The distinction between a person and a human being is a relatively recent concept. It is derived from the philosophy of John Locke, who states that a person is ‘a thinking, intelligent, being, that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thing in different times and places’[1]. This distinction has led to an arbitrary and exclusionary criterion that differentiates human beings into person and non-person or part-person types, with a non-person being considered of no moral significance and a part-person being only partially morally significant.

Human beings are a member of the species homo sapien which, like other plants and animals, have identity and continuity as a member of their species. For Immanuel Kant the source of human autonomy comes from the combination of our sensibility and understanding[2]. For John Locke, consciousness always accompanies thinking and the understanding of self, and this is of what personal identity consists. It is the same self now as it was then[3]. David Hume refuted this, stating that we have no idea of ‘self’, that our notion of self or person are not just a single impression but many and that there is no single and continued self[4]. Derek Parfit also rejects the notion of identity and states that scientific experiments have shown that the brain actually contains separate consciousnesses in its two upper spheres[5].

The distinction between a human being and person became important for moral philosophers such as Locke because he wanted to establish that personal identity must be understood in terms of the continuity of consciousness. It was this empirical claim by Locke that invented the new entity defined as the person. To explain how a part may be taken from the whole without a change in personal identity, he used the example of your hand being cut off, being separated from your consciousness and no longer part of the whole substance. Locke states that personal identity exists in the identity of the consciousness[6]. The term person is a forensic term for Locke. It considers actions and their merit and so the term person can only belong to intelligent agents capable of law, happiness and misery. Locke considered that personal identity extends beyond present existence to what is past, through its consciousness. It is accountable for its past actions as well as its present actions. All this is founded in the self’s concern for pleasure and pain[7]. However, it could be said that by differentiating of human beings into the new entity of a person Locke commits the same mistake as dualists by multiplying an entity beyond what is strictly necessary to explain phenomena[8].

Contemporary bioethicists such as Mary-Anne Warren, Michael Tooley and John Harris go further and state that the moral community should only consist of ‘people’, rather than all and only human beings. They think that genetic humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that entity as a person. Warren states: “Some human beings are not people, and there may well be people who are not human beings”[9]. Tooley states that the value of a person’s life may be defined as their capacity to pursue goals and projects. The differing capacities of these capabilities could be said to make the value of the individual’s personhood. For Tooley, the destruction of a person unable or severely restricted in remembering the past or envisaging the future will not be as wrong as destroying someone with these capabilities intact[10]. For Harris: ‘anyone capable of valuing existence, whether they do or not, is a person in this sense. The possession of this capacity to whatever degree it is possessed meets Locke’s criteria’[11]. One of the implications of the theory of personhood is that health care ethics can then determine which individuals hold the ‘ultimate moral value’ and are therefore entitled to interventionary treatment, and those that are not[12].

By differentiating human beings into persons, non-persons or part-persons, it allows those who are considered persons to have special protections. It also justifies treating those considered part or non-persons selfishly. By denying moral rights to those whom we consider do not qualify for personhood we justify using these individuals as means for human satisfaction[13]. This could be the satisfaction of saving money for costly medical treatment, the use of donated organs from these individuals, or simply the satisfaction of alleviating the emotional or physical cost to which we believe that they commit us. It also restricts our moral capacity to the narrow circle to which we belong and allows us to assert our selfish desires on to those whom fall outside that circle. The bioethicist S. F. Sapontzis rejects this distinction because it restricts our moral view, discourages us from developing a universalist outlook and frustrates the progress of morality[14].

Warren and Tooley use the distinctions of personhood to define why a foetus or an individual who has severe brain damage is no longer a person. Warren asserts only persons have moral rights and claims; the Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty and happiness. Only persons are part of the ‘moral community’[15]. Although a foetus has a full homo sapien genetic code and the potentiality for rational thought, Warren states it does not conform to the basic criteria of personhood[16]. Warren uses this argument to legitimise abortion. Yet, the determination of whether a foetus has moral rights based upon its ‘personhood’ is not relevant to the human right of a woman to decide what to do with her own body. A foetus cannot survive without the woman’s consent for it to develop. This is so because a woman is also entitled to the security of her person under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When the moral rights of the foetus, a potential human being, and a pregnant woman come into conflict the woman’s rights override the rights of the foetus because she is an actual human that the foetus relies upon both physically and emotionally.

