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”