Archives for category: philosophy


Bertrand Russell famously made the argument for the non-existence of God through lack of evidence on his 90th birthday. At his party in London a woman asked him that being so close to death and an atheist what he would do if after death he found God to exist. She asked: “What will you say?” Russell gleamed at the question and, pointing his finger upwards, answered: “Why, I should say, ‘God you gave us insufficient evidence[1].’” This argument has the premises and conclusion:

  • If there were a God then we would have ample evidence of God’s existence.
  • We do not have such evidence.
  • Therefore, there is no God.

 It pragmatically objects to deism on the grounds that only evidence should regulate belief. This essay intends to question this common objection used by atheists because such premise 2 of this argument appears to ignore some of the very obvious evidence in the knowledge that humans have acquired over the past four or five thousand years; that is the role of irrationality and improbability in our reality.

Atheists argue that belief in God is irrational because there is no evidence to support it. The evidentialist argument is formulated thus:

(1) Belief in God is rational only if there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God.

(2) There is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God.

(3) Therefore, belief in God is irrational[2].

Note that the conclusion is not that God does not exist, only that if God did exist it would be unreasonable to believe in God because there is a lack of evidence to support God’s existence. Something should only be believed if it is self-evident, such as the laws of logic and arithmetic. It is argued that belief in God is not self-evident, or evident to the senses, or able to be confirmed. Therefore, as belief in God is not rational, in that it is not supported by evidence or argument, then belief in God must be irrational.

Judgments of rationality and irrationality are sometimes hard to make. Philosophers living over two and half thousand years ago reasoned that all things were made of water and used the evidence available to them to rationally speculate what comprised the main elements of the universe. To us now these ideas seem irrational and absurd when judged against contemporary knowledge and evidence. However, some of the most significant discoveries that are relevant to us today were made by ancient philosophers in mathematics and geometry, with irrational numbers being one of the main.

Irrational numbers were first realized by the Pythagorean School. It is said that Pythagoras (569-500BCE), who devoted his life to the study of mathematics, wrote on the entrance to his school “All is Number”, as Pythagoras believed the whole universe was ruled by numbers. When writing geometric proofs to find the hypotenuse of a square the Pythagorean School discovered irrational numbers. On an isosceles right triangle with a measure of one for each of the legs the hypotenuse will equal the square root of two. However this number could not be expressed as a measured length, as the answer to the square root of two can only be expressed in decimal form with an unending numerical value: 1.41421356237309504880168872420969807856967187537694807317667973799… This discovery disturbed the Pythagoreans so greatly that they refused to recognize the existence of such irrational numbers.  However, the square root of two became known as “Pythagoras’ Constant”[3]. As yet, no one has been able to find the end of this numerical value with the current record for its calculation standing at two trillion digits held by Alexander Yee in 2012[4].

Irrational numbers are also known as transcendental numbers because they cannot be expressed as the root of any algebraic equation with rational coefficients[5]. It is common knowledge that algebraic numbers are countable while transcendental numbers are uncountable[6]. Joseph Liouville first proved the existence of transcendental numbers in 1844[7]. Transcendental numbers are uncountably infinite[8]. No rational number is transcendental and all transcendental numbers are irrational. Therefore, we assume the existence of irrational numbers whose values are uncountably infinite. While we cannot find the exact value we accept its existence because of obvious proof.

Irrational numbers are essential to humanity as they serve as a major part of industrial mathematics, in the construction of buildings and machines, chemical equations and practical physics[9]. These numbers assist human society’s understanding of our natural world and the universe that contains it. Irrational numbers such as pi or phi (the Golden Ratio) exist as an ideal that can be used in the real world. They have been essential to the development of civilization from the 3rd millenia BCE onward. Without them we would not have been able to land on the Moon. Our use of them is evidence of an intelligent life form existing on this planet.

It appears that there is a very low probability for intelligent life forms in the universe to have evolved[10]. One of the main arguments against it is that there should be many stellar systems within our own galaxy that have intelligent forms of life on them and that, considering evolutionary time frames, we should have been quite obviously visited or contacted by them up until now. In fact, it could be argued that humans are the result of an improbable set of chances. This improbability of intelligent life seems to have given rise to the concept of God, a first cause, an interventionist who created the world out of goodness and who is involved with humans in a cycle of perpetual creativity, rebellion, punishment and redemption[11]. It is this ideal cycle of creation, dissent and redemption that has preserved what some consider an irrational faith amongst those that believe in God and has allowed them to overcome adversity.

But is it irrational to believe in God when it is not irrational to believe in irrational numbers? While we can prove irrational numbers we cannot evaluate them. We assume, or have faith, that they are infinite because, as much as we have tried with the technological capacity that we have, we still have been unable to establish a finishing point. This assumption, or faith, allows us to utilize irrational numbers through approximating them to assist in our own creative output.

Humans have built and designed using the Golden Ratio such things as the Great Pyramid of Giza, Chartres Cathedral, the sculptures of Phidias, the compositions of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Rembrandt and the architecture of Le Corbusier[12], as it is used in nature to build such things as seashells, flowers and pine cones.  The irrational number e was used by Euler as the base of natural logarithms[13] and is used today as an important application in civil engineering, calculus, differential equations, probability and number theory, yet mathematicians today still cannot prove the nature of its number[14]. Again, the irrational number pi has been relevant to humans for four thousand years and its versatility is infinite being found in geometry, trigonometry, probability, statistics, complex numbers, calculus and physics[15]. These are the numbers that allow us to explore the universe and yet, after thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, we still do not understand them because of their infinite state.

