Archives for category: Aristotle

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How an adherence to dogma led to Spartan decline

Conservatism appeals to those who do not like to be unsettled. It is an appeal where custom is preferred over reason, and where things are so because they have always been so. Inherited customs that reinforce privileges and benefits on a few consecutive generations within a population are difficult to explain through rational means. So an appeal to tradition is one which demands a static lack of thought, and a state that relies upon such an appeal is liable to fall due to its lack of movement or change[1]. For the Spartans, the Lycurgan reforms of the 8th century BCE were the only reforms that they were ever likely to need and they conformed religiously to them even after their defeat at Leuctra.

The Lycurgan reforms are attributed to Lycurgus, an obscure figure of around the eighth century who is known more through his works than his life. In about 800 BCE the Spartans, or Lacedaimonoi, were the inhabitants of about four villages in Lacedaimon ruled by two kings. Beneath the kings was an aristocracy whose role was to be the generals in war, the priests, judges and advisors, and to run a pyramidal household supported by lesser households. This was a common social dynamic throughout Greece at that time. In Sparta, this was termed the phratry. However, although the primitive elements of phratry were kept, the Lacedaimonoi practiced them with an aspect of communal education for children and communal life for adults which was unique amongst the Greek states[2]. Lycurgus was considered the lawmaker for the Lacedaimonoi and his laws were the basis for the constitution which Xenophon wrote about in the 4th century BCE.

Xenophon begins his Constitutions of the Lacedaimonians with an account of the way Lycurgus thought women should uphold their primary duty that of bearing ‘fine children’. In order to produce ‘vigorous offspring’. Lycurgus thought that physical training through competitive games was as important for women as it was for men. Sexual intercourse between a man and a wife was to be kept to a bare minimum in order for desire to be increased, an element that Lycurgus also thought necessary for optimum reproduction. For the same reason, men were only allowed to take a wife whilst in their prime, and if an elderly man had a young wife he had to take into his house a suitable younger man to assist in reproduction. A man without a wife could also find an aristocratic married woman with whom he could father children with her husband’s consent. This was done in order that inheritance could be legitimately conferred through families and also so that the Lacedaimonoi would breed a premium race of people[3]. In comparison to the other Greek states these seemed like fairly radical reforms but they were conservative in the sense that the purpose of them was to reinforce and uphold the status quo within these tribal communities.

The sons of the Lacedaimonoi were taken from their households at six years and educated by older boys under the supervision of a warden until they were twenty. The purpose of their education was to make them as hardy as possible. Modesty, obedience, endurance, chastity and strategy were the chief characteristics that the Lacedaimonoi wished to imbue in their offspring[4]. As young men they graduated to a class of eirenes, not full citizens but liable for military service and engaged in training the next generation[5]. This emphasis on military training allowed the Lacedaimonoi to become renowned as an army and by the eighth century they had subjugated much of the people around them with the annexation of Laconia and Messenia. This produced increased state wealth and the development of an effective army which no longer relied upon the aristocracy for a military monopoly[6]. However, it was also reliant on a large slave population (helots) as its economy, unlike the rest of the Greek states, was largely agrarian-based. This new land needed a large non-Lacedaimonoi labour force which was difficult to control and seen as a constant threat[7].

While Xenophon points out the role of cooperation and sharing in the life of the Lacedaimonoi[8], and the subsequent corruption of this ideal in the Spartan society of his time[9], he neglects to mention that this was only practiced to a certain extent. The reforms of Lycurgus had implied a constitutional guarantee of equal political rights and equal allotments of public land (kleros) to all citizens. However, these so-called equalities were illusions with only a few being eligible to be part of the governing Gerousia, or senate, and the concurrent existence of private lots of land[10]. This situation was exacerbated in the period before the Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 BCE by subsequent gross inequalities in wealth of land after periods of Spartan military success. The kleros had to be sufficient to support the family and the helots that worked it, and also provide a contribution to the state. In the period after the 7th century BCE the Lacedaimonoi had raised their standard of living as did their perioikoi, the citizens of the largely autonomous surrounding communities that provided the bulk of Spartan troops. The kleros was not conceived for luxury living and contributed to a decline in the birth-rate amongst the Lacedaimonoi[11].

