A Theory of Human Dignity, #17–Real Persons and Different Species.

Mr Nemo
16 min readOct 12, 2021

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

V.1.1 The Neo-Person Thesis, Neo-Persons, and Non-Persons

V.1.2 A Five-Step Argument for the Neo-Person Thesis

V.2 Post-Persons

V.3 Non-Human Animals and Their Associate Membership in The Realm of Ends

VI. Enacting Human Dignity and The Mind-Body Politic

VII. Conclusion


This installment contains section V.3.1.

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


V.3.1 Real Persons and Different Species

Here, again, is the four-part metaphysical definition of human real personhood that I worked out in section III and re-presented in sub-section V.1, now generalized to comprehend any animal species.

Part I. X is a real Frankfurtian person (personf) if and only if X is an S-type animal and X has fully online psychological capacities for:

(i) essentially embodied consciousness or essentially embodied subjective experience,

(ii) intentionality or directedness to objects, locations, events (including actions), other minded animals, or oneself, including cognition (that is, sense perception, memory, imagination, and conceptualization), desire-based emotions, and effective first-order desires,

(iii) lower-level or Humean rationality, that is, logical reasoning (including judgment and belief) and instrumental decision-making,

(iv) self-directed or other-directed evaluative emotions (for example, love, hate, fear, shame, guilt, pride, etc.),

(v) minimal linguistic understanding, that is, either inner or overt expression and communication in any simple or complex sign system or natural language, including ASL, etc., and

(vi) second-order volitions.

Part II. X is a real Kantian person (personk), aka a moral agent, if and only if X is a real personf and also has fully online psychological capacities for:

(7) higher-level or Kantian rationality, that is, categorically normative logical rationality and practical rationality, the latter of which also entails a fully online capacity for autonomy (self-legislation) and wholeheartedness, hence a fully online capacity for principled authenticity.

Part III. X is a real person if and only if X is either a real personf or a real personk, otherwise X is a non-person.

Part IV. If X is an actualized real person, then the neo-person of X is also a real person, where the neo-person of X is a given individual S-type animal A that manifests the psychological capacity for consciousness and the following counterfactual is also true of A:

If A were to continue the natural course of its neurobiological and psychological development, then A would become X.

Given some familiar facts about human animals, it follows from the four-part metaphysical definition of real personhood that not all human beings are real persons. For example, normal, healthy fetuses past the stage of totipotency but prior to the emergence of full sentience (that is, prior to approximately 25 weeks in the gestation period), anencephalic fetuses and infants, and human beings in persistent vegetative states, all lack a capacity for consciousness, and therefore are non-persons under both Part I and Part IV of the four-part definition.

At the same time, however, in view of strong evidence from cognitive ethology,[i] then at least some non-human animals — and in particular, Great apes, other primates, and perhaps dolphins — are in fact real persons under Part I and Part III of the four-part metaphysical definition of real personhood. More precisely, at least some non-human animals, including Great apes, other primates, and perhaps dolphins, are real persons precisely because they are Frankfurtian real persons, aka personsf. There is good evidence that these non-human animals have online psychological capacities for consciousness, intentionality, lower-level or Humean rationality, self-directed or other directed evaluative emotions, minimal linguistic understanding, and second-order volitions. If so, then they are intentional agents who are thereby capable of what I call free volition,[ii] even if they are not strictly speaking capable of what I call free agency — that is, the conjunction of free will and practical agency[3] — which includes the morally high-powered innately specified capacity for achieving principled authenticity, at least partially or to some degree. So, as far as the available evidence indicates, there are no non-human minded animals whose fully online capacities put them within reach of principled authenticity, even if at least some of them are rational minded animals or real persons possessing absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective moral value, namely, dignity.

In this way, however, real persons who are also non-human minded animals are also primary subjects of dignity and primary targets of sufficient respect, because they fall directly under the Categorical Imperative, and therefore they must be both considered and treated as such, even though they belong to different species. It’s impermissible to treat them as mere means or mere things, and without their explicit or implicit rational consent — that is, to treat them without sufficient respect — since this would harm them by violating their dignity. To treat a Great ape, other primate, or perhaps a dolphin, as a mere means or as a mere thing, and/or without its actual or possible rational consent, would be just like treating a normal, healthy human toddler or other normal, healthy child as a mere means or mere thing, and/or without her actual or possible rational consent. This is not to say that Great apes, other primates, or dolphins are neurobiologically or psychologically interchangeable, or intersubstitutable, with normal, healthy toddlers or other normal, healthy human children, but rather just that they do share with normal, healthy toddlers and other normal, healthy human children the same set of constitutively necessary psychological capacities, and the same moral specific character or moral status. We’re morally obligated to care morally about them in the same way, and to treat them in the same way, that we do normal, healthy toddlers and other normal, healthy human children.

