Ninth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education

2014 July 31 - August 03

Body, Brain and
Personal Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Fernando Vidal
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani

Abstract: Bernard Baertschi
Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Geneva, SWITZERLAND

Can one still speak meaningfully of personhood today? Challenging Farah and Heberlein’s argument
The concept of “personhood“ or of “what to be a person consists“ of  has been a central tenet in the moral status question for a long time. A person, Boethius stated already in the 5th century, is an individual endowed with reason (or rationality). Aquinas, Locke and Kant have adopted this definition. Its centrality has been contested by several moral philosophers, notably by utilitarians (they believe that the property to possess moral status is not reason, but sentience) and by environmental ethicists. Recently a new charge has been leveled by neuroscientists and neuroethicists. In a paper entitled “Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?“ published in 2007, Martha Farah and Andrea Heberlein have argued that this concept should be dispensed with. They argue that it is philosophically unsuitable and neurobiologically an automatic response based on an innate brain module which is dedicated to face recognition and is alien to morality (and often even to reality – they speak of  “illusion“). For these authors, we would be well advised to turn to a conception of moral status grounded in interests, a conception akin to utilitarianism.
In my contribution, I will examine the charge. Conceding that the concept of  “personhood“ is based on an innate brain module, I will question the idea that this fact discredits it as a criterium for moral status. My answer will be negative, because a psychological property like rationality has no intrinsinc feature that could exclude it from playing a moral role. Moreover, a property like “having interests“ fares not better, despite what the authors seem to think (in fact, the gist of their argument has nothing to do with neuroscience, but with the classic argument that “personhood“ is an unusable concept, because it is loose; an objection I will also answer). Utilitarian thinkers seem to hope that neuroscience will buttress their position (Greene has developed arguments going in the same direction not in relation with moral status, but with normative theories); but I don’t believe they have succedded till now. Philosophical arguments still stand true when normative questions are debated.