A Psychological Basis For Personhood


Disputes around personhood form one of the most important disagreements when it comes to abortion ethics. Pro-life advocates insist that abortion involves the killing of an innocent person, a being with significant moral status and rights, while pro-choice advocates tend to reject this assumption.

This post will argue that pro-choice advocates are right to reject this assumption. There are strong reasons to favor a psychological theory of personhood, and psychological theories of personhood exclude embryos and fetuses from the realm of moral consideration(at least during the timeframe when most abortions occur)

My preferred theory of personhood can be stated succinctly: A person is a being with thoughts and feelings that are experienced in a psychologically continuous way.

Thoughts include beliefs about how the world is and desires about how one wants the world to be, including desires about how one is treated in that world. Such beliefs can either be true or false, and such desires can either be thwarted or fulfilled. Chief among the morally relevant feelings at issue would be the capacity for pain and pleasure. Pain and pleasure are what elevate certain states of affairs over others. A state of torture is intrinsically worse than a state of bliss precisely because the difference in pain/pleasure creates a difference in the welfare state of the individual so afflicted.

It’s not enough for the aforementioned mental states to exist momentarily, ceasing to exist at one moment and coming into existence in the next. They must be integrated into a persistent subject of conscious experience. Persisting beliefs, desires and intentions, memory, and anticipation, enduring character traits over time, etc. are all signs of psychological continuity.

Importantly, the self-conscious person and the pre-self- conscious subject(e.g. an infant) who precedes self-consciousness are not separate subjects. As philosopher Jeff McMahan puts it, “For instance, McMahan argues that the self-conscious person and the pre-self- conscious subject who precedes self-consciousness cannot be separate subjects. He says, ‘‘Self-consciousness arises when a conscious entity develops a higher-order, reflexive awareness of its own experiences. The onset of self-consciousness in the world as we know it presupposes the prior existence of the conscious subject.’’(The Ethics of Killing, 350). Psychological continuity need not require a robust sense of self, just the aforementioned signs of continuity.

With my theory of personhood on the table, I will turn to providing positive arguments in favor of it.

The Importance of Interests

Personhood requires that a being have interests. For an entity to possess interests means that it has a welfare — it is capable of being harmed or benefited by what happens to it. To have moral rights and standing is to be the sort of being whose interests must be considered from the moral point of view.

In other words, when we give entities moral consideration, we give consideration to how our actions can harm or benefit them. Having interests entails “having a stake” in how one is treated so to say. Hence, the only logical conclusion is that a being must have interests to be morally considerable. Further, only beings that are morally considerable can have significant moral status so as to be persons.

All of this is to say that personhood presupposes the possession of interests. If a being does not have interests, it is not a person. If a being does have interests, then they are fair candidates to be persons.

Consciousness Forms the Basis of Interests

What is necessary and sufficient for a being to have interests? I favor the answer given by Aaron Simmons: consciousness.

We should start with the observation that Interests are inherently evaluative. For a being to have interests means that certain things have value for that being, certain things are good for that being. For example, a being having an interest in life implies that life has value for that being.

So then, what explains the nature of this value, where this value comes from, and why certain things have value for some beings? I think a being’s capacity for desires provides the most reasonable explanation for the idea that certain things are of value to certain beings.

To start with, it seems clear that there is a basic link between desiring and valuing . When we desire a thing, we regard that thing as good to some degree, meaning simply that we have some positive feeling toward that thing.

It is unclear where that value is meant to come from if not, in some sense, from an entity’s capacity to desire or care about things — that is, if not from an entity’s capacity to have positive feelings toward certain things, to regard things as good. If an entity completely lacks the capacity to desire or care about things, then it is perplexing how things could have value for it.

Hence, the best explanation for the value imbued in interests is the presence of mental states such as desires and goals that relate to intrinsically motivating qualitative states like joy and suffering. In other words, a system of consciousness is both necessary and sufficient for the possession of interests.

The Right to Life and Psychological Continuity

Any theory of personhood must ground and explain the right to life. For the purposes of this post, we can define a “right” as follows: a being has a moral right to x if and only if it is prima facie very wrong to deprive that being of x. To say that a being has a right to life, then, is to say that killing said being is prima facie very wrong.

On my account of personhood, a being can only have a right to life if they have an interest in continued living. That is, they must be harmed by dying. The central question becomes what desires, goals, and aims can be thwarted by death.

The most straightforward answer would be any future-oriented mental state. If a being has desires, hopes, and dreams about the future, then killing said being deprives them of a future that is valuable to them. It annihilates everything they take to be important about their conscious lives. To a being that cares deeply about their conscious future, their continued existence or untimely death makes a difference to their lives as experienced.

This is true for both conscious and dispositional desires. We might accept the belief that most desires are fleeting if we think that one can have a desire only if one is presently and actively experiencing that desire. However, dispositional desires also exist and are morally significant.

For example, consider the desire to not be stabbed. Do we have a desire to not be burned stabbed only when we’re currently and actively experiencing a desire to not be stabbed? If this were true, then we would hardly ever have a desire to not be stabbed since it is rare that we actually experience this specific desire.

One time when we usually do not experience a desire to not be stabbed is when we are sleeping. Imagine that someone stabs while you’re sleeping(or attempts to do so), without you ever noticing, and then seeks to justify the act by claiming that you did not desire to avoid being stabbed because you were not currently experiencing that desire. We would reject the reasoning as preposterous.

We continue to have a desire to avoid being stabbed because this desire is dispositional, meaning that we would likely experience this desire given the appropriate circumstances(since this desire never truly “left” us in the first place). You have dispositional desires even when you aren’t consciously focused on them because we are psychologically connected to multiple parts of our mental lives.

Other desires can be dispositional too. For example, consider again the various long-term desires or projects that many people have such as a desire to get an education in college, or a desire to find romantic love. A person does not actively experience these desires perpetually, yet they still exist.

To enjoy something entails that one experiences a feeling of satisfaction or mental pleasure (distinct from a purely physical, bodily pleasure) upon having or experiencing that thing. Moreover, it entails that one likes the thing that one enjoys, meaning that one has and experiences a positive feeling or attitude of approval or favorability toward that thing.

In this way, one’s enjoyment of a thing entails that one desires that thing. One has a feeling of care toward the thing one enjoys, in such a way that one is disposed or motivated in one’s behavior to pursue that thing. In this sense, a being’s enjoyments count as desires (and thus, are the kinds of things which can be satisfied or thwarted). In many cases, enjoyments should be viewed not just as temporary experiences but rather, like many desires, as dispositional.

As long as a being has dispositional desires about various enjoyments in life, such as those relating to family and other social relationships, forms of play, hobbies, exploring the environment, physical activity (e.g., running, swimming), learning, etc then they can have a right to life. Death can be bad for any of us if dying denies us a future of activities, relationships, experiences, projects and pleasures that we are disposed to cherish and care about. The right kind of psychological identity over time to accommodate dispositional desires is the only thing required.


There is ample reason to subscribe to a psychological theory of personhood. Such theories make sense of the connection between interests and value while also explaining why the right to life.

The implication is that embryos and fetuses are not persons since they lack thoughts and feelings of at all(at least during the time when most abortions occur). Even later on in pregnancy, it’s unclear whether fetuses have the kind of psychological connections necessary to support the kind of enduring dispositional desires that would render killing wrong.

If embryos and fetuses are not persons, then abortion does involve the killing of innocent people and is thus morally permissible. The pro-life view is defeated, and the pro-choice view is affirmed.

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