A Theory of Human Dignity, #12–Hard Cases as Breckwoldtian Tests, & The Neo-Person Thesis.

By Robert Hanna

Prüfung,” by Edith Breckwoldt (2004)



I. Introduction

II. Refuting the Dignity-Skeptic and Debunking a Dignity-Debunking Argument

III. The Metaphysics of Human Dignity

III.1 What Human Dignity Is

III.2 Real Persons and Minded Animals

III.3 A Metaphysical Definition of Real Personhood

IV. Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

IV.0 How Nonideal Can a World Be?

IV.1 The Skinny Logic and the Fat Semantics of Moral Principles in Broadly Kantian Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

IV.2 How to Solve the Universalizability and Rigorism Problems

IV.3 How to Solve the Problem of Moral Dilemmas

IV.4 Policy of Truth: The Murderer-at-the-Door Revisited

IV.5 One Last Thing, By Way of Concluding This Section

V. Some Hard Cases For Broadly Kantian Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

V.0 How Hard Can Hard Cases Be?

V.1 Abortion and Infanticide: Introduction

VI. Enacting Human Dignity and The Mind-Body Politic

VII. Conclusion


This installment contains section V.0 and the Introduction to section V.1.

But you can also download, read, and/or share a .pdf of the complete text of this essay HERE.


V. Some Hard Cases For Broadly Kantian Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

V.0 How Hard Can Hard Cases Be?

The enterprise of effectively addressing and handling/resolving hard cases under any given moral theory, is rightly regarded as a significant test of that theory. But the particular enterprise of effectively addressing and handling/resolving hard cases under the broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory I worked out in section IV is supercharged in difficulty by the brute, complex/messy, relentlessly real-world, and dismayingly “human, all-too-human” details and implications of such cases. Hence the stunning Edith Breckwoldt sculpture pictured at the beginning of this essay is exceedingly aptly named Prüfung, or Test. The text on the plaque at the base of the sculpture, embedded in some of the bombed-out rubble of St Nikolai Church in Hamburg, is by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and reads:

No one in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places.

Yes. Unfortunately, grappling with the crucial details and implications of hard problems for a theory of human dignity is of necessity somewhat long-winded. Still, all that shouldn’t frighten us into avoiding a Breckwoldtian test. Moreover, in a thoroughly nonideal natural and social world like ours, there are going to be many sets of hard cases. But for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to concentrate on just five: (i) abortion and infanticide, (ii) post-persons, (iii) non-human animals and their associate membership in The Realm of Ends, (iv) treating people merely as a means, and (v) permissible uses of force and civil disobedience. Effectively addressing and handling/resolving each of those five sets of hard cases should be Prüfung enough.

V.1 Abortion and Infanticide

Clearly, it is wrong to kill [arbitrarily chosen] adult human beings. Clearly it is not wrong to end the life of some arbitrarily chosen single human cell. Fetuses seem to be like arbitrarily chosen human cells in some respects and like adult humans in other respects. The problem of the ethics of abortion is the problem of determining the fetal property that settles this moral controversy.[i]

One reason the question of the morality of infanticide is worth examining is that it seems very difficult to formulate a completely satisfactory liberal position on abortion without coming to grips with the infanticide issue. The problem the liberal encounters is essentially that of specifying a cut-off point which is not arbitrary: at what stage in the development of a human being does it cease to be morally permissible to destroy it?… In the case of abortion a number of events — quickening or viability, for instance — might be taken as cutoff points, and it is easy to overlook the fact that none of these events involves any morally significant change in the developing human. In contrast, if one is going to defend infanticide, one has to get very clear about what makes something a person, what gives something a right to life.[ii]

The familiar — and in certain ways, all-too-familiar — problem of the morality of abortion and infanticide, as I am understanding it, is precisely this:

Is there a property whose non-possession or possession by a fetus or infant necessarily determines the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion and/or infanticide? If so, then what is this property?

In the rest of this sub-section, I develop and defend a new solution to this familiar problem on behalf of broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory, a solution I call The Neo-Person Thesis. The Neo-Person Thesis not only directly expresses the basic theoretical commitments of broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory and its hierarchical structuralist theory of moral principles, but is also importantly distinct from the standard approaches to the morality of abortion and infanticide.

