Defending a Psychological Basis For Personhood


Psychological theories of personhood ground moral status in the possession of mental states and conscious experience. On my preferred theory, a person is a being with thoughts and feelings that are experienced in a psychologically continuous way.

Of the numerous objections launched against psychological theories of personhood by pro-life advocates, three stick out as the most common: that they entail the permissibility of killing comatose people, that they undermine human equality, and that they entail the permissibility of infanticide.

This post will provide a response to each of these objections. In the end, I hope to show that these objections should not cause the pro-choice advocate any loss of sleep. Psychological theories of personhood remain viable.

Objection #1- “Psychological accounts of personhood cannot adequately explain the wrongness of killing people who are asleep or people who are in a coma”

This objection is simply mistaken about the explanatory power of psychological theories of personhood. When people wake up from comas or sleep, they are connected to their past selves by way of memories and that self had plans for the future. The presence of such things indicate that the mental lives of persons are not “wiped from the universe” when they fall asleep or go into a coma. They still exist.

Fetuses have never been conscious and so they have no psychological connections to their past self. This is a relevant difference between most fetuses and sleeping/comatose people.

Furthermore, A sleeping person has desires and interests just like we do, and therefore they can be harmed when those desires and interests are thwarted. Of course, when you are asleep or in a coma, you aren’t consciously holding any desires in your attention. But this is also true of most of your desires even when you are awake. If you love your children, you don’t stop loving them the moment you focus your attention on something else, like a football game.

Such desires are known as dispositional desires.  You have dispositional desires even when you aren’t currently focused on them, including when you are in a coma or asleep.

Objection #2- “Psychological accounts of personhood can’t adequately explain the moral equality of human beings given that psychological abilities vary from person to person. If moral status is determined by properties that come in degrees or levels, then individuals who have them to a greater degree or level are entitled to exploit those who have them to a lesser degree or level”

This objections suffers both from a false premise and a logically invalid structure.

To start with, it’s flatly false that psychological theories of personhood lack the resources needed to explain why exploitation is wrong. If we hone in on clear-cut cases of exploitation (e.g., ableism, child abuse) we can appeal to violations of interests, disrespect, using someone as a mere means, suffering, and many other morally relevant concerns in order to account for why such exploitation is wrong. All people have conscious interests and the capacity to suffer. Those traits don’t change from person to person.

More to the point, the underlying logical structure of this objection is invalid. From the fact that personhood is based on degreed characteristics, it does not follow that the moral rights that go along with personhood must also come in degrees. To give an analogy, all students who pass their sophomore year in high school have the equal right to enroll for their junior year, whether they passed their sophomore year with flying colors or barely got passing grades.

Personhood could be a range property, meaning it is equally instantiated in all human beings above a certain threshold. Another example of a range property is the property of “being located in the interior of a circle”. All points within a circle have this property even if they vary within a range of coordinates. The pro-life advocate must do more than note that psychological capacities change from person to person if she wants to derive the desired conclusion. They must give some reason that personhood cannot be a range property. Until that crucial premise is added and defended, this objection remains logically invalid.

Objection #3- “There are no intrinsic psychological differences between a fetus late in pregnancy and a newborn infant. So, if later abortion is justified because the fetus isn’t a person, then infanticide is justified because the newborn isn’t a person”

The claim that there are no intrinsic psychological differences between a later fetus fetus and a newborn infant should be rejected in light of empirical evidence. Contrary to popular belief, birth marks far more than a mere change in spatial location. Significant changes in the mental lives of human beings occur after birth.

Jose Bermudez brings attention to a series of experiments that demonstrate infants have the ability to imitate facial expressions as early as 42 minutes after birth. Imitating the facial expression of an adult seems to require an understanding that the adult is distinct from, but similar to, oneself, and that seems to indicate ‘a primitive form of self-awareness’. This is a rudimentary form of self-consciousness that full-term fetuses lack.

Stuart Derbyshire, a psychologist and pain specialist, even argues that entry into the extra-uterine world is an important step in the development of conscious awareness. The infant’s entrance into the world introduces it to a mass of content for mental processing: the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the world. Derbyshire maintains that exposure to this content is essential for developing conscious experience, memory, and emotion(Can Fetuses Feel Pain? , 2006).

The key takeaway is that the content of the world provides the the required material for conscious thought and experience.  In the womb, the fetus is separated from this content. Trapped in the uterine environment, it lacks the stuff of both conscious experience and, Derbyshire contends, sensory reaction. Emergence into the world thus brings with it the objects of thought and experience.

It’s easy to forget that the neural activity of the fetus is limited by the sedation in the uterine environment. This is why birth marks such a dramatic change in alertness and attentiveness. As neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and pediatrician Hugo Lagercrantz record, “The delivery from the mother’s womb thus causes arousal from a ‘resting,’ sleeping, state in utero. After birth, electrophysiological signs on EEG scalp recordings indicate an intense flow of novel sensory stimuli after birth”(The Emergence of Human Consciousness: From Fetal to Neonatal Life, 2009).

They go on to note the biological basis for this change, “in addition, arousal is enhanced by the release from endogenous analgesia possibly caused by removal of the mentioned placental “suppressors” which in utero selectively inhibit neural activity of the fetus…. The catecholamine surge triggered by vaginal delivery may also be critical for the arousal at birth.”(Ibid). This substantial development in conscious awareness explains why infants have a right to life. Once we recognize that birth marks a radical development in the mental lives of human beings, it become clear that infants are persisting subjects of conscious experience in a way that fetuses are not.

Considerations about agency are also paramount in differentiating infants from fetuses. Birth is the beginning of independent embodied existence in the world, and this embodied presence in the world is central to becoming an agent within it. Joseph Raz has argued that only through engagement with the world can human beings learn how to act so as to produce effects(Being in the World, 2010). Through our experience of the world, we learn to understand how to alter our environment so as to become a force within it. Raz describes the learning process as “assessing what is likely or unlikely to happen in the normal course of events”(Agency and Luck, 2012). Since interacting with the world is necessarily tied with becoming agents, entering into the world through birth marks the start of a human being’s path to agency.

Finally, I would be amiss not to mention the profound change in social situation that occurs after birth. As philosopher and legal scholar Kate Greasley eloquently puts it, “Once born, other people may nurture and respond to the new human being as an individual in its own right, no longer restricted to access only through the pregnant women’s body. This separate embodiment enables the neonate to be drawn into the social world of others in ways previously not possible–to be touched, fed, spoken to, and heard”(In Defense of Abortion Rights, 2018). This difference, while extrinsic, is nonetheless relevant to the moral status of the infant. The difference in social situation between infants and fetuses just goes to show that there are morally relevant intrinsic and extrinsic differences between them.

Hence, there are many relevant differences between the psychological capacities of infants and the psychological capacities of newborn infants. As Kate Greasley succinctly summarizes, “If agency in the world and conscious experience (including, especially, awareness of oneself as an individual subject) are important constitutive features of personhood, birth is a watershed development in the life of the early human being”(Arguing About Abortion, 2017).


Psychological theories of personhood remain unfazed despite common pro-life objections. Pro-choice advocates have sound theories of moral status that can reject fetal personhood while affirming abortion rights.


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