Ep 30 – What Makes a Person a Person? with Josh Brahm

Posted on Updated on


Hello friends and Fetal Position listeners! Today, I have one of my pro-life mentors and president of the Equal Rights Institute, Josh Brahm, on the show with me to talk about personhood. We go pretty deep, philosophically, but it’s nothing that you can’t handle.
It might just mean you have to listen twice ūüėČ

Click the media player at the top of the page, or click here to listen to it in a new window.

One of the reasons I wanted to have Josh on the podcast is because of his interesting approach to answering the difficult question of personhood. Is the unborn a person? And if so, how in the world can we communicate that to other people? We dive deep into it during the show and you should definitely listen to it, but the thrust of his approach is pretty straight-forward. Here’s my summary of his position on this.

The Equal Rights Argument

  1. Don’t we all deserve the right to life?
  2. Doesn’t that mean there is something the same about us? That we all have equally?
  3. What is that property that grounds us all having an equal right to life?

When we look out into the world, we see people with varying IQs, sizes, abilities, races, etc. But there is one thing that we all know about any group of people. And that is that they all have the right to life. Given how different they all are, what exactly is it that grounds that right to life? This can’t be a degreed property because that wouldn’t ground the equal right to life that we all have and recognize. This is trying to extract a principle based on the clear cases of personhood, and once we figure out that principle, we can use that to figure out personhood generally.

Josh (and the others who have worked on this argument) say that it is something like humanness. Something like being a human.

He says¬†something like humanness deliberately, because he doesn’t want to say that you have to be a human in order to have the right to life or to be a person. After all… Kryptonians, Vulcans, and Heptapods are not biological humans, but they certainly seem to have the right to life.

At this point, the pro-choice advocate may try to attach personhood to something other than something like humanness. Perhaps they say sentience or awareness or something  like that. At this point, the pro-choicer is begging the question, and to illustrate this, Josh uses an analogy.

The Zoo Shooting Analogy

There’s a shooting at a zoo, and the shooter fires 6 bullets and kills 6 entities:

  • A cockroach
  • A squirrel
  • An elephant
  • A newborn
  • A toddler
  • An adult woman

Imagine a circle where everything within the circle has an equal right to life. The pro-choicer’s personhood criteria will either have too many things within the circle (like squirrels and cockroaches) or have not enough within the circle (like human newborns).

So what grounds equality? Perhaps it is sentience.
If sentience is the criteria, and sentience is defined as the ability to perceive the world and experience things, this would entail that cockroaches are within the circle. And this would mean that cockroaches and adult humans have an equal right to life.

So they might move to something like self-awareness.
But if self-awareness is the criteria, then the elephant would have an equal right to life as the toddler and the adult woman, but the newborn does not! Elephants pick stickers off of their heads while examining themselves in a mirror and newborns don’t have self-awareness until at least 3 months. And that’s clearly a problem. If they bite this bullet, they’re just guarding turf. Very rarely does someone actually believe it is morally neutral to kill a newborn.

At this point, they might go to something like human + sentience.
They might feel as though this might solve the problem. All humans are persons, but they know they want to exclude the unborn. This is incredibly ad hoc. They know where they want to end up, and they’re combining features in order to get there. They’re essentially just saying “my personhood definition can be boiled down to ‘all humans except unborn humans’

So, as demonstrated by this thought experiment, the pro-choice advocate’s criteria for personhood either allows too many or too few entities into the ‘right to life circle’, or it is simply ad hoc and they’d need to give a positive reason to believe it. They can’t just assert it.

But let’s jump back to what exactly it is that makes a person a person. Remember, we’re working off of the idea that the thing that grounds personhood is¬†something like humanness, but it is not biological humanness because Spock and Superman are totally persons too.
… if they exist, of course.

So what is it? What is a better way to understand¬†something like humanness? It is something that all humans have that isn’t just biological humanity.

It is having the intrinsic ability to think and act morally.

An immediate ability is an ability you can do right now. An intrinsic ability is an ability that you have in virtue of the kind of thing you are. This isn’t a potential ability, it is an ability that you have because of the kind of thing you are. If you pick an immediate ability, you’re going to get wrong answers. The key here is to ask about the intrinsic ability to do what? At the moment, thinking and acting morally makes the most sense at the moment. And members of the human family are entities that are naturally ordered to thinking and acting morally.

It’s also possible that personhood is grounded in the fact they are¬†a member of a rational kind. It seems to me that if we assume a dualistic paradigm (in philosophy of mind), both criteria work. Dualism would be ok with both the intrinsic ability to think and act morally, as well as the member of a rational kind. However, physicalism wouldn’t likely give much credence to the intrinsic ability criteria (if that is grounded in a soul or a spirit of some kind), but would give credence to the member of a rational kind criteria.
[I really enjoyed this aspect of the conversation]

Resources mentioned:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *