Gender and Personhood

This is the text of the talk I’m giving today in Lund. Giusy Gallo’s comments follow. I’ve included a few explanatory notes in square brackets.

Guillermo Barron

It is perhaps trite but nonetheless relevant to observe that the category of personhood carries with it profound social, political, and moral implications. Personalism, at its core, argues that personhood denotes a capacity for subjectivity, free will, sociability, and a right to Kantian respect. And some personalists further insist that these traits uniquely mark us apart from other animals in ways that cannot be bridged by gradual evolutionary processes or reduced to merely physical facts (Williams and Bengtsson). Perhaps most importantly, personhood marks an individual as a member of what we might call the “moral community” (Kadlac 423) or the “primary moral constituency” (Chappell 2) and thereby entitled to certain rights and privileges. And this is no small matter. For a person to not be recognized as a person is to deny him or her a most profound moral obligation. This of course does not imply that we have no moral obligations to entities that are not members of our moral community. We may, for example, be obliged to reduce the the needless suffering of animals, protect great works of art, and conserve the environment, even when these entities do not deserve this consideration by virtue of being the property of some person.

The question before us now is whether there is any way to decide whether or not some candidate qualifies for membership in such a moral community. There are at least two obvious ways to do so.

One way is to observe – as even the most anti-reductionist among us must admit – that the only entities to have been uncontroversially recognized as persons have all belonged to the species homo sapiens sapiens. And common speech reflects this observation, since we commonly use “human” and “person” interchangeably. So perhaps being human – in the strictly biological sense – is in some way conceptually prior to and more morally significant than being counted as a person. Personhood would thereby granted merely virtue of one’s biological status. There are, of course, several objections to this position.

For one, it is to draw a moral distinction on what may turn out to be an irrelevant biological difference, and this sort of speciesism is, it is argued, no more defensible than racism or sexism, which also posit moral divisions on equally spurious biological differences. (Singer 706) This objection may not be insuperable, but it may force the humanist to admit that considerations other than mere species membership may be doing the moral work.

Second, there may exist supernatural beings – demons, angels, or gods – who we might also count as worthy of inclusion in a moral community. And we can even imagine that there might be intelligent beings on other planets, as capable of rational thought and moral responsibility as we typically are, who might also qualify. We can even imagine the existence of a Twin Earth species, in all ways identical to our own, but without being members of our species. (Kadlac 428) In all these cases, it seems the humanist criterion would not align with our intuitions at all.

Still, it might be argued, the evidence for rational and moral supernatural beings and aliens is scant or controversial. It might even turn out that humans are the only members of any moral community. But, even if true, this fact would be merely contingently true. As Stephen Jay Gould points out, “Human equality is a contingent fact of history.” There are indeed more plausible scenarios that make this form of humanism untenable.

For example, it is well known that there are no genetic differences between human populations that have been historically geographically separated that would morally justify discrimination based on skin colour or ethnic origin. But things need not have turned out this way. A hundred possible historical accidents during the course of human evolution could have occurred to have made it otherwise, to have led to the development of widely divergent sorts of humans. And if this were to be true, the very assumption of moral or rational equality between these indisputably human groups would be in peril.

Similarly, as members of Homo sapiens sapiens we happen to be genetically isolated from our nearest relatives. [This is perhaps clumsily expressed. My meaning is that we share few behaioral traits with the great apes, whereas other members of other species – beetles or daisies, perhaps – might mis-identified as members of other species.]We are the only surviving hominid species and we are only distantly related to those great apes who demonstrate few, if any, of the requisite traits for inclusion in a moral community. But these facts too are merely contingently true. Had australopithecines not become extinct a million years or so ago, or had Neanderthals not disappeared perhaps as recently as thirty thousand years ago, the co-existence of their descendants with contemporary humans would have raised profound moral dilemmas. (Gould) Should we treat them as persons? Enslave them? Or perhaps domesticate them for consumption? And what facts would justify those decisions?

[To expand the problem: Suppose Neandertahals are not humans, but are nonetheless capable of rational and moral thought, language use, etc. Or suppose (as some biologists suggest) that they’re a sub-species of homo but with mental capacities midway between us and chimpanzees. Both cases form acute dilemmas for the humanist.]

The second approach we might take is to argue that it is not humanness per se, but personhood that marks out membership in a moral community. And at least pre-theoretically, most people assume that the categories of “person” and “non-person” mark out not just moral divisions but natural kinds, perhaps even a metaphysical divide of sorts.

Now philosophers remain deeply divided on what bundle of essential psychological, physical or even non-physical properties an entity must possess to be counted as a person, or even whether there are any necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. Plausibly, personhood implies, at a minimum, some combination of rationality, consciousness, self-awareness, capacity for moral responsibility and continuing memory.
This framework, suitably refined, at least offers hope of extending personhood and moral community membership to non-human candidates, if any exist. And since the bundle of traits listed above constitute species-typical traits in humans, this would also explin why take humanness as a mrk of moral significance. Nonetheless, classic and well-known conceptions of personhood such as Elizabeth Warren’s psychological criteria also unambiguously deem some humans (specifically, fetuses, neonates, and persons in comas) as non-persons (qtd. in Kadlac 426) Whether or not this counts as an objection to Warren’s or any similar criteria for personhood will of course depend on your own moral intuitions about the inclusion of those subgroups as persons.

But this observation points to a more worrying concern about any set of criteria for personhood. Timothy Chappell argues persuasively that any such criteria have been constructed expressly to include those we wish to include as persons and to exclude others. That is, the conceptual apparatus works exactly backwards: it does not tell us who we should treat as persons; instead, it merely identifies the markers of those we do identify as persons. (4-5) So the criteria are, at one time, both ideals and only circularly justifying. Instead, Chappell counsels, we should adopt an account of personhood that is both normative and descriptive. Human mothers, he says, do not identify their infants as possessing one or more necessary behavioural indicators of personhood and grant them stepwise, the consideration due a person. Rather, they teat them as persons from birth. (8-9) Following Wittgenstein, Chappell urges the naturalization of personhood and its reduction to mere human as intentional beings (in the Dennettian sense) worthy of the principle of charity. (10) But this approach throws us back onto some form of humanism again.

Perhaps then there is another way to approach the concept of personhood and that is to consider how we treat the somewhat similar questions of sex and gender. To exist as a person is, for most of us, to exist as a male or female and even from a very early age, children clearly divide humans into female or male. (Davies, qtd. in Francis 41) (For those unfamiliar with this debate and the attendant issues, I follow conventional feminist thought prevalent since the seventies in delineating between biological sex and gender.) One’s biological sex denotes only those genetic differences – chiefly marked by genitalia – which delineate people who are biologically male from people who are biologically female, whereas gender describes those expectations and psychological traits which are socially determined or constructed (Stone 30). The further contention, made against biological determinism, is that sex does not determine gender, which simply restates the biological truism that genotypes do not determine phenotypes.

Difficulties ensue. For one thing, if we define “gender” to be just those trait differences between men and women that happen to be socially caused, it then becomes a rather uninformative tautology to say that gender is socially caused.

On the other hand, if we claim that all or some behavioral or psychological differences between biological men and women are in fact socially caused, this is clearly an empirical claim and one that is not easily proven. While it is obvious that gendered behavior and norms varies between cultures (Dupre, qtd. in Stone 31), and this observation may refute some forms of biological determinism, it in no way disproves the weaker and more plausible claim that genetic causes have some influence on differential sex behavior. Avoiding the “nature or nurture” dichotomy requires us to recognize that all human behavior is a product of both genes and environment, and it is not always easy, or even meaningful, to disentangle their effects. We have, after all, no ethically acceptable way to experimentally separate the effects of genes and culture on psychological development of human populations. All we can observe is the behavior of already-acculturated humans. So it may in the end turn out that some human behaviour is partially cuased by one’s biological sex.

