Personhood Beyond the Human: A Paradigm Case Formulation of Persons

Personhood Beyond the Human: A Paradigm Case Formulation of Persons

Below is a draft of the paper I expect to present at the Yale conference: Personhood Beyond the Human, Saturday, December 7, 2013 in New Haven.  Also note the lawsuit filed this week on behalf of “Tommy”, a chimpanzee seeking legal personhood by the Non Human Rights Project.
Apparently humanity has matured enough for us to ask in a non-trivial way, “Are human beings the only persons we encounter?”Historically, we have only recognized others who share our human embodiment as fellow persons. This matters legally, morally and ethically since people are granted rights, privileges and protections that are not offered to non-persons.These rights, privileges and protections are subject to revision. We no longer allow one person to be the property, the slave, of another person.

If we recognize animals other than our own species as persons, asking whether we are holding some of them in slavery is a legitimate question.

How can we sort out what constitutes a Person if we accept that the category is not based simply on having a particular body? What I will offer is the Descriptive Psychology method of Paradigm Case Formulation applied to the concept of “Persons”. (A full presentation of this methodology and conceptualization can be found in Peter Ossorio’s, The Behavior of Persons, 2013). Using this methodology, I will show that it is reasonable to include non-humans as persons and to have legitimate grounds for disagreeing where the line is properly drawn. (I will also argue that answering this question leaves unresolved how we should treat non-person animals except in an appeal to people’s intrinsic ethical concerns).

What I am going to do is make explicit what is already implicit in what we mean by “Persons”. I am going to tell you what you already know.

What is the point of a Paradigm Case Formulation? Paradigm Case Formulations are employed when it is desirable to achieve a common understanding of a subject matter but where definitions prove too limiting, various, ambiguous or impossible. I think the concept of “Person” poses this definitional problem.

Finding a fully inclusive definition is a common conceptual dilemma. Consider how difficult it is to exactly define what is meant by the word “family” or the word “chair” if we wish to achieve agreement on all possible examples of “families” and “chairs”.  Must families all have two parents of different genders plus their children?  Must all chairs have four legs and a backrest?

A Paradigm Case Formulation should provide competent users a starting point of agreement.  Generally it should consist of the most complex case, an indubitable case, or a primary or archetypal case.  It should be a sort of “By God, if there were ever a case of “X”, then that’s it.”

For example, most would agree that a group of people living together consisting of a married father and mother and their biological son and daughter is a family. But what if there is only a husband, his husband and their dog? Or three best friends who live under one roof and make their significant decisions together?  What elements must be present and what can we change, add or leave out and still meet what different people call a family?

By starting with a paradigm case that everyone easily identifies as within their understanding of a concept, it becomes possible to delete or change features of the paradigm with the consequence that with each change some people might no longer agree that they are still talking about the same thing. But because of the shared paradigm, they can show where there is disagreement and where they draw the line.

A Paradigm Case Formulation of 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 or goal directed 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. (Ossorio, 2013).

As deliberate actors, Paradigm Case Persons act on Hedonic, Prudent, Aesthetic and Ethical reasons when selecting, choosing or deciding on a course of action. Why these four? Simply that these are the ones that we know. There may be more; if another one is discovered, it would be included, somewhat like taste experts now agree that there is a fifth sensation, “umami,” in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Ossorio (2013) indicated that these four classifications, Hedonic, Prudent, Aesthetic, and Ethical are intrinsic or fundamental motivations.  They provide reason enough to do something. They stand on their own. These reasons for action can conflict, operate in a complementary or independent fashion, and so on. If you have two or more of these reasons to do something, you have more reason than if you had only one of them.

These four classifications are “family resemblance groups”. Hedonics refers to the value of pleasure, pain, disgust, and so on; Prudence to self-interest; Aesthetics to the artistic, social and intellectual values of truth, rigor, objectivity, beauty, elegance, closure and fit; Ethics with right and wrong, fairness and justice, the level playing field, the Golden Rule and kindred notions.

Hedonic and prudent motivations operate consciously, pre-consciously or unconsciously. They can be an aspect of both deliberate and non-deliberate Intentional Action. As a fundamental aspect of the general case of goal directed behavior, they are features of all sentient animal life, whether Human or not.
They also provide a basis for cross species empathy and shared understanding.

Aesthetic and Ethical motivations are in an important way different from hedonic and prudent concerns in that they require that the actor is in a position to make a choice. Aesthetic and ethical motivations are only relevant when Deliberate Action is also possible since aesthetic and ethical action require the eligibility to choose or refrain, to potentially deliberate about the desirable course to follow. In the service of being able to choose, and perhaps think through the available options, a person’s aesthetic and ethical motives are often consciously available (Schwartz, 1984).

