issue was largely out of our hands, but money still played a role in the treatment of the insane.  Bedlam was a byword for harsh treatment of the insane, but if you had enough money you could afford to pay for your own staff to treat an insane relative humanely.  And nowadays you could put a comatose, brain-dead relative in a private ward and sustain their body for the rest of its 'natural' life if you had the cash to do it.

Where we are on the slippery slope depends primarily on what we can afford to spend according to our personal and/or societal resources.  Our value judgement/cultural preferences are secondary to this.

Okay, that sounds like a cold, theoretical way of describing how we treat people, so let's bring it back to reality. A friend of mine cares part-time for her father who has Parkinson's Disease.  She describes the horror that gradually builds up in her as he goes for longer and longer periods over time without showing any signs of his old personality, and the relief she experiences when he suddenly has a lucid moment and she realizes that, as she puts it, 'he's still in there'.  She shares his care with her two siblings, but all three of them work full-time, live at least two hours away from him, and used up all their holiday last year providing cover for him.  This year they are going to need to spend even more time looking after him, but they still need to work to feed themselves and their families, too.  Right now they're wrestling with the problem of when to put him into a home.  I think that time will come when there are no longer any signs that 'he's still in there,' when he no longer recognizes them.  So, perhaps personhood is more to do with the other's recognition and response to us, than our response to them?

And moving from the personal to the societal response to the personhood issue, here's something for philosophers to ponder: the first of the Baby Boomer generation has started retiring and in 20-30 years they will put a huge strain on our welfare and health systems.  What rights should they have when the time comes?
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Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #16 on: 01/01/11 @ 16:13 »

My apologies: I am just another continuum-obsessed philosopher.  Embarrassed

Continuums are philosophically interesting, though. As you say, there are practical rule-of-thumb approaches to most such problems. In some cases, this shows that what we are dealing with is conventional and subject to change. Colour is an example of this, so strictly speaking colour 'boundaries' aren't philosophically - or scientifically - problematic. I was just using it as an example, really. There are other things about colour which are more interesting, but I think there is nothing problematic with just considering colour a continuum - a spectrum, in fact!  Grin

Where it all becomes problematic - and more interesting - is where we ask the question: is the continuum scenario/sorites paradox something which undermines more fundamental concepts. I think it is. In fact, the continuum is perhaps not the exact analogy for the type of problem that it represents. Going back to personhood, we find that it is possible to envisage the possession of the qualities relevant to personhood as like ingredients in a cake. So, we need consciousness, we need a living body, we need autonomy and a sense of self, and so on. However, these don't exist in a smooth continuum, as if developing from amoeba to lizard to mammal. We can imagine instances were things are unconscious but not in possession of language, or possessing language but not rational, or whatever. Going into sci-fi land, we might imagine a conscious, rational entity without a living body, maintained on computer (which, since it is only data, would make it also potentially not unique - since data can be copied). I know this is far fetched, but, you know, if Einstein can ride on a light beam, then I can imagine downloading consciousness onto a computer!  Wink

The cake analogy therefore reveals that categorisation is problematic. Of course, rule-of-thumb would once again say, "let's just call it a different sort of cake". Well, of course, but can we always use rule of thumb? Some philosophers would say yes, and that our categories are flexible entities. I tend to agree, but it does leave all sorts of problems - especially moral ones - in a bit of a mess.

I did my thesis on the definition of death, so I've thought a fair bit about this. I've no problem with using moral arguments to determine how we treat people: X is less capable and less useful, so Y, who is more capable and more useful will get healthcare. I'm not sure I agree with where this leads us - as you say, it would seem to skew society in favour of the already well off. However, it IS at least a straight forward moral dilemma, not one of definition. What I have a problem with, however, is where certain people use moral arguments in order to skew the definition of what a person is: X is no longer useful to society, so X is not a person. We shouldn't let moral concerns influence definitions. Often, I think, we use this approach to hide uncomfortable moral decisions. But we shouldn't: Let's call a spade a spade.

So, I agree with pretty much everything you're saying, I think. However, I think what it points to is a fundamental problem with concepts. If the 'cake' problem is a genuine one, and if it applies broadly to fundamental concepts (e.g. personhood), and if we routinely use rule-of-thumb and utility-driven concerns to help us decide these boundaries, then we are looking at a non-rational basis for conceptual definitions. What is or is not a person is therefore, at bottom, driven by moral concerns, which can in turn be unpacked in terms of self-interest or biological drives.
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MoQingbird
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« Reply #17 on: 01/01/11 @ 18:37 »

The cake metaphor is excellent, and seems to identify a third variation on the Sorities Paradox.