The argument that Russell makes is that belief in God is irrational because of a lack of evidence, yet the existence of intelligent life in the universe is so improbable that it could be said to be the evidence of God. Like irrational numbers, there is not sufficient evidence for God but it could be argued that there is enough evidence in the improbability of the evolution of human civilization to assume God’s existence. Like irrational numbers, God is an ideal concept that profoundly assists many humans in dealing with their reality and overcoming adversity. Therefore, as it is rational for humans to accept the existence of irrational numbers, it is also rational for humans to accept the existence of God. This analogous counter argument can be set out so:

  • To believe in God is irrational because there is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God.
  • There is not sufficient evidence for the existence of irrational numbers because they have an infinite number of digits. Yet we theorize they exist as they assist us as an ideal which can be used in the real world.
  • In the same way, belief in an infinite God assists us as an ideal which can be used in the real world.
  • Therefore, God exists as irrational numbers exist.




[3]  Conway, John H.Guy, Richard K. (1996), The Book of Numbers, Copernicus, p. 25



[6] Martin Aigner and G¨unter M. Ziegler, Proofs from The Book, fifth ed., Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2014, Including illustrations by Karl H. Hofmann. MR 3288091

[7]  Aubrey J. Kempner (October 1916). “On Transcendental Numbers”.Transactions of the American Mathematical Society (American Mathematical Society) 17 (4): 476–482. doi:10.2307/1988833. JSTOR 1988833.

[8] Weisstein, Eric W. “Uncountably Infinite.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource.









T. Blackwell,



Objections to deliberative democracy state that culturally plural societies are too diverse to be able to enact such a concept, that social groups who are marginalized in these societies would not have the access or ability to participate in such decision-making processes. This essay argues that deliberative democracy is applicable to these societies and may be the only method of addressing historical injustices through the reconciliation process, shared stories and perceptions of a common good.


 “First we argue for equality, by appealing to the arbitrariness of the natural lottery. Then we allow departures from equality provided that these are not worse for those who are worst off. This explains why, in Rawls’s phrase, the worst-off have the veto, so that benefits to them should have absolute priority.” Parfit (2000, p.121)


Theorists of deliberative democracy assert that democracy relies upon notions of a common good and an egalitarian ideal, and also that democracies should be developed to encourage civic responsibility and self-respect. While many modern societies are culturally plural, as long as a system of government allows for a fair system of bargaining that is representative of all groups, these theorists think that it will be a legitimate system (Cohen, 1997). This essay will look at the different concepts that underpin deliberative democracy and assert that such a democratic process is both applicable to a modern, pluralist society and that collective choice will also lead to better understanding between the different groups that inhabit these societies.

John Dryzek’s “Discursive Democracy” (1990) was the first book written about deliberative democracy. Dryzek states that ‘the final decade of the second millennium saw the theory of democracy take a strong deliberative turn’ (Dryzek, 2000:1).  The opportunity to participate became the imperative in asserting effective deliberation and claims for or advocated by others could be justified in terms that would be acceptable to the participants. For Dryzek (2000), deliberative democracy should not be confined to strict forms of ‘public reason’ but should be able to engage in more tolerant positions that include testimony, humour, emotion, storytelling, argument, rhetoric and even gossip. He contends that this would help deliberation in a non-coercive way and rule out dominant powers manipulating outcomes or attempting to enforce an ideological conformity.

This also explains how deliberative democracy has come to be seen by some as being too chaotic and unmanageable through inclusion, and yet by others as being too restrictive through exclusion. For these objections even the idea of rational argument is elitist and exclusive to those who cannot explain themselves comprehensively (Dryzek, 2000:5). However, Dryzek’s inclusion of story allows those that do not have the same worldview as the dominant group to come to an arena of democracy and show through narrative why their preferences might be the ones that are chosen by the collective. Indigenous people can benefit from democracy in this way, instead of having to rely upon the political representation of someone who has little concept of their worldview or culture.

Jürgen Habermas developed the concept of deliberative democracy, basing its legitimacy in reason. Democracy, asserted Habermas, is supposed to encourage free critical reasoning about common affairs designed to guide the practice of coercive powers (Cohen, 1999:386). Joshua Cohen states that one of the reasons that Habermas contended that democracy should be deliberative, was to ensure the impartial justifiability of outcomes (Cohen, 1999:402). John Rawls (1972) also reflected this in his thinking about political decision-making where his principle of participation required fair political equality. Deliberative democracy relies upon the participants engaging in free deliberation amongst equals as the basis of their legitimacy and Cohen (1999) thinks that in this way deliberative democracy is able to address pluralism within a democratic process. Citizens find resolutions to problems of collective choice through public reasoning and establishing a framework for deliberation. It is a plural and diverse association that is committed to resolving problems through collective choice. This is assisted through each party not reaffirming self-interested or mandatory preferences or ideals.

The first step in collective choice is choosing an agenda, then the proposal of different solutions to that agenda with supportive reasoning, and finally settling upon an agreed solution. While all comprehend the necessity of their own good, in deliberative democratic decision-making they also share a commitment to finding decisions that are acceptable to all, even if it involves revising one’s own preferences and beliefs. Deliberation requires critical reasoning because it is not enough in pluralistic societies for people to provide reasons for decisions being based upon preferences, beliefs or ideals. The notion of autonomy is also important in a deliberative democracy, as preferences should be formed by agency rather than circumstance. Therefore, deliberation consists of assessing the common good from the basis of legitimate public reflection on what is an appropriate claim on public resources, rather than notions of preconceived ideas and interests (Cohen, 1997).

Historical injustice means injustices that have occurred across generations from oppressive social practices and institutions. These social practices legitimise exclusion and oppress certain groups because their features mark them as inferior to others. Through this oppression these social groups are vulnerable to exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. If this oppression occurs over a long period of time they become historical injustices. Historical oppression is unique in that it formulates identity in terms of conflict and opposition, leaving a stigma even after reparations have been reparations have been attempted. Indigenous cultures that have been conquered by settler colonial powers are an example of historical injustice. In attempting to address the plural dimensions of historical oppression, democratic inclusion must find a way of resolving these issues (Bashir, 2012).