Second, not all humans fall neatly into the categories of male or female. A very small minority (perhaps only 1%) of humans is intersexed, displaying neither typically male nor typically female characteristics. Crucially, there is no single cause of intersex, no single set of traits associated with the condition, or even a commonly accepted definition of intersex. And intersexed persons have reacted to their condition in myriad ways, many opting not to be surgically reassigned unambiguously to either sex, despite considerable social pressures to do so. As Del LaGrace Volcano points out,

I feel that the key issue facing the intersexed is actually a key issue facing humanity in general: fear of difference and compulsory heterosexuality as well as gender normativity. For society to function as it does, it is essential that there be clear lines of demarcation between those that have (power) and those that do not (Creighton et al, 253).

The existence of intersexed persons had led some to conclude that biological sex is itself merely a social construction:

The idea that we just are essentially male or female is thus less an idea about nature than it is an interpretation of natural properties, one that begins with the activities and presumptions of gender and works backward, as it were, toward the body (Judith Warne, qtd. in Stone 47).

But if both sex and gender are social constructs, then how is feminism to determine its own community of interest, unless it constructs that community itself? As Judith Butler points out,
The suggestion that feminism can seek wider representation for a subject that it itself constructs has the ironic consequence that feminist goals risk failure by refusing to take account of the constitutive powers of their own representative claims (Butler, qtd. in Francis 41).
A final source of perplexity stems from the existence of transgendered persons, who do not conform to prevailing gender expectations, and transsexuals who

… use hormonal and/or surgical technologies to alter their bodies to conform to their gendered sense of self in ways that may be construed as at odds with the sex assigned at birth or in ways that may not be readily intelligible in terms of traditional conceptions of sexed bodies. It may also be used to indicate people who self-identify and live as the sex “opposite” to the one assigned to them at birth. (Bettcher)

Transsexuals pose a thorny problem for sex/gender theorists of many stripes. After all, suppose one’s identity is determined by genes and/or culture (for what other causes could there be?) Further suppose that a given transsexual is unambiguously biologically male and has been rigorously socially conditioned to be male. Whence her deeply-seated sense that she is in fact a woman trapped in the wrong body?

Some feminists, no matter how suspicious they may be of gendered roles, have nonetheless taken biological sex as a given. An extreme example:

All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. (Janice Raymond qtd in Bettcher)

This very brief account of the theoretical difficulties surrounding apparently uncontroversial notions may nonetheless give some guidance on the question of personhood. What does seem a pervasive theme in much current feminist thought is the idea that “man” and woman” should be shorn of most or all of their normative content. There is, feminists argue, simply no way to define what it would mean to be a “proper” man or “woman, and to measure individuals against such an arbitrary standard is unavoidably oppressive. Rather, feminist theory should be rooted in the lived experiences of women themselves, with due attention paid to both to the differences between different lives and the differing epistemic access of the standpoints associated with various women’s lives. But there is no guarantee a priori that such an analysis will yield a coherent theoretical account of what it means to be a woman. (Bubeck, passim)

Moreover, the experiences of intersexed and transgendered, and transsexual people, to the degree that they resist, as many do, considering themselves as wholly female or male, also call into question the very normativity of the male/female dichotomy itself. Gloria Anzaldua argues that

There is something compelling about being both male and female, about having an entry into both worlds. Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other. (qtd. in Bettcher)

If humans can thrive defined as neither male nor female, possibly the very categories of male or female are not only of less moral importance than we thought, but also of less metaphysical significance, marking out mere clusters of properties that usually (and non-accidentally), but not always, appear together. (Stone 44-45)

How much of this can we usefully import into our discussion of personhood? I make two tentative suggestions. The first is that we ought to be mindful of the implications of an overly normative conception of personhood, lest it blind us to the real complexities of the myriad ways in which personhood can actually be instantiated. One example may suffice to see what this means.

Karol Wojtyla’s biographer, George Weigel, offers an adulatory but nonetheless telling account of the late pope’s views given in 1963. At that time, Wojtyla argued the church should undertake a dialogue with atheists, based not on proofs of God’s existence, but on the assumption that, without God, atheists were inevitably radically alone and alienated. And he further bolstered this proposal with a condensed version of his own personalist principle (in Weigel’s words):

“The closer humans come to God, the closer they come to the depth of their humanity and to the truth of the world” (168-9).

And, one presumes, those furthest from God must be those who are only “shallowly” human.

Now it seems almost inconceivable that any sophisticated theologian would preface a dialogue with, say, Jews, Muslims, blacks, or women with sweeping generalizations about their lamentable existential crisis or their apparent lack of full humanity. But this is exactly what Wojtyla did in the case of atheists. Not, I think, because he did not care about persons qua persons, but perhaps because he was so enamored with his normative conception of personhood that he disregarded the actual lives of atheists. Just as in the case of sex and gender, human existence is messy and multifarious and our need to prescribe just what it means to be a person ought not to conceal this fact from us.

My second suggestion is that perhaps we ought to reconsider whether th concept of personhood ought to be of primary moral significance. Granted, history offers horrifying examples of atrocities wreaked by those who convinced themselves that some other group of humans were not truly persons. So my intent is not to erode our respect for other persons but to find a way in which we might extend our concern more fully to non-persons. Deemphasizing the supremacy of personhood might usefully redirect our attention to the degree of moral attention we ought to give “marginal humans”, rather than focusing on their status as persons. And if environmentalists are correct in their predictions, we may be poised on the brink of an environmental disaster. Perhaps this disaster will be brought on not only by human greed and disregard for the fate of future generations, but by our excessive regard for our interests as persons and a concomitant near disregard for the status of all non-persons. Undermining our reverence for personhood, without resulting injury to persons, might be one step toward mitigating these harms.

Works Cited

Bettcher, Talia. “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 26 Sept. 2009. Web. 24 April 2013.

Bubeck, Dietmar. “Feminism in Political Philosophy: Women’s Difference.” ”. The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy. Ed. Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 185-204. Print.

Creighton, Sarah M., Julie A. Greenberg, Katrina Roen, and Del LaGrace Volcano. “Intersex Practice, Theory, and Activism: A Roundtable Discussion.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 15:2 (2009): 249-260. Humanities International Complete. Web. 24 April 2013.

Francis, Becky. “Relativism, Realism, and Feminism: an analysis of some theoretical tensions in research on gender identity.” Journal of Gender Studies. Vol. 11, No. 1 (2002): 39-54. Humanities International Complete. Web. 24 April 2013.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of History.” The Stephen Jay Gould Archive. N.d. Natural History. Vol. 11, 1984. Web. 14 June 2013.

Kadlac, Adam. “Humanizing Personhood.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 13: (2010): 421-437. Humanities International Complete. Web. 24 June 2013.

Mikkola, Mari. “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 24 April 2013.

Seitler, Dana. “Queer Physiognomies; Or, How Many Ways Can We Do the History of Sexuality?” Criticism. Winter 2004, Vol. 46, No. 1. 71-102. 24 April 2013. Humanities International Complete. Web. 24 April 2013.

Singer, Peter. “The Case ofr Animal Liberation.” Philosophy: The Quest for Truth. Ed. Louis P. 8th ed. Pojman and Lewis Vaughn. Oxford: OUP, 2012. Print.

Stone, Alison. An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

Weigel, George. Witness to Hope. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

Williams, Thomas D. and Jan Olof Bengtsson. “Personalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 24 April 2013.

Giusy Gallo: First, I want to thank Guillermo Barron for his paper, because it let me go in the theme of personhood from the perspective of the moral issues and the relation with gender.
I am not in position to offer a critical assessment of Guillermo’s paper, and I am sure that here there are collegues who are familiar with the issue of person and gender and so they can comment more sharply on his argument and choices. Today my task is to offer a few observations and to question in order to have some clarifications on particular points.

Guillermo’s paper Gender and Personhood focuses on the category of personhood taking into account the idea that ‘person’ is the member of a moral community. This assumption opens the main question: who is entitled to be a member of a moral community? Guillermo shows two ways to answer to this question: first, a form of humanism for which the core idea is that all persons belong to the Homo Sapiens Sapiens species; second, a form of criterialism. Then, Guillermo argues that there is another way to think about personhood that is investigating it by the perspective of sex and gender.

