What Is A Person And How Can We Be Sure?
A Paradigm Case Formulation
The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology
Harvard Medical School
Evolution and Technology - Vol. 24 Issue 3 – Sept 2014 –pgs 27-34
Case Formulation (PCF) of Persons is developed that allows competent judges to
identify areas of agreement and disagreement regarding where they draw a line
on what is to be included as a person. The paradigm case is described as a
linguistically competent individual able to engage in Deliberate Action in a
Dramaturgical Pattern. Specific attention is given to the ability of paradigm
case persons to employ Hedonic, Prudent, Aesthetic and Ethical perspectives in
choosing their Deliberate Actions and Social Practices.
It is sometimes said that animals do not
talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this means: “they do not
think, and that is why they do not talk.” But---they simply do not
talk. Wittgenstein (1953)
Apparently, humanity has matured enough
for us to ask in a non-trivial way, “Are human beings the only persons we
Historically, we have only recognized
others who share our human embodiment as fellow persons. This matters legally,
morally and ethically since we grant people rights, privileges and protections
that are not offered to nonpersons. These rights, privileges and protections
are subject to revision. We no longer allow people to be kept as the property
of other people.
The capacity to revise and reorder
appraisals is a fundamental feature of what it means to be a person. This
includesmoral and ethical judgments, and appraisals of who is to be treated as
I am going to offer a Paradigm Case
Formulation of what we take to be a Person. Ethical and moral progress is a
fundamental possibility inherent in this conceptualization.It follows that if
we recognize nonhuman animals (or other entities) as persons, asking, if we are
holding them in slavery becomes a legitimate question.
is a person? And what is a Paradigm Case Formulation?
Sometime in the mid 1960’s, NASA asked
the Descriptive Psychologist, Peter Ossorio, “If green gas on the moon speaks
to an astronaut, how do we know whether or not it is a person?” (Schwartz
1982). Note that simply asking this
question acknowledges the possibility of a person who does not share human
So how can we sort out what constitutes
a person if we allow that the category is not based only on having a particular
body? Toward this goal I am going to use
the Descriptive Psychological method of Paradigm Case Formulation (PCF)
(Ossorio 2013). I will show how it is
reasonable to include non-humans as persons and to have legitimate grounds for
disagreeing where the line is properly drawn. In good faith, competent judges
using this formulation can clearly point to where and why they agree or
disagree on what is to be included in the category of “Persons”.
I am going to make explicit what is
already implicit in what we mean by "Persons" by making explicit what
we already know and act on. We already have an implicit understanding of
what it means to be a person since this understanding is fundamental in order
to act as one of us with the shared
expectations required to competently engage in the social practices of everyday
life. We engage with our fellow persons differently than we do with what we
take to be nonpersons.
The value of a Paradigm Case
Formulation (PCF) is to achieve a common understanding of a subject matter in
cases where an ordinary definition proves too limiting, various, ambiguous or
impossible. These formulations are
helpful when it is reasonable to assume there are legitimate grounds for
disagreement about specific possible examples. I think the concept of “Person”
presents this definitional problem.
A PCF should provide competent users a
starting point of agreement. PCFs are designed to be as inclusive as possible
in order to capture, as a starting point, all possible examples. Generally they should consist of the most
complex case, an indubitable case, or a primary or archetypal case. It
should be a sort of “By God, if there were ever a case of “X”, then that’s it.”
Finding a fully inclusive definition is
a common conceptual dilemma. Consider how difficult it is to exactly define
what is meant by the word “family” or the word “chair” if we wish to achieve
agreement on all possible examples of “families” and “chairs”. Must
families all have two parents of different genders plus their children?
Must all chairs have four legs and a backrest?
For example, most would agree that a
group of people living together consisting of a married father and mother and
their biological son and daughter is a family. But what if there is only a
husband, his husband and their dog? Or three best friends who live under one
roof and make their significant decisions together? What elements must be
present and what can we change, add or leave out and still meet what different
people call a family? Notice the parameters of gender, number of participants,
presence or absence of marriage, presence or absence of children, presence or
absence of “living together” and so on.
The content of each of these parameters is subject to deletion or
substitution, with the result that with each alteration a judge may no longer
accept the new variation as within the domain of what they take to be an
appropriate instance of the concept in question.
