J Med Ethics 38:144-145 doi:10.1136/medethics-2011-100239
  • Commentary

Why we can't really say what post-persons are

  1. Nicholas Agar
  1. Correspondence to Dr Nicholas Agar, Victoria University of Wellington, Philosophy Program, Wellington, New Zealand; nicholas.agar{at}
  • Received 17 September 2011
  • Accepted 21 September 2011
  • Published Online First 14 December 2011

David DeGrazia offers what I will call a constructive account of moral enhancement.1 By constructive I mean that he seeks to describe moral enhancement so as to make clear why it produces beings with a superior entitlement to benefits and a reduced eligibility for harms.

Much of DeGrazia's discussion of moral enhancement is in terms of moral status: moral enhancement is understood as producing beings with superior moral status. In the course of his discussion, he proposes an alternative analysis of moral enhancement that avoids talk of different statuses. According to this interests model, moral enhancement does not alter status, rather it results in a (systematically) stronger interest in avoiding harms and receiving benefits. The interests model is not without philosophical value. However, for simplicity's sake, I conduct my discussion in terms of moral status enhancement. My criticisms apply also to the enhancement of moral interests.

I argue that constructive accounts of moral status enhancement predictably fail to show why enhancements of human capacities would enhance moral status. The fault is not in the accounts themselves. Rather it is in their audiences. We mere persons cannot understand criteria for a moral status higher than personhood.

DeGrazia's constructive case for morally superior beings

DeGrazia imagines a world of 2145 populated by unenhanced humans and beings who have evolved from humans ‘through carefully planned genetic modifications’ (p10).1 The members of this subpopulation are superior to unenhanced humans in a variety of ways. Their greater intelligence makes them better at understanding the consequences of actions. When morality requires impartiality, they successfully reason impartially. They are reliably moral, whereas we are only haphazardly so.

DeGrazia follows Allen Buchanan in calling these genetically enhanced beings post-persons. According to Buchanan,2 post-persons are putative beings with a moral status superior to that of mere persons, where a mere person is a being who satisfies criteria for personhood but fails to satisfy criteria for any higher moral status. The concept of personhood that occupies the central location in Buchanan's discussion is a Kantian one according to which a person is capable of practical rationality. Persons can both hold others accountable and be held accountable.

DeGrazia says that his candidate post-persons are superior to contemporary human beings ‘in ways that matter to us’ (p2).1 Moreover, they ‘regard themselves as different in kind from persons’ (p11).1 The central actors in DeGrazia's story are much more intelligent than us. But it's far from clear that this difference must be reflected in a difference in moral status. The concept of personhood encompasses cognitive abilities beneath those of normal humans. Mildly mentally handicapped humans are inferior ‘in ways that matter to us’ without possessing a lesser moral status. It's unclear why the category of personhood shouldn't extend beyond human cognitive norms to encompass DeGrazia's genetically enhanced beings. Their superior philosophical acumen may mean that mere persons should accept their judgements were they to sincerely credit themselves with a higher moral status. But the truth of this conditional claim does nothing to support the proposition that they would actually judge themselves to have a higher status. We do not to mark the difference in intelligence between cognitively normal humans and mildly mentally disabled humans with a difference in moral status.

Moral disposition enhancement does not imply moral status enhancement

There's one sense in which DeGrazia's candidate post-persons clearly are morally enhanced. The members of his subpopulation have enhanced moral dispositions. They are more likely than unenhanced humans to act morally. I'm suspicious of a direct connection between moral disposition enhancement and moral status enhancement.

For example, I believe that consequentialism offers the best account of normative ethics. I freely concede, however, that I'm a pretty haphazard consequentialist. There are many situations in which I choose actions with worse consequences than other actions I might have performed. I know of more reliable consequentialists. There's Zell Kravinsky, the man whose consequentialism has led him to donate a kidney to a stranger and who stands prepared to donate a second, should morality direct him to do so. And there's Peter Singer, far better than me at consistently excluding from his reasoning morally arbitrary facts about species membership. Unlike Singer, I do not give 25% of my salary to charity.

Kravinsky and Singer may be more reliable and therefore dispositionally superior consequentialists. What's difficult to see is how this should take a step in the direction of endowing them with a moral status superior to personhood.

For further evidence of the lack of a connection between the two varieties of moral enhancement, consider another possible subpopulation in DeGrazia's world of 2145. This subpopulation is the handiwork of sadistic genetic engineers bent on moral disposition pejoration. They design beings more reliably immoral than any member of the unenhanced population. Unlike haphazardly immoral unenhanced humans who tend to specialise in certain forms of immorality, these genetically engineered beings have a thoroughgoing commitment to evil. They consistently choose actions with the worst consequences.

It's easy to see why the people of 2145 would regret the existence of this subpopulation. But there's no reason to think that the moral disposition pejorations must have an effect on personhood. The subpopulation's members are reliably evil persons, not pre- or sub-persons, beings with a moral status inferior to persons.

The inexpressibility of post-personhood

I suspect that constructive accounts of moral status enhancement are doomed to fail. This is because criteria for moral statuses superior to personhood are likely to be at least partly constituted by a complex cognitive capacity. A complex cognitive capacity is key to personhood. If Buchanan is right, then persons are essentially practical reasoners. It's likely that some additional complex cognitive capacity is key to a status higher than personhood. Beings who do not satisfy these criteria will be unable to adequately describe them. We are not post-persons and therefore find it impossible to fully grasp criteria for post-personhood.

Some standards defined in terms of simple cognitive capacities are comprehensible to those who do not satisfy them. Suppose that entry into the Memory Olympiad requires memorising a sufficiently long list of random numerals. There's nothing to prevent applicants who fall short of this standard from understanding its significance. It is, in contrast, unlikely that a being lacking the ability to hold itself or another being morally accountable could really grasp the significance for moral status of this complex cognitive capacity. This is because being able to exercise this capacity is constitutive of grasping its significance.

If post-personhood is partly constituted by complex cognitive capacities that we mere persons lack, then it's to be expected that they will lie beyond our comprehension. Having the capacity to exercise them will be constitutive of truly understanding why they enhance status. I suspect that this inescapable (by mere persons) cognitive limitation restricts us to indirect, non-constructive ways to demonstrate the possibility of enhancing moral status.


Thomas Douglas.


  • Linked article 100126

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.


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