Benjamin Barber (Young, 1989: 256) highlights the opposition between the general interests of the civic polity and the particular interests of private affiliations. Barber states that concepts of the common group are not enforced from a position of authority but agreed upon as part of a common project. Although Barber states that notions of belonging to particular groups are important as well for people, it could be that concepts such as universal citizenship and deliberative democracy may require a degree of impartiality that humans may not be able to practice (Young, 1989). People understand polity from their particular perspective and the narrower their perspective the narrower will be their political view. This occurs in societies where some are privileged while other are oppressed. To recommend that all citizens leave their perspectives and interests behind merely reinforces the privileged position of some and fails to redress the oppression, all the while silencing it by ignoring the perspective of the oppressed. Young (1989) argues that Barber confuses plurality with privatisation, stating that pluralism encourages particular private interest groups to assert their interests over others. She goes on that instead of unified public realm that does not disregard the particular perspectives of individuals but acknowledges the ‘desire to decide together the society’s policies’ (Young, 1989:258). Therefore Young suggests that there should be specific representation of disadvantaged groups in order to enact affirmative action with regard to their participation in the greater group, the greater group already having a strong enough voice (Young, 1989:262).

An objection to deliberative democracy is that its treatment of basic liberties is unacceptable because it is dependent upon a majority decision and restricts the liberty of individuals. Cohen (1997) responds to this objection by stating that deliberative democracy entails informed and autonomous judgements through public deliberations in which free and civil expression is allowed to take place. In this way it includes the individual in decisions for the majority. Another objection is that public deliberation is, in reality, irrelevant to modern political conditions. It is basically an objection that direct democracy cannot occur in modern conditions because the nature of our states is too large and complex in both population and institutions. Especially with regard to the globalization of citizenship in large conglomeration states like the European Union, this objection states that it is difficult to encourage citizens under such conditions of diversity to consider themselves equal participants in acts of cooperative deliberation (Cohen, 1997). By ensuring that institutions engaged in deliberative democracy have arenas through which citizens propose and debate issues for the political agenda, this objection seems nullified. If these institutions can act across communities and states, through the use of social media and online translators people can engage with each other on a local, national and international level.

Habermas advocated such a communitarian approach to democracy based upon mutual communication. In this way deliberative citizenship can use narratives of shared experience to address thinner concepts of liberal theory and particular interest groups. John Dewey termed this type of deliberative vision as a ‘shared way of life’. For Immanuel Kant, without ‘enlarged thought’ or public engagement in the decision-making process that includes other perspectives there is a failure in the human community to live wisely. If one loses touch with public conversation one becomes sensorily deprived ( Boyte, 1995). Addressing issues in the public sphere that involve marginalised social groups, such as indigenous, disabled, or ethnic minority groups, a necessary part of the political process is allowing those groups to become engaged in decision-making. Approaches to this could be through the convening of town meetings where citizens can be involved in discussing problems, and ensuring that election coverage gives voices to a broad range of citizens, especially those that are marginalised, as well as representatives. Civic journalism also can play a role in revealing conditions that may be hidden from the general civic polity (Sirianni and Friedland).

To ensure that institutions work within the desired parameters of a deliberative democracy, it is necessary to understand that material inequalities usually mean political inequalities. Being from a remote or poor community can mean that you have little chance to engage in the democratic process because of lack of access. Therefore, political parties that are able to be supported through public funding are an important enabling feature of deliberative democracy. In this way material disadvantage in the political arena can be overcome and ensures the manifest equality that is a part of the Rawlsian view. Also, by providing a diverse enough range of issues parties can ensure that debate is not restricted to certain issues and provide more open-ended accounts that can properly inform diverse understanding of the common good (Cohen, 1997).

Objections to deliberative democracy on the grounds that it is either too inclusionary or exclusionary are counteracted by methods of storytelling that include people who might otherwise have their voices silenced. Deliberative democracy can provide a solution to the challenge of pluralism in its insistence that participants are able to engage with each other equally and with liberty of deliberation. Critical reasoning is essential for deliberative democracy because it helps to take the decision-making beyond personal preferences and beliefs. Deliberative democracy should also be viewed as an egalitarian approach. Furthermore, through such a Rawlsian egalitarian approach the difference principle can apply and reconciliation between the general community and disenfranchised groups can occur. This is especially important when it comes to redressing historical injustices.

Deliberative democracy is a way in which those who have suffered from historical injustices can be included in the process of decision-making in an attempt to resolve their issues. Elements of affirmative action are advocated to become part of the arena of deliberative democracy to ensure that those people whose voices are usually silenced, such as the marginalised or oppressed, are included in the decision-making process. Liberty and autonomy are able to be protected in the process of deliberative democracy through public decision-making with all free and civil voices being included.

Finally, although modern states are large and populous, smaller arenas, such as social media, where people can voice their opinions on issues are becoming more popular and varied across the political sphere. Civic journalism and publicly funded political parties are also a good way to make sure that those who have little chance to engage in the democratic process have their material disadvantage addressed. Therefore, if the objections to deliberative democracy are addressed then it should be a successful basis for addressing the claims of marginalised social groups.


  1. Bashir, B. (2012), “Reconciling Historical Injustices: Deliberative Democracy and the Politics of Reconciliation”, in Res Publica, 18 (27), 2012, pp. 127-143
  2. Boyte, C.J. (1995), “Beyond Deliberation: Citizenship as Public Work”, Civic Practices Network, viewed on 5 May 2013 on
  3. Cohen, J. (1997) “Deliberation and democratic legitimacy” in Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics , Bohman, James; Rehg, William , 1997 , pp. 67-91
  4. Cohen, J.  (1999),”Reflections on Habermas on Democracy”, in Ratio Juris, 12 (4),December 1999, pp. 385-416
  5. Dryzek, J (2000), Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics and Contestations, Oxford University Press Inc. New York
  6. Rawls, J., (1972), A Theory of Justice, Clarendon Press, Oxford
  7. Sirianni, C., & Friedland, L. (n.d.), “Deliberative Democracy”, Civic Practices Network, viewed in 5 May 2013 on emocracy reliescieties. cess ise issues.ther too inclusionary or exclusionary are conteracted by habit these societies. cess is
  8. Young, Iris Marion. “Polity and group difference: A critique of the ideal of universal citizenship” Ethics , 99:2 , 1989 , 250-274
Amatya Sen claims that ‘capabilities’ provide the relevant evaluative space for understanding equality. However Sen’s theory has been criticised on the grounds that it does not provide sufficient specification of which functionings and capabilities are valuable. This essay investigates the capabilities theory with reference to this kind of criticism and finds that, on the basis of its reliance upon universal values of liberty and autonomy,  Martha Nussbaum’s development of capabilities theory could provide a possible framework for specifying valuable functionings and capabilities.
The capabilities approach is dependent upon the evaluation of those particular functionings that are concerned with the value of life. In the study prepared for the United Nations, Amartya Sen put forward the argument that the capability approach is an improvement on other theories of justice, such as utilitarianism, Rawlsian egalitarianism and libertarianism because it uses other informational focuses to consider social advantage (p.30). The main criticism of Sen’s approach is that it is considered vague in that it does not provide sufficient specifications as to what he thinks are valuable. Martha Nussbaum has taken Sen’s capability approach and put what she argues are universal and concrete values upon it, allowing it to become a theory of justice rather than simply an evaluative space for reckoning what values we should hold.