So, while obedience to the state was a virtue which Spartans appeared to practice even after Leuctra, it was this unquestioning obedience that led to the eventual ‘sclerification’ of Sparta itself. Xenophon berates the latter generations of Lacedaimonoi of his time for their corruption through the accumulation of wealth, yet it was reliance upon a militaristic life underpinned by a static agricultural society dependent upon a large slave population that contributed to Spartan decline. The conservative appeal to persist with societal values that may no longer function was apparent in the decline of the Spartan birth-rate and the danger of revolt from a large underclass upon which the society was dependent for its success. Therefore, Xenophon’s history may be coloured with his concept of a golden Lacedaimon past, and his despondent view of contemporary Spartan society.


  1. Forrest, W.C. (1969), A History of Sparta, Norton Library, N.Y
  2. Scruton, R. (2006), Political Philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group
  3. Xenophon, The Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, in Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock, tr. Constitution of the Athenians. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1925. , viewed on 25 February 2013

[1] Scruton, R. (2006), Political Philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. vii-viii

[2] Forrest, W.C. (1969), A History of Sparta: 950-192 B.C., Norton Library, p.40

[3] Xen. Const. Lac. 1

[4] Xen. Const. Lac. 2

[5] Forrest, (1969), p.53

[6] ibid. pp.58-62

[7] Forrest, (1969), pp.33-38

[8] Xen. Const. Lac. 6

[9] Xen. Const. Lac. 14

[10] Forrest, (1969), p.51

[11] ibid., p.136


‘If only thou couldst feel as I do, and couldst get thee power of speech’

                                                                   (Od. 9.455-58)[1]

An important feature of the relationship between humans and animals since the early Neolithic age is one of reciprocity. In this line from Odysseus, Homer draws our attention to the close symbiotic relationship between a shepherd and his flock. The shepherd provides protection and the sheep provide sustenance and companionship in his lonely life[2]. However, Hesiod stated that it is the notion of justice that holds us apart from animals, with justice demanding that we do not prey on our own kind[3]. Lonsdale notes that Xenophon went further and argued that man is different because of his capacity to speak and reason, and also in his deep religiosity[4]. Yet, while the Greeks were deeply anthropocentric, the Egyptians did not have such a notion of division between human and animal. Humans were not considered superior and animals were considered the vehicle of earthly representation of the gods[5]. To consider ancient notions of the important attributes differentiating human and non-human it is necessary to review the literature left by ancient writers. These writers tend to relegate these attributes into three distinct types: rationality, intelligence and language, and argue for difference or deny it. The ancient argument that is most valid is the one propounded by writers such as Alexander, Plutarch and Porphyry and denies the superiority of humans, as it takes into account what we may not understand.

The first criterion that many ancient writers cite is the lack of rationality found in animals. In the 5th century BCE Alcamaeon of Croton wrote that humans have xunesis, an understanding which is the basis for rational thought. This allows language to develop which assists cultural maturity. He argues that animals do not have this facility and only have perception, or aesthesis, which humans have also[6]. Plato also states that the difference between humans and animals is human rationality and goes on to say that humans who do not use rational thought are no better than beasts[7]. Aristotle also denies animals reason but concedes that they have phronesis which is the knowledge needed to cope with their environment[8]. For Aristotle, humans live by skill and reason, whereas animals live by experience made up of impressions and memories[9]. In his protestation against his nephew Alexander’s assertion of the rationality of animals, Philo of Alexandria declares that, while animals might exhibit courage, only man has the understanding that enables him to form laws and governments, and to worship God[10]. Such a determination was later reflected even more vehemently by Augustine who stated that humans were made in God’s image and that animals were for their use. For Augustine, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” only referred to humans[11].

