What is a Person?

[Originally published 19 December, 2012]
Here is a philosophical question for you all to ponder – What is a ‘Person’? When would we assign personhood to some entity? Dan Dennett has put forth six (necessary but not sufficient) Conditions of Personhood. They are:

1. Rationality. A person is a rational being.

2. Subjects of Intentional ascriptions. They are beings to which we attribute states of consciousness.

3. A certain stance or attitude is taken toward them. This brings in the idea that they are to be treated as moral objects.

4. Reciprocity. They can reciprocate when a certain stance is taken in regard to them. This introduces the idea that they are moral agents.

5. They are users of verbal language.

6. They are distinguished from other entities by being conscious in some special way (such as self-conscious).


What do you think – are these what you would consider the necessary conditions of Personhood?

Think about this in relation to a foetus developing into an infant – when does personhood emerge, is it after they achieve all of these categories?

Think about other animals – are they ‘persons’ under these criteria? What about a computer/machine – are these the right criteria to apply to artificially created entities?

What about some potential alien lifeforms – what would it take before we consider them ‘persons’?

And of course, in the US, corporations have been given personhood – do they meet these criteria?


One philosopher – Kathleen Wilkes – has said we should add a seventh category – Construction and Use of Tools. She argues that this is just as significant as language use.


Would you add or subtract any of these conditions?

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