Sen posits that his approach relies upon the functional states through which one can achieve quality of life. These include such functionings as being adequately nourished, having good health, and are functionings which would be obviously considered values by all. However, other functionings may be more complex but just as widely valued, such as belonging to a social group.  Sen stresses that, although individuals may differ in what they assess as valuable, it is important that these differences are acknowledged when assessing the capabilities that can be derived from these varied functions (Sen, 1993, p.31).

Therefore, Sen (1993, p.32) states that two necessary questions must be asked to evaluate these differing values:

1)      What is the object of the value?

2)      How valuable are the respective objects?

To identify the object of the value entails specifying what Sen terms as ‘the evaluative space’. For utilitarians this is usually defined as happiness or pleasure, whereas the capabilities approach entails identifying the evaluative space in terms of an individual’s capability to function. In this way the capability approach uses evaluative space to allow for a variety of human actions that are ends in themselves rather than means of living or freedoms, such as amounts of income, wealth, or resources etc. (1993, p.33). For Sen, when it comes to questions of freedom of choice then the criteria to be assessed must be linked to the evaluation of the range of capabilities that are open (1993, p.35).

An interesting point that Sen makes about the association of an evaluation of capabilities with freedom is that a person may have the advantage of more freedom than another but it may still result in her achieving less. For example, a person may have access to a capability such as a good education system but for reasons of personal characteristics, such as laziness or distraction, still not bother to achieve their best within it (1993, p.34). Therefore, Sen breaks down these associative values of human advantage as being:

1)      well-being achievement through the promotion of a person’s well-being;

2)      individual achievement through the pursuit of one’s goals; which result in:

3)      well-being freedom

4)      individual freedom (1993, p.34)

For Sen, the well-being of a person becomes an evaluation of the ‘wellness’ of that person rather than an evaluation of their contribution to the state or their success in reaching their goals. In this case, the functionings of the person will be comprised of the four elements above. With regard to this, the functionings of a person appear fundamental to the nature of their well-being, even if they are sourced externally from the person themselves, such as through the fulfilment of helping someone else (1993, p.36).

The functionings that assist well-being vary from the elementary, such as life-expectancy, to the complex, such as being a valued member of the community. The success of the agency of a person requires a broader assessment that can be narrowed to the evaluation of a standard of living to the broader sense of political freedom. It can even be said that the broader sense includes injuries to others, especially loved ones. These things all contribute to the success of someone developing an ability to be happy or the development of their well-being (1993, p.37).

An important thing to note is that, in Sen’s concept of evaluative space, capabilities are derived from functionings. The concepts of well-being and living standards belong to the assessment of functioning rather than capabilities. Therefore a capability is set in the space of functionings (1993, p.38). This calculus model can be used to assess basic needs and is crucial to the identification of capabilities. Sen states that an income-derived concept of poverty can be quite misleading when evaluation allows discrepancies in functionality. This is because the ‘poverty line’ in a developing nation may be quite distinct from that of developed nations (1993, p.40). Sen sees the most advantageous role of the capability approach being the ability to assess varied objects of value, rather than the utility-based approach of happiness or desire fulfilment as being the only value. It also does not place primary goods or resources as value objects, as do the Rawlsian and Dworkinian models (1993, p.44).

Sen (1993, p.49) thinks that it is in its plurality of purpose that that the capability approach works best, especially with regard to well-being and agency. This is especially relevant when judging standards of living and its particular usability lies in its egalitarian calculus that is dependent upon the truth of seeing individual advantages in capabilities and therefore its relevance to other sorts of social evaluation. In having the ability to assess the particular space for the evaluation of opportunities and successes of individuals, Sen asserts that the capabilities approach is an important addition to other theories of justice (1993, p.50).


Nussbaum takes Sen’s abstract mathematical calculus of functionings and put them into concrete terms through which constitutional guarantees can be drawn in civil society. This is Nussbaum’s universal approach (Nussbaum, 2000, p.70). Through applying concrete concepts Nussbaum breaks down standard theories of justice into questions that show how the capabilities approach can change someone’s life. The central question for Nussbaum is: “What is Vasanti actually able to do and to be?” The answer to this question is sought rather than the utilitarian approach: “How satisfied is Vasanti?”; or the  Rawlsian/ Dworkinian: “How much in the way of resources is Vasanti able to command? (2000, p.71)” For Nussbaum, the priority is to measure quality of life so that capabilities can match functionings. The next thing to do is to argue that if people fall below a functioning threshold that is necessary for justice then it should be considered urgent in terms of the injustice it creates (2000, p.71).

Nussbaum’s criteria is based upon the intuitive concept that particular functions are universal in human life and that it is these functions that separate us from other animals. Using the philosophy of Marx, she argues that humans need to be cultivated through education, leisure and self-expression, and also through socialisation with others. Nussbaum adds to this liberty of thought and association, as well as freedom of religion or worship, being fundamental to human autonomy (2000, p.72). A person has activities, goals and projects that are above the needs of nature and need support to fulfil these ideas. The essential element of this is that capabilities are sought for the individual, not groups or states or corporations. These entities can be valuable as means to ends but the well-being of the individual is the end itself (2000, p.74).