Put somewhat trivially, but still relevantly and perhaps also vividly, this moral obligation accounts, for example, for the undeniable emotional and moral impact of M.C. Cooper’s and E.B. Schoedsack’s classic 1933 thriller movie King Kong. You feel deeply sorry for The Big Ape, deeply sympathetic with his obvious love for the Fay Wray character Ann Darrow, and morally outraged by what they’ve done to him. In the context of the movie, it is clear that King Kong is a morally much better real person than the Robert Armstrong character Carl Denham, the ambitious and heartless promoter. Less trivially now, real persons who are also non-human animals should not be subjected to any medical or scientific experimentation, unless it is precisely the sort of medical or scientific experimentation that’s morally permissible for normal healthy toddlers and other normal healthy human children. In other words, we morally must not torture or vivisect normal healthy toddlers or other normal healthy human children in the name of Medicine or Science: therefore, neither should we torture or vivisect Great apes, other primates, or perhaps dolphins in the name of Medicine or Science. Furthermore, other things being equal, rational minded animals or real persons who are also non-human animals should not be kept in zoos, or in any other sort of captivity, unless it can be clearly shown that this is what they naturally need or rationally want.

Like normal healthy toddlers and other normal healthy human children, who both naturally need and rationally want to be looked after, it might well be that rational minded animals or real persons who are also non-human animals may sometimes also naturally need or rationally want to be looked after. Indeed, human real persons who are also fully higher level or Kantian real persons, or personsk, aka human moral agents, sometimes naturally need and rationally want to be looked after too: for example, by their loved ones under normal conditions; in hospitals when they are sick; or in managed care apartments, or hospices, etc., when they get old and need constant attention. But normal healthy toddlers and other normal healthy human children neither naturally need nor rationally want to be kept in zoos or other sorts of cages. Keeping a normal healthy toddler or other normal healthy human child in a zoo or any other sort of cage is clearly morally impermissible, and would be treating them as mere means or mere things, and/or without their actual or possible rational consent. That would be acting like a Nazi, or like an evil character right out of the fairly scary Brothers Grimm version of Hansel and Gretel, or the (to me) heart-stoppingly scary horror film, D. Myrick’s and E. Sánchez’s 1999 The Blair Witch Project. Correspondingly, then, with appropriate modifications made for change of context, the same goes for real persons who are also non-humans.

As we’ve just seen, the available evidence strongly indicates that some non-human minded animals are real persons. But assuming that this is true, where does it leave all the other non-human minded animals? By Part III of the extended, four-part definition of real personhood, anything that is not a real person is a non-person. But are all non-persons the same, morally speaking? No. Are all non-persons equivalent to mere things? No again. This is because all mere things are natural mechanisms, but some non-persons are living, sentient organisms, that is, minded animals. So minded non-human animals that are also non-persons are not morally equivalent to mere things. All minded animals — even proto-sentient or “simple minded” non-human animals like cephalopods, fish, insects, reptiles, and other invertebrates, but especially including all sentient and fully minded non-human animals like bats, bears, birds, cats, cows, dogs, horses, lions, mice, sheep, and wolves — are experiencers or primary subjects of moral value, and also primary targets of our moral concern, even if they’re non-persons. According to the metaphysics that grounds broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory, moral values are in the world because minded animals are in the world, and all ethical values whatsoever necessarily depend on moral values as their essence. In other words, according to broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory, all minded living organisms must be considered individually, and each of them must be taken fully into account in our moral reasoning — even if they are not thereby morally considered or treated equally as members of the universal intersubjective moral community of real persons, The Realm of Ends. This moral concern for all minded animals is determined by the fact that they all share with us at least two constitutively necessary conditions of real personhood, namely organismic life and (proto-)sentience, both of which are necessarily contained within, and thus partially constitutive of, essentially embodied consciousness. In sub-sub-sections V.3.2 and V.3.4 below, we’ll see that (proto-) sentience in a minded animal carries with it the psychological capacity for experiencing pain, and also that this provides a serious target for our moral concern.

But right now we need to get somewhat clearer on the notion of a “minded animal.” As I noted earlier, the dictionary meaning of the word “animal” is “a living organism which feeds on organic matter, usually one with specialized sense organs and nervous system, and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.”[iv] In biology on the other hand, “animal” has a more technical meaning, in that animals constitute one of the five kingdoms of living things: Monera (bacteria), Protists, Fungi, Plants, and Animals. The class of animals in this biological sense includes both vertebrates and invertebrates. So my usage of “animal” in this essay, as in Embodied Minds in Action and Deep Freedom and Real Persons alike, is a precisification of the ordinary language and scientific terms, intended to coincide with its normal use in cognitive ethology. To signal this precisification, I coined the quasi-technical term minded animal.

By the notion of a “minded animal,” again, I mean any living organism with inherent capacities for (i) consciousness, that is, a capacity for embodied subjective experience, (ii) intentionality, that is, a capacity for conscious mental representation and mental directedness to objects, events, processes, facts, acts, other animals, or the subject herself (so in general, a capacity for mental directedness to intentional targets), and also for (iii) emotion, including affective sub-capacities for feeling, desiring, and the passions, whether directed to objects, events, processes, facts, acts, other animals, or the subject itself. Over and above consciousness, intentionality, and emotion, in some minded animals, there is also a further inherent capacity for (iv) rationality, that is, a capacity for self-conscious thinking according to principles and with responsiveness to reasons, hence poised for justification, whether logical thinking (including inference and theory-construction) or practical thinking (including deliberation and decision-making).

According to The Minded Animalism Theory of personhood and personal identity that I’ve worked out and defended in Deep Freedom and Real Persons, chapters 6–7, and that I briefly spelled out in section III above, necessarily all real persons are minded animals, but not all minded animals are real persons. Furthermore, necessarily every real person is also a living organism belonging to some species or another,[v] but not every living organism within a species is a minded animal, much less a real person.

Now all sentient animals are fully minded animals, and conversely. But the notion of a minded animal is not precisely the same as the notion of a sentient animal, in that some minded animals are not, strictly speaking, fully minded animals. Fully minded animals are animals capable of consciousness. Consciousness, in turn, is the subjective experience of a suitably neurobiologically complex S-type animal, namely, a living organism within a species. Consciousness is “subjective” because it necessarily includes an ego or first person along with a capacity (whether merely first-order or also higher-order) for oriented reflexivity or self-awareness in space and time. I call this first necessary component of consciousness egocentric centering. So the subjective aspect of consciousness is that it is egocentrically centered. Consciousness is also “experience,” however, because it necessarily includes both representational content (“intentional content”) as well as primitive bodily awareness and other sensations — particularly pleasure and pain — feelings, desires, and passions, along with their specific phenomenal content (“phenomenal character”). I’ll call this second necessary component of consciousness contentfulness, where this notion is broad enough to include both intentional content and phenomenal character. So the experiential aspect of consciousness is that it is filled with content.

In this way, fully minded animals — namely, sentient animals — are subjectively experiencing animals, animals with egocentric centering and contentfulness, hence animals capable of consciousness. For many theoretical purposes, the notions of consciousness, subjectivity, experience, and sentience can all be treated as necessarily equivalent. But as I’ve defined these notions, experience is not preciselythe same as consciousness, since it seems clear enough that not every living creature capable of having experiences of some sort or another is also capable of having specifically subjective experiences, egocentrically-centered episodes with representational content and phenomenal character.[vi] For example, it’s plausible to hold that “simple minded” creatures like cephalopods, fish, insects, reptiles, and other non-vertebrates have at least proto-sentience, that is, a capacity for experiential, contentful, episodes of some minimal sort, yet lack egocentrically-centered mental acts or states. By the proto-sentience of a “simple minded” animal, then, I mean a living creature’s non-mechanical responsiveness to external stimuli, together with some proprioceptive capacity, some capacity to have desires, and some capacity to feel pleasure and pain. Although they clearly have proto-sentience, nevertheless cephalopods (for example, octopuses), fish (for example, salmon), insects (for example, mosquitoes), reptiles (for example, snakes), and other non-vertebrates all just as clearly lack the capacity for consciousness — unlike bats, bears, birds, cats, cows, dogs, horses, lions, mice, sheep, and wolves, who just as clearly have a capacity for consciousness and thereby share with us one of our constitutively necessary psychological capacities, “sentience full-stop,” as it were.

In this way, proto-sentient, simple minded animals like cephalopods, fish, insects, reptiles, and other invertebrates are certainly neither non-minded animals — like, for example, amoebas, human zygotes, human infants with anencephaly, or human adults in a persistent vegetative state — nor zombies in the philosophical sense.[vii] But at the same time the proto-sentient, simple minded animals are also not, strictly speaking, conscious, sentient, or fully minded. They also possess the minimal rudiments of minded animal agency, and thereby are proto-agents, capable of carrying out non-determined, non-indeterministic, non-mechanized, teleologically-driven, spontaneous, actively guided intentional body movements.[viii]

Now according to what Maiese and I have called “The Deep Consciousness Thesis,”[ix] any sort of mentality or mindedness whatsoever, includes at least a minimal degree of occurrent consciousness, which in turn entails at least a minimal degree of occurrent sentience. Therefore proto-sentient, simple minded animals are capable of some sort of experience, although they are not capable of subjective experience per se. Otherwise put, they have some psychological abilities or dispositions that effectively operate when appropriately triggered, which collectively do indeed add up to some kind of animal mindedness, although they do not have the capacity for consciousness, or for any other capacity grounded on the capacity for consciousness, per se. A fascinating example is the octopus, a simple minded animal whose proto-sentient mind is almost literally spread out all over its body — insofar as its body is almost entirely arms, and the majority of the neurons in its body exist outside its brain.[x]

