On Defining Personhood


Before I proceed, a bit of required reading. The linked article speaks about purposeful change or purposeful modification, which can be defined as self-actualizating or -optimizing change. Kevin Tobia, a Graduate student at Yale University, speaks about a self emerging from change rather than the typical self people speak of, namely the self that persists despite change. Purposeful change involve changes resulting in self-discovery or becoming a better version of yourself, be it socially, morally, or what have you.

With that in mind, I think Tobia has, perhaps inadvertently, identified the marquee difference between even infants and fetuses, and has thus tilted the scales even more in favor of the pro-choice position. Fetuses cannot and do not purposefully change or modify themselves, and that’s mainly because they do not exist in the world and therefore, do not have access to the experiences and sensations serving as impetus for such change. Newborns, on the other hand, can and do purposefully change and modify simply because they do have access to the sensations and experiences in the world. There’s also the fact that the parents and relatives of the newborn have expectations of the kind of purposeful changes they’ve already observed in themselves and other people they know, and they can thus extrapolate from such experience and impose such expectations on their newborn.

This definitely sets aside Singer’s argument for infanticide because Tobia has identified a clear demarcator between fetuses and newborns. Purposeful modification is the key component of personhood. What makes for a person is the fact that people self-modify. People, specifically in the absence of psychological or cognitive issues, are concerned with improving themselves. They’re concerned with being better socially. The average teenager, for instance, has insecurities and awkward quirks, many of which they foresee overcoming as adults. Speaking for myself, a lot of awkward quirks in my teens are simply not there anymore and that’s because I’ve purposefully modified them over time; there was this sense of having to grow out of such behaviors. The same goes for the bulk of my insecurities. Rather than recede into a corner during social events, I am more often the guy at the center of room drawing everyone closer because I’m more confident, interesting, and unafraid to introduce myself and hold conversations about a milieu of topics. I’m sure that many of my readers, even the ones who disagree with the pro-choice position, can make similar observations about themselves.

Ultimately, Tobias has provided pro-cholcers with the key component of personhood. In fact, it is both necessary and sufficient to adequately define what is meant by a human person. Of course it goes beyond biology and genetics. It is not enough that a human person is genetically human and related to its parents. There is more that constitutes a person and purposeful modification is clearly the most important identifier of what a person is. This is precisely why fetuses are not persons and are thus exempt from the rights reserved to persons. They are most certainly exempt from receiving these rights because they cannot receive such rights over and above the would-be mother who has a propensity for purposeful modification. That of course leads us into the well-established argument from bodily autonomy, but an argument from purposeful modification is clearly sufficient to dispense with the pro-life position. Fetuses are no doubt genetically human, but they are not one in the same with a human person, and that is because they cannot and do not have the capacity for purposeful change.

Posted in abortion, bioethics, identity, personhood, philosophy, purposeful change, purposeful modification