Nussbaum states that a list of concrete functionings cannot be a theory of justice however it does advise on what will be a minimum of social justice. She also adds that they could be adjusted to suit the various cultures that they encompass (2000, p.75). Nussbaum’s list of capabilities is a list in which all of the elements are distinct and equal in importance. She gives the example of the absence political rights not being able to be compensated by great economic growth (2000, p.81). Nussbaum states that the capabilities that go with these functionings are of three different types:

1)      Basic capabilities- innate equipment necessary for developing more advanced capabilities and morality, such as the capability of love, gratitude, reason and work;

2)      Internal capabilities- maturity, language, political reasoning, socialization, freedom of speech or religion; and

3)      Combined capabilities- where the environment is prepared so that individuals are able to exercise their major functionings (2000, p.85).

There is also a distinction between internal and combined capabilities in that when there is a sudden alteration in the environment in which the individual is placed, perhaps they have had to flee or migrate to another country, then they may not be able to enact their functionings. Nussbaum gives the example of a child who has never experienced freedom of speech or thought and is not able to develop the same capabilities as someone who was raised in a nation that protects these liberties. Nussbaum focuses on a social minimum of these capabilities as suitable for a system of justice (2000, p.86).

With regard to individual liberty and autonomy being safeguarded in such a system, Nussbaum states that it is important to note that ‘capability not functioning is the appropriate political goal (2000, p.87)’. This appears to coalesce with Sen’s evaluative space, where capabilities are derived from functionings. Nussbaum points out that the capabilities approach is much like Rawls’ notion of primary goods, but the difference between the capabilities approach and Rawls theory of justice is that it does not consider wealth and income as goals or ends, more a reliance upon Rawls’ natural goods such as ‘health, vigour, intelligence and imagination’ (2000, p.89). Capabilities are the things needed for functioning such that any rational being would want them. Even if one does not make use of all of them then no harm has been done if they had the choice (2000, p.88).

However, Nussbaum also states that it is important that capabilities such as bodily integrity may be regulated so as not to undermine the functionings of an individual. Although this may be seen as paternalistic it is perhaps synonymous with illegal contracts in that health and bodily integrity are so important to capabilities and functioning that there can be legitimate interference with choice up to a point (2000, p.95). This does seem to call into question whether Nussbaum would allow such choices as being a sex worker in her system of justice, but she does state that such decisions can be left to the democratic process in each nation (2000, p.95). Nussbaum also states that her list is not meant to be an exhaustive account of what is worthwhile in life and is a facilitation list rather than a tyrannical one (2000, p.95). Nussbaum contends that the political purpose of these capabilities is human well-being. She quotes Sen: ‘Political rights are important not only for the fulfilment of needs, they are crucial also for the formulation of needs. And this idea relates, in the end, to the respect that we owe each other as fellow human beings.’ (Sen, 1994, p.38)

Therefore Nussbaum sees her list of functioning capabilities as being closely aligned with universal human rights. They are quite similar to those initiated and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was ratified in 1948, and have been used by many different peoples to assert justice. One of members of the drafting subcommittee of this document stated: “I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality”.(U.N. n.d.) Nussbaum’s list is intended to give fundamental access to capabilities in order to provide a stable society, which was also the intent of the UDHR. Nussbaum argues that these are not only Western notions of rights: “Ideas of activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do, what opportunities they have for functioning (2000, p.100)”. Considering that what differentiates humans from other animals is their need to realise their ideas, whether they be social, creative, technological, or scientific, it seems that Nussbaum’s argument about the universality of her functional capabilities is valid.

Rather than being a strict theory of justice, Sen’s capability approach has the ability to allow a framework that is both accommodating and adaptable. It has the ability to assess individual well-being and evaluate social arrangements so that policies may be designed that can enact just social change. Through being a practical guide it can inform citizens and governments of the directions that may provide desirable outcomes. While criticisms of Sen’s approach state that it is unclear about how it can be extended into a theory of justice, his non-commitment to single distributive rule allows his notions of functionings and capabilities to be a formula for an evaluative space through which justice may be approached. Nussbaum’s transfer of Sen’s evaluative space into a concrete list of functioning capabilities is comprehensive and is not limited to single-types of social systems but holds true for all human beings. Therefore both Sen’s formulaic approach and Nussbaum’s sufficient account of social justice could be used together to provide a constitutional guarantee of human rights.


  1. Nussbaum, M 2000, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, University of Chicago pp. 70-101
  2. United Nations (n.d.), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, viewed 5 April 2013,
  3. United Nations (n.d.), Universal Declaration of Human Rights: History of the Document, viewed 5 April 2013,
  4. Sen, A 1993, ‘Capability and Well-Being’, in M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (eds),The Quality of Life, Clarendon Press, Oxford pp. 30-52
  5. Sen, A, 1994, ‘Freedom and Needs’, The New Republic, January 10/17, pp. 31-38

Global protest has been prominent since the late 1990s. It is a reaction to dominant forces of multinational corporations undermining democratically elected governments, and the people’s own identity through citizenship, across the globe. For a few years these protests were quelled because of the threat of terrorism. However, since the new global financial crisis that began in 2008 which evidenced the complete and utter disregard that these corporations, citing their status as natural persons, have had for the real occupants of the world, new protest movements are burgeoning everywhere. It is imperative that we contemplate the vastness and autonomy of these corporations and perceive how global governance must be consolidated to be able to harness such forces for the peace and security of all. Therefore, a global social contract must be established.














