who counts as a person? The short answer is that, within a given culture, a person
is someone whom others recognize as a person within the public arena.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
Kant’s “ends and means”
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that human beings have intrinsic
value and should be treated as an end in themselves, not as a means to something
In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price
can be replaced with something else as its equivalent; what ... is raised above all
price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity ...
That which constitutes the condition under which something can be an end in itself
has not merely a relative value, that is, a price, but an inner value, that is dignity.
To treat someone with dignity is ... to respect their dignity. ... To respect someone's
dignity by treating them with dignity requires that one shows them respect, either
positively, by acting towards them in a way that gives expression to one's respect,
or at least, negatively, by refraining from behavior that would show disrespect.
We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to
be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter.” Simply to take actions
on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to
pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters
to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and
will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology,
the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning,
non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act
on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to
be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally
flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption
grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct,
that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human
What is most dear to you in the world? Is it your own flourishing? We all matter
I have through all regions wandered;
Still have I none ever found
Who loved another more than himself.
So is one’s own self dearer than another,
Therefore out of love to one’s own self
Doth no-one injure another.
Persons have intrinsic value because each one is a self-generating source of flourishing.
Because of empathy, we respect, in others, their valuing and cherishing of their
Because of empathy, we respect, in others, their need to thrive.
This idea is a basis for respecting human rights.
We all wish for the right to thrive ethically. The basis of human rights is the
right to be treated with the maximum benefit and minimum harm available to us. This
is what it means to be treated with dignity. Rights are given by others and asserted
by the self. See also: The Golden Rule, Perfect Compassion
A circle of concern includes those to whom we extend empathy and compassion; those
whom we are prepared to see as people, on the same footing of equality as ourselves.
We feel the pain of, and help, people whom we approve of.
We are all at the centre of concentric circles of concern, growing larger outwards
from a central point:
those with whom I collaborate
Each has a separate morality associated with it, which builds on and incorporates
the ones before it. These separate moralities may sometimes conflict, leading to
a moral dilemma.
Universal empathy and compassion
Every human being is a human being.
The way that has worked best is to point out the similarities between ourselves and
those who are suffering—to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Even though
I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to
the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you. It is
precisely our ability to imagine the plight of the nameless and faceless that elicits
our empathy and our desire to act.
Denise Cummins PhD, Dr Robert Cummins – “Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and
Morality” – Psychology Today
Instead of “us and them” – “me and you”
Humanising people from other groups
In this domain of human psychology, there are two opposing forces:
1. the desire to help any human being in need.
2. the fact that we tend to see people from other groups as non-people.
The archaeological evidence seems to suggest that the demonising of persons from
other social groups is a relatively recent phenomenon, since warfare began, historically,
with the beginning of settled farming communities, approximately 10,000 years ago.
Before that time, there is more or less no evidence for any kind of organised violence,
but, by the time of the Ice Age in Europe, a lot of evidence for long-range communication
and trade between people.
When the human species was small in number, and yet, people needed other people (in
personal terms) in order to help them survive, then, when a stranger was encountered,
it would have made more sense to welcome them as a potential friend.
The fact that solidarity would necessarily have been strong, within a small group
of ancient pre-Sapiens hunter-gatherers, is not the same as saying there would have
been strong competition with other groups. The archaeological evidence of the beginnings
of warfare says that it arises where there is competition for resources. In terms
of cooperation, a small group forms a cooperative unit, and anyone outside of that
unit is seen as either: 1) irrelevant; 2) a threat; 3) a potential helper in the
If we can see the humanity in out-group members, if we can be reminded that they
are a person, just as we ourselves are a person, then this can break down barriers
between people who are different.
Interview with Meg De Amasi, by her daughter Ena Miller
Meg De Amasi is originally from Ghana. In 1976, after studying in the USA, she arrived
in Glasgow to finish her degree in midwifery. Although she loves Scotland, Meg says
that she has felt alienated and homesick. She wrote this poem to describe her experience.
“At least I'm trying”
I'm trying to understand
even though we don't speak the same language.