Other writers, such as Alexander, claimed that animals were very much like humans. Alexander said that there were two types of reason: logos endiathelos (reason within the mind) and logos proporikos (uttered reason), and that animals had both. Alexander used the ability of different animals to construct complex dwellings, especially some birds and bees, to prove reason in animals, and also contended that the deliberation of a dog in following its prey is proof of reason[12]. Plutarch and Porphyry also used such an argument, but Plutarch added that good rational thinking was not apparent in many humans and only came about through much education. He argued that because animals chose between useful and harmful and exhibited fear, hope and desire this proved their rationality[13]. Porphyry extended this further by stating that justice should be awarded to animals because both humans and non-humans are endowed with reason and practise justice[14]. However, Diogenes Laertius contended that the practice of reasoned thought in humans, especially after the fourteenth year, showed that humans have a governing principle, or hegemonikon[15], that allows one to express meaningful language and is considered to be the foundation of intelligence.

Intelligence is the second criterion that ancient writers advance when they assert the superiority of humans over animals. For Aristotle, man is deliberative in that he has intentionality; only man has the ability of recollection and reason which differentiates him intellectually from animals[16]. Philo thought that pleasure and self-preservation were the prime motivating factors of animals and that they did not need intelligence for these[17]. The Stoics stated that humans have no intellectual kinship with animals as they are irrational, and for this reason humans owe them no obligation of justice[18]. There are other ancient writers who disagreed with this view. Alexander asserted that animals do have a sovereign mind[19], while Plutarch contended that the cleverness and intellect animals use for their survival ought to be enough for us to treat them respectfully[20]. Plutarch also believed that humans shared kinship, or oikeinsois, through manner or lifestyle[21]. Lonsdale writes that Aristotle’s follower, Theophrastus, argued that animal sacrifice was wrong because humans and animals shared an intellectual kinship[22]. Further, Cicero thought that while humans were superior in that they had higher intentions, such as the pursuit of comfort, industry and sympathy for others, he conceded that some animals have such higher intentions and some intellect[23].

Higher intentions and intellect could be prerequisites for engaging in contractual behaviour, a foundation of justice. Epicurus stated that, as animals do not have the capacity for language, they do not have the capacity for forming tacit contractual agreements with an intention to respect one another’s interests[24]. Language is the third criterion for the moral status of animals. For Xenophon, humans were superior to animals both intellectually and physically, and this was manifested in the human capacity for articulate language[25]. This view was also reflected by Diogenes Laertius, who stated that the lack of intelligible language in animals proved their inferiority[26]. While Aristotle thought that animals did communicate through language, he countered that it was not based in semantics and therefore inferior to humans[27]. Philo took this argument further, stating that animal utterances are as meaningless as musical notes[28]. However, Lucretius argues that humans and non-humans do engage in tacit contractual agreements. This is illustrated by the guardianship of humans to animals and the return of services and products by animals, and does not require the understanding of languages for it to be beneficial to both parties[29]. Plutarch and Porphyry also argue that humans lack the capacity to understand the language of animals not that animal language has no meaning[30]; as the modern philosopher, Wittgenstein, stated: “If a lion could talk we would not understand him”[31].

Most of the arguments above that deny non-humans the capacity of reason, intelligence and communication result in the denial to animals of any moral obligation. The Stoic, Chrysippus, puts this argument as such: humans and non-humans have three things on common: senses, utterance and reproduction. Humans can also reason, whereas animals are only motivated by impulse. Therefore, humans need not consider the interests of animals[32]. As Aristotle stated, slavery is a natural phenomenon because it is natural for one human to rule over another and as animals are intended for human use it is natural for humans to rule over animals[33]. This denial of interest to animals culminated in Augustine’s use of Aristotle’s and the Stoics’ arguments to defend the use of animals to benefit human lives on the grounds that God gave humans animals in order to help them to salvation[34]. To attribute reason to animals was tantamount to denying Christian notions of humans being fit for the divine recreation of God[35]. The Egyptian practice of animals representing the gods on earth was sacrilegious to Christian sensibilities. Therefore, animals became ‘the other’ and the primacy of humans became paramount.

