Personhood and Human Dignity

 Michael McCabe
Issue 17, November 2005

"During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct."

--Peter Singer, 2005

In the September/October 2005 edition of the magazine, Foreign Policy Professor Peter Singer from Princeton University wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled The Sanctity of Life: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. In it he argues that, because of significant scientific and technological developments, the belief that life is sacred from conception to death has become, in 2005, untenable. To support his argument Singer cites two examples one at the beginning of life, the other at the end of life.

Earlier this year scientists from South Korea successfully replaced the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of a human cell. Such a development appears to confirm that any and every human cell contains the genetic information required to create a new and independent human being. The possibility of cloning from the nucleus of an ordinary cell, Singer argues, undermines the idea that embryos are precious because they have the potential to become human beings. For Singer while the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness does not begin so early. Similarly, he argues that personhood can end long before an individual dies.

When patients have suffered such irreversible brain trauma from which they will not recover, then, Singer argues, a decision to remove a feeding tube will be less controversial, because it will be a decision to end the life of a human body, but not of a person. For Singer a patient in this condition has already ceased to be a person and only his or her body remains.

While Singer is right that the development of sophisticated technology will increase our ability to make sound judgments about the limits of curative treatment, the leap in judgment that patients who have lost even a minimum of or considerable self-awareness, are no longer persons is disturbing to say the least. While we argue that the unborn, infants and the cognitively impaired have an innate dignity and a profound moral connection to the community, it is clear from the above argument that not everyone agrees.

The implications of Singer's argument are disturbing, not least because such views are not uncommon in secular bioethics.

For example, in his book The Foundations of Bioethics, H. Tristram Engelhardt outlinea the philosophical basis for such an understanding of personhood in general secular morality and, by extension, in so-called secular bioethics. He lists four fundamental elements of personhood: the ability to be self-conscious; rational; have a minimal moral sense and be free. To the degree that a human being is conscious, able to make autonomous choices, and perform actions which benefit society, his or her life has value and the status of personhood. When these qualities are lacking, so is their personhood. Engelhardt states:

not all humans are persons. Not all humans are self-conscious, rational, and able to conceive of the possibility of blaming and praising. Fetuses, infants, dhe profoundly mentally retarded, and the hopelessly comatose provide examples of human nonpersons. They are members of the human species but do not in and of themselves have standing in the secular moral community. Such entities cannot blame or praise or be worthy of blame or praise; they cannot make promises, contracts, or agree to an understanding of beneficence. They are not prime participants in the secular moral endeavor. Only persons have that status. (Engelhardt, 1996, pp.138-139)

Engelhardt argues that such definitions highlight and reflect the tension between general secular morality and traditional Judeo-Christian morality and the bioethics that it, in turn, supports. Inevitably different philosophical starding points lead to a painful gulf between general secular and content-full morality. (1996, p.140)

The logical outcome of the current trends in secular bioethics regarding personhood is a society divided into persons and non-persons. Non-persons would include those who are cognitively disabled in some way, through genetics, accident, or disease. The requirement to exhibit certain cognitive capacities means that some bioethicists do not see newborns as being persons.

The human rights of those declared to be non-persons would be severely curtailed. Some bioethicists have already speculated as to whether they could be used as non-voluntary sources of organs.

From a Catholic perspective the intense philosophical debates about personhood occurring in secular bioethics give cause for considerable concern. Human dignity is the source of rights in Catholic thinking, not a slippery concept of personhood which can be defined and redefined so that some people are designated as non-persons. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in some cases this is being done for utilitarian purposes.

There is reason to be very afraid if this philosophy should make further inroads into public policy in New Zealand, as it is already doing in other parts of the world.


H. Tristram Engelhardt. (1996). The foundations of bioethics. (2 nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Singer, P. (September/October 2005). The sanctity of life: here today, gone tomorrow. Foreign Policy.

Smith, W.J. (2000, April 3). Is Bioethics Ethical? The Weekly Standard.


Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre