A Theory of Human Dignity, #5–A Metaphysical Definition of Real Personhood.

By Robert Hanna

Prüfung,” by Edith Breckwoldt (2004)

***

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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

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

VI. Enacting Human Dignity and The Mind-Body Politic

VII. Conclusion

This installment contains section III.3.

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

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My metaphysical analysis of real personhood substantively borrows from two different sources: (i) Harry Frankfurt’s hierarchical-desire theory of persons,[i] and (obviously) (ii) Kant’s rationality-based theory of persons in his Critical philosophy.

Frankfurt’s theory of persons is based on the notion of an hierarchically-structured set of desires. The fundamental connection here is that for Frankfurt, a person is essentially identified with the constitution of her will, which in turn is a set of desires immanently structured by the capacities for rationality and free agency, and inherently governed by the norm of “decisive identification with effective first-order desires,” that is, by the norm of authenticity or wholeheartedness. In a nutshell, that is my view of real persons too, although with a more explicitly and robustly Kantian twist, or rather, set of twists. But let me now explore some further specific Frankfurtian details, because they are fundamentally important for my account of real persons. On my view a desire is a felt need for something, or a conscious going-for something. This is as opposed to an actual need for something — obviously not all felt needs are actual needs — and also as opposed to a mere pro-attitude towards something, a mere preference for something, or a mere wish for something. Frankfurt himself defines the notion of a desire somewhat more broadly, so as to include all pro-attitudes, preferences, and wishes; but in the present context, it is convenient to use my narrower and more conative notion of a desire. Desires in this sense are essentially equivalent with active, committed wants. So to desire X is actively and committedly to want X; and to desire to X is actively and committedly to want to X.

According to Frankfurt, some animals have not only what he calls first-order desires, which are ordinary direct desires for things, events, or real persons (for example, the infant wanting her mother), but also effective first-order desires. Effective first-order desires are desires that move (or will move, or would move) the minded animal all the way to action. An effective first-order desire is the same as a minded animal’s will or first-order volition. First-order desires may or may not be accompanied by second-order desires: to want (not) to want X, or to want (not) to want to X. If so, then some of the second-order desires may be directed to the determination of precisely which first-order desire is to be the effective first-order desire, that is, the minded animal’s will and first-order volition; and such desires are second-order volitions.

According to Frankfurt, whatever the order-level of desires or volitions, they can be either conscious or non-conscious. For the purposes of my discussion, however, I will concentrate exclusively on conscious desires and volitions. This is, in part, because I think that there is no such thing as a mental state, whether dispositional or occurrent, that is strictly non-conscious and not to some non-trivial degree occurrently conscious. In earlier work, Maiese and I have called this (admittedly controversial, but also, we believe, defensible) claim “The Deep Consciousness Thesis.”[ii] But in any case, and according to Frankfurt, all and only persons have second-order volitions, because all and only persons care about the precise constitution of their wills. By contrast to persons, creatures that are “wantons” have effective first-order desires, but they either lack second-order desires (hence they cannot care about the precise constitution of their wills because they lack self-conscious desires) or if they have second-order desires they nevertheless lack second-order volitions (hence even though they have self-conscious desires, they still cannot care about the precise constitution of their wills). Again, according to Frankfurt, all non-human animals, all human infants, and some human adults are wantons. Finally, for Frankfurt a person has freedom of the will if and only if she can determine, by means of a second-order volition, precisely which among her first-order desires is the effective one. This is also known as identification or decisive identification;[iii] otherwise persons have unfreedom of the will. Wantons have neither freedom of the will nor unfreedom of the will, simply because they are not persons.

I accept much of what Frankfurt has to say about persons and their wills, and correspondingly I want to apply much of what he says to human real persons and their wills. Nevertheless, I also have substantive disagreements with him on two mid-sized (as opposed to either major or minor) points.

