“If personhood depends on consciousness, then animals would be persons too.”

Occasionally, pro-life commenters have objected to my view of personhood by claiming it would give too much moral status to animals. Joshua Shephard illustrates this objection in his article where responds to pro-choice philosopher Lynn Rudder Baker:

“Either she should extend personhood to all entities that possess a rudimentary first‐person perspective or she should not appeal to this perspective as importantly different from the other developmental precursors of a robust first‐person perspective. Both options carry with them what some may see as undesirable consequences. On the former, lots of non‐human animals qualify as persons. On the latter, there is little reason to say, as Baker wishes to, that personhood emerges around the time of birth (cf. DeGrazia 2002).”

Joshua Shepherd, “The Moral Insignificance of Self Consciousness”

Why does treating (many) animals as persons seem to Shephard to have undesirable consequences? At first blush, to this feminist, the idea that animals ought to have rights and in many cases ought to be viewed as persons is not exactly a problem. We certainly should  view it as immoral to cause animals pointless suffering precisely because animals have subjective experiences that make their existence morally important. 

Indeed, even most pro-life philosophers hold that causing animals to gratuitiously suffer is also wrong; an advantage of the pro-choice view is that it explains why causing this suffering is wrong without resorting to fiat pronouncements that certain “kinds” of animals are simply morally important while others are not. The fact that a full acceptance of this view of personhood could lead to radical shifts in how our society prioritizes non-human animals and the natural world is also not a problem for most feminists!

But I believe Shephard is making another assumption here that makes him believe that Baker’s view has undesirable consequences. This assumption seems to be something like: If babies are persons because of their rudimentary mental states, and cows have similar rudimentary mental states, we must have similar obligations to cows as we have babies when it comes to moral behavior. I think even a vegan environmentalist might find that idea objectionable. After all, it seems much worse to kill and eat a baby than to kill and eat a cow!

In reality, the fact that class membership and potential do not define what persons are does not imply that class membership and potential have no bearing on our obligations to different kinds of persons. A father has an obligation to care for and protect his child that he doesn’t have towards an unrelated child in a faraway country, for example, but that doesn’t mean that the child in the faraway country lacks any moral standing or is any less of a person than the father’s child. It’s simply a reflection of the fact that our obligations to other beings aren’t simply a utilitarian function of the mental states of those beings. It’s perfectly consistent to say that both dolphins and children ought to be considered persons by virtue of the mental states of both, but also to say that humans have special obligations to human children that they don’t have towards dolphins. 

Further, the potential of different types of persons absolutely should impact how those persons are treated. It could very well be that a human child is more valuable than a pig because he or she will one day significantly surpass the mental faculties of a pig, even if their mental faculties are equal at a particular moment. 

Some pro-life advocates may say this is a contradiction with the earlier point I made that potential is unimportant when it comes to the moral status of a fetus. But this is a confusion between the potential of a person who may come into existence and the potential of a person who has come into existence. It is perfectly reasonable to say that the potential for a fetus to become a person is irrelevant, while the potential of a child to become a rational adult is not. This is another good reason to suggest that human children are moral subjects in a way that non-human animals are not.

It’s beyond the scope of the abortion debate to determine what our obligations are to non-human animals if the pro-choice view of personhood is accepted. But it’s important to reject facile objections that imply pro-choice advocates must care equally about all animals, human or non-human. Accepting that some non-human animals are persons does not imply that our obligations to every single species would be identical.

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