The basic idea behind The Neo-Person Thesis is to ground the morality of abortion and infanticide in the dignity of human real persons — their absolute, nondenumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective value as ends-in-themselves — and thereby not grounding it in rights, which, according to my account, actually flow from the dignity of human real persons, and are therefore derivative or secondary moral facts. Correspondingly, The Neo-Person Thesis says that since a human real person’s life normally begins between 25–32 weeks after conception or fertilization, at which time she becomes a neo-person, or “new person,” it follows that, other things being equal, abortion is morally permissible prior to 25–32 weeks following conception or fertilization, but morally impermissible after that time. It also says that, other things being equal, abortion or infanticide for non-persons (a class of creatures that includes human zygotes and fetuses prior to neo-personhood, human fetuses or infants who have been neo-persons but also have permanently lost their neo-personhood by accident or disease, and also human fetuses or infants that never could have been neo-persons due to serious neurobiological abnormalities) is morally permissible. In short, then, I am claiming that the metaphysical difference that strictly determines the distinction, other things being equal, between the moral impermissibility and permissibility of abortion and infanticide, is the difference between human neo-persons and human non-persons.

That’s the rough-and-ready, or super-simplified, version. More precisely however, what I’m saying is that an actualized human real person (for example, you or I or any of the normal adult folks living next door) is literally identical with her third trimester fetus, her neo-person, the new person she was at the front end of her life. This is because, normally between 25 and 32 weeks after conception or fertilization,[iii] a human fetus has acquired a constitutively necessary psychological capacity of an actualized human real person, namely the capacity for consciousness — that is, subjective experience — even though at that stage of her life and at that time, this human fetus was still only a strongly potential human real person and not yet an actualized human real person. But since all and only real persons, whether human or non-human, have dignity and are absolutely, nondenumerably infinitely, intrinsically, objectively valuable ends-in-themselves, then the moral implications of this strong-potentiality-of-a-constitutively-necessary-psychological-capacity are as follows.

First, other things being equal, abortion of any kind is morally permissible prior to the emergence of consciousness or subjective experience, that is, prior to the existence of a neo-person. And second, other things being equal, abortion of any kind is morally impermissible from that point forwards, except for (i) cases of forcible involuntary pregnancy — for example, pregnancy due to rape, and (ii) cases in which the mother’s life is threatened by the continued existence of the fetus. These two special exceptions to the impermissibility of abortion after neo-personhood, in turn, depend on two other moral considerations about (i) the extent to which we’re obligated to prevent harm to innocent real persons, and (ii) the permissibility of killing in self-defense, even in cases in which the mortal threat is an “innocent attacker.” These two considerations will also be separately addressed in more detail in later sub-sections of this section.

Apart from these two special exceptions to the impermissibility of abortion after neo-personhood, there are also some independent sufficient conditions for its permissibility that also suffice for the permissibility of infanticide in a certain special range of cases. Whenever a human being is a non-person — for example, a normal, healthy first or second trimester fetus prior to 25 weeks after conception or fertilization, or alternatively a human fetus at any gestational stage, including infancy, that has such serious neurobiological abnormalities that it never has and never will become even a neo-person, much less a fully actualized real person — then killing it is morally permissible, other things being equal. And some infants are non-persons. Hence infanticide is sometimes permissible, even though infanticide is generally impermissible, other things being equal. The special exception to the ceteris paribus general impermissibility of human infanticide under conditions of non-personhood, in turn, depends on other moral considerations that apply primarily to minded animals belonging to other — that is, non-human — species. These moral considerations will also be addressed separately and in a later sub-section of this section.

One very important upshot of The Neo-Person Thesis, then, is that while the core of the application of broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory to the morality of abortion and infanticide is grounded in the metaphysics of human real persons (see section II above), including the metaphysics of their synchronic and diachronic personal identity,[iv] nevertheless it’s also equally true that significant parts of this approach are also grounded in the morality of harming and saving others, and in the morality of our treatment of non-human animals.

Against that backdrop, my argument for The Neo-Person Thesis has two parts. First, I state The Neo-Person Thesis and explicate its basic elements (sub-sub-section V.1.1). And second, I provide an explicit argument for The Neo-Person Thesis, from broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory (sub-sub-section V.1.2).


[i] D. Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 183–202, at 202.

[ii] M. Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide,” in M. Cohen, T. Nagel, and T. Scanlon (eds.), The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 52–84, at pp. 52–53.

[iii] See D. Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), ch. 3.

[iv] See R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), chs. 6–7.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 14 June 2021

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.