What grounds our duties to our fellow human beings?

I am currently teaching a course that is, on the face of it, about zombie films, but which is really about the philosophy of personal identity, gender theory, and social-political philosophy. We recently discussed the “persistence question” concerning personal identity, which is basically the question, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person at one time to be identical to a person at a different time?” Partly as a consequence of thinking about the various accounts that have been developed, I hit on an idea, which I want to try to briefly articulate.

The basic idea is this: individual human beings are clearly not always persons: they begin life as non-persons and some of them die before becoming persons; moreover, some of those who become persons then go on to once again become non-persons. Conservative who like to say that science has proven that a unique person comes into being at the moment of conception are partially right but importantly wrong. What does, presumably, come into being at the moment of conception is a new member of our species, which may undergo various processes of growth, development and ultimately decay, ending in death (the disintegration of that being). But it is wrong to say that a new person comes into being at that moment. “Person” is a success term that can be legitimately used to describe some of the beings that come into being at the moment of conception, once they have certain cognitive and volitional capacities. But some of them will not achieve personhood, and some that do will then become non-persons even prior to their death. In other words, we are not essentially persons; we are essentially independent beings that can be made better or worse off, but not persons.

Now, let’s suppose that this is correct. Let’s also take it for granted that human persons (that is, human beings that are persons) have moral obligations with respect to the beings that come into existence at the moment of conception. Assuming all of this, we would have to deny that our obligations to those beings stem from their being persons. They might stem from those creatures being “potential persons,” but I am skeptical of this claim, mostly because a merely potential person is, in fact and by definition, a non-person, but also because I think that this term is applied on the basis of an epistemological and not a metaphysical insight. It seems to me that a being is called a potential person not principally in virtue of some metaphysical facts about them but because we are in a limited epistemic state: we have reasons to believe they may become persons. Ultimately, these judgments may be mistaken; some such creatures simply cannot become persons, owing to biological or chemical factors of which we are unaware. I prefer to say that we have moral obligations concerning them regardless of whether they ever become persons.

The question becomes, “How can we account for these moral obligations?” I’m still sketchy on the details, but I’m kicking around the idea that we can appeal to biocentrism. As I conceive of it and use the term, biocentrism is the view that all living beings have inherent value. I assume that to say a being has inherent value is to say that its value is a function of its being; that is, it is owing to what that particular creature is, that it is, and that it can be made better or worse off. As such, biocentrism rejects that living beings have only instrumental value, and the recognition of a being’s inherent value gives rise to prima facie duties of beneficence and non-maleficence. (I don’t think it gives rise to a duty sans phrase, or an “all-things-considered” duty.)

I believe that human beings at various stages of development and decay (including fetuses and other human beings that lack the cognitive and volitional capacities required for personhood) are properly the subject of our moral concern. But this is a function of their inherent value, as beings which can be made better or worse off as the things they are, not owing to allegedly being proto-persons or deficient persons. To truly respect life would be to respect and care for beings even when they do not and cannot achieve personhood.

If I’m on the right track, I think I could make the case that widely held Christian ethical beliefs actually require that we be biocentrists in the sense that I have defined the view. That is, if we want to maintain our conclusions about the respect of life, we ought to recognize that they stem from moral duties that themselves attach to creatures simply in virtue of being. The other, more common option, which turns on the act/potency distinction strikes me as metaphysically suspect.