Harold T. Shapiro Postdoctoral Research Associate in Bioethics‚ Monique Wonderly‚ reports on Gary Varner’s DeCamp Seminar.

Dec. 15, 2015

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Personhood, Ethics, and Cognition

            Gary Varner, professor at Texas A&M University and author of Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition, presented some of his work in December’s Ira W. DeCamp Bioethics Seminar. In his talk, Varner explained how a Harean two-level utilitarian could defend a specific normative conception of personhood. Adam Shriver, philosopher and visiting fellow at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscience and Society provided commentary after the talk.    

Varner noted that ethicists often characterize persons as those who deserve special treatment or respect because they possess certain cognitive capacities. He then offered his own stipulative definition of personhood: A person is an individual who deserves special treatment or respect because the individual has a biographical sense of self. In his view, utilitarians have good reason to endorse this concept of personhood. In order to have a biographical sense of self, one must have the capacities to consciously remember the past and to consciously plan for the future. These capacities are particularly important for utilitarians because individuals who have them can be harmed and benefitted in ways that others cannot. Varner refers to individuals who lack these capacities as “mere sentient beings” and to those who have these capacities but fall short of possessing a biographical sense of self as “near-persons.” Near-persons, Varner suggested, can “pack more value into a life” than mere sentient beings. Consider, for example, that in near-persons, the pleasure of a pleasant memory can be “layered” atop the pleasure of another concurrent pleasant experience. Persons are not only subject to the same kind of layering effects as near-persons, but a person can be harmed and benefitted in still richer ways by virtue of having an interest in and certain desires concerning how her “life as a whole” goes.

Varner argued that Harean two-level utilitarianism – a type of utilitarianism developed by moral philosopher R.M. Hare – can incorporate special respect for persons and near-persons. The critical level of utilitarian thinking requires that we arrange things to maximize aggregate happiness. But it would be ill-advised for us to “think like utilitarians” all of the time. If we did so, we would miss out on important components of happiness and we would make many errors because we often lack (or for self-interested reasons are inclined to misinterpret) the information needed to make accurate utility calculations. For these reasons, in normal contexts, we should generally rely on intuitive-level thinking. The intuitive level represents a kind of “moral autopilot” in which we apply internalized rules that reflect, among other things, certain shared moral commitments in our society. While this level of thinking would often instruct against mediating one’s actions through a utilitarian calculus, it is favorable because it tends to promote the overall critical level aim of maximizing aggregate happiness. Importantly, at the critical level, persons have no special status. However, Varner argued that we have good reason to adopt intuitive level system rules that incline us toward according persons a special kind of respect (by virtue of how their cognitive capacities make their lives “more morally charged”). An example of one such rule is that while we might think of mere sentient beings as in some sense replaceable, we should not think of or treat persons this way.

            In response, Shriver argued against Varner’s experienced-based claims that near-persons and persons have more morally charged lives than mere sentient beings. In particular, Shriver criticized Varner’s notion of layering, noting that empirical evidence suggests that we cannot simultaneously attend to multiple pleasures in a way that would allow for the kind of layering that Varner describes. Shriver also suggested that by abandoning the aforementioned experienced-based arguments, while retaining other desire-based arguments for the same conclusion, Varner could avoid the undesirable implication that humans suffer “to a greater degree” than do non-human animals.