“Personhood” is a pretty overloaded word. This fascinating article makes a case for a notion of personhood based around the implicit social contract that is required for a person to be welcome and conduct themselves in the society of other persons.1

I think this is a fruitful line of thought, and I want to push it a bit.

Performative personhood

I’m going to call the contractual definition of personhood presented by Kevin “performative personhood”, since it consists of performing in accordance with a particular role.

As a reminder, here are the requirements that Kevin suggests you need for performative personhood:

  • Identifiability: you must be recognizable and connected to your social reputation.
  • Integrity: you must act as a consistent agent.
  • Reasonableness: you must place your actions and those of others in the space of reasons.
    • Legibility: you must give reasons for your actions.
    • Amenability: you must (sometimes) accept reasons from others for their actions.
  • Standing: you must have social capital or some other stake at risk if you behave outside the contract.
  • Autonomy: you must not be controlled by another.
  • Proper comportment: you must attend to your own personhood status and respect that of others.

These are the formal requirements, but the understanding is that no person is actually like this, but that they make an effort to bring themselves closer to that ideal in order to fit in better in society.

It’s tempting to say that “performative personhood” is just “pretending to be an agent”, in the strong sense of “agent”. Homo economicus is an agent - they have a consistent set of preferences (integrity) which do not arbitrarily change (autonomy), and they reliably take actions which further them (which gives legibility). An agent can be trusted to make an agreement, so long as you take pains to make sure it is truly to their advantage.

If humans were pretending to be agents, it would indeed make social interaction easier. Primarily, it would make others easier to reason about. If you know that Joe wanted a car in the past, you can expect that (so long as he hasn’t got one since then) he will still want one. If you offer Joe a reasonable deal in exchange for a car, you can expect him to accept.

However, agents without many other restrictions are still not very pleasant to live with. If the market value of your kidneys exceeds their expected benefit from your continued existence, then the knives are going to come out. But we can see many of the remaining criteria of performative personhood as binding us not just to agenthood, but civilized agenthood.

Standing is perhaps the easiest to understand in this way. Having standing means that you can be hurt if you stop playing the game. Putting large, collectively enforced costs on defecting from performative personhood makes agents less likely to do it! Identifiability is really an auxiliary to standing - if you can’t be identified, then you can’t suffer any reputational costs for your actions. The remaining criteria require you to treat others as (performative) persons, which shores up the whole system.

Moral personhood

The big problem with using the word “personhood” for what I’ve been calling performative personhood is that we normally associate “personhood” with a variety of moral notions, whereas performative personhood is a resolutely non-moral notion.

Let’s use “moral personhood” as a bucket for the moral parts of personhood.

Perhaps the most critical aspects of moral personhood is being a “moral patient”. By that I mean that your experiences, desires, and preferences matter morally. It is good if you are happy and fulfilled, and bad if you suffer and die.

Interestingly, there is a performative counterpart to this, which we might call “benevolence”. Moral persons are expected to attribute at least some weight to the interests of other moral persons. Indifference is at least considered improper, and can even diminish your status as a moral patient. Children are moral patients, even if they lack benevolence, but a selfish adult may actually be considered to matter less.2

All the other performative features make a society of persons more pleasant for the constituent persons even from a purely non-moral point of view. Benevolence makes such a society actually nicer in a moral sense.3

Although moral personhood and performative personhood are logically distinct, I think they are closely linked in a lot of human thought (we’ll see some examples in a minute).

Some examples

Kevin makes good points about how the loss of any of the performative criteria can cause us to intuitively regard an entity as less of a person: masks; slavery; uniforms; wild inconsistency; all of these things exclude you to some degree from the society of persons.

It’s also interesting to consider how partially gaining some of these traits can bring one towards personhood.

Corporate personhood

Corporations score surprisingly well on performative personhood:

  • Identifiability: good, corporations are usually strongly identified with their actions.
  • Integrity: medium, corporations often appear to have consistent goals, but they can also act very inconsistently.
  • Reasonableness: medium, corporations can often be reasoned with (usually by reasoning with their constituent people).
  • Standing: high, corporations care a lot about their social reputation (including stock price), and can be sued or sanctioned by governments.
  • Autonomy: medium, corporations’ goals tend to be influenced by their shareholders and investors4, but defined internally.
  • Proper comportment: medium, corporations are usually good at treating others as persons (usually due to their representatives), and take some care over their own face.