This distinction between simple minded animals and fully minded animals, and correspondingly, the distinctions between proto-sentience and sentience, and between proto-agency and agency, are all directly relevant to the distinction between non-persons and real persons, because they collectively tell us something crucial about the relation between non-persons and moral value. According to broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory and its background metaphysics, real persons are primary subjects of dignity and primary targets of sufficient respect. Sentient, fully minded non-person non-human animals are primary subjects of moral value and targets of moral concern — for example, bats, bears, birds, cats, cows, dogs, horses, lions, mice, sheep, and wolves. But the scope of moral value and moral concern also extends somewhat beyond sentient or fully-minded non-person non-human animals to proto-sentient, simple minded non-human animals — for example, cephalopods, fish, insects, reptiles, and other invertebrates. Proto-sentient, simple minded non-person non-human animals are all at the very least experiencers of moral value and targets of moral concern. In other words, even proto-sentience and simple mindedness in animals still matters morally, beyond the limits of real personhood and the capacity for consciousness.

But why does even proto-sentience and simple mindedness in animals matter morally? The correct answer to that question, I believe, lies in a direct philosophical appeal to the capacity to experience pain, such that pain is the direct, intimate, and endogenous (and, in the case of sentient, fully minded animals, reflexive or self-referring) witness to the fact that a minded animal, whether proto-sentient and simple minded or sentient and fully minded, is being harmed. This brings us up to the morally fundamental topics of pain and suffering.


[i] See, e.g., C. Allen and M. Bekoff, Species of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997); M. Bearzi and C. Stanford, Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2008); D.R. Griffin, Animal Minds (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001); D.R. Griffin, Animal Thinking (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984); D.R. Griffin, The Question of Animal Awareness (New York: Rockefeller Univ. Press, 1976); and S. Savage-Rumbaugh and R. Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind (New York: Wiley, 1994).

[ii] See R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), section 1.0.

[iii] Ibid., chs. 3 to 5.

[iv] J.M. Hawkins and R. Allen (eds.), Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. 52.

[v] It’s also true that necessarily, every real person has one and only one living animal body, and conversely, necessarily, every living animal body of a real person is lived by one and only one real person. See Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in the Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2), section 6.2. As of 2018, new biomedical evidence suggests that all women who are capable of becoming pregnant are in fact totipotent and chimeras, in that their DNA changes when they become pregnant, fusing with the DNA of the zygote and fetus, so that their biological individuality is not fixed until they have become either pregnant or else incapable of becoming pregnant. See K. Rowland, “We Are Multitudes,” Aeon (11 January 2018), available online at URL = <https://aeon.co/essays/microchimerism-how-pregnancy-changes-the-mothers-very-dna>. If that’s correct, then many or even most women do not have a unique living animal body until several decades after they are already real persons. This is a serious problem for Standard Animalism, which identifies people with individual living animal bodies, since it would then follow that many or even most women are not people for much of their lives — which is clearly absurd. But it’s not a problem for Minded Animalism, which identifies people with each and all stages of their minded animal lives.

[vi] See D. DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996); D. Dennett, “Animal Consciousness: What Matters and Why,” in D. Dennett, Brainchildren (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 337–352; and D. Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

[vii] For the “natural zombie” view, see S. Allen-Hermanson, “Insects and the Problem of Simple Minds: Are Bees Natural Zombies?,” Journal of Philosophy 105 (2008): 389–415.

[viii] See also H. Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), ch. 4, where she explicitly argues that spiders and earthworms can be (in my terminology) proto-agents. I think it’s also arguable that every living organism, including unicellular organisms, has at least a proto-proto-sentience. And in that way, consciousness would be truly a form of life. For an account of the biology, physics, and metaphysics underlying this view, see, e.g., J.S. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J.S. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature: A Convergence of Biology, Chemistry and Physics Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020, ch. 20, pp. 206–246; W.B. Miller Jr., J.S Torday, and F. Baluška, F., “Biological Evolution as the Defense of ‘Self’.” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 142 (2019): 54–74; and E. Thompson, E. Mind in Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).

[ix] See, e.g., R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), chs. 1–2; and R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol.5), ch. 2.

[x] See, e.g., P. Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (New York: Collins, 2017); and A. Srinivasan, “The Sucker, the Sucker!,” London Review of Books 39 (September 2017): 23–25, available online HERE.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 11 October 2021

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Mr Nemo

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