By starting with a paradigm case that
everyone easily identifies as within their understanding of a concept, it
becomes possible to delete or change features of the paradigm with the
consequence that with each change some people might no longer agree that we are
still talking about the same thing. But because of the shared paradigm, it
becomes possible to show where there is agreement and disagreement and where
various judges draw the line.
is an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical Pattern. Deliberate Action is a form of behavior in
which a person (a) engages in an Intentional
or Goal Directed Action, (b) is Cognizant
of that, and (c) has Chosen to do
that. A person is not always engaged in a deliberate action but has the
ability to do so.
Deliberate Action is fundamental to any
claim of personal autonomy insofar as autonomy is linked to the ability to make
personal choices. As deliberate actors,
Paradigm Case Persons act on Hedonic,
Prudent, Aesthetic and Ethical reasons when selecting, choosing
or deciding on a course of action. Why only these four? These are the ones we
know. There may be more; if another is invented or discovered, it would be
included, somewhat like cooks now agree there is a fifth taste, umami, in
addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Hedonics, prudence, aesthetics, and
ethics provide intrinsic or fundamental motivation (Ossorio 2013). They provide
reason enough to do something. They stand on their own. These reasons for
action can be in conflict, operate in a complementary or independent fashion,
and so on. Tautologically, if you have two or more of these reasons to do
something, you have more reason than if you had only one of them.
These four classifications are
"family resemblance groups". Hedonics refers to the value of
pleasure, pain, disgust, and so on; prudence to self-interest; aesthetics to
the artistic, social and intellectual values of truth, rigor, objectivity,
beauty, elegance, closure and fit; ethics with right and wrong, fairness and
justice, the level playing field, the Golden Rule and kindred notions.
Hedonic and prudent motivations can
operate with and without cognizant awareness. They can be an aspect of both
deliberate and non-deliberate intentional action. As a fundamental aspect of
the general case of goal directed behavior, they are probably features of
all sentient animal life, whether human or not. They provide a basis for
cross species empathy and shared understanding. I can be sensitive to my dog’s pain. I have reason to believe he is sensitive to
Aesthetic and ethical motivations are
in an important way different from hedonic and prudent concerns. Aesthetic and ethical motivations are only
relevant when deliberate action is also possible since aesthetic and
ethical action require the ability to choose or refrain, to potentially
think over a desirable course to follow. In the service of being able to
choose, and perhaps think through the available options, a person’s
aesthetic and ethical motives are often consciously available (Schwartz, 1984).
It is reasonable to claim that I can’t
help but that it feels good, or that I see it as in my self-interest. I
simply and directly know it that way without having to deliberate about it, but
as a mature paradigm case person, I can consciously attempt to refrain from
seeking pleasure or self-interest on aesthetic and/or ethical grounds. And, at
times, I might set my ethics and aesthetics aside for the sake of pleasure and
It is a matter of one's personal
characteristics how an individual weighs their hedonic, prudent, ethical and
aesthetic reasons in a given circumstance, and how these perspectives operate
independently, antagonistically, harmoniously, and so on. To
remain a member in good standing in the general community of persons, central
to our social contracts, we expect that the normal mature human can employ all
of these motivational perspectives. Any
adult human who does not have these interests will likely seem primitive or
pathological. Any general theory of human behavior that does not
adequately address these motivations will be defective.
It is the formal requirement that
ethical and aesthetic acts are potentially deliberate that positions these
motives as quintessential qualities of persons. Any action that is motivated
by ethical or aesthetic concerns is evidence of the involvement of a
What about language?
Also paradigmatic of persons is
language use, the ability to share symbolic representations that correspond to
the concepts used in social practice.
The detection of language is both vital and problematic in assigning the
status of person to a nonhuman entity.
Shared social practice based on shared "forms of life",
as Wittgenstein (1953/2009) put it, creates a dilemma since both embodiment and
environment are relevant in what is shared.
Evidence of language is vital in the detection of deliberate action
since with language we can symbolically represent a choice, both what was
chosen and what was renounced. I can
tell you what I did and what I decided not to do. Language may not be required
for a particular deliberate action to be possible, but it hard to get around
its central place in the detection of persons.
We don’t have direct access to what
goes on in another person’s head. We can only observe each other's overt
performance, including what we tell each other about what we are up to.
Language is the ideal format for representing option and choice, since we can
speak about what we did not do, what we rejected or refrained from.
You see me take the low road but unless
there is some way of representing that I was aware that I could have taken the
high road, you might be hard pressed to successfully argue my behavior was
deliberate and that I am accountable for the choice.