Rather than a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship based upon the interests of both humans and non-humans, this reliance on a criteria of reason, intelligence and language to assert an anthropocentric world view discounts and ignores all the ancient contentions that counter such a view. Porphyry, Plutarch and Alexander were right in using the many examples from their environment to show that other animals are very much like humans. They live in complex societies, they build complex dwellings, they make choices between good and bad, they exhibit hopes, fears and desires, and have autonomy. As Lucretius stated, humans and non-humans do engage in tacit contractual agreements when they breed animals for their products or services. However, these agreements can quickly degenerate into master/slave relationships when humans disregard the interests of animals. Also, just as some humans cannot understand the language of other humans from another society, so too it is with other animals. Therefore, arguments used by ancient writers to support the claim that animals are different to humans rely upon criteria that are not exclusive to human beings and have caused the suffering of animals for over two thousand years.


  1. Alcaemon of Croton, DK1a, Hermann Diels & Walther Kranz, eds, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th edn (Berlin: Weidmann, 1951-52)
  2. Aristotle, “Metaphysics”, from Newmyer, S.T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011), Routledge Press
  3. Aristotle, “Parts of Animals”, from Pierre Louis, ed., Aristote; Les Parties des Animaux (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1956)
  4. Aristotle, “Politics”, Jean Aubonnet, ed., Aristote; Politique, Livres I et II (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968)
  5. Augustine, “De civitate dei” [The City of God], from B. Dombart & A. Kalb, eds, Sancti Aurelii Augustini de Civitate Dei Libri I-X (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955 (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 47)
  6. Beck, J., (2012), “Why we can’t say what animals think”, Philosophical Psychology, 2012, 1-27, Routledge Press
  7. Chryssipus, “SVF”, from Johannes von Arnim, ed. Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (Stuttgart; Teubner, 1964; reprint of the edition of 1905)
  8. Cicero, “De finibus bonorum et malorum” [On the Ends of Good and Evil], from Claudio Moreschini, ed., M.Tullius Cicero Scripta Quae Manserunt Omnia Fasc. 43: De Finibus Bonorum et  Malorum (Munich and Leipzig: Saur, 2005)
  9. Diogenes Laertius, “Lives of the Philosophers”, from H.S. Long, Diogenis Laertii Vitae Philosophum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964)
  10. Epicurus, kuriai Doxai [Soveregn Maxims] XXXI and XXXII, as cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers X. 150 [from the life of Epicurus], from Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press
  11. Gilhus, Ingvild S. (2006) “The religious value of animals” in Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas , Gilhus, Ingvild S. , 2006 , 93-113
  12. Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1918
  13. Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919
  14. Lonsdale, S.H., (1979), “Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece”, Greece and Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol.26, No.2, (Oct., 1979), 146-159
  15. Lucretius, “De rerum natura” [On the Nature of Things], from Joseph Martin, ed., T. Lucreti Cari de Rerum Natura Libri Sex (Leipzig: Teubner, 1963)
  16. Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press
  17. Philo of Alexandria, “On Animals”, from Newmyer, S.T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011), Routledge Press
  18. Plato, “Laws”, Burnet, J., ed., Platonis Opera (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901-1902; rept. 1962-1967)
  19. Plutarch, “De esu cranium” [On the Eating of Flesh), from Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge PressPlutarch, “On the Cleverness of Animals”, from Newmyer, S.T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011), Routledge Press
  20. Plutarch, “De Stoicurum repugnantis” [On the Self-Contradictions of the Stoics], from Michel Casevitz & Daniel Babut, eds, Plutarque: Ouvres Morales XV (Sur les Contradictions Stoiciennes, etc.) (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004)
  21. Porphyry, “On Abstinence from Animal Flesh”, from Jean Bouffartigue, Michele Patillon, Alain Segond and Luc Brisson, eds, Porphyre; De l’Abstinence (Paris: Les Belle Lettres, 1977-1995)
  22. Wittgenstein, L., (1973), Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell
  23. Xenophon, “Memorabilia” [Recollections of Socrates], from E.C. Marchant, ed., Xenophontis Opera Omnia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967)