I think this explains why the corporate personhood debate is confusing. Corporations are actually quite good at performing as persons, however, they are almost certainly not moral persons. Corporations are definitely not moral patients, and they are often highly selfish.

But within our legal structures we often conflate performative and moral personhood. What we would like to say is that a corporation is the kind of thing which can operate within some aspects of society like a person (say, in business), but which is not included in the legal provisions that exist for the benefit moral persons.

Humanising the Other

Monsters and aliens in fiction are usually not portrayed as persons in any sense. If they were, I think fewer people would be as comfortable with the murderfest that we usually consider acceptable when monsters are the target.5

Occasionally some works try to subvert this trope a bit by “humanising” their monsters. Curiously, although the relevant kind of personhood is moral and intrinsic (the kind that means you can’t be randomly murdered), this process usually proceeds by showing us the performative features of the creature.

The Witcher 3 is a good example of humanising monsters. Monsters often appear in difficult circumstances, but if the player does a bit of digging then they tend to have reasons for what they’re doing (integrity, legibility). They may have something to protect, or an attachment to the human community (standing).

For example, you can save a hunter from some trolls by talking to them (reasonableness), discovering that they are hungry (legibility), finding them something else to eat, at which point they release the hunter (integrity, proper comportment). Some creatures can be entirely reasoned into different courses of action (amenability). In short, they act like people.

Monsters acting like people makes us treat them more like moral persons as well. I imagine the average player has a much harder time slaughtering everything if they take the trouble of talking to them first (I certainly did!). It’s tempting to say that having performative personhood actually makes you more of a moral person, but I think this is wrong. Corporations are a good counterexample, in that they have a good claim to performative personhood, but clearly aren’t moral persons. I think the process mainly works by engendering a feeling of similarity - we have intelligent, biological creatures which are capable of the advanced social awareness which is necessary for performative personhood. That makes them seem similar enough to us that we are inclined to include them in the moral community. With corporations, however, the sleight of hand is clear - they can gain performative personhood through the aggregate behaviour of their constituent persons, but they can’t get moral personhood that way.6

The expanding circle

Peter Singer has long argued that moral concern is an “expanding circle” which begins with the individual, and then “soon the circle… includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world”.

It seems to me that the cutting edge of the expanding circle is being forced to acknowledge the performative personhood of entities whom you had previously neglected. Meeting people from other countries and other walks of life forces you to admit that these people have integrity, agency, reasonableness, and benevolence. Once you have admitted their reality as persons, you have to admit their moral relevance.

The furthest reaches of the circle today seems to be animals. In my experience, material which aims to foster belief in the moral personhood of animals either tries to show them as capable of suffering (moral personhood), or as capable of complex social or cognitive skills (performative personhood). My suspicion is that the latter is probably the neglected avenue, and is probably just as effective!

That’s it… for now

I think performative personhood identifies a very useful subconcept of personhood, as I hope I’ve shown in my examples. We should use it more!

  1. The “recursive” nature of this definition is intentional. Read the article. 

  2. I think this is a moral judgement based on justice, as opposed to the loss of performative personhood that comes from failing to perform, which Kevin argues is largely non-moral. 

  3. So there may be two dimensions here:

      non-moral moral
    performative integrity, standing etc. benevolence
    intrinsic basic abilities? moral patienthood

    Arguably we should be talking about non-moral performative personhood instead. I’ll stick to just plain performative personhood for now. 

  4. We could regard these as the corporate subconscious. 

  5. People are often okay with killing lots of humans in fiction too, but these are usually similarly depersonalised: unidentifiable and lacking in agency. 

  6. You could argue that a desire to avoid harming a company in order to avoid the knock-on harm to it’s employees is an example of “lifting” the moral patient statues of the employees to the level of the company.