Monoprints by Janet Elizabeth Thomas (2010)







Nicholas Georgouras, 2005, Carrara marble, 250cm x 100cm

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

Native American proverb

Sorrell and Hendry define a narrow code of ethics within business as that which is restrained only to its employees or shareholders[1]. A broad code of ethics is that which includes responsibilities to the wider community and environment[2]. Although most codes of ethics define responsibilities to communities, some businesses find that their particular responsibilities to the pursuit of profit for shareholders constrain and conflict with these policy objectives[3]. However, businesses operate in and rely upon the communities where they are situated. The people within these communities expect to be treated equally and fairly by governments and businesses. This essay will argue that a broad code of ethics is needed in the application of inclusive principles, such as the concepts of equal opportunity and affirmative action, and that such inclusive principles can benefit the businesses that apply them.

The expectations and ideals of equality do not reflect the real differences between peoples’ physical and psychological abilities. When these types of real inequalities are transferred to a business environment so that it can reflect political equality, these issues can become problematic[4]. A narrow ethical objection could be: Why is it the responsibility of business to compensate individuals for these real inequalities? To consider these responsibilities, it is useful to consider the laws that are in place and how they are enacted.

The anti-discrimination laws, such as the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), legislate that all employers must fairly treat their employees and potential jobseekers[5]. As such, they reflect the impartiality of the law and appeal to normative ethical approaches of equality and fairness. All employees are entitled to equal opportunities and employers must not allow prejudices or stereotyped views to influence their decisions about hiring or treating people that they employ[6]. The only reason that an employer can legally justify an action of discrimination is if it would cause unjustifiable hardship to them[7]. This type of legislation recognizes the equality of people but also preserves fairness to business.

This legislation means that businesses must operate with a broad code of ethics when it comes to dealing with equal opportunity. These policies began to be enacted in the 1980s as a response to the disadvantages women suffered in the workforce[8], and were extended and implemented by the human resources department of some organisations as a program entitled Managing Diversity (MD)[9]. The main concept of an MD program is to increase competitive advantage through being able to access a diverse workforce. This is supposed to meet employee needs, reduce turnover costs and give the best customer service[10]. At the same time, governments have relaxed the legislative requirements and penalties for breaches[11] and affirmative action legislation has been negated to a certain degree[12].

The use of MD programs has become an answer for corporations subject to equal opportunity requirements. It is seen to broaden the ethical requirements rather than restricting them to the narrow environment of legislated affirmative action[13]. MD programs are also considered to focus upon the positive aspects of diversity rather than the negative aspects of disadvantage[14]: ‘“Managing diversity- the new paradigm” is internally driven, rests on a business case and perceives MD as an investment and difference is perceived as an asset’[15]. Therefore, it seems that business has broadened the scope of the ethics involved in equal opportunity and lobbied to narrow the legislative requirements that were brought about to give access to work for the disadvantaged. Has this broadening of the ethical scope resulted in better access for those who potentially benefit from equal opportunity legislation?

It has been alleged that many companies, such as Microsoft and Coca Cola, simply pay lip service to their espoused equal opportunity policies, with suspicions that policies are a process in image management and are not enshrined in practice[16]. In Britain, while Equal Opportunity (EO) policies have been adopted by many companies, only a quarter of companies surveyed arranged to consult disabled employees, and only half allowed time off for rehabilitation and treatment[17]. It is asserted by Jewson et al.[18] that the four reasons that companies adopt EO policies are:

  1. 1.      as an ‘insurance policy’ against future claims against their reputation;
  2. 2.      to demonstrate employer responsibility;
  3. 3.      as a response to problems created by community pressure; and
  4. 4.      to access a wider talent base or to expand the customer client base.

It is the final reason, that of accessing an expanded base of talent and customers, that should be considered the most important reason for a company to properly attend to equal opportunity policies. It is simply good business.

While EO legislation allows for a company to object to employing someone if it would cause them unjustified hardship, not employing people on the basis of gender, reproductive capability, ethnic origin, disability or age is also unjustified. It denies those effected access to life’s opportunities. Objections to EO policies on the grounds that they do not address primary societal differences in housing and education[19] fail to recognise that having work helps to relieve people from the trap of poverty and allows them access to quality housing and education.

The broadening of the ethics of business to include EO policies is in line with many other policy implementations that have occurred throughout the last century. Businesses have to deal with wage issues that reflect true living costs and conditions that enable workers to be able to have enough security to be a secure workforce. These issues are regulated and are beneficial to businesses because they ensure access to a reliable workforce. Health and safety regulations are also issues that businesses now have to deal with and they benefit through not having to pay for lengthy court cases and compensation claims that can occur after the event. This is similar to anti-discrimination regulations. These regulations give businesses access to a diverse workforce that truly represents the societies in which these businesses operate.

The concept of using a MD program has the advantages for businesses and the community of being internally-driven policy that can be linked to organisational objectives, and being less restrictive than an external EO agenda that demands a set of minimal targets[20]. The main concept of EO policies is that they use a white, heterosexual male as the norm and try to fit other groups into this, whereas MD is about diversity and expects that the mainstream will be a diverse group[21]. It responds to objections to EO policies, being reverse discrimination towards white males[22], by highlighting demographic difference. In this way, MD is able to be sensitive to labour needs and clientele differences which can improve productivity, employee commitment and profitability[23].

A broad ethical approach by any business to concepts of equal opportunity and affirmative action are based upon good reason. These concepts reflect the principles of equality and fairness in our society. They also reflect good business judgments about acting within the self-interest of a company and its shareholders, in that they broaden the scope of access to employees and customers. Finally they reflect the intuitive and universal Kantian concept of acting towards others as you would have them act towards you. It must be remembered that all of us can be affected, broadly or narrowly, by such inequalities as gender difference, ethnicity, disability or age.