[1] Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919

[2] Lonsdale, S.H., (1979), “Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece”, Greece and Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol.26, No.2, (Oct., 1979), 149

[3] Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1914

[4] Lonsdale, Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece, Greece and Rome, (1979), 156

[5] Gilhus, Ingvild S. (2006) “The religious value of animals” in Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas , Gilhus, Ingvild S. , 2006 , 99

[6] Alcaemon of Croton, (DK1a)

[7] Plato, Laws, 766a

[8] Aristotle, Politics 1332b3-8

[9] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 980a28-981a4

[10] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals, 85

[11] Augustine, De civitate dei [The City of God] , 1.20

[12] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals, 17; 45

[13] Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals, 960D-E

[14] Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Flesh III. 13.1-3

[15] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII.55 [from the life of Zeno the Stoic]

[16] Aristotle, History of Animals, 488a20-26;588a16-18-588b3

[17] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals 44

[18] Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press, 28

[19] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals 29

[20] Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals, 960D-E

[21] Plutarch, De Stoicurum repugnantis [On the Self-Contradictions of the Stoics] 1038B

[22] Newmyer, (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, 28

[23] Cicero, De finibus bonorum et malorum [On the Ends of Good and Evil] II. 109-110

[24] Epicurus, kuriai Doxai [Soveregn Maxims] XXXI and XXXII, as cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers X. 150 [from the life of Epicurus]

[25] Xenophon, Memorabilia [Recollections of Socrates] 1.4.11-14

[26] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII.55

[27] Aristotle, Parts of Animals 660a35-660b2

[28] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals, 98

[29] Lucretius, De rerum natura [On the Nature of Things] V. 855-877

[30] Plutarch, De esu carnium [On the Eating of Flesh] 994E; Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Flesh III.2-4

[31] Wittgenstein, L., (1973),Philosophical Investigations,  Oxford: Blackwell, XXxi

[32] Chryssipus, SVF 2.821

[33] Aristotle, Politics 1256b15-23

[34] Augustine, De civitate dei, 1.20

[35] Gilhus, (2006) “The religious value of animals” in Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas, 99

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

In his study on metaphysics Aristotle introduces a distinction between matter and form[1]. This distinction is enacted in the definition of matter as potentiality or dunamis and form as actuality or energaia[2]. Aristotle states that actuality is to potentiality as ‘someone awake is to someone asleep’ or as ‘that which has been shaped out of some matter to the matter from which it is shaped’[3]. Something is always potentially the thing that comes after it. However, ‘if there is a first thing which is no longer called after something else, and said to be of it, this is prime matter’[4]. For Aristotle, actuality is really real and potentiality is only half real[5]. Aristotle also stated that actuality has a priority over potentiality because it is capable of being[6]. His argument for this priority has two subarguments. First, is that logically the actual is not defined by the potential but the potential by the actual[7]. For example, ‘visible’ means capable of being seen[8]. His second temporal reason is that only an actual substance can actually physically produce something[9]. The potential does not have the power to produce anything[10]. For example the seed, or potential substance, must have been preceded by an adult or actual substance[11]. For Aristotle, the potential is created by the actual therefore actuality precedes potentiality[12].

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Aristotle. “Metaphysics: Book Theta (IX) (extract)” in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation , Barnes, Jonathan; Aristotle , 1984, p.1657

[5] Deranty Dr. J, Lecture 9, Aristotle, in “Mind, Meaning and Metaphysics”, PHI130, Macquarie University 2011ysic

[6] Aristotle, Metaphysics, p.1657

[7] Deranty Dr. J. Lecture 9

[9] Deranty, Dr. J., Lecture 9

[10] ibid

[12] Aristotle, Metaphysics, p.1655