Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On the Brain Requirement for Personhood

[Today's guest post by Timothy Hsiao is part of our paid blogging program.]

Pro-choice philosophers have offered various laundry lists of criteria that all purport to list the properties relevant to being a person, i.e. an intrinsically valuable being worthy of moral concern and protection. One such proposal holds that the possession of a brain or brain activity is a requirement for being a person. In this post I'll briefly sketch a few problems facing this position.

There are several ways in which the brain requirement may be understood. First, we may take the brain criterion to mean that having a brain is a necessary condition for being a person. This means that although all persons must possess a brain, the mere possession of a brain is not enough to confer personhood. Second, the brain criterion may be understood to mean that the possession of a brain is a sufficient condition for being a person. This means that any being with a brain qualifies as a person simply because it possess a brain. Third, the brain criterion may state both a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood, meaning that all persons must have brains and that the possession of a brain is enough to qualify a being as a person.
Each of these interpretations faces difficulties. The claim that the possession of a brain is a necessary condition for being a person seems false; for it would appear that there could exist persons who lack a brain. There might, for all we know, exist aliens or some other species that lack brains but who are nevertheless persons capable of thinking rationally and acting freely. If this scenario is at least possible – and it certainly seems like it is –  then having a brain is not necessary for being a person, for what this shows is that there is no conceptual connection between the two. The brain may enable the expression of personhood by enabling the expression of, say, the capacity to think rationally, but this function need not be accomplished only by a brain.

There is another difficulty as well, one that also applies to the claim that the possession of a brain is sufficient for personhood. Many insects and animals possess brains, but surely they aren't thereby rendered persons as well. The brain criterion will need to be modified to state that a certain type of brain is necessary or sufficient for personhood. But then what is doing the real work here is not the possession of a brain, but the possession of a brain that possesses some other morally relevant property. It is the possession of this property, not the brain, that is relevant to personhood. But possession of this property is grounded in the kind of organism that the being in question is, since the kind of organism something is serves to determine the structure of its body parts. The brain is only relevant to the expression of that property. Hence, pro-choice philosophers are sometimes accused of confusing the property of being a person with the property of functioning as a person.

So there are good reasons to doubt the adequacy of the brain criterion as relevant to personhood. Since the third interpretation of the brain criterion presupposes the truth of the first two, we may conclude that it fails as well.

Nevertheless, pro-choice philosophers might still insist that the brain surely is in some way relevant to personhood. What gives the brain criterion its intuitive force is that the brain is in a sense the “ruling part” of our bodies: it coordinates and directs the development of the whole human being. Destruction of brain function leads to the cessation of homeostasis, for the body is no longer coordinated as a single unit. This is why the criterion for physical death has traditionally been stated in terms of brain death.

But it will not work to use this as an argument against the personhood of the human embryo. Brain death is accepted as a valid criterion of death by the medical community because brain death signals the irreversible loss of human bodily functioning. When the brain dies, organs are unable to work together for the good of the whole. The various parts of the human being are no longer integrated as a single unit. The exact opposite is true in the case of the developing human. Although adult humans require a brain to integrate and direct their bodily functions, an embryo's development clearly does not require a brain to direct it. Their law-like development occurs without the direction of the brain. It is only at a later stage of development when the brain has developed sufficiently to take over the direction of bodily functioning. Hence, the parallel with brain death fails.

It seems reasonable, then, to think that the brain criterion is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a person.


Drew Hymer said...

Excellent. The brain is a big lump of tissues. What makes it valuable is what it gives us: rational function. This pro-abortion claim is really about function not about the existence of a particular tissue. The embryo has the capacity for rational function even if she can't immediately exhibit rationality.

Jameson Graber said...

The weak part of your argument is surely the first half, against the necessity of a brain. I take it the typical pro-choice philosopher doesn't insist so much on the presence of a gray mass in your head, so much as a generic "something" which functions to produce self-awareness. Tautologically, intelligent aliens would have this.

SPLfan said...

Typo in the last line? And I'd like to see a response t Jameson's point: "...doesn't insist so much on the presence of a gray mass in your head, so
much as a generic "something" which functions to produce self-awareness.
Tautologically, intelligent aliens would have this."

argent said...

I'm not the author, but I feel that Drew's point is sufficient to respond to Jameson's. If we expand the concept of 'brain' that we're speaking of to include 'anything that functions to produce self-awareness', then the pro-choice argument reduces to functionalism, which has been amply debunked.

Tim Hsiao said...

Yes, I deal with the "modified" brain criterion in my second objection. The point of the first was simply to show that there is nothing inherently special about the brain as conceived as a mere biological organ at the center of an organism's nervous system, not so much as an organ that enables the expression of traits xyz that bear on personhood.

Tim Hsiao said...

D'Oh! That last line does contain a typo! Thanks for pointing it out.

Jameson Graber said...