I spent time listening,
trying to interpret your words,
make sense of your beliefs,
encompass my own.
Our eyes meet,
and I know you are questioning my intelligence.
Just to let you know,
I'm trying to understand.
What are you doing to understand me?
Even though we don't speak the same language.
Meg says, “that in a nutshell was my struggles.”
People come in all shapes, sizes, and shades of brown.
Interacting with strangers correlates with prosocial behaviour
In a study spanning fifteen societies of pastoralists and horticulturalists, Joseph
Henrich and colleagues measured the link between types of religious commitment and
prosocial behavior in three well-known economic games. ... In the ... Dictator
Game, two anonymous players are allotted a sum of real money (a day’s wage in the
local culture) in a one-shot interaction. Player 1 must decide how to divide this
sum between herself and Player 2. Player 2 then receives the allocation from Player
1, and the game ends. Player 1’s allocation (the offer) to Player 2 provides a measure
of generosity or fairness in this context. The Ultimatum Game is identical to the
Dictator Game, except that Player 2 can accept or reject the offer. If Player 2
specifies that he would accept the amount of the actual offer, then he receives the
amount of the offer and Player 1 receives the rest. If Player 2 specifies that he
would reject the amount offered, both players receive zero. Player 1’s offer measures
a combination of intrinsic motivation towards fairness in this context and an assessment
of the likelihood of rejection.
There was wide variability in the degree of prosociality across the different societies.
In some groups, people offered little, and receivers accepted any offers, no matter
how puny. These people acted “rationally,” the way economists say people should.
In other groups, people offered half the allocation, and the receivers rejected
anything less than a fair offer. What explains this variability? Henrich found
that the more people in that group were accustomed to dealing with strangers to make
a living, the greater their prosocial tendencies. The other significant factor was
religion: after controlling for various demographic and economic variables, participation
in a world religion with a Big God (defined as Christian or Muslim) increased offers
in the Dictator Game by 6 and in the Ultimatum Game by 10 percentile points (when
the stake was standardized at 100).
Ara Noyenzaran – “Big Gods – how religion transformed cooperation and conflict”
Judging those who are different from us
Mathematical modelling finds that perspective-taking promotes prosocial behaviour
in a culturally mixed society, or towards people whose judgement of what is right
differs from our own. This may be because we sometimes negatively judge the behaviour
of someone who is different from us according to our own social norms. If we were
to take their own perspective, we may find that we approve of their behaviour after
Researchers also found in the mathematical simulation that people will copy this
perspective-taking behaviour, presumably because it works in promoting cooperation.
Therefore, according to the model, empathy will spread throughout a population under
the right circumstances. See also: perspective taking
Archaeological evidence for sizes of social networks in early humans
Extracts from “How Compassion Made Us Human – the evolutionary origins of tenderness,
trust and morality” by Penny Spikins
... it is clear that there was intense evolutionary pressure on brain expansion from
around 2 million years ago. ...
Robin Dunbar from Oxford University has studied the shape of human and other primate
brains, and found a relationship between the size of the neocortex, the front part
of the brain, and size of the social group that different primates live in .
Getting on with lots of individuals is mentally much more taxing than only a few
for those primates which develop many complex bonds. Since our neocortex size has
progressively increased in proportion to the rest of the brain throughout human evolution,
Dunbar suggests that our move into open grasslands, with all the dangerous predators,
meant that we had to live in much larger groups to survive, and that we needed more
and more social brain power to get on with everyone and avoid being excluded. Along
with the philosopher Nicolas Humphrey , he believes that our big brains, our
complicated areas of thought like our consciousness, our ability to think through
what other people think about us or how they might react to what we do, even our
drive to gossip, read novels or watch Eastenders, were driven by an evolutionary
need to get on with other people.
There is no doubt that our social worlds have exploded in size over the last 2 million
One clue to how the size of our social networks has increased comes from the distances
over which flint raw materials used to make tools have travelled. Before 2 million
years ago raw materials were never transported much more than 1 km – social worlds
were small. After this time the social landscapes of early humans seem to have expanded
somewhat, with most raw materials up until 1.2 million years ago coming from up to
3 km away and some even travelling 15 km. It was only after 1.2 million years, however,
that materials travelled beyond these distances, implying some connections or relationships
with neighbouring groups. Hereafter, maximum transfer distances increase to 100
km – several days’ travel at least – and well into the territories of other groups.
