It is common, since Mary Anne Warren's defense of abortion, to define personhood in terms of appropriate developed intellectual capacities. This has the problem that sufficiently developmentally challenged humans end up not counting as persons. While some might want to define personhood in terms of a potentiality for these capacities, Mike Gorman has proposed an interesting alternative: a person is something for which the appropriate developed intellectual capacities are normal, something with a natural teleology towards the right kind of intellectual functioning.
I like Gorman's solution, but I now want to experiment with a possible answer as to why, if this is what a person is, we should care more for persons than, say, for pandas.
There are three distinct cases of personhood we can think about:
- Persons who actually have the appropriate developed intellectual capacities.
- Immature persons who have not yet developed those capacities.
- Disabled persons who should have those capacities but do not.
The first case isn't easy, but since everyone agrees that those with appropriate development intellectual capacities should be cared for more than non-person animals, that's something everyone needs to handle.
I want to focus on the third case now, and to make the case vivid, let's suppose that we have a case of a disabled human whose intellectual capacities match those of a panda. Here is one important difference between the two: the human is deeply unfortunate, while the panda is--as far as the story goes--just fine. For even though their actual functioning is the same, the human's functioning falls significantly far of what is normal, while the panda's does not. But there is a strong moral intuition--deeply embedded into the Christian tradition but also found in Rawls--that the flourishing of the most unfortunate takes a moral priority over the flourishing of those who are less unfortunate. Thus, the human takes priority over the panda because although both are at an equal level of intellectual functioning, this equality is a great misfortune for the human.
What if the panda is also unfortunate? But a panda just doesn't have the range of flourishing, and hence for misfortune, that a human does. The difference in flourishing between a normal human state and the state of a human who is so disabled as to have the intellectual level of a panda is much greater than the total level of flourishing a panda has--if by killing the panda we could produce a drug to restore the human to normal function, we should do so. So even if the panda is miserable, it cannot fall as far short of flourishing as the disabled human does.
But there is an objection to this line of thought. If the human and the panda have equal levels of intellectual functioning, then it seems that the good of their lives is equal. The human isn't more miserable than the panda. But while I feel the pull of this intuition, I think that an interesting distinction might be made. Maybe we should say that the human and the panda flourish equally, but the human is unfortunate while the panda is not. The baselines of flourishing and misfortune are different. The baseline for flourishing is something like non-existence, or maybe bare existence like that of a rock, and any goods we add carry one above zero, so if we add the same goods to the human's and the panda's account, we get the same level. But the baseline for misfortune is something like the normal level for that kind of individual, so any shortfall carries one above zero. Thus, it could be that the human's flourishing is 1,000 units, and the panda's flourishing is 1,000 units, but nonetheless if the normal level of flourishing for a human is, say, 10,000 units (don't take either the numbers or the idea of assigning numbers seriously--this is just to pump intuitions), then the human has a misfortune of 9,000 units, while the panda has a misfortune of 1,000 units.
This does, however, raise an interesting question. Maybe the intuition that the flourishing of the most unfortunate takes a priority is subtly mistaken. Maybe, instead, we should say that the flourishing of those who flourish least should take a priority. In that case, neither the disabled human doesn't take a priority over the panda. But this is mistaken, since by this principle a plant would take priority over a panda, since the plant's flourishing level is lower than a panda's. Better, thus, to formulate this in terms of misfortune.
What about intermediate cases, those of people whose functioning is below a normal level but above that of a panda? Maybe we should combine our answers to (1) and (3) for those cases. One set of reasons to care for someone comes from the actual intellectual capacities. Another comes from misfortune. As the latter reasons wane, the former wax, and if all is well-balanced, we get reason to care for the human more than for the panda at all levels of the human's functioning.
That leaves (2). We cannot say that the immature person--a fetus or a newborn--suffers a misfortune. But we can say this. Either the person will or will not develop the intellectual capacities. If she will, then she is a person with those capacities when we consider the whole of the life, and perhaps therefore the reasons for respecting those future capacities extend to her even at the early stage--after all, she is the same individual. But if she won't develop them, then she is a deeply unfortunate individual, and so the kinds of reasons that apply in case (3) apply to her.
I find the story I gave about (2) plausible. I am less convinced that I gave the right story about (3). But I suspect that a part of the reason I am dissatisfied with the story about (3) is that I don't know what to say about (1). However, (1) will need to be a topic for another day.