  1. De Cieri, H. and R. Kramar, 2003, Human Resource Management in Australia, McGraw Hill, Sydney
  2. Gaze, B. 1998, “The Ambiguity of Affirmative Action in Australia”, in Law in Context, (1998), vol. 15 no. 2
  3. Grace, D. & Cohen, S. 1995, “Ethical reasoning in business” in Business Ethics , Grace, Damian; Cohen, Stephen, 1995, pp.1-51
  4. Hettinger E.C. 2001, ‘What is Wrong with Reverse Discrimination?’ in W. Michael Hoffman, Robert E. Frederick & Mark Schwartz (eds.) Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality, 4th edition (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001), pp. 315-322
  5. Hoque, K. & Noon, M. 2004, “Equal Opportunities Policy and Practice in Britain: Evaluating the ‘Empty Shell’ Hypothesis”, in Work, Employment & Society,British Sociological Association, September 2004, vol. 18 no. 3, pp. 481-506
  6. Jewson, N., Waters, S. and Harvey, J. 1990, “Ethnic Minorities and Employment Practice: A Study of Six Employers”, Research Paper No. 76, Sheffield: Employment Department
  7. Jewson, N., Mason, D., Lambkin, C. and Taylor, F.,1992,  “Ethnic Monitoring Policy and Practice: A Study of Employers’ Experiences”, Research Paper No.89, London: Department of  Employment
  8. Jewson, N., Mason, D., Drewett, A. and Rossiter, W., 1995, “Formal Equal Opportunities Policies and Employment Best Practice”, Employment Department Research Series No. 69, Sheffield: Employment Department
  9. Pojman, Louis P. “The modern workplace: transition to equality and diversity: The moral status of affirmative action” in Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality , Hoffman, W. Michael; Frederick, Robert E.; Schwartz, Mark S. , 2001 , 303-315
  10. Sorell, T. & Hendry, J. 1994, “Narrow and broad business ethics” in Business Ethics , Sorell, Tom; Hendry, John , 1994 , pp. 28-54
  11. Strachan, G., Burgess, J. & Sullivan, A. 2003,  Affirmative Action or Managing Diversity- What is the future of Equal Opportunity Policies in Organisations? Faculty of Business and Law, University of Newcastle, NSW
  12. The Anti-Discrimination Board, “Discrimination and the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW”, ADB factsheet, viewed on: 30 July 2012$file/Disc_ADB_0311.pdf

                [1] Sorrell & Hendry, 1994, “Narrow and broad business ethics” in Business Ethics, Sorrell, Tom; Hendry, John,1994, p.28

                [2] Sorrell & Hendry, 1994, p.28

                [3] Sorrell & Hendry, 1994, p.28

[4] Grace & Cohen, 1995, p.144

[5] The Anti-Discrimination Board, “Discrimination and the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW”, ADB factsheet, p.1, viewed on: 30 July 2012$file/Disc_ADB_0311.pdf

[6] The Anti-Discrimination Board, 2012, p.1

[7] The Anti-Discrimination Board, 2012, p.2

[8] Strachan, G., Burgess, J. & Sullivan, A. 2003,  Affirmative Action or Managing Diversity- What is the future of Equal Opportunity Policies in Organisations? Faculty of Business and Law, University of Newcastle, NSW, p.1

[9] Strachan et al. 2003, p. 1

                [10] De Cieri, H. and R. Kramar, 2003, Human Resource Management in Australia, McGraw Hill, Sydney, pp. 28-29

                [11] Strachan et al. 2003, p. 3-4

                [12] Strachan et al. 2003, p. 5

                [13] Strachan et al. 2003, p. 5

                [14] Strachan et al. 2003, p. 5

                [15] Strachan et al. 2003, p. 6

[16] Hoque, K. & Noon, M. 2004, “Equal Opportunities Policy and Practice in Britain: Evaluating the ‘Empty Shell’ Hypothesis”, in Work, Employment & Society,British Sociological Association, pp.481-482

[17] Hoque & Noon, 2004, p. 483

 [18] Jewson, N., Waters, S. and Harvey, J. 1990, “Ethnic Minorities and Employment Practice: A Study of Six Employers”, Research Paper No. 76, Sheffield: Employment Department; Jewson, N., Mason, D., Lambkin, C. and Taylor, F.,1992,  “Ethnic Monitoring Policy and Practice: A Study of Employers’ Experiences”, Research Paper No.89, London: Department of  Employment; Jewson, N., Mason, D., Drewett, A. and Rossiter, W., 1995, “Formal Equal Opportunities Policies and Employment Best Practice”, Employment Department Research Series No. 69, Sheffield: Employment Department

[19] Pojman, Louis P. “The modern workplace: transition to equality and diversity: The moral status of affirmative action” in Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality , Hoffman, W. Michael; Frederick, Robert E.; Schwartz, Mark S. , 2001 , p.314

[20] Strachan et al., 2003, p.6

[21] Strachan et al., 2003, p.6

[22] Hettinger, E.C., 2001, ‘What is Wrong with Reverse Discrimination?’ in W. Michael Hoffman, Robert E. Frederick & Mark Schwartz (eds.) Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality, 4th edition, pp. 315-322

[23] Strachan et al., 2003, p.6

Commercial surrogacy is defended on five main principles. The first is its effective means of allowing childless couples to have children is considered to make it a significant good. Second, the rights for autonomous adults to procreate and form contracts are too fundamental to interfere with unless it causes a significant harm. Third the act of surrogacy is seen as altruistic and to be encouraged and finally, commercial surrogacy should be seen as no different to and consistent with already accepted practices in the reproduction and raising of children.

Anderson argues against these principles stating that commercial surrogacy makes women’s labor a commodity. By applying market norms to this labor it regards the woman’s body and her role as a mother as one of mere use. For Anderson, it is the worth and respect that should be given to a woman for her labor, with regard to gestation and childbirth, that is disregarded when commercial factors are applied. It does not regard the emotional impact of such labor and can be seen as a callous disregard of the impact that such intimate relationships as a mother and child has upon the woman and the child.  Anderson argues that the application of commercial norms requires a mother to repress her parental emotions and this is a degradation of human relationships.

The surrogacy industry follows the contracting-out-of-labour system that works in manufacturing industries. The attached problem to this method is that it must disregard the fundamental emotional requirement of parenthood, that of attachment to the child. The woman’s labor is alienated because of this factor and it is a factor that does not affect any other type of manufacturing process.  For Anderson, such a requirement to alienate oneself from one’s child is a demand that should be not be upheld as it turns a woman’s body into a major part of a commercial production process.

