The Problem With Personhood Debates

A theological foundation for every human being’s right to life

C. Ben Mitchell

When Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton were handed down by the United States Supreme Court in 1973, the question everyone was asking was, “When does human life begin?” Every honest person already knew the answer to that question, and every honest person knows the answer today. Human life begins at conception. When a living human sperm unites with a living human egg, fertilization takes place, and the new organism, the human embryo, begins to develop. 

Since that is clearly the case, why doesn’t that fact lead everyone to the conclusion that elective abortion is the killing of a living member of the human species and is, therefore, morally wrong? That’s a very important question, and we will explore the answer here.

Today’s question: Who is a person? 

The question being asked today is not when does human life begin, but, “Who is a person, and what do we owe persons?” Most people believe that we have a moral obligation not to unnecessarily harm another person. So the question, “Who counts as a person?” is crucial to understanding our ethical responsibility toward other persons.

The legacy of Peter Singer

Arguably, the thinker who has done more to advance the notion of personhood in the 21st century than anyone else is Peter Singer. Australian by birth, Singer has occupied the Ira W. DeCamp chair of bioethics at Princeton University since 1999. In his 1975 volume, Animal Liberation, and in numerous other writings, Singer has advanced the notion that what grounds our moral obligation not to harm others is their personhood. To make things more interesting, Singer believes that not all persons are human beings, and not all human beings are persons. 

What makes a living thing a person? According to Singer, only beings who are self-aware or self-conscious are persons. In particular, persons are self-conscious, sentient beings. That is, they are living creatures who can experience pleasure or pain (sentient) and who can consciously reflect, however primitively, on that experience of pleasure or pain (self-aware). They are the sorts of creatures who when pricked with a needle say to themselves something like, “Ouch, that hurts! I wish that pain would stop!” They do not just react negatively to noxious stimuli (an oyster or a roach does that); they self-consciously resist and at some level lament the harm.

For Singer, self-aware, sentient creatures should not be subjected to suffering. He believes that great apes and dolphins are self-aware, sentient beings, so they have a “right to life”—that is, a right not to be unnecessarily harmed; so do members of the bovine (cow) and porcine (pig) species. But what about fish and fowl? Are they self-aware, sentient beings? Singer isn’t sure. It’s difficult to know what it’s like to be a chicken or a flounder. So, just to be safe, Singer and his wife, Renata, are long-time vegetarians who stopped eating meat in 1971.1https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2006/05/chew-right-thing/

Singer is not alone, either in his vegetarianism or in extending the right to life to animals. In 2008, the Spanish parliament announced it supported granting legal rights to gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.2https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/great-apes-have-the-right-to-life-and-liberty-spain-says Thomas White, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount University in Redondo Beach, California, has argued that dolphins are “non-human persons” who have a “right to life.”3https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2010/02/dolphin-person and https://www.bbc.com/news/world-17116882 In 2010 in Helsinki, Finland, the Collegium for Advanced Studies issued the Declaration of the Rights of Cetaceans to affirm the right to life, liberty, and well-being to whales and dolphins.4https://www.cetaceanrights.org/ The extension of the right to life to animals may eventually have implications for the right to life of non-animal “persons” like robots and other artificial intelligence (AI). 

Implications for humans

In the meantime, defining personhood as sentient self-awareness not only has implications for animals, but also for humans. On Singer’s view, human embryos and fetuses are not sentient and self-aware. Even though they are human, they are not persons. There is no harm in killing nonsentient, nonself-aware members of the species Homo sapiens. In fact, species membership has nothing to do with personhood for Singer. In fact, species membership has nothing to do with personhood for Singer. Privileging species membership is “speciesism,” or viewing humans as more morally important than animals, by Singer’s way of thinking. Like other forms of irrational prejudice—racism, sexism, and other “isms”—speciesism is unethical and immoral. Just because a living being is human does not mean it is wrong to harm him or her, says Singer. 

In his book Practical Ethics, Singer claims, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons . . . the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”5Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 122–123. In 2000, he clarified his view, affirming that normal newborns are sentient, but not self-aware.6https://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/12/nyregion/l-peter-singer-clarifies-his-attitudes-on-sentience-210803.htm In 2015, disability activists launched an effort to get Singer removed from his academic post because of his public support for euthanizing disabled infants.7https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jun/16peter-singer-princeton-bioethics-professor-faces-c/

The imago Dei and the dignity of human beings 

Personhood—at least as philosophically defined—can be problematic. Worse, it can lead to horrific abuse. So it is important to understand the basis for human exceptionalism, the view that we owe human beings special respect.

A theological foundation 

Theologically speaking, personhood has a rich and robust legacy. There are non-human persons, including God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are also angelic non-human persons. But what distinguishes human beings from other living creatures is not personhood per se, but the image of God (imago Dei). 

In one of the clearest biblical texts on the subject, God himself declares human life to be distinct from other forms of life. After the catastrophic flood recorded in Genesis 6-8, God renewed his covenant with Noah and Noah’s children. Just as with his covenant with Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, God blessed Noah’s progeny, calling them to, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear and terror of you will be in every living creature on the earth, every bird of the sky, every creature that crawls on the ground, and all the fish of the sea. They are placed under your authority” (Gen. 9:1-2 HCSB). The new humanity, like the old humanity, were to be good stewards of all that the Lord had made. 

There was, however, something new. God declares, “Every living creature will be food for you; as I gave the green plants, I have given you everything. However, you must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it. I will require the life of every animal and every man for your life and your blood. I will require the life of each man’s brother for a man’s life” (vv. 3-5). Noah and his family are given permission to kill the animals for food. It should be noted that this is not permission to be cruel or to kill the animals indiscriminately. Stewardship, not exploitation, remains the overarching paradigm. 

Nevertheless, a very pointed distinction was made between killing an animal and killing a human being. Dire consequences will result from the killing of another human being. This is underscored in Genesis 9:6a, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man.” But why? What’s the difference between killing animals and killing human beings? How are they different? Genesis 9:6b offers the distinction: “for God made man in His image.” To kill an innocent human being, a member of the species Homo sapiens, is an affront to God himself, who made man in his image. The distinction is not personhood, at least as understood by Peter Singer. The distinction is the imago Dei

God has made every human being in his image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). We have an obligation before God not to unnecessarily harm another human being. In addition, we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31). Unborn human beings are image bearers of God. Disabled human beings are imagers of God. The frail elderly are image bearers of God. They are human beings deserving of respect, care, and protection because God himself has made them in his image. 

Personhood debates depend on who is defining the terms. If “persons” are “sentient self-aware creatures and only sentient self-aware creatures” then Peter Singer may be right. But if respect for human life doesn’t depend on arbitrary definitions of personhood but on the revelation of Scripture about the nature of human life made in God’s image, then every human being has a right to life grounded in the sanctity of human life which has been declared sacred by the Creator himself.

Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is a research fellow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. In 2020, he served as a member of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board. Mitchell served as a trustee board member of what was then the Christian Life Commission in the late 1980s, as the ERLC’s Director of Biomedical and Life Issues from 1992-1994, and afterward as Consultant on Biomedical and Life Issues from 1994-2013.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24