Legal Theory Lexicon: Persons and Personhood

Claud Mccoid


Are the unborn human folks? What is the difference in between authorized and ethical personhood? What does it mean to say that a company is a authorized human being? Do the most intelligent animals ought to have the rights of ethical or authorized folks? At minimum some of these concerns are possible to arise sooner or afterwards for most legislation learners. This entry in the Legal Idea Lexicon explores the notion of personhood, ethical, authorized, and human. As generally, this article is supposed as an introduction for legislation learners (primarily first-yr legislation learners) with an interest in authorized concept. 

Persons and People

The phrases “human” and “human being” have connected meanings, but as made use of by most authorized theorists, these phrases are distinct. Here’s one definition of “human”:

a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens)

And human being is often outlined as a “human” or “particular person”. But “human being” has one more that means, one that distinguishes the principle of human being from the principle of human. Suppose, for case in point, an intelligent alien species were to arrive on Earth (or people were to come upon them in other places). If the customers of the aliens displayed proof of human-like intelligence and could communicate with us (e.g. were ready to master a human normal language, this sort of as English), then we might be tempted to address customers of this species as morally and/or lawfully entitled to the exact rights as people.

Look at, for case in point, the aliens Chewbacca and Yoda in the Star Wars movies. Neither Chewbacca nor Yoda is a member of the species homo sapiens, still equally are addressed as the ethical and authorized equivalents of people in the Star Wars universe.

Let us stipulate then, that phrase “human” is a biological phrase, which refers to all the customers of the species homo sapiens and that the phrase “human being” is a normative (authorized, ethical, or ethical) phrase, which refers to a ethical and/or authorized position that creatures or other bearers of human-like capacities can share with typical adult people.  “Human folks,” then are customers of the biological species with the related capabilities.

The groups of human and human being are associated in some of the most contentious debates in ethical, political, and authorized concept. Prime amid these is the abortion debate. One particular move that can be built in the abortion debate is just to deny the distinction in between human and human being. So it might be the case that the related ethical and authorized group is “human human being” and that all customers of the species homo sapiens customers of this group. Or it might be argued that “human” and “human being” are morally and lawfully distinction groups. If so, it is doable that “fetuses” are unborn people, but that they are not still “folks,” even though they would be “potential folks” or “potential human folks.”

There is much more to be claimed about terminology, but I will conclude with two observations.  Some of the debates about “folks” and “personhood” may reflect an ambiguity in the term “human being.”  But it is at minimum doable that one of the senses of human being (approximately the ethical sense) is a contested principle–that is, there may be competing conceptions of the principle human being.  (See the Legal Idea Lexicon entry on the principle-conceptions distinction.)

Legal, Moral, and Natural Persons

So much, I have been treating the group of personhood or folks as a solitary group, but this will need not be the case. We can distinguish in between 3 kinds of folks–normal, ethical, and authorized. It is doable that the not all authorized folks are normal folks and vice versa the group of ethical folks is plainly distinct from that of authorized folks, but might be thought of similar with the group of normal folks.

Examples will assistance. Organizations and governmental units are authorized folks–they have authorized rights and duties and can sue and be sued, but we do not say that corporations are normal or ethical folks.  (More exactly, the claim that corporations are ethical folks would be controversial.)  A company is not a normal human being, for the reason that it is nonnatural in the related sense. Organizations are synthetic or nonnatural for the reason that they are the creations of the legislation. Similarly, all people are usually thought of “normal folks,” but not all people have the comprehensive bundle of rights and duties involved with authorized folks. For case in point, infants and incompetents may be not able to sue in their personal name and may not bear comprehensive authorized obligation for their functions.

The discussion in the prior paragraph assumes that only particular person people are normal folks, but this assumption is controversial.  If groups can have company, then there might be folks constituted by groups of people.  This entry of the Legal Idea Lexicon just brackets the assumption that groups of people are not normal folks.

Legal Personhood

The classical discussion of the notion of authorized personhood is located in John Chipman Gray’s The Mother nature and Resources of the Legislation. He started his well known discussion, “In textbooks of the Legislation, as in other textbooks, and in typical speech, ‘person’ is frequently made use of as that means a human currently being, but the technical authorized that means of a ‘person’ is a issue of authorized rights and obligations.” The concern whether or not an entity really should be thought of a authorized human being is reducible to other concerns about whether or not or not the entity can and really should be built the issue of a established of authorized rights and obligations. The particular bundle of rights and obligations that accompanies authorized personhood differs with the mother nature of the entity. Both equally corporations and normal folks are authorized folks, but they have distinct sets of authorized rights and obligations. Nevertheless, authorized personhood is usually accompanied by the right to personal home and the capacity to sue and be sued.

