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What Are People?

by Rick Lewis

Sometimes philosophers are accused of going round in circles: “You’re arguing about the same things that were being argued about hundreds of years ago, so obviously you can’t be making much progress.” Certainly in the realm of moral philosophy this charge is not only hurtful (philosophers are sensitive souls) but also untrue. It would be nice to think that this was because philosophy was forging ahead solving problems in new and exciting ways and then moving on to fresh challenges. Actually, however, it is at least partly because changes in society and advances in technology create new ethical dilemmas that didn’t exist before. The article opposite is a case in point. All of a sudden, we have the ability to create strange new hybrid animals, to mix’n’match species which have no chance of interbreeding in the usual course of events. For various reasons this new science of transgenics creates a whole new crop of ethical problems.

Medical researchers and biologists seem to have a special talent for rattling the ethicists’ cages (consider test-tube babies, the pill, euthanasia, and debates over what constitutes brain-death). As Jane Singleton points out in her book review, there is considerable disagreement over whether it is possible in principle to solve such problems or whether we are limited to simply clarifying the choices involved.

Ian Betteridge claims that transgenic experimentation raises ethical questions of a special sort, quite apart from debates over the desirability of applying the technology in different ways. He says that it is important because it undermines our ideas of what it is to belong to a particular species, and this, he says, is in its turn fundamental to all our ideas of right and wrong.

This may seem surprising, at first. However, ethics must depend to some degree on species. Suppose that after much deliberation we arrive at some conclusions regarding the ethics of, say, teenage sex. Are we going to claim that those conclusions (however we reached them) apply to rabbits and chimpanzees as well as to humans? If the rabbits carry on following their traditional behaviour patterns rather than our ethical rules, does that mean that they as a species are inherently immoral? It doesn’t seems very likely. Therefore ethics must reflect the fact that we are people, with people-type characteristics, rather than rabbits with rabbit-characteristics or even apes with ape-characteristics. In other words, it must reflect our ‘personhood’. The notions of personhood and of self-identity crop up several times in this issue of Philosophy Now.

The ideas of ethical obligations and of rights are closely intertangled. When we recognise someone as a person we expect them to behave ‘morally’ and we are indignant when they don’t. At the same time we acknowledge that they have certain rights, and are again indignant if we see their rights being violated. It’s quite dangerous, this idea of personhood, isn’t it? Because there is a tendency to think that those outside this charmed club have no rights at all. Cats, for instance, definitely aren’t persons. There is no point expecting a cat to obey a moral code, or even in asking it not to claw the furniture; it does what it likes. But the fact that it isn’t a person doesn’t mean that I won’t get pretty angry if I see you hurting a cat. Not everyone thinks that way, unfortunately. That’s bad enough, but if transgenics does undermine the equation ‘person’=homo sapiens, then at some stage in the future we could all be in deep trouble.

After all, we’ve been there before. Last week I went to see Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. At one point the concentration camp commandant is trying to seduce a Jewish girl, and he says to her “Of course, I realise that strictly speaking, you aren’t a person, but…” An uneasy laugh went round the cinema – a laugh because it was such a comically crass thing to say, but an uneasy one because we knew that it expressed precisely the attitude which made the Holocaust possible: “It’s alright, they’re not really people.”

You may have noticed that this issue of the magazine is a month late and that it is called the Summer issue, rather than (as you might logically have expected) the Spring issue. These changes stem, in a roundabout way, from the fact that we are altering our arrangements for distributing the magazine to newsagents. If you are a subscriber, please don’t worry about the lack of a ‘Spring’ issue – you will still receive the same number of copies of the magazine in total. We’ve taken the opportunity to raise the cover price to £2.50 at the same time – hopefully with all the other changes going on nobody will notice. Oops that’s torn it….. Anyway, thanks everyone, for your patience and your support.

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