The Crisis of Personhood: Why We Need to Broaden Our View

The Crisis of Personhood: Why We Need to Broaden Our View

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This paper does not deal with the epistemological theory of reductionism itself. Rather, it asks for the ethical consequences and implications of reductionisms in current bioethical debates.

The paper acts from the assumption that the concept of personhood acquired in most of nowadays bioethical discussions in Western discourses1 (1) represents an illegitimate ethical reductionism which (2) is the expression of ongoing cultural processes and which (3) leads to undecidable bioethical situations. (4) I will therefore argue that this concept of personhood needs to be complemented and broadened towards a theory of human life which embraces all relevant functions of humanity.

(1) Personhood as illegitimate ethical reductionism (IER):

In the methodology of both natural sciences and the life sciences, reductionism plays an important methodical role. Reductionism is an important methodical tool to make new empirical theories possible roughly spoken either by reducing complexity or by reducing a certain phenomenon to one or more other phenomena which are easier to operationalize.

Methodical reductionism, therefore, can be considered a special kind of model for real-life problems. If we, for example, ask for the concept of “Life” in Life sciences, it certainly does make sense to split this complex concept into properties of smaller content such as reproduction, metabolism, evolutionability etc. This kind of reduction is closer to be characterized as a “strong Mikro-Reductionism”.2

However, when it comes to questions concerning human identity and/or bioethical problems, reductionism can lead to an illegitimate ethical reductionism (IER) and can cause manifold ethical problems. A reductionism that is approvable and might be even extremely helpful in natural sciences can turn out to bear counterintuitive and even highly inhuman consequences in ethics. In other words: the fact that a reductionism is approvable and helpful in natural sciences does not imply that it is also in ethics. For example: Nobody would deny that from a biological point of view homo sapiens belongs to the group of mammals such as apes, monkeys, cats, dogs, rats, and others. Therefore, humans react to certain stimuli in a very similar way as for example rats do. For this reason, it does (from a biological point of view) make sense to use rats for medical experimentation instead of humans.

At this point, I don’t want to discuss the question whether or not it is legitimate to use animals for animal experiments or not. There are good arguments for both sides, so this issue is hard to decide. My point is: The fact that human reaction to certain stimuli is in many aspects reducible to rat’s reaction to the same stimuli makes it rational to use rats instead of humans if we agree that it is less harmful to kill a rat than a human.

As this example shows, IER’s are mostly to be phrased in the following way:

“A is (at least in some/many aspects) nothing else than B, and therefore we are allowed to do (or ought to do) C”.

The first logical connection “A is (at least in some/many aspects) nothing else than B” represents what I will call the reductionist premise, the second logical connection “and therefore we are allowed to do (or ought to do) C” I will call its ethical implications. My thesis is that an illegitimate ethical reductionism (IER) is a wrong or unwanted ethical implication deriving from reductionist premises.

One example for such a kind of misled and therefore illegitimate ethical reductionism (IER) is the concept of a human individual as a possessor of genes carrying certain properties (claim 1). Ever since the breakthrough of the human genome project, the discussion on human identity has considerably changed. Human identity is nowadays largely described firstly as a set of properties which are secondly provided by genes. The characteristics of human identity are thus reduced to information. This type of IER can be properly described as informationism.

The same informationism is to be found when some exponents of the recent philosophy of biology try to explain life in a biological sense as a mere arrangement of information (claim 2).3 Here, the underlying reductionist premise is: “Life is nothing else but logical information”. One of the ethical implications of this premise is “… and therefore some computer viruses have to be considered as (and treated as) being alive because they exhibit the same properties as living creatures”. This is a claim that some exponents of the hard version of the Artificial Life-research actually make.4

A graver ethical question deriving from an IER is the question for personhood. In recent “Western” bioethical discussions, personhood has often been understood as an ensemble of cognitive capabilities (claim 3).

This set of properties or abilities is said to characterize human identity in contrast to non-human animal creatures. A small choice of these properties is:

  • Being able to reflect in a rational manner
  • Being aware of its/his/her own existence
  • Having second-order beliefs and/or interests
  • Being able to use a verbal language
  • Being able to manufacture (and use) tools
  • Being aware of its/his/her own lethality.

Depending on which of these abilities an author chooses to be characteristic for being a person, it is questionable (1) whether every human is a person at any given point and (2) whether only humans are persons.