Moving objections to criterialism, Guillermo seems to agree with Timothy Chappell’s view about personhood. It is known that Chappell develops a theory of person he named ‘humanism as a replacement’ according to which all human beings are persons and must be treated as persons. It is true that it is a form of humanism but, in my opinion, it isk wider than the first option Guillermo critizes. Which are the objections you move directly hto Chappell’s research program? Since Chappell includes in his account of persons also handicapped and terminally ill human beings, don’t you think that his ideas can be bond with your last suggestions: “we might extend our concern more fully to non-persons” and “redirect our attention to the degree of moral attention we ought to give ‘marginal humans'”?

I take the essence of Guillermo’s position that human existence is very complex and – as for biological sex and gender that are social construction – a normative view on personhood seems to aim to mere synthetic idea about person.
Guillermo’s paper allows me to rethink on two cases I encountered some years ago: Victor of Aveyron and Jean-Dominique Bauby. The first, Victor, is a wild boy who spent a large part of his childhood in the woods, and after his discovering, the medical doctor and educationalist Jean Itard tried to make Victor a human being that can live in society using civil manners. The second, Jean-Dominijque Bauby is a French man affected, after a stroke, by the locked-in syndrome, so that his body was paralyzed, leaving him speechless. It seems that if we try to fix severe criterion to decide who can be a person, probably Victor or Jean Dominque Bauby risk to be excluded by the category of person. Then Guillermo’s last suggestion of taking more seriously into account ‘marginal humans’ seems to me that is a more inclusive perspective on personhood.

I’ll try to give my personal suggestion to the path Guillermo draws, in particular to his conclusions. An Italian contemporary philosopher whose books are translated in English, Roberto Esposito (Bios, Communitas, Immunitas, The living thought) puts the question of the person investigating on this category in Third Person (published by Polity Press, in 2012). According to our common sense, the category of the person is the one that can rejoin the split categories of man and citizen, life and rights. Recalling Western tradition about the notion of person, from the Ancient Rome, to the beginning of Christianity, to theory of language and sciences, to law and human rights, Esposito shows that there is a gap between the effort made in order to safeguard the person and this category from all the brutal injustices that persons – also in the moment I am speaking – are suffering. The person is reduced to a mere thing. One example is the life in lagers: it is sufficient to recall here the story told by Primo Levi in If this is a man and the process of deconstruction of personhood of prisoners made by means of language by SS.

Example like the one mentioned above, let’s Esposito maintain that it’s the same notion of person – with meanings and applications we know today – that is responsible for the gap between man and citizen. From this framework, Esposito opens to a new category: the impersonal, namely the third person, that is not a way to deny or destroy the category of person. Following the French linguist Emile Benveniste, Esposito shows that the third person is not involved in the dialogic I – you relation, so the third person breaks the excluding circle that the category of person historically has drawn. The impersonal third person is the key to come back to the original living being. Perhaps it’s from that perspective that a new research on persons could begin.

Finally, a remark related to philosophy of language, that is the field of my researches. The reference to Wittgenstein regarding Chappell’s research on personhood strucks me insomuch as I wish to know how Wittgenstein’s ethical perspective, including his concerns about forms of life, could be relevant to personhood. Is it possible that Wittegenstein’s reflections on language and meaning can be taken into account in your personal contribution on personhood?


1 Comment

  1. Hey Guillermo,
    I don’t know if you read/answer comments but on the chance you do perhaps you could address a few questions regarding this post.

    Firstly, I very much agree that humanity, and personhood is messy. And that more consideration is due to not just those on the margins, but those decidedly not persons (environment, future theoretical generations). I think that further to that, we don’t have a consistent set of rights or respects that are given to the “moral community”. The right to life, for example, is a given unless a person endorses capital punishment. The right to be free from needless suffering is certainly not enjoyed by a large contingent of the moral community.

    So in your view, is personhood less of a binary or linear progression, and more of a matrix wherein certain life forms and human may share some aspects of personhood but not others? And also, in your view, should personhood be the primary factor that determines which rights and considerations we give to beings? By that I mean, if the environment is not a person but still has intrinsic value not determined by the moral community or even by our relationship with it, is there a better way to determine who/what deserves what value, rights, and responsibilities?

    I ask these questions temporarily putting aside the issue of identity. Certainly the Environment is not really an easily identifiable entity, and arguably neither is a Human.


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