I can’t help it that it feels good, or that I see it as in my self-interest.  But as a mature Paradigm Case Person, I can consciously attempt to refrain from seeking pleasure or self-interest on aesthetic and/or ethical grounds. And, at times, I might set my ethics and aesthetics aside for the sake of pleasure and self interest.

It is a matter one’s personal characteristics how an individual weighs their hedonic, prudent, ethical and aesthetic reasons in a given circumstance, and how these perspectives may operate independently, complementary, antagonistically and so on.

As part of our “social contract” we expect that the normal mature human can make use of all four of these motivational perspectives.  Any general theory of human behavior that does not adequately address these motivations will be defective. Any adult human who does not have these interests will likely seem primitive or pathological.

It the formal requirement that Ethical and Aesthetic acts are Deliberate that positions these motives as quintessential Person qualities. Any action that is fundamentally motivated by ethical or aesthetic concerns is evidence of the involvement of a Person.

Also paradigmatic of Persons is Language, shared symbolic representations that correspond to the concepts used in social practices. Language is vital in the detection of persons since a person can represent choices symbolically, both what was chosen and what was renounced.

We don’t have direct access to what goes on in another person’s head. We can only observe each other’s overt performance, including what we tell each other about what we are up to. Language is the ideal format for representing option and choice, since we can speak about what we did not do, what we rejected or refrained from.

You see me take the low road but unless there is some way of representing that I was aware that I could have taken the high road, you might be hard pressed to see my action as a choice, a potential deliberation that I am accountable for in a manner akin to ethical and legal concerns with responsibility. If I don’t confess that I knew there was another way to go, I might not be found guilty as charged. It will be harder build a case.

That life is lived in a “Dramaturgical Pattern” is to say that people’s lives are potentially understandable.  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 behavior that is both in and out of character. This is to say that people make sense and that their life course is not random but is instead a meaningful unfolding of behavior in response to the circumstances of their worlds. People have their reasons for doing what they do. (This point may have implications for artificial or manufactured persons).

The Paradigm Case Formulation offered here 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.)


Must a person have an ethical and aesthetic perspective to count as a person? Must a person be linguistically competent?  Or is the eligibility to engage in any sort of Deliberate Action enough?  Clearly to me, my dog Banjo is a deliberate actor. But our conversations are pretty one sided. He has, I am sure,  hedonic and prudential perspectives.  About his ethical and aesthetic concerns, I am not so sure, except that I think I might have a hard time convincing myself or you.  I think he understands affection and kindness similar to how I feel, even though I would not trust him with my lunch. I know he is an intentional actor but I am a bit unclear about the range of his deliberations.  (Still, I am certain that he is a family member and is to be treated as such).

About the Cetecea, the elephants, the other primates, some owls and parrots, I suspect they fill out most of the Paradigm Case. To the extent they are not domesticated (or enslaved), they don’t “talk” with us. We may not have sufficient shared social practices to make inter-species speech or translation feasible, so it is very hard to tell. This is an empirical issue. But to some observers they appear to speak to each other. Since language requires shared social practice, an animal’s ecologically bounded social practices limit its expected linguistic range and competence.

Humans are adept at disrupting their environments and coercing their practices. If they wanted to talk to us, I’m not sure we’d welcome what they have to say.

If someone actually taught a nonhuman animal to competently use language, would that be teaching them to be a person? Yes, that is an implication of the paradigm offered here. And by that reasoning, we teach our human children to be persons, too.

So what should we do with our uncertainty? Logically, we are never in a position to prove that something 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 should always be 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 about. I suspect the same holds for some of the 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.

A troubling and significant ethical question remains: After the line on personhood is drawn, what considerations apply to the treatment of animals that do not fall into the person category? Since all animals as intentional actors have an interest in the avoidance of suffering, is it ever ethical to inflict harm on an animal if there is a way not to? What other priorities need be weighed?

Person status defines a domain where social and legal rights reside, hence a proper abhorrence with slavery.  Judges in good faith might differ as to what animals are included as persons, but it is a moral and ethical mistake to limit concerns with the quality of life to whether that animal is also a person.

Thanks to Joe Jeffrey, C. J. Stone, Greg Colvin, Pat Aucoin, Walter Torres, Richard Singer, Ray Bergner and Tony Putman for comments and suggestions regarding this draft.

By Wynn Schwartz, PhD

*First published at:
and republished with permission of the author.

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  1. Wynn Schwartz Ph.D Wynn Schwartz December 13, 2013

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