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Personhood and the Scope of Moral Duty

Issue: Vol 25 No. 2 (2017)

Journal: Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism

Subject Areas: Philosophy

DOI: 10.1558/eph.34198


In this essay I craft a procedure for evaluating claims of moral personhood that would allow us to answer ethical questions raised by issues like abortion, animal rights, artificial intelligence, etc. I focus specifically on the abortion debate as a case study for applying my procedure. I argue that our moral instincts have evolved to promote group cohesion, a necessary prerequisite of which is reliable identification of other group members. These are “persons” in the moral sense of the word. However, while our moral intuitions may be good at picking out paradigmatic instances of moral persons, peripheral or putative instances of this category are a matter of intense debate. Further, I show that the attempt to clarify the boundaries of moral personhood by appealing to physical traits—what I characterize as the equation of moral personhood with ontological personhood—does not actually resolve the underlying ambiguity, nor does it answer the moral question why we ought to recognize moral rights in the first place. I argue instead for a three pronged inquiry that asks (1) whether the entity in question is capable of articulating its own entitlement to moral consideration; (2) if not, whether recognizing it as a moral person would facilitate the recognition of more paradigmatic instances of moral persons, or whether the failure so to recognize it would impede the recognition of more paradigmatic instances of moral persons; and (3) whether the entity’s moral personhood can be recognized without cancelling or substantially burdening the moral rights of paradigmatic instances of moral persons. I argue that, applying this test, abortion is morally permissible, at least in the early stages of pregnancy when the vast majority of abortions occur anyway.

Author: Dustin Arand

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