Singers (1994) claim that some higher developed animals (such as certain primates) are to be considered as persons whereas some groups of humans (e.g. mentally ill people) are not persons in the same sense shows the problematical philosophical implications of this IEM: If the definition of a person is reduced to the determination that a “person” is simply the carrier of certain cognitive capabilities such as self-awareness, self-reflection, and others, then it is impossible to decide why a highly evolved animal should not be considered as a person.

In other words: taking the reductionist model as a proper scientific description of human self-understanding represents a classical mistake of categories. The intense discussion on personhood initiated by the theses of P. Singer has shown that the reduction “a person is nothing else but a holder of certain properties” is at least problematic because it leads to strongly counterintuitive conclusions.

(2) IER’s as expression of ongoing cultural processes

All of the above mentioned examples illustrate that the philosophical concept of “person” is facing a fundamental crisis. This crisis is not only the result of a philosophical analysis but of changes in the real “life-world” (“Lebenswelt” in German).5

Therefore, my second thesis is: The fact that most philosophers nowadays tend to define a “person” an ensemble of cognitive capabilities is merely a projection from the predominant forms of social practice.

This is easiest to be shown by an analysis of claim (2): The claim that person is “nothing else but” information (a claim that is not agreed on by most of the biologists) is a direct projection from a type of society which claims that virtually everything is reducible to information. This does not mean that the reduction of the biological phenomenon “life” to “information” could not be fruitful in a scientific way. However, when transferred to an ethical level, this reduction proves to be an IER causing manifold theoretical problems concerning the way in which a human individual understands herself or himself. If a human individual understands both his own and the other’s personality as “nothing but” information or as “nothing but” a cluster of cognitive capabilities, it is impossible to develop love either to himself or to others.

This socially inspired projection of the concept of information into the self-understanding of man as a person has highly insightful historical parallels in the scientific community in Germany’s 19th century. Between 1854 and 1870, a wide-spread discussion took place among scientists and philosophers. In the focus of this discussion stood the question for reductionism, its methodological value and the outcome for human self-understanding. The advocates of the reductionist point of view (Vogt, Moleschott, Buechner, later Helmholtz and Boltzmann) claimed that life should be completely reducible to chemistry and physics. Even thoughts ought to be “nothing else but” chemical reactions in the brain, therefore all educational programs should start with the human diet (“You are, what you eat”).6

As this historical analogy shows, it is at any given time the predominant social paradigm that is projected into self-interpretation of man. Just as the 19th century’s materialists in Germany claimed that life is “nothing else but” chemistry and physics, the advocates of a nowadays IER claim that a person is “nothing else but” a carrier of certain abilities. Looking at the debate on animal ethics (at least in Western traditions), it is noticeable that these debates are mostly focused on the question which rights animals should have. Even though I cannot prove this thesis at this point, I like to utter the impression that this rights-focused debate is the direct outcome of a society in which every interaction is based on (and ruled by) enforceable laws. This leads to a situation where the alternative seems to be the following: “Either we grant animals with certain rights or we can do with them whatever we can”. But this is not the proper alternative, as I shall point out in the last chapter.

(3) The “crisis of personhood” in the current bioethical discussion

The fundamental crisis the concept of person is facing shows first and foremost in the bioethical questions raised by new bio-technologies and by the problem of the legitimacy of euthanasia. In Europe, these discussions are widely dominated by the (apparently dilemmatic) alternative of two doctrines: the equivalence doctrine and the non-equivalence doctrine. Whereas the equivalence doctrine claims the concepts of “person” and “human individual” to be (which means that every human individual is a person at any given time and without an exception), the non-equivalence doctrine claims the opposite, namely (a) that there persons who are not human (e.g. higher primates) and on the other hand (b): there are human individuals who are not persons (and thus should not be treated as such). From (a) derive central claims of the animal rights-movement (Singers criticism of “speciecism”), (b) leads to highly problematic and highly counterintuitive claims when it comes to the question how to treat humans in persistent vegetative state (PVS). If they are not considered being a person, then their lives are not to be protected as humans. This is plainly a very inhuman claim, caused by a misconception of the term “person”.

The concept Personhood needs to be understood from a positive theory of (human) life. What does it mean and what does it take to lead a meaningful life? To answer this question, it is important to view the individual human being not only as such but in close connection both with his fellow humans and within the timely horizon of his own transitoriness and moribundity. Both moments point to the determination of man as a creature standing within a genus.7 Thus, to be a person does not simply mean to be alive in a biological way or to be able to fulfill certain cognitive actions but to be principally able to lead a meaningful life. To lead a human life means for example to have parents, to be brought up, to know about the future, especially to be aware of the death, and to be able to feel with other creatures. In my opinion, it is especially this compassion, this ability to feel with other creatures that characterizes a meaningful Life. In our interdisciplinary project “Non-personal foundation of the right to live” our research group is trying to point out a way to base a proper ethical understanding of the treatment of both animals and humans not on personal rights but on this human ability of compassion.