Tooley defines the difference between the biological meaning of person, being a homo sapien, and ‘normal adult human beings’ who enjoy self-consciousness and rational thought. ‘Normal adult human beings’ are considered a crucial concept to ethics for Tooley so that basic moral principles can be formulated, including the ‘morality of killing’. He states that ‘a fundamental principle that is crucial for setting out an account of the morality of killing is that the destructions of persons is at least prima facie very seriously wrong’[17]. However, if someone is not a person then its destruction is not wrong. Tooley asserts that someone is not a person if it has no interests. Tooley concludes that this means that the destruction of a person unable or severely restricted in remembering the past or envisaging the future will not be as wrong as destroying someone with those capacities intact[18]. The example is given of a person with Alzheimer’s disease which results in a permanent degenerative state who loses personhood as gradually as they acquired it[19]. Tooley uses this argument to legitimize euthanasia of severely brain damaged humans, stating that they should not be kept alive with expensive medical intervention. This is an empirical argument to justify his assertions however, like other physicalists, Tooley cannot account for consciousness or its qualifiable activities. We cannot explain consciousness, the point at which we attain it or even if we lose it when we die, and we also do not know how our activities are qualified[20]. Therefore it is difficult to assess the capacities of someone who is severely brain damaged, unless of course they have been declared brain dead. If that is the case, they are also legally dead[21].

We have been indoctrinated since ancient times to aspire and strive for perfection. Aristotle thought that the goal of a human life was to live virtuously. By connecting this goal with reason he gave us the foundation of ethics. By being depraved, insensitive or callous we are denying reason and failing our supreme human capacity[22]. There are circumstances where we may be called upon to sacrifice something of our own health and happiness. Sometimes duty will mean laying down our own lives. We cannot attain this goal through the exclusion of others. Just as once men mistakenly thought that women were defective humans the same must be said for humans that do not fulfil our desire for perfect personhood. Notions of a continuous self and unchanging personal identity are disputed. The concept of a moral community made up of persons put forward by some contemporary bioethicists is exclusionary and arbitrary. It requires one to judge the consciousness of others and their ability to feel, experience, or value life. It allows moral decisions to be made about the potentiality of life based upon uncertain premises of when consciousness begins or ends. It allows notions of lesser and greater persons based upon arbitrary judgements about life’s value. Therefore, the deterministic concept of whether a human is a person should not decide someone’s fate.


  1. Guyer, Paul (1998, 2004). Kant, Immanuel. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from
  2. Locke, John. “Of identity and diversity (extract)” in Essay Concerning Human Understanding , Locke, John; Nidditch, Peter H. , 1975 , 328-347
  3. Hume, David. (1739) “Personal Identity” in  A Treatise of Human Nature, ebooks Adelaide. Retrieved December 20, 2011, from
  4.  Parfit, Derek. (1984) “Why our identity is not what matters” in Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford
  5. Warren, Mary Ann. “On the moral and legal status of abortion” Monist , 57:1 , 1973 , 43-61
  6. Tooley, Michael. “Personhood” in A Companion to Bioethics , Kuhse, Helga; Singer, Peter , 1998 , 117-126
  7. Harris, John. “The concept of the Person and the Value of Life”, in Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9.4, 1999,  293-308
  8. Sapontzis, S.F. “A Critique of Personhood” in  Ethics, 91. 4,1981, 607-618,
  9. Intensive Care Coordination and Monitoring Unit (ICCMU), “Brain Death”, NSW Government Dept. of Health, 2011, Retrieved: 28 December 2011
  10. Blackburn, Simon. “Being good and living well” Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics , :17 , 2001 , 112-116
  1. Churchland, Paul M. “The ontological problem (the mind-body problem)” in Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, (1988), pp.7-22

[1] Locke, 1975

[2] Guyer, 1998, 2004

[3] Locke, 1975

[4] Hume, 2006

[5] Parfit, 1984

[6] Locke, 1975

[7] ibid.

[8] Churchland, 1988

[9] Warren, 1973

[10] Tooley, 1998

[11] Harris, 1999

[12] ibid.

[13] Sapontzis, 1981

[14] ibid.

[15] Warren, 1973

[16] ibid.

[17] Tooley, 1998

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid.

[20] Churchland 1988

[21] ICCMU, 2011

[22] Blackburn, 2001