1. (Sorities) How do we partition a continuous integer sequence?
2. (Colors) How do we partition a continuous real number spectrum?
3. (Cakes) How do we partition a system made up of N discrete, variable quantities?

Fruit cakes come in a great variety.  The ingredients vary and can interact in complex ways.  The results can be moist and sticky, or dry and crumbly.  Some might leave out the mixed fruit and just use raisins and dates.  Others might splash a bit of sherry or whiskey into the mix.

The variables in a cake define a sort of N-dimensional cake landscape, rather like the fitness landscape that organisms or genes inhabit in the world of evolution and natural selection.

Ditto with personhood, and what we're trying to decide is where to fence off a piece of the landscape so that everything within it has personhood.  What we'd really like is a rational, objective and absolute means of defining what's inside and what's outside the fence, but we keep falling back on the subject, pragmatic, utilitarian roots of our normal decision making practices, much as the judges at the local Women's Institute fall back on their personal tastes when it comes to judging the fruit cake competition!

Now here's what I think is an interesting point: evolution within a fitness landscape only depends on relative fitness.  If species A and B are competing in the same niche, and A is only slightly fitter than species B then it will come to predominate.  Same thing with the cake competition: the judges only have to order the cakes by their *relative* merits.  This is a much easier task than Sorites' one.  It's easy to say if one person is balder than another, whereas defining the line between bald and not-bald is fundamentally an arbitrary decision.  Similarly, it's easy to say if one color is greener or bluer than another.

When it comes to personhood, it can be relatively easy to decide if one individual has more personhood relative to another (compared to defining a pass/fail criteria), and so decide who to allocate resources to. 

Note that the availability of resources changes the size of the fence that we can put up in the personhood landscape.
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Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #18 on: 01/01/11 @ 21:37 »

Well, 'more' is still a problematic term when we're thinking in terms of cake. Cakes X and Y are missing different ingredients - which is more cakelike? This is the problem with the cake type problem: unless we consider one ingredient more important than the other, then there will be situations where X and Y are equally not cakes (or equally so!). "more" or "less" would seem to apply cleanly only to the sorites and colour examples. Cake, as you say, is n-dimensional, so 'more' is complicated (at least in some situations).

The comparison with evolution is interesting. If we were to define personhood according to who is "the most fit", then - apart from the uproar (social Darwinism, etc.) - we would seem to be applying quite woolly criteria. How do we know who is of most benefit to society? If we start making those decisions based on current knowledge, we may be wrong in the future; also, we don't know what people are capable of. Look at Christy Brown, Christopher Nolan, etc. Even Einstein was an average school student. The extremes are easier to decide, maybe, but that would seem to ignore the value of life argument.

Another problem with evolution - which I hesitate to raise here, but we can always take it somewhere else - is the notion of 'fitness'. Evolutionists sometimes ignore the fact that there is not a one-to-one relationship between the possession of significant features and survival. Creatures can frequently survive in spite of the most unfit characteristics. Look at the T Rex's arms! (I know it's now extinct, but it was king of the dinosaurs for a time!). It would be a mistake therefore to look at feature Y and say, with any certainty, "This is why this creature survived". Maybe it was just in the right place at the right time. There is an often ignored chance, incalculability element here I think.

If we apply this to personhood/allocation of resources, then it would introduce a further unknown. We are not saying "we'll let the fittest survive", but rather "we'll choose who we think deserve to survive". Also, possession of the most personhood (even if that weren't problematic) is a dubious boon to society. Lots of personhood could mean a criminal mastermind or psychopath. Also, beings with no personhood could be of benefit - as organ donors...

Sorry, I'm rambling a bit. Sort me out!
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MoQingbird
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« Reply #19 on: 03/01/11 @ 18:17 »

Sorry, I'm rambling a bit. Sort me out!

Sorry to be so slow in replying, but this whole thread - especially the n-dimensional/evolution bit - has come to feel like there's a Great Big Truth lurking behind it, so I've been leaving it to my right brain to sort it out.  Anyway, this morning something big and wooly started to filter over to my left brain.  Right now I'm working on how to turn 'big and wooly' into 'concise and precise'.  As personhood is only tangential to it, I'll post something in 'Other Philosophical Topics' when I've got it down to, say, 5000 words.   Wink
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MoQingbird
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« Reply #20 on: 16/01/11 @ 13:33 »

Re: slippery slopes...

Here's a snippet from an article in the New Yorker reviewing a biography of JS Mill that brought the slippery slope discussion we had in this thread back to mind. 