My first mid-sized point of substantive disagreement is that I doubt that Frankfurt’s notion of personhood adequately captures the full breadth or depth of my contemporary Kantiannotion of human real personhood, according to which some human real persons have what I’ll call higher-level or Kantian rationality. This, in turn, is an innate complex capacity for strict-norm-guided logical or practical reasoning, for reflective self-consciousness, for autonomy or self-legislation, for authenticity or wholeheartedness, and for moral or non-moral responsibility. Any minded animal that also has higher-level or Kantian rationality can recognize necessary truths, judge or believe with a priori certainty, and choose or act wholeheartedly in accordance with desire-overriding non-instrumental, non-selfish, non-egoistic or non-self-interested, non-hedonistic, non-consequentialist, categorically normative reasons and duties, that is, those reasons and duties that inherently express the Categorical Imperative and the “categorical ‘ought’.”

By sharp contrast, what I’ll call lower-level or Humean rationality involves only the possession of innate capacities for conscious, intentional desire-based logical or practical reasoning, for more or less momentary or occasional occurrent self-consciousness, and for self-interested, or in any case instrumental, intentional agency. Any minded animal that has lower-level rationality can recognize contingent truths, judge or believe with a posteriori certainty, and choose or act in accordance with broadly instrumental egoistic, hedonistic, or consequentialist reasons and duties, or those that express at most the “hypothetical ‘ought’.”

All minded animals that possess an innate capacity for higher-level or Kantian rationality also possess an innate capacity for lower-level or Humean rationality, but not the converse. For example, it’s arguable that normal, healthy Great apes and perhaps also dolphins[iv] possess an innate capacity for Humean or lower-level rationality, but not a capacity for higher-level or Kantian rationality. This is of course not to say that Great apes or dolphins are “irrational” or “non-rational” in any sense. On the contrary, it is only to say that, relative to those animals that do possess an innate capacity for higher-level or Kantian rationality, the rational capacity of Great apes and perhaps also dolphins is somewhat limited in complexity and normative power. Minded animals with an capacity for rationality in the higher-level or Kantian sense are not only constrained in their intentional agency by the Categorical Imperative or at least by some strictly universal, non-instrumental, altruistic, non-hedonistic, and non-consequentialist moral reasons and objective principles, they are also capable of being moved wholeheartedly by the moral emotion of broadly Kantian respect for dignity. Or in other words, minded animals with a fully online capacity for rationality in the higher-level or Kantian sense are also capable of broadly Kantian autonomy and what I call principled authenticity.

By contrast, minded animals that possess only an innate capacity for rationality in the lower-level or Humean sense are constrained in their intentional agency only by (at least some of) the axioms of rational choice theory, but not by strictly universal, non-instrumental, altruistic, non-hedonistic, and non-consequentialist moral reasons and objective principles. They are therefore not capable of broadly Kantian autonomy or principled authenticity. Instead, they are at most capable of being moved non-authentically or non-wholeheartedly by the first-order Humean moral emotion of sympathy.[v]

What’s the moral-emotional difference between broadly Kantian respect for human dignity and Humean sympathy? One way of cashing out this difference is to say that whereas (i) someone who is being moved by broadly Kantian respect for human dignity will always and necessarily choose and act so as to heed or preserve the dignity of another human real person, even if she does not find that other human real person to be in any way whatsoever attractive, likeable, nice, tear-jerkingly pathetic, or pleasant — in short, even if she involuntarily finds that human real person to be perfectly loathsome, nevertheless (ii) someone who is being moved merely by Humean sympathy will choose and act so as to heed or preserve the dignity of another human real person only if she finds that human real person to be appropriately attractive, likeable, nice, tear-jerkingly pathetic, or pleasant.

In other words, mere Humean sympathy cannot survive the apparent loathsomeness of other human real persons: mere Humean sympathy loses heart in the face of involuntary disgust. But broadly Kantian respect for human dignity inherently can and always does recognize a human real person’s dignity, even in the face of involuntary disgust. — And this isn’t a superhuman, or “moral saint-like,” moral attitude. For example, I imagine that a great many medical practitioners all over the world — say, those who work for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières — especially general practitioners, and nurses or nurse-practitioners, all of whom are “human, all too human,” just like the rest of us, perfectly illustrate the sharp moral difference between broadly Kantian respect for human dignity and sympathy almost every single day of their working lives. Indeed, some, like Camus’s fictional Dr Rieux in The Plague, and the real-life Florence Nightingale, illustrate this even to the sublime level of being real-world, “human, all-too-human” moral saints, or as per Lillian Hellman’s apt label, sinner-saints.[vi]

Some human animals are “persons” in Frankfurt’s sense, hence are human real persons in my sense, and also rational agents in the lower-level or Humean sense, and not rational agents in the higher-level or Kantian sense, but this is not because they lack the innate capacities for agency in the higher-level sense. Rather they do possess these capacities, but in the mode of real potentiality that is not yet actualized, hence it it is simply because they are not-yet rational agents in the higher-level or Kantian sense. Indeed we — the actual and really possible readers of this essay — were all of us, for a time, such creatures.