The big increase in movement of raw material occurs with our own species. Arriving
in Europe around 40,000 years ago, modern humans transferred a whole range of materials
great distances, often over 800 km – not only raw materials for things that are needed,
but also marine shells or other aesthetic objects which seem to have no functional
purpose ... gifts.
It may have been changes in our emotional minds which allowed our worlds to get larger.
Jean Decety argues that there must have been changes in the make-up of our brains
which allowed us to form bonds with people outside our group whom we perhaps only
rarely saw. One of the mechanisms is likely to have been changes in our hormone
responses – a damping down of our threat-based reactions to those we didn’t know
well. An increase in the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding
and trust, would allow us to feel affiliative feelings with people we didn’t usually
spend time with. Without such an oxytocin response, our contacts with strangers
or people we didn’t know well might have been limited to our threat responses of
attack, flight or freeze. We could never put a group of chimpanzees who don’t know
each other in a cage together, but thanks to our evolved minds [capable of much greater
emotional self-regulation] and our far more tolerant responses to strangers, we can
navigate trains, buses, concert halls and cities without attacking everyone around
us or being frozen in fear.
Was it a stripping away of natural empathy which led to prehistoric cannibalism?
In the earliest cases, that of the two-million-year-old australopithecine at Sterkfontein
or one-million-year-old Homo antecessor family at Atapuerca, it seems doubtful. At
this early stage our social worlds remained small and empathy for others may well
have still been limited to those within the group, with no feeling at all for those
outside it. Fight or flight, eat or be eaten, might have been the driving force
behind relationships with strangers.
164. Dunbar, R I M (2003) The Social Brain: mind, language and society in an evolutionary
perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology 32: 163-181. See also: Dunbar, R I M
(2009) The social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution. Annals
of human biology 36(5): 562-572.
165. Humphrey, N (1984) Consciousness Regained. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chimpanzees’ and bonobos’ reactions to strangers (“18”)
Chimpanzees and bonobos are the closest relatives of humans, and our last common
ancestor lived around 6-8 million years ago.
(Male) chimpanzees are murderously hostile towards other groups, patrolling the borders
of their territory and killing any strangers they find, but bonobos behave much more
peacefully in the same situation.
One highly problematic issue ... is why there is so little competition between groups
of bonobos. Chimpanzee males are known to kill each other over territory, gorilla
males occasionally fight to the death over females, and our own species has a long
history of battlefields scattered with the bodies of thousands of men. Bonobos,
in contrast, seem merely to “visit” their neighbors, with some hostility and tension,
but no murderous intent.
The first peaceful intergroup mingling was observed in 1979 at Wamba, where two different
communities came together and stayed together for a week. At a recent meeting, [Takayoshi]
Kano played a video of such mingling. First one sees bonobos fiercely chasing each
other, screaming and barking, but without physical fighting. Then, gradually, females
of the different groups engage in sexual contact and even groom one another. In
the meantime, their offspring play with those of the other group. Even a few males
of different groups approach one another to engage in a brief scrotal rub. Those
familiar with the brutal encounters between chimpanzee communities, described in
gruesome detail by Jane Goodall, can only shake their heads in wonderment at bonobo
[Gen’ichi] Idani, who recorded 32 separate intergroup encounters at Wamba, characterizes
the typical interaction between males and females of different groups as sexual and
friendly, whereas males are hostile and standoffish towards males of another group.
Copulations between males and females of different groups are common during the
first fifteen minutes of an encounter. Provisioning may be partly responsible for
these group mergers, since many occurred at the feeding site. ...
The extensively overlapping travel ranges of bonobo communities and direct observations
of relatively peaceful mixing suggest that bonobo intercommunity relations are strikingly
different from those of their closest relatives.
Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting – “Bonobo – the forgotten ape”