Anerson argues for commercial surrogacy by claiming that surrogacy is inspired by altruistic motives. He argues that if there is nothing wrong with altruistic surrogacy, there should be nothing wrong with commercial surrogacy as it applies to a woman’s labor. Anerson states that Anderson promotes a woman’s labor as noble labor and that the commercialisation of this labor is degrading. He then argues that many kinds of noble labor is done for commercial exchange and cannot see why a woman’s labor should be seen differently.

Anerson states that as long as there is no fraud or misrepresentation in a surrogacy contract a woman who wishes to render her surrogate services should be free to sign it, just as if she wishes to supply a babysitting service. Anerson also argues that although the surrogate contract might stipulate that the woman not form an attachment to the child and this can be an alienating form of labor, alienating labor is not impermissible. Citizens should be free, Anerson contends, to arrange their work lives the way they wish.

  • Anderson, Elizabeth S. “Is women’s labor a commodity?” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 19:1 , 1990 , 71 – 92
  • Arneson, Richard. “Commodification and commercial surrogacy” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 21:2 , 1992 , 132-164

Ronald Dworkin points to a distinction between reasons people wish for their lives to go one way or another. One set of reasons he calls experiential preferences and the other set of reasons are critical interests. Experiential preferences are those things that we find enjoyable in life. They also can entail things that are painful or bad experiences but, within limits, these kinds of experiences do not make our whole life worse. Critical interests, Dworkin asserts, are those that people find are essential to their understanding of what constitutes a good life.

Experiential interests are not frivolous and critical interests profound, Dworkin states, it is just that critical interests are important to the aspirations of our lives. In his view, we need to establish the distinction between these two interests in order to understand how people should be treated. It is not difficult to understand why we care about our experiential interests as it is natural to prefer pleasure to pain. But it is more difficult to understand why people should care about their critical interests. Therefore, Dworkin contends that we need an intellectual explanation of how our critical interests connect with the larger beliefs that we have about life.

Critical interests are bound in what Dworkin calls the integrity of our lives; the capacity we have to autonomously structure our lives to contain the right experiences and achievements. Integrity is similar to dignity, which is why we think someone has little self-respect if they have acted perversely for gain or the avoidance of trouble. It is important to understand that one may be mistaken in the decisions one makes for understanding the idea of critical interests. For Dworkin, this is essential to the basic distinction between critical and experiential interests.

In using such a distinction to consider whether death is in the best interests for someone with dementia, Dworkin thinks that we must consider what was important in that person’s life; what was their life narrative. Someone who has dementia may have more to gain through pleasant experience for several years before they die a natural death and to kill oneself through the fear of a lack of experiential interests is probably wrong.  However, Dworkin argues, it is critical interests that matter when we wish to consider how one might die. If people think that they will be living in degrading conditions through being fully dependent then they may wish to choose to die. Therefore Dworkin asserts that these decisions based upon their critical interests before they were afflicted should be taken into account when considering how an advanced dementia patient may not wish to live.

Rebecca Dresser objects to Dworkin’s differentiation between experiential and critical interests on the grounds that it is possible that people do not draw a sharp line between these interests. In the circumstances of dementia, Dresser says, Dworkin fails to consider that critical interests become less important and experiential interests more so, just as they may for people who are brain damaged or intellectually disabled. Dresser states that people who seem happy and contented although they may be suffering from dementia, will experience clear harm from a decision that purports to advance the critical interests that they may no longer care about.

  • Dworkin, Ronald. “Dying and living” in Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion and Euthanasia , Dworkin, Ronald , 1993 , 179-217
  • Dresser, Rebecca. “Dworkin on dementia: Elegant theory, questionable policy” in Bioethics: An anthology , Kuhse, Helga Singer, Peter , 1999 , 312-320

Lucretius argues that death is nothing to us and we have nothing to fear of it. He asks why we should fear death when we will be no more. Once the chain of our identity has been snapped through death, even if we could be reassembled, we would not be concerned with our previous existence. If we fear that death is full of evil, the self is not in existence to experience it. Another reason why Lucretius contends that men fear death is that the good things in life will come to an end. However, while we sleep we cannot take part in those things and we do not regret it. Therefore, if sleep were to go on for eternity we would not trouble ourselves for these things. Lucretius also contends that if life has been good and we have not wasted it, we should not demand it goes on like an ungrateful guest. If we have wasted our life or it has been full of evil, why would we demand that it continue? We must make way for others, as the old must make way for the new. Lucretius states we do not regret the time before we were born because we cannot remember it. Existence before life is the mirror image of existence after life. Finally, death is inevitable and therefore it is irrational to fear it.

Thomas Nagel objects to Lucretius’ assertions on the grounds that he has made mistaken assumptions. Nagel argues in contrast to Lucretius that death is an evil simply because it deprives us of life. The assumptions, Nagel states, that Lucretius has made are temporal and based on a subject to be harmed. A person can be identified through their history and their possibilities rather than their state at a particular moment. While that person can be located at a particular place and time, if a terrible misfortune befalls them such as acquiring a major brain injury, for Nagel, it is the loss of this person’s possibilities that is the tragedy. This loss of possibility can be the same objection that can be used towards Lucretius’s assertions about death. The other assumption that Nagel states is made by Lucretius is his description of death being a mirror image of the time before one’s birth. For Nagel, although they may both be times when one does not exist, the time after death is the time of which one has been deprived while the time before one’s birth is not a time which one’s subsequent birth prevents one from living. Also, although death is inevitable, Nagel states that one’s existence does not contemplate this but imagines an open-ended possible future and the inevitability of death should not imply that it would not be good to live longer.

  • Lucretius. “Extract” in On the Nature of the Universe , Lucretius; Latham, R. E. , 1951 , 121-129
  • Nagal, Thomas. “Death” Nous , 4:1 , 1970 , 73-80

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