Gray reminds us that inanimate things have possessed authorized rights at numerous situations. Temples in Rome and church properties in the middle ages were regarded as the issue of authorized rights. Historical Greek legislation and typical legislation have even built objects the issue of authorized obligations. In admiralty, a ship alone turns into the issue of a continuing in rem and can be located “responsible.” Christopher Stone has recounted a twentieth-century Indian case in which counsel was appointed by an appellate court docket to signify a loved ones idol in a dispute about who really should have custody of it. The most familiar examples of authorized folks that are not normal folks are business enterprise corporations and government entities.

Gray’s discussion was critical of the notion that an inanimate issue might be thought of a authorized human being. Right after all, what is the place of earning a issue– which can neither recognize the legislation nor act on it–the issue of a authorized responsibility? Also, he argued that even corporations are reducible to relations in between the folks who personal stock in them, take care of them, and so forth. Thus, Gray insisted that calling a authorized human being a “human being” associated a fiction unless the entity possessed “intelligence” and “will.”

Can we say that corporations have “intelligence” and “will”? The solution to that concern is controversial amid authorized theorists. The orthodox posture is that the company alone is a authorized fiction the people who make up the company may have intelligence and will, but the company alone does not. But some might argue that the attributes of the company are not reducible to the attributes of the individuals who make up the company. Organizations may have “a mind of their personal,” at minimum according to some theorists.

Moral Personhood

“Legal personhood” is controversial, but “ethical personhood” is one of the most contested suggestions in present-day authorized, ethical, and political concept. This large debate is not uncomplicated to summarize, but one of the very important issues issues the conditions for ethical personhood. What attributes would make some life form (or even a robot or disembodied synthetic intelligence) a ethical human being? Here are some of the choices:

Intelligence–One particular risk is that the possession of “intelligence” (at some threshold amount) is the criterion for ethical personhood. Of course, “intelligence” alone is rarely a transparent principle.

Autonomy–Yet another notion is that folks have to be capable of autonomy. But what is autonomy? One particular notion is that autonomous beings have to be capable of second-purchase beliefs and motivations. That is, autonomy needs that one be ready to have beliefs about one’s beliefs and wants about one’s wants.

Interaction–But one more risk is that personhood needs the ability to communicate with others or to use language. On this criterion, it is doable that some greater primates might qualify for personhood–even though the empirical proof on primate use of human language is disputed.

Self-Awareness–Last but not least, some have argued that the criterion for ethical personhood really should be self-recognition or reflexive consciousness. To be a human being, I have to be informed of the my personal consciousness.

This is not an exhaustive listing of the conditions for ethical personhood. Also, these conditions might be merged in numerous methods. For case in point, it might be argued that only an intelligent, autonomous, language-employing, self-aware currently being would be a comprehensive ethical human being.


“Personhood” is a elementary notion for authorized theorists. “Legal personhood” plays an vital part in authorized doctrine, and “ethical personhood” plays a elementary part in ethical and political concept. The reason of this article has been to give you a really tough sense of some of the issues that surround these ideas. More examining can be located in the bibliography.

Associated Lexicon Entries

  • Legal Idea Lexicon 028: Ideas and Conceptions


  • John Chipman Gray, The Mother nature and Resources of the Legislation (Roland Gray ed., MacMillan 1921).
  • Lawrence B. Solum, Legal Personhood for Artificial Intelligences, 70 North Carolina Legislation Evaluation 1233 (1992).
  • Christopher Stone, Need to Trees Have Standing?–Towards Legal Legal rights for Natural Objects, 45 S. CAL. L. REV. 450 (1972).
  • Richard Tur, The ‘Person’ in Legislation in Persons and Persona: A Modern Inquiry  (Arthur Peacocke & Grant Gillett eds., 1987).

Resources on the Web

  • Lori Gruen, The Moral Status of Animals, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010).

(Very last revised on August fifteen, 2021)

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