The Problem of Other Possible Persons

It is sometimes said that animals do not talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this means:  “they do not think, and that is why they do not talk.” But—they simply do not talk.   Wittgenstein

(and if they can, they do not talk to us)
Years back, I was pursuing a pod of bottlenose dolphin when a small one smacked the stern of my kayak, hard.  As the calf re-approached, a large female nudged it away. I was astonished, relieved and grateful. Not wanting to push my luck, I paddled back to shore.

I read today that the Indian government declared dolphins and other cetaceans “non-human persons” that have specific rights including freedom from capture. They are not objects for purposes of entertainment. They are not chattel.

There might not be sufficient evidence to grant the status of “person” to dolphins,  judges differ, but it is the right thing to do.

The concept of nonhuman persons has a role in the beginning of Descriptive Psychology. Sometime in the early 1960’s, Peter Ossorio was asked by someone at NASA, “If green gas on the moon speaks to one of our astronauts, how do we know whether or not it is a person?” The answer, of course, depends on what we mean by “person”.  The question also separates the status of being a person from the person’s embodiment. Empathy becomes more difficult as the embodiment of the other differs from our own. This needs to be held in mind since it is a factor in our willingness to consider the other as potentially one of us. Historically, based on body, some of us have had our personhood denied.

Whether there are non-human persons is a serious question with significant moral and ethical implications.  It matters where we draw the line.  If the Cetacea are persons, we are currently committing genocide against them. If some nonhuman primates are persons, there are legitimate questions about the state of their civil rights.

It is an empirical question whether any nonhuman entities are actually persons, but it is a moral and ethical question how certain we need to be. We are negligent if we don’t ask these questions. Here are some tools that can help sort this out.

A Paradigm Case of Persons

The approach to persons developed in Descriptive Psychology involves the four interrelated concepts of 1) The Individual Person, 2) Deliberate Action, 3) Reality and the Real or Historical World, and 4) Language or Verbal Behavior.  All four concepts require full articulation for any one of them to be fully intelligible, but for my purposes I will focus on the first two. Although language is a central feature of the person concept, I am only going to mention its use in the detection of possible persons.

A Person is an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical pattern.  Deliberate Action is a form of behavior in which a person (a) engages in an Intentional Action, (b) is cognizant of that, and (c) has chosen to do that.  A person is not always engaged in a deliberate action but has the eligibility to do so.  A human being is an individual who is both a person and a specimen of Homo sapiens. (P. G. Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons, 2013).

Since persons are deliberate actors, they also employ hedonic, prudent, aesthetic and ethical reasons when selecting, choosing or deciding on a course of action. As part of our “social contract” we expect that the normal person can make use of all four of these motivational perspectives. Individual persons will weigh these motives in a manner that reflects their personal characteristics.

That life is lived in a “dramaturgical” pattern is to say that people make sense, their stories can be intelligibly told. Life consists of episodes of unfolding social practices. Actions have an ongoing significance creating through-lines that an observer can employ in recognizing both in and out of character behavior.

The paradigm case allows for nonhuman persons, potential persons, nascent persons, manufactured persons, former persons, “deficit case” persons, and “primitive” persons. (I am not going to dignify the political claim that corporations are persons.)  Some of these categories carry serious ethical and legal weight. For example, because of the category of potential persons, abortion is not simply a medical issue.  Important ethical, moral and legal consequences apply to persons that are inappropriate when applied to non-persons.  I can kill a nonperson but if I take the life of a person, that act might be murder.

Verbal behavior is of particular value in detecting nonhuman persons since language facilitates the representation not only of the behavior enacted but the alternative action not performed. The representation of an action not taken is a good way of building the case that Deliberate Action has occurred since choosing and refraining go hand in hand.

Are dolphins good candidates for personhood?  Do they engage in deliberate action in a dramaturgical pattern? Did a dolphin protect me from mischief? Do bottlenose dolphins speak to each other?  I don’t know.  I don’t have sufficient evidence that dolphins fill out the paradigm case but I do have good reason to think they might. And by using a Paradigm Case Formulation, I can point to where the evidence is robust and where it is lacking.

So what should we do with our uncertainty? Logically, we are never in a position to prove that a being is a person but we can adopt a policy that if we have any grounds for seeing the other as one of us we should treat that entity as a person until we have reason enough to feel we are misguided. With persons it is I to Thou. There are people whose cultures and social practices leave me mystified, but it is prudent and ethical to proceed from the belief that I simply don’t understand what they are doing. I suspect the same might hold for some other animals I know.

I am not particularly concerned about initial false positives.  In my scientific training, I was told to avoid anthropomorphism.  I have become skeptical about the morality of this stance.

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A more extensive unfolding of these issues can be found in a earlier work of mine, “The Problem of Other Possible Persons: Dolphins, Primates and Aliens”, in Davis & Mitchell (eds.),  Advances in Descriptive Psychology, volume 2, 1982. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Ossorio’s The Behavior of Persons with an updated index can be obtained from The Descriptive Psychology Press

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph. D
Guest Writer

This article was originally published @

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  1. Wynn Schwartz Ph.D Wynn Schwartz July 16, 2013

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