02 September 2005

The Uniqueness of Persons

Did ancient philosophers lack a proper appreciation of human individuality, and does their ethical thought show this? Such is the charge presented by John Crosby, a leading ‘personalist’ philosopher, in his book, Personalist Papers (which I recently reviewed for the Journal of Markets and Morality).

According to Crosby, ethics is properly based on some notion of the ‘dignity of the human person’. Ancient philosophers, correctly so, recognized that the rational powers of the human soul conferred a special dignity on human beings. But they failed to see that there is a distinct and additional basis of human dignity, namely, an ineffable individuality, which is bound up with the fact that each human being is, as we say, a person.

Crosby argues that, if this individuality is not taken into account, then we must treat human beings as fungible, objectionably so, because each human being would serve equally well as an instance of rational nature. To illustrate this, Crosby uses a problem posed by Peter Singer. Singer says: suppose that a woman of limited means, who already has one child, has a second child who upon birth is discovered to have severe Down’s Syndrome; the woman believes with good reason that she could conceive another child, who would likely be healthy; she barely has the means to care for this Down’s Syndrome child in addition to her healthy child. Why, then, shouldn’t she kill the Down’s Syndrome child and ‘replace’ it with a healthy child? Crosby argues that, if all that is important about us is captured in this notion of ‘the dignity of our having a rational nature’, then there is no reason why she shouldn’t. By ‘replacing’ the Down’s Syndrome child, she brings into the world a better instance of rational nature, and a human being whose rational powers may be more fully developed.

We can avoid this conclusion, Crosby maintains, only by stressing that each human being has some ineffable individuality, which is not replaceable.

A similar argument has been put forward by Linda Zagzebski, "The Uniqueness of Persons." The Journal of Religious Ethics 29 (2001): 401-23, for which I give the abstract:

Persons are thought to have a special kind of value, often called "dignity," which, according to Kant, makes them both infinitely valuable and irreplaceably valuable. The author aims to identify what makes a person a person in a way that can explain both aspects of dignity. She considers five definitions of "person": (1) an individual substance of a rational nature (Boethius), (2) a self-conscious being (Locke), (3) a being with the capacity to act for ends (Kant), (4) a being with the capacity to act for another (Kant), and (5) an incommunicably unique subject (Wojtyla). She argues that none is capable of grounding both aspects of dignity since they are incompatible kinds of value; it is impossible for the same thing to ground both. Human persons are infinitely valuable in virtue of shareable qualities of their nature, whereas they are irreplaceably valuable because of a nonqualitative feature of their personhood.

And thus, two questions:

(1) Is it correct that ancient philosophers were blind to human individuality?

(2) Is it correct that, if individuality is not taken into account, then we must treat one another as in some sense ultimately replaceable?

(Vlastos’ “The Individual as Object of Love” seems to answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions, as regards Plato at least.)