Consider, for example, normal toddlers. Normal toddlers are healthy human children between the ages of roughly 1 to 3 years who are just beginning to walk and talk. It’s difficult to remember being a toddler, although of course almost everyone has a few memories from that period. But even if the introspective, memory-based phenomenological evidence is fairly thin, I think that any adult who has ever lived with and looked after a toddler knows that it is possible for someone to care very deeply about the constitution of her will, but not yet be capable of norm-guided logical or practical reasoning, self-reflection, or principled authenticity. Normal human toddlers do indeed manifest moments of non-instrumental, altruistic, non-hedonistic, and non-consequentialist thinking, feeling, and action. These are truly lovely anticipatory flashes of the higher-level or Kantian real persons they will eventually become, if their luck holds up, when all their basic innately-specified moral capacities are fully online — that is, they have fully matured, thereby becoming operative and well-developed.[vii]

In any case, toddlers are conscious, intentional, emotional animals, and they also are self-conscious in the minimal sense that they can recognize themselves in a mirror and make simple judgments about some of their own mental states. They are naturally affectionate and often highly sensitive to the changing emotional states of those around them. Usually, they have a minimal and rapidly-developing competence in their native natural language(s). They have simple beliefs, and if they have also acquired minimal linguistic competence, then they can carry out some simple inferences. They want things. Also they usually know what they want; they care a great deal about getting what they want; and, often enough, they can also determine which of their first-order desires is to be the effective one. So they have second-order volitions. They can mentally cause movements of their own bodies by means of their second-order volitions and effective first-order desires. They know their own names. They are intellectually curious, have capacious memories and wonderful imaginations, and are sometimes highly insightful. And for a few truly lovely moments at least, they can spontaneously think, feel, and act in non-instrumental, altruistic, non-hedonistic, and non-consequentialist ways.

But they are also extremely naïve and uncritical, highly emotional, highly inconsistent in their behavior, and above all characteristically self-centered, fickle, and willful, and certainly cannot be, or be held to be, morally responsible for their actions. They need to be most carefully looked after, gently told what to do, loved unconditionally, and at all times protected from the vicissitudes of an often unfriendly and violent world. They are incapable of conceiving their own lives as a whole, and are therefore not self-reflective agents. They cannot engage in retrospective or prospective self-interpretation and self-evaluation, explicit step-by-step deliberation about immediate action, or long-term planning. They are certainly not capable of either moral or non-moral responsibility, or principled authenticity. And they certainly cannot grasp the moral significance of their own deaths.[viii]

For these reasons, a toddler can, in a minimal way, self-consciously “identify” in the Frankfurtian sense — that is, make a decision — by using a second-order volition to determine precisely which among her first-order desires is her effective first-order desire. But the self-conscious “identifications” or decisions of toddlers are at best momentary or temporary, and do not occur consistently or over an extended period of time.[ix] As I mentioned just above, toddlers cannot achieve or even comprehend either moral or non-moral responsibility or principled authenticity. Toddlers are only momentarily moved to intentional choice and action by respect for human dignity, even if they often feel it inchoately, in an essentially non-conceptual way. And toddlers are never synoptic thinkers, moral exemplars, or sublime real-world moral saints, “sinner-saints.”

In this connection, toddlers and other young children as a class are very usefully compared and contrasted with adolescents or teenagers. Adolescents are somewhat capable of achieving principled authenticity at least partially or to some degree, but again still not fully so. In my terminology, they are most accurately characterized as semi-Kantian human real persons. This is because adolescents are still significantly self-centered, fickle, and willful. They still cannot adequately grasp the moral significance of their own deaths. They still are somewhat incapable of authentic or wholehearted commitment to their own moral principles, the Categorical Imperative, and the dignity of human real persons, including taking complete responsibility for some things over which they have no control. So they still cannot be fully moved by respect for human dignity.