Language is especially significant
in a person's ability to reorder priorities. Since language can be used
to represent the consequences of a course of action not yet followed,
it serves as a fundamental means of personal and social negotiation. I can
weigh the consequences of my potential acts and you can tell me your
thoughts about them. The reordering of priorities is a vital aspect
of social life, hard to accomplish without language.
This is also partly why
the behavior of persons is less stereotyped and predictable than
the behavior of nonpersons. People can develop, invent and reconsider. They can
think about their thinking. They can change their mind (or at least they
can try). And, central to my interests in this writing, people can gather
evidence that an entity they had not considered a person might be one.
What about the Dramaturgical Pattern?
That life is lived in a dramaturgical
pattern is to say that people’s lives are potentially understandable.
Their stories can be intelligibly told. Life consists of episodes of
unfolding and overlapping social practices in response to the changing
circumstances. A person’s history is not
a random or arbitrary collection of performances but instead a meaningful
unfolding of behavior given what a person is attempting to accomplish. A person’s actions have an ongoing
significance creating intelligible through-lines that an observer can employ in
recognizing behavior that is both in and out of character for the actors (Schwartz
2013). Of course, accidents and the unintended can happen; but for the most
part, people have their reasons for doing what they do. The drama of a person’s life is created in a
manner akin to an improvisational play. The characters and the setting are a
given but we have to wait and see how it will play out. The script can only be
written in retrospect, after the actions have occurred.
The PCF offered here allows for
nonhuman persons, potential persons, nascent persons, manufactured persons,
former persons, deficit case persons, primitive persons, and, I suppose,
super-persons. A human being is an
individual who is both a person and a specimen of Homo sapiens (Ossorio
I am not going to include the political
and legal claim that corporations are persons since that involves a language
game that is played for different reasons than my concerns here. Corporate
personhood has its own logic of contract and responsibility.
Although deliberate action is not
dependent on the availability of language, language use is a form of
deliberate action essential for the full paradigm. A person
without language would be a deficit case. Different judges will have
their reasons for granting or rejecting a deficit case as a full person along
with the corresponding rights, obligations and expectations that follow from
that accreditation or degradation (Schwartz, 1979).
Must a person have an ethical and
aesthetic perspective to count as a person? Or is the ability to engage in any
sort of deliberate action enough? Clearly to me, my dog Banjo is a deliberate
actor. But our conversations are pretty
one sided. He has, I feel sure, hedonic and prudential perspectives. About his ethical and aesthetic perspective,
I am not sure, except that I think I would have a hard time building a case
that he has these values. I think he appreciates affection and gentleness
similar to me, but I would not trust him with my lunch. I do not doubt that he
is an intentional actor, although I am uncertain about the range and nature of
his deliberations. But regardless, apart from the extent I consider Banjo
to have some person qualities, he is a member of my family and is to be treated
as such. He is a beloved companion.
The ability to weigh hedonic,
prudent, ethical and aesthetic interests are defining personal characteristics
since these perspectives shape an individual's social practices and ways
of life. The dramaturgical pattern of a
particular life is significantly dependent on a person’s values. A robot or
manufactured person, given its physical form, might not have an hedonic
perspective since the visceral sensations of pain or pleasure might not be
available; a chimpanzee person, apparently lacking language, probably has
underdeveloped or absent ethical and aesthetic concerns and this suggests a
sort of primitive status. Still, underdeveloped is different from
absent. Our descendants may look back at
our values and see them as underdeveloped.
We are a work in progress.
The line that constitutes language use
from nonlinguistic communication is also blurred. Evidence that chimpanzees and
other Great Apes use a flexible system of non-vocal gestures to communicate may
reasonably be considered a “sign language” by some observers (Hobaiter and Byrne,
Human children, while developing their
perspectives, have nascent person status and are treated differently than full
“legal” persons by not being given the same span of rights and responsibilities
granted adults. But the distinction
between childhood and adulthood is clearly arbitrary. Is adulthood reached at
21, 18, 16, 12, or 35? Rights and obligations change as values, knowledge and
competence matures but is finally a matter of political and legal decision.
The PCF provides a way to classify
different sorts of persons based on the motives they are competent to use in
recognizing their options and choosing a course of action. The ability and disposition to manifest and
refine hedonic, prudent, aesthetic and ethical values are fundamental status
markers relevant to a consideration of appropriate rights and responsibilities.
Implicitly or explicitly we employ these distinctions in our interactions with
others whether adult or child, human or otherwise.
What about other animals?