Quote
It’s also true that many things the Victorian Mill couldn’t even have imagined being asked to tolerate have come to be tolerated under the sway of the argument he began. The idea that people would demand the freedom to practice sodomy would, I think, have astonished Mill as much as anyone else in his day. (The topic isn’t mentioned anywhere in his writings, though Bentham did write a courageous essay against hanging men for it—and then thought better of publishing the piece.) Yet, demanded on Millian grounds—no harm; no foul—the freedom has been granted. In a sense, social conservatives like Rick Santorum are right: there is a slippery slope leading from one banned practice to the next. Give rights to blacks, and the next thing you know you are giving rights to women and sodomites and then the sodomites are renting formal wear and ordering flowers for their weddings. The slippery slope is what Mill called liberty. Every time we slide a little farther down, what we find is not a descent toward Hell but more air, and more people breathing free.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/10/06/081006crat_atlarge_gopnik#ixzz1BCNKYon4

I'm willing to bet that 98% of Victorian society would have forecast the end of civilization following the legalization (or rather, de-illegalization) of consenting gay relationships and marriages (rather as a lot of right-wing Americans are doing today).  Of course, we don't want to relax all our legal/moral constraints - it wouldn't do to, say, liberalize the laws regarding murder, though I would vote for a law to de-illegalize self-euthanasia in the face of intense, medically untreatable pain that renders life intolerable.
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Odyzzeus
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« Reply #21 on: 06/05/11 @ 19:47 »

The OP question seems quite vague and arbitrary to me, but I'm quite new to this so I may be missing a whole lot of pre-requisite definitions.

Assuming that is not the case, and that we are infact working roughly within the parameters of the common dictionary definitions of 'person', the question seems somewhat anthrocentric, which begs the question ; why? Why limit the definition based on biological origins? Perhaps this will come in use through advances in genetic engineering, as a means to discriminate? Obviously the ethics is one part of it, but so is its utility and thus the purpose of our efforts.

Anyway, just sticking with an anthropocentric view it might be helpful to collate the problems first, which leads me to the following:

Are we going to lump people with multiple personalities into one person?
How do we define people with a dead corpus collotum, who have two distinct people in one skull?

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Odyzzeus
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« Reply #22 on: 06/05/11 @ 20:03 »

Reading through the posts here I see a lot of boolean thinking going on, with analogies to defined colours and so on. This level of pedantism seems to me to be excessive since the purpose of the definition of 'personhood' doesn't seem to have been established. Furthermore I'm not convinced this classical style of thinking is really going to do the job. We are going to need an object oriented model as a minimum IMHO.
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MoQingbird
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« Reply #23 on: 06/05/11 @ 21:02 »

Quote
Are we going to lump people with multiple personalities into one person?
How do we define people with a dead corpus collotum, who have two distinct people in one skull?

It gets worse, Odyzzeus.  Smiley

I'm reading Incognito, by David Eaglemen, at the moment.  He's making the neurological case for even the most rational person's brain being composed of multiple, rival sub-brains.  The Self - that voice that you hear in your head when you think - is only one of the many modules, and not a very powerful one at that.  The Self is just the PR agent for Brain Corp, whose primary purpose is to deal with all the other PR agents that the other brains are fronting.

Add to that the fact that brains are fuzzy pattern forming/matching systems and a whole lot of philosophical work in search of absolute answers starts to fall apart.
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Odyzzeus
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« Reply #24 on: 06/05/11 @ 23:03 »

That's an interesting idea, one he is basing on proper and credible scientific research I hope. It would seem to fit broadly with the cartoon comic notion of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I would say however it is hard to reconcile such a view as you have expressed it with my own experience. At best it would mean that these competing mes would be more or less be queuing to 'speak' since there is never more than one voice in my head at any one time. However if the neurological data suggests successive different regions of the brain firing during a though process and isolated from external stimulus then I would be inclined to agree.
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Odyzzeus
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« Reply #25 on: 06/05/11 @ 23:40 »

After further thought, I see the error in my 'successive firing' notion, since it isn't necessary for the vocal arbitrator.

I want to read this book now as it has set me off on a profound hypothesis about the possibility of basic emotive functions having peices 'hived-off' and co-opted into far more refined functions that form rational thought, dependent on brain excercise and experience of course.
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MoQingbird
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« Reply #26 on: 07/05/11 @ 00:06 »

It's a very readable book and he's reporting on solid experimental evidence.

The PR agent has control over your words; the other departments are non-verbal in their influences.

And consider this...

      When you hear that Self-voice in your head, who's doing the listening?

Wink
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