But unlike toddlers and other young children, adolescents can be intensely passionate, utterly reckless, and deeply romantic. Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet,Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, Nicholas Ray’s 1955 movie Rebel without a Cause, and J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye all beautifully capture — in their very different ways — “what-it-is-like-to-be-an-adolescent,” hence what it is like to be a semi-Kantian real person. As Salinger’s Holden Caulfield so vividly saw, it is like living in a field of rye on the edge of a precipice — as it were, on the edge of Kierkegaard’s chasm of 70, 000 fathoms — but at the same time also intensely wanting to take moral responsibility for catching young children before they stray too close to the edge, and fall helplessly into the abyss. Switching over now from Kierkegaard’s chasm to Maugham’s lovely metaphor, adolescent persons are poised on the razor’s edge, neither fully child nor fully adult. So there are substantive and not merely conventional reasons why we do not let adolescents marry, why we do not send adolescents to war, and why we do not treat them as fully morally responsible adults in courts of law.

Of course, as we all know, it’s mostly not any of their own doing: it’s, as the old saw has it, mostly their hormones talking. In any case, and all joking aside, whatever the underlying physiological causes are, their basic innate rational-moral capacities are still somewhat immature, latent, and undeveloped. But the self-evident fact remains that adolescents, as a proper sub-class of normal human beings who are both psychophysically and morally distinct from toddlers and other young children on the one hand, and also psychophysically and morally distinct from fully autonomous and fully responsible adults on the other, are excessively self-focused, insufficiently capable of self-control, insufficiently self-reflective, insufficiently capable of long-term planning, and insufficiently capable of fully recognizing the dignity of other persons or of themselves. Somewhat like toddlers and other children, adolescents are almost never synoptic thinkers, moral exemplars, or sublime real-world moral saints, “sinner saints.” For example, as many readers of Dickens have correctly pointed out, the lovely, gentle, preternaturally wise adolescent character Little Nell in his novel The Old Curiousity Shop is mainly a reflection of Dickens’s own kitschy, sickly-sweet fantasies about young women — although perhaps fewer have agreed with Oscar Wilde’s wickedly witty remark that it’s impossible not to laugh when poor Little Nell expires.

Be that as it may, adolescents are indeed capable of relatively sustained periods and phases of non-instrumental, altruistic, non-hedonistic, and non-consequentialist thought, feeling, and action, in anticipation of their hugher-level Kantian real personhood — again, as in the case of toddlers, a truly lovely thing. But sharply unlike toddlers, although very like most other older children, normal adolescents are quite capable of doing some philosophy, and some of them are extremely good at the formal parts of philosophy, especially logic.

Of course, I’m not neglecting the fact that mature normal rational human animals, i.e., human real persons who are fully capable of higher-level or Kantian rationality, aka moral agency, and also principled authenticity, can sometimes be very self-centered, fickle, and willful too, just like toddlers or adolescents. But they are not characteristically or typically so. A normal human adult who characteristically or typically comported himself in the way that toddlers, other young children, or even adolescents characteristically or typically do, would, no doubt, be correctly regarded as an unfortunate victim of some cognitive or emotional syndrome, and treated accordingly.

My main point here is simply that normal toddlers and other young children are capable of a great many different sorts of complex affects and complex emotional states, including momentary anticipations of Kantian real personhood, but they are not (yet) higher-level rational human animals. Toddlers and other young children are therefore human real persons in the Frankfurtian sense, but not (yet) real human persons in the Kantian sense. Toddlers and other young children are therefore junior human real persons — as it were, tenure track assistant professors in The Realm of Ends — but not yet senior real human persons, as it were, tenured full professors in The Realm of Ends, even though they are, in terms of dignity, equal moral persons with all the other real persons. By another contrast, adolescents or semi-Kantian human real persons more generally are poised, as I have said, on a razor’s edge somewhere between the higher and the lower levels. They are equal moral persons of the middle rank, but not card-carrying members of the classes above or below themselves — tenured associate professors in The Realm of Ends.

