Are the unborn human persons? What is the difference between legal and moral personhood? What does it mean to say that a corporation is a legal person? Do the most intelligent animals deserve the rights of moral or legal persons? These questions are likely to arise sooner or later for most law students. This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon explores the idea of personhood, moral, legal, and human. As always, this post is intended as an introduction for law students (especially first-year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
Persons and Humans
The terms "human" and "person" have related meanings, but as used by most legal theorists, these terms are distinct. Here's one definition of "human":
a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens)
And person is sometimes defined as a "human" or "individual". But "person" has another meaning, one that distinguishes the concept of person from the concept of human. Suppose, for example, an intelligent alien species were to arrive on Earth (or humans were to encounter them elsewhere). If the members of the aliens displayed evidence of human-like intelligence and could communicate with us (e.g. were able to master a human natural language, such as English), then we might be tempted to treat members of this species as morally and/or legally entitled to the same rights as humans.
Consider, for example, the aliens Chewbacca and Yoda in the Star Wars movies. Neither Chewbacca nor Yoda is a member of the species homo sapiens, yet both are treated as the moral and legal equivalents of humans in the Star Wars universe.
Let us stipulate then, that term "human" is a biological term, which refers to all the members of the species homo sapiens and that the term "person" is a normative (legal, moral, or ethical) term, which refers to a moral and/or legal status that creatures or other bearers of human-like capacities can share with normal adult humans. "Human persons," then are members of the biological species with the relevant capabilities.
The categories of human and person are involved in some of the most contentious debates in moral, political, and legal theory. Prime among these is the abortion debate. One move that can be made in the abortion debate is simply to deny the distinction between human and person. So it might be the case that the relevant moral and legal category is "human person" and that all members of the species homo sapiens members of this category. Or it might be argued that "human" and "person" are morally and legally distinction categories. If so, it is possible that "fetuses" are unborn humans, but that they are not yet "persons," although they would be "potential persons" or "potential human persons."
There is more to be said about terminology, but I will conclude with two observations. Some of the debates about "persons" and "personhood" may reflect an ambiguity in the word "person." But it is at least possible that one of the senses of person (roughly the moral sense) is a contested concept--that is, there may be competing conceptions of the concept person. (See the Legal Theory Lexicon entry on the concept-conceptions distinction.)
Legal, Moral, and Natural Persons
So far, I have been treating the category of personhood or persons as a single category, but this need not be the case. We can distinguish between three kinds of persons--natural, moral, and legal. It is possible that the not all legal persons are natural persons and vice versa; the category of moral persons is clearly distinct from that of legal persons, but might be considered identical with the category of natural persons.
Examples will help. Corporations and governmental units are legal persons--they have legal rights and responsibilities and can sue and be sued, but we do not say that corporations are natural or moral persons. (More precisely, the claim that corporations are moral persons would be controversial.) A corporation is not a natural person, because it is nonnatural in the relevant sense. Corporations are artificial or nonnatural because they are the creations of the law. Likewise, all humans are usually considered "natural persons," but not all humans have the full bundle of rights and responsibilities associated with legal persons. For example, infants and incompetents may be unable to sue in their own name and may not bear full legal responsibility for their acts.
The discussion in the prior paragraph assumes that only individual humans are natural persons, but this assumption is controversial. If groups can have agency, then there might be persons constituted by groups of humans. This entry of the Legal Theory Lexicon simply brackets this assumption.
The classical discussion of the idea of legal personhood is found in John Chipman Gray's The Nature and Sources of the Law. He began his famous discussion, "In books of the Law, as in other books, and in common speech, 'person' is often used as meaning a human being, but the technical legal meaning of a 'person' is a subject of legal rights and duties." The question whether an entity should be considered a legal person is reducible to other questions about whether or not the entity can and should be made the subject of a set of legal rights and duties. The particular bundle of rights and duties that accompanies legal personhood varies with the nature of the entity. Both corporations and natural persons are legal persons, but they have different sets of legal rights and duties. Nonetheless, legal personhood is usually accompanied by the right to own property and the capacity to sue and be sued.
Gray reminds us that inanimate things have possessed legal rights at various times. Temples in Rome and church buildings in the middle ages were regarded as the subject of legal rights. Ancient Greek law and common law have even made objects the subject of legal duties. In admiralty, a ship itself becomes the subject of a proceeding in rem and can be found "guilty." Christopher Stone has recounted a twentieth-century Indian case in which counsel was appointed by an appellate court to represent a family idol in a dispute over who should have custody of it. The most familiar examples of legal persons that are not natural persons are business corporations and government entities.
Gray's discussion was critical of the notion that an inanimate thing might be considered a legal person. After all, what is the point of making a thing-- which can neither understand the law nor act on it--the subject of a legal duty? Moreover, he argued that even corporations are reducible to relations between the persons who own stock in them, manage them, and so forth. Thus, Gray insisted that calling a legal person a "person" involved a fiction unless the entity possessed "intelligence" and "will."
Can we say that corporations possess "intelligence" and "will"? The answer to that question is controversial among legal theorists. The orthodox position is that the corporation itself is a legal fiction; the humans who make up the corporation may have intelligence and will, but the corporation itself does not. But some might argue that the properties of the corporation are not reducible to the properties of the individuals who make up the corporation. Corporations may have "a mind of their own," at least according to some theorists.
"Legal personhood" is controversial, but "moral personhood" is one of the most contested ideas in contemporary legal, moral, and political theory. This large debate is not easy to summarize, but one of the crucial issues concerns the criteria for moral personhood. What attributes would make some life form (or even a robot) a moral person? Here are some of the possibilities:
Intelligence--One possibility is that the possession of "intelligence" (at some threshold level) is the criterion for moral personhood. Of course, "intelligence" itself is hardly a transparent concept.
Autonomy--Another idea is that persons must be capable of autonomy. But what is autonomy? One notion is that autonomous beings must be capable of second-order beliefs and motivations. That is, autonomy requires that one be able to have beliefs about one's beliefs and desires about one's desires.
Communication--Yet another possibility is that personhood requires the ability to communicate with others or to use language. On this criterion, it is possible that some higher primates might qualify for personhood--although the empirical evidence on primate use of human language is disputed.
Self-Awareness--Finally, some have argued that the criterion for moral personhood should be self-awareness or reflexive consciousness. To be a person, I must be aware of the my own consciousness.
This is not an exhaustive list of the criteria for moral personhood. Moreover, these criteria might be combined in various ways. For example, it might be argued that only an intelligent, autonomous, language-using, self-conscious being would be a full moral person.
"Personhood" is a fundamental notion for legal theorists. "Legal personhood" plays an important role in legal doctrine, and "moral personhood" plays a fundamental role in moral and political theory. The purpose of this post has been to give you a very rough sense of some of the issues that surround these concepts. More reading can be found in the bibliography.
Related Lexicon Entries
- John Chipman Gray, The Nature and Sources of the Law (Roland Gray ed., MacMillan 1921).
- Lawrence B. Solum, Legal Personhood for Artificial Intelligences, 70 North Carolina Law Review 1233 (1992).
- Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing?--Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, 45 S. CAL. L. REV. 450 (1972).
- Richard Tur, The 'Person' in Law in Persons and Personality: A Contemporary Inquiry (Arthur Peacocke & Grant Gillett eds., 1987).
(Last revised on April 20, 2012)