Years back, I was pursuing a pod of
bottlenose dolphin when a small one smacked the stern of my kayak, hard.
As the calf re-approached, a large female nudged it away. I was
astonished, relieved and grateful. Not wanting to push my luck, I paddled back
Are dolphins good candidates for
personhood? Do they engage in deliberate action in a dramaturgical
pattern? Do bottlenose dolphins speak to each other? Did a dolphin
protect me from mischief? I don't know.
I don't have sufficient evidence that dolphins fill the paradigm case. Some people have reason to think they might.
Using a PCF, I can point to where the evidence is robust and where it is
lacking. Language seems to be the
What about the other Cetacea, the elephants, the nonhuman
primates, and various parrots? I suspect
they fill out some of the paradigm case. Other judges reasonably believe they
fill out more. To the extent other animals are not domesticated (or enslaved),
they can’t or don’t "talk" with us.
Nonhuman animal communication, including the possibility
of language use, is difficult to study when there is an absence of
"shared forms of life."
are interdependent with humans in a way other animals are not and
this partly accounts for my sense of their companion status and our shared
practices. We work, play, eat, exploit and otherwise interact with the
domesticated in ways we do not with the "wild". They become our pets, livestock, guards and companions. We treat them, for better or worse,
accordingly. As our ethical and aesthetic
standards evolve, we revisit what we take to be the right way to engage with
them (or we should).
Do animals in the wild talk with each
other and could they talk with us? We may not have sufficient shared
social practices to make inter-species communication, speech, and translation
feasible, so it’s very hard to tell. This is a difficult empirical issue. Rather than simply communicate, some
observers believe they speak to each other in a linguistic fashion. There is no
consensus but the evidence is mounting that they do (see, for example,
Since language requires shared social
practice, an animal’s ecologically bounded options limit its expected
communicative range, concerns, and actions. Humans are adept at disrupting
their environments. We’re very skilled
at coercing them and killing them to further our goals. If they wanted to
talk to us, I am not sure we’d welcome what they have to say.
If someone actually taught
nonhuman animals to competently use language, would that be teaching them to be
a person? Yes, that is an implication of the paradigm offered here. By this same reasoning, we teach our human
children to be persons, too.
What are the ethics of uncertainty?
So what should we do with our
uncertainty? Logically, we are never in a position to prove that something is a
person, but we can adopt a policy that if we have any strong grounds for seeing
the other as one of us, we should treat that entity as a person until we have
reason enough to feel we are misguided. With persons it should be I to Thou.
There are people whose cultures and social practices leave me mystified, but it
is prudent and ethical to proceed from the belief that I simply do not
understand what they are about. The same
should hold for other animals.
I am not particularly concerned with
initial false positives. In my scientific training, I was told to avoid
anthropomorphism. I have become skeptical about the morality of this
stance, whether it involves an animal’s possible slavery or how I treat them as
A significant ethical question remains:
After the line on personhood is drawn, what considerations apply to the
treatment of animals that do not fall into the person category? Sentient
animals are intentional actors and have an interest in the avoidance of
suffering (Singer 2009). Is it ever
ethical to inflict harm if there is a way not to? What priorities need be
Person status defines a domain where
social and legal rights reside, hence a proper abhorrence of slavery and murder.
Judges in good faith might differ as to what animals are included as
persons, but it is a moral and ethical mistake to limit concerns about the
quality of a life to whether that life is also a person. Part of being a
person is to understand this.
Hobaiter and Byrne. (2014)The Meanings of Chimpanzee Gestures,
Current Biology. Accessed:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.05.066
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Behavior of Persons. Ann Arbor:
Descriptive Psychology Press
Savage-Rumbaugh, S., D.Rumbaugh, W.A.
Fields. 2009. Empirical Kanzi: the ape
language controversy revisited. Skeptic.
Schwartz, W. 1979.Degradation, Accreditation
and Rites of Passage.Psychiatry.
Schwartz, W. 1982. The Problem of Other Possible Persons:
Dolphins, Primates, and Aliens. In Advances in Descriptive Psychology vol
2.ed. Davis, K. and T. Mitchell, 31-56, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Schwartz, W. 1984.The Two Concepts of
Action and Responsibility inPsychoanalysis.The
Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Schwartz, W. (April, 2013) Through-lines,
the Dramaturgical Pattern, and the Structure of Improvisation.Accessed:http://freedomliberationreaction.blogspot.com
Singer, P. 2009. Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins.
Wittgenstein, L. 1953/2009,
Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.