As philosopher Christopher Kaczor points out in his book The Ethics of Abortion, once we ask the question if all human beings are persons we already philosophically entertain the premise on which the question is based. “Indeed, in answering this question, one presupposes or reinforces at least implicitly a general theory of personhood.” The idea being entertained is that a being can be a living human organism and yet lack certain capacities that would make that organism a person. Additionally, only persons have rights.
There are sophisticated defenses of this position (e.g. Michael Tooley, Peter Singer, and David Boonin) as well as criticisms of the personhood theory (e.g. Kaczor, Francis Beckwith, Patrick Lee, and J.P. Moreland), but one of the principle problems with performance accounts of human value is who gets to decide what capacities or traits are necessary to be considered a person. Only persons can be wronged. Once you give authority for one group of human beings to categorize another group as not persons, you give them the authority to say that there is nothing that violates the rights of those other humans. Non-personal humans are simply not subjects of moral consideration.
I was recently working with a group of students on logic. Specifically, we were discussing how to categorize things into genus and species and increasing extension or intension. Not the biological classifications, but the logical categories where an object like an oven could be a species of the broader category (kitchen appliances) that may also include other species (dishwashers, refrigerators, stove top ranges, etc.) while also being a genus with species of its own (microwave ovens, gas ovens, toaster ovens, etc.). I asked the students to give me a thing that we could use to begin increasing extension (moving toward broader categories). One young lady offered up, “Persons.”
I hesitated for a moment and told her, “I’m going to put this up, but this could get interesting from a philosophical perspective.” The class looked confused at my comment.
“Alright, we start at persons. Can someone give me a step up to a broader category? Let’s increase extension.”
A young man spoke up, “Humans.”
“And there it is,” I said.
I asked the young man, “ So do you think it makes sense to say that there are human beings that are not persons. That person is a proper species of the category of human?”
The class looked uneasy, but the young man hesitantly said, “I think so.”
“Okay,” I nodded at him. “Let’s break this out then.” I drew the diagram on the white board. I wrote “Human” and then drew a segment down and connected to another line that I drew under human. I drew a short segment from then end of that line down and then wrote “Person.” I drew three more segments down from the line. Under the next one to the right I wrote “Human Embryos.” Under the next one to the right I wrote “Human Fetuses.”
“Would you say it is fair to argue that these proposed species are human but mutually exclusive from the category of persons? Is it fair to argue that they are a separate species from persons?”
They looked very nervous. The young man thought about it and honestly answered, “I don’t know.”
“Fair enough. How about I put something up there that was once argued as a mutually exclusive species from valuable persons.” I went to the next segment to the right dropping down from the main line and wrote the word “Jews.” The students were clearly horrified and the room was uncomfortably quiet. “Okay, I understand why that makes you uncomfortable. How about we try a different one. One that our own Supreme Court affirmed in a majority opinion is a species separate from valuable persons.” I erased “Jews” and replaced it with “African Slaves.”
The room was silent and still.
“Do you see why that is so tricky? It sounds reasonable at first, but dividing up valuable human persons from the rest of the non-valuable humanity quickly gets dangerous. We don’t usually begin the whole enterprise because we want to identify non-personal humans for the purpose of being overly kind to them. It is the manner in which we begin to justify the worst things we have ever done to our fellow man.”
Christopher Kaczor sums it up brilliantly:
“Every previous division of humankind into two classes in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will – men exploiting women, whites selling blacks, the rich using the poor, the healthy overpowering the sickly – and are universally recognized as evil. In every case, the powerful judged the vulnerable as lacking some characteristic which, in the view of the powerful, made the weaker human beings unfit for basic respect. Do we really have reason to believe that for the very first time in human history we are justified in treating some human beings as less than fully persons? Or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?”