In Blake Hereth & Kevin Timpe (eds.), The Lost Sheep in the Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives on Disability, Gender, Race, and Animals. Oxford: Routledge. pp. 264-290 (2019)

Scott M. Williams
University of North Carolina, Asheville
This chapter is about personhood in relation to ethics and to conciliar Christian theology, and how concepts of personhood may discriminate against profoundly cognitively disabled human beings. (By ‘conciliar Christian theology’ I mean the Christian theology that is articulated in, or endorsed by, the first seven ecumenical councils.) I believe we can learn several things about personhood by looking at these two topics together. By examining ancient and medieval concepts of personhood and some modern conceptions of personhood we gain a better grasp of the variety of concepts and what substantive work they were intended to do. By becoming familiar with (part of) the history of concepts of personhood we are better situated to appreciate and judge the theoretical work that these concepts were intended to do and what consequences they have in ethical and theological theorizing. In the first section I tell a select history of moral philosophers theorizing about personhood and discuss these in relation to human beings with profound cognitive disability. I focus on John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Mary Anne Warren. In the “When Personhood Is Discriminatory” section I argue that concepts of personhood, especially modern concepts of personhood, are typically used in a manner that discriminates against human beings with profound cognitive disabilities. I give two arguments against discriminatory uses of personhood, the Moral Shift Argument and the Argument against Exclusive Personhood. Although the Moral Shift Argument is deductively valid, it probably has little persuasive power over those who do not share the moral belief that profoundly cognitively disabled human beings are equal members of the moral community. However, the Argument against Exclusive Personhood has more argumentative force because it denies the claims that personhood is “self-evident” and that it is “obvious” to everyone. In the following section I survey a select history of concepts of personhood in order to establish the claims that concepts of personhood are not self-evident and are not obvious to everyone. This history of personhood goes back to ancient and medieval Christian theorizing and debating about personhood. It shows that concepts of personhood are not “self-evident” but rather are theoretical posits that are posited in theory construction in order to explain certain putative theological facts. Given that personhood is a theoretical posit and is not “self-evident,” moral philosophers who aim to determine the extent of the moral community on the basis of a supposedly “self-evident” concept of personhood are not justified in doing so. Moreover, given the Argument against Exclusive Personhood, philosophical theologians who wish to articulate models of the Trinity or Incarnation that are consistent with the seven ecumenical councils will find that they, like moral philosophers, are not justified to assume, or to insist on, modern personhood for their models of the Trinity or Incarnation. My overall conclusion, then, is that modern personhood is bad for ethics and unnecessary for conciliar ecumenical Christian theology.
Keywords personhood  ethics  disability  Christian theology
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