Thus human real personhood in the lower-level, Frankfurtian sense is a necessary and sufficient condition of human real personhood, which includes all the more-or-less online basic capacities of free agents, hence it entails dignity. And as we have seen, it is based on the fully online capacity for having second-order volitions, which in turn contains several other distinct constituent fully online psychological capacities. Human real personhood in the higher-level, Kantian sense, i.e., moral agency, on the other hand, both includes and significantly augments human real personhood in the Frankfurtian sense, by including the fully online capacity for principled authenticity, at least partially or to some degree. Correspondingly, human real personhood in the higher-level, Kantian sense is based on the fully online capacity for higher-level rational agency, which also contains several other distinct online psychological capacities. In order to display the internal complexity of the relationships between these capacities more fully, here’s an explicit version of the two-level theory of human real personhood that I’ve been developing, together with my conception of human neo-personhood, in the form of a four-part metaphysical definition of human real personhood:

Part I. X is a Frankfurtian human real person (personf) if and only if X is a human 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), and caring (that is, affect, desire, and emotion), especially including effective first-order desires,

(iii) lower-level of 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 Kantian human real person (personk), aka a human moral agent, if and only if X is a human real personf and also has fully online psychological capacities for

(vii) higher-level or Kantian rationality, that is, categorically normative logical rationality[10] and practical rationality, the latter of which also entails a fully online capacity for deep (non-)moral responsibility, autonomy (self-legislation), and wholeheartedness, hence a fully online capacity for principled authenticity, at least partially or to some degree.

Part III. X is a human real person if and only if X is either a human real personf or a human real personk; and any other finite, material creature or entity X is a non-person.

Part IV. If X is an actualized human real person, then the neo-person of X is also a human real person, where the neo-person of X is an individual human 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.

NOTES

[i] See H. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), esp. the following essays collected in that book: Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” pp. 11–25, Frankfurt “Identification and Externality,” pp. 58–68, Frankfurt, “The Importance of What We Care About,” pp. 80–94, and Frankfurt, “Identification and Wholeheartedness,” pp. 159–176.

[ii] See R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), chs. 1–2, also available online in preview HERE; and R. Hanna, “Minding the Body,” Philosophical Topics 39 (2011): 15–40, also available online in preview HERE.

[iii] See Frankfurt, “Identification and Externality”; and Frankfurt, “Identification and Wholeheartedness.”

[iv] See D.R. Griffin, Animal Minds (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001); M. Bearzi and C. Stanford, Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2008); and S. Savage-Rumbaugh and R. Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind (New York: Wiley, 1994). Savage-Rumbaugh’s research is highly controversial. For an alternative view, see M. Tomasello and J. Call, Primate Cognition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), esp. pp. 375–379. My own view, which I spell out and defend in Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3) (New York: Nova Science 2018), chs. 3–4, also available online in preview HERE, and also in sub-section V.3 below, says that Great apes and perhaps also dolphins are non-autonomous, non-human real persons who are morally equivalent to normal human toddlers and other young children. This in turn suggests an argument strategy for those who seek to extend real-person-based legal rights to Great apes and dolphins: Since normal human toddlers and other young children clearly have real personhood and dignity, and since Great apes and (perhaps also) dolphins possess the same psychological capacities that ground real personhood and dignity, then it follows that Great apes and (perhaps also) dolphins also have real personhood and dignity, and therefore should also be accorded the same person-based legal rights. See also C. Siebert,“Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue its Owner?,” The New York Times (23 April 2014), available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/magazine/the-rights-of-man-and-beast.html?emc=eta1&_r=0>.

[v] See, e.g., D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (2nd edn., Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), books II and III.

[vi] L. Hellman, “Introduction,” in D. Hammett, The Big Knockover (London: Orion Books, 2005), pp. v-xxii. Hellman is talking about parallels between some of the central characters in Dostoevsky’s novels — e.g., Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov — and Hammett himself.

[vii] See, e.g., M. Tomasello, Why We Cooperate (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); and P. Bloom, “The Moral Life of Babies,” The New York Times Magazine (9 May 2010), available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html>.

[viii] For a theory of the morality of our own deaths, see Hanna, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3), ch. 7.

[ix] In Frankfurt’s terminology, normal human toddlers and other children cannot identify or decide “wholeheartedly.” See Frankfurt, “Identification and Wholeheartedness.”

[x] See R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), esp. chs. 6–7, also available online in preview HERE.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

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