Thus, to lead a life means to be able to compassionate, to be in a permanent communicative connection and exchange with others. To be compassionate firstly means to be among other persons, to recognize oneself in the other’s face and behavior, to acknowledge the other and to be acknowledged by him or her. It is this exchange of acknowledgement that has first been analyzed by G. W. F. Hegel in his phenomenology of mind.8 Recent philosophers have tried to define a person over capabilities and properties such as self-consciousness, capability of epistemic differentiation, emotive expression, communication, education, consciousness of time, situation-independent language, and emotional and/or social relationship.9 All these approaches seem to point in the same (or at least in a similar) direction: the concept of personhood is less and less identified with the ability of certain cognitive acts but more and more with a human individual understood as a relational creature 10 being able to interrelate with other creatures in concrete acts: to be a person means to be with other persons and to interact with them in manifold communicative and affective ways.

It is this concept that is expressed in a very appropriate way with the German term “Mitsein” (compassion). “Mitsein” (compassion) primarily means in a very fundamental, empathic and existentialistic way to be with others and secondly implies or prepares a notion of “Mitleid” (sympathy). Thus, the notion of “Mitsein” refers to a concrete relationship to others as a ground for personhood. In Western philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to view compassion as a ground for an ethical behavior towards the fellow humans. Interestingly, his approach has for a long time remained insular within Western thought. It was only in the last two decades that philosophers have seized his approach.

It is exactly this concept of “Mitsein” that is also crucial for a Buddhist concept of personhood. The central point of this paper is that in order to really understand the meaning of compassion, we need an interdisciplinary and intercultural approach of compassion.



Dworkin, Ronald (1994), Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom, Chamblee

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich: Phaenomenologie des Geistes (=phenomenology of mind), Theorie Werkausgabe 3, Frankfurt 1986

Husserl, Edmund (1954): Die Krisis der europaeischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phaenomenologie. Den Haag (Husserliana VI)

Kueppers, Bernd-Olaf (1986), Der Ursprung biologischer Information (=the origin of biological information), Munich

Langton, Christopher (1989), Art. “Artificial Life”, in: Langton (1989), (ed.) Artificial Life, pp. 1-47

Mahner, Martin / Mario Bunge (2000), Foundations of Biophilosophy, german title: Philosophische Grundlagen der Biologie, Berlin

Parfit, Derek (1984), Reasons and Persons, Oxford

Singer, Peter (1994), Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, Melbourne

Solies, Dirk (2008), Wie das Leben in die Philosophie kam. Der Lebensbegiff im philosophischen Diskurs des 19. Jahrhunderts (publication forthcoming)

Sturma, Dieter (1997), Philosophie der Person. Die Selbstverhaeltnisse von Subjektivitaet und Moralitaet, Paderborn/Munich/Vienna/Zurich




1 This modification is necessary because the concept of person does not seem to play such an important role in Eastern Indian philosophy. To compare these traditions, our LSI-group “BIOS – boundary questions of Life” started the interdisciplinary project “Non-personal foundation of the right to life. Comparatistic-interdisciplinary aspects with special regard to Buddhism and Neo-Konfuzianism” at the University of Mainz (granted by the German research association DFG). This project aims to compare the Western person-bound traditions with nonpersonal Indian approaches.

2 Mahner/Bunge (2000: 110).

3 Kueppers (1986).

4 See Langton (1989).

5 This term represents the insufficient attempt to translate the German term “Lebenswelt” into English. In German, Husserl’s term “Lebenswelt” refers (roughly spoken) to the real cultural world human individuals are living in, thus enabling all kinds of human references: Cp. Husserl (1954).

6 For a closer analysis of that discussion see Solies (2008).

7 This term “genus” is used in analogy with the biological determination of genus, yet it is on no account reducible to biological categories. In this non-reductive sense, to be a part of a genus does mean to stand in a long line of cultural evolution and to stay in close connection to other human beings.

8 Cp. Hegel: Phaenomenologie des Geistes, chapter „Selbststaendigkeit und Unselbststaendigkeit des Selbstbewufltseins; Herrschaft und Knechtschaft“.

9 Dworkin (1994), Parfit (1984), Sturma (1997).

10 German: Beziehungswesen, lat. praedicament relationis.