I'm confused about what you say in your second objection: "There is another difficulty as well, one that also applies to the claim that the possession of a brain is sufficient for personhood." You say this applies "as well" to the claim of sufficiency, but it appears to me it applies *only* to the claim of sufficiency. You haven't really shown that a "brain" (in a generalized sense) is not necessary. In other words, you haven't refuted the sort of functionalist objection I would anticipate from the pro-choice side.

Jameson Graber said...

Has functionalism been debunked? I took a course on the philosophy of mind a few years back, and it seemed like functionalism was alive and well in some circles. Anyway, even if functionalism is bunk, we still have to refute it soundly if we're going to respond to pro-choice arguments.

Tim Hsiao said...

A response to the functionalist position is included in that response. Suppose that the possession of a brain is necessary for personhood because of functionalist considerations (i.e. it enables traits xyz to be expressed). What makes the brain so special is because of the functions associated with it. But these functions are grounded not in the brain, but in the species membership of the organism in question, since the kind of being one is serves to determine the way it is structured with respect to the actualization of its inherent capacities, dispositions, and functions. So species membership, rather than actually functioning a certain way, is a better locus around which to define personhood.

Jameson Graber said...

OK, for the moment I take for granted that there exist special functions which define personhood (rationality being the prime example, I presume). If I understand you, you're saying that these special functions come not so much from the brain as from species membership, and therefore we should care more about species membership than the brain. But I don't see how that answers the functionalist's objection. The functionalist argues that the functions themselves are the important thing, and not the source of those functions. So neither the brain (that is, the physical organ) nor the species membership would appear to make any difference.

Ki said...

"One such proposal holds that the possession of a brain or brain activity is a requirement for being a person." Ok, I must be missing something, because I really don't get how this is supposed to exclude fetuses. I'm pretty sure we develop our brain in the womb. Like, around the first 18 days. And isn't brain activity first recorded somewhere around 40 days?

"At the eighth week the embryo is one inch in length and weigh a tenth of an ounce. Even at such a small size the fetus now has everything present that will be found in a fully developed adult (Stoppard, 1993)."

Which I'm guessing would include the brain.

(also has an interesting section on fetal pain)

Kelsey said...

It happens to the best of us! And as editor, I should have caught it, so my bad too. It's fixed.

Clinton said...

That's the nature of philosophy. Someone comes up with a powerful argument for their position, or against another position. Then someone comes up with a powerful argument against it. Then sometime later, someone can come up with a powerful defeater for that response. And on and on it goes. No one really has the last word about anything.
There are only two arguments in philosophy that I'm currently aware of that have been actually considered as being laid to rest, and they are both in the area of philosophy of religion.
So while I consider Funcationalism arguments to be much weaker than pro-life responses and arguments, there are still those who hold to those arguments as that which establishes personhood.

Drew Hymer said...

Right. For example, if Spock showed up, we would immediately recognize him as a person even though he's not a human being.

The question regarding functionality really revolves around whether that capacity needs to be immediate. Pro-lifers argue that embryos have the capacity from conception while pro-aborts demand immediate capacity. Pro-lifers simply point to people in comas, newborns or even people in a deep sleep who don't have immediate capacity.

Jameson Graber said...

Right. One weakness in this argument is illustrated by the following counter: in people in comas or whatever, the capacity for self-reflection is already formed and most likely even observed, as opposed to a capacity which has never been established.

As for newborns, I think that's an apt enough comparison in terms of functional consciousness. A Peter Singer style argument for infanticide would seem to come tied to a functionalist defense of abortion.

Toafan said...

No no no. The special functions come from the "brain", which _in turn_ comes from species membership, as only on this-or-that species has a "brain" with these special functions. Being a member of this-or-that species having a brain, or the potential to have a brain, implies at least the theoretical ability to exhibit these special functions.

Which is not terribly strongly put as an argument, but is a more precise way to think about it.

Coyote said...

I think that we don't develop brain waves (or what I think is called higher-level brain life) until we are 21-24 weeks in the womb, way past the point at which most abortions take place.

Coyote said...

How would you respond to a pro-choicer that support painless elective infanticide in at least some/certain cases, though?

Ki said...

Well actually:

"The second month of development is a time of extremely rapid and crucial development as the embryo quadruples in size...The brain begins controlling the movement of muscles and organs. The brain waves can be detected and recorded."

Which is not way past the point most abortions take place.

Some other points of interest:

"The chromosomes from both the father and mother combine to form a unique individual that continues to grow and develop. This theory is the medical and biological answer to when life actually begins (Johansen, 1997)."


"Life begins at the moment of conception. This has indeed been proven by much scientific and medical research. As the Father of Modern Genetics, Dr. Jerome Lejeune has stated, "To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion…it is plain experimental evidence". From this point on, every developmental stage is just part of the whole life process. From zygote to fetus and eventually to who we are today, are all stages in human life."

I accept science. Therefore, I accept the medical and biological answer of when life begins. And it plainly states conception.