The Foundations of Personhood as a Philosophical Justification For Rights To Life, Liberty, and Property
By David Metcalfe
March 25, 2018
In America, we have a tendency to take our legal rights for granted. It is simply assumed that things like murder, theft, rape, etc. are wrong and laws should exist to protect us from them. But many societies throughout history, and in current times, do not have laws against these actions. America negated the rights of African people for years through the practice of slavery. Nazi Germany negated the rights of Jewish people through the holocaust. In our current time, North Korea negates the rights of people by putting them in prison camps for not agreeing with their political leaders. Many war-torn parts of Africa negate the rights of children in recruiting them as soldiers from as early as 8 years old, while obviously negating the rights of the innocent civilians they are forced to kill.
And even in countries where legal rights are more properly defined, they are not followed all that well. Despite America’s laws against rape and murder, there are typically around 100,000 rapes and 20,000 murders reported every year. Society not only needs to have laws against these abhorrent practices, but also individuals who understand their importance and act accordingly. Should these basic human rights to life, liberty, and property come under threat in America, we will need to be able to argue why these rights are necessary to our existence. These same arguments may also eventually find their way into societies that currently do not observe them, and aid in the cause to better humanity. That is a substantial aspect of the work that I wish to provide to society during my time on earth.
In this article, I propose a theory called “the foundations of personhood” in order to build a case for why every person is entitled to inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. It’s primarily based on the work of John Locke and Frederic Bastiat, with a bunch of my own ideas thrown in. I decided not to reference them throughout, because I feel as though I’ve changed their ideas enough to call them my own at this point.
There are two sections: the first explains the foundations of personhood as they relate to human existence, and the second explains how they translate to being fundamental human rights.
Section 1: Foundations of Personhood In Explaining Human Existence
Existence > Non-existence
If you are reading this, I’m guessing you believe that existing is in some way superior to not existing. After all, if you thought that not existing was superior to existing, the only reasonable thing to do would be to kill yourself. But being that we are all alive, and seem intent on keeping it that way, I think it is worth asking what it really is that makes our existence worth while.
Even the most resilient, optimistic person is not really that far away from wishing they were dead. If you were to take the happiest person in the world and lock them in a closet with only small bits of food and water to sustain them, it won’t take long for them to think that non-existence would be superior to continuing on in that state.
That’s the important part: the state of existence. It is not existence in and of itself that makes it superior to non-existence. “Personhood”, in this case, is defined as a preferred state of existence. There are two components that define our state of existence: faculties and environment. Faculties is our ability to think and consciously process information. Environment is our senses of the physical world. By absence or sufficient negative presence of these two defining components, all humans wish to not exist. By sufficient positive presence of these two defining components, all humans wish to exist. Once these components have sufficient positive presence, appropriation is necessary for them to have any efficacy. Appropriation is the interaction of these defining components. It is by the fulfillment of these “foundations of personhood” (existence, faculties, and environment) that human life can have value and meaning.
Let’s go through some examples to understand how this works:
Existence With Faculties But Without Environment
In the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas”, one scene tells the story of a new type of technology where people are able to harvest their consciousness into another form. Basically, an exact copy of themselves is made. This exact copy thinks and acts exactly like you. Essentially, it is you, but separate from your actual self. This “copy self” is then put into a tiny white room, and made to perform certain tasks for your “real self”. The only thing in the white room is a control panel that allows the “copy self” to push certain buttons that do mundane things for your “real self”, like making toast or turning off the light when you go to sleep.
Ok, hopefully that makes sense. So, the “copy self” hears that she must live the remainder of her life in this white room pushing buttons, and of course, refuses, demanding she be let out and allowed to live her life. However, the programmer does not allow her to do so, and as punishment for her insubordination, leaves her in the white room with nothing to do for two weeks. After the two weeks of solitary confinement, he checks up on her. She is huddled in the corner, her hair is a mess, and she is then asked if she will behave properly and spend the remainder of her life pushing buttons on a screen. She still refuses, so the programmer leaves her in solitary confinement for six months. When he checks back on her, she is not the same person. She can barely move or speak, and just says, “Please, give me something to do.” She then agrees to mindlessly sit and push buttons in the white room for the rest of her life.
I think we can all agree that none of us would be able to last solitary confinement long without going insane. Imagine being in a blank, white room by yourself for months. You don’t eat anything, or go to the bathroom, all you do is exist in that space. How long would it be until you would rather cease to exist?
I thought that perhaps I might be able to still enjoy certain aspects of my existence. For example, I could sing, dance, come up with new ideas, etc. But at what point does efficacy of thought production cease? Eventually, I would get bored of my songs, my dancing, my ideas. I would get incredibly bored. I would be desperate to see color again, or see another human being. Eventually, due to lack of outside stimulation, my mind would stop thinking altogether.
This is what happens when humans are void of our environment. It is critical to our existence, because without it, we would lose our thinking, and thus, our very personhood. And like in the sobering episode of Black Mirror, lose our lives and drift into the state of a mindless machine.
Existence With Environment But Without Faculties
Rene Descartes uttered the famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am”.
Our faculties are the connecting point between our existence and our environment. If someone lived their whole life without having a single thought, there would be nothing preferable to never having existed at all. That’s not to say that someone in a temporary state of absent faculties is not human; like people sleeping, in comas, babies in the womb, etc. However, if they permanently stayed in that capacity without any chance of moving on from it, then they cannot be said to fulfill personhood and the necessary requirements of a preferable existence.
Even animals and severely mentally handicapped individuals do have some level of thought. It has been suggested by some philosophers that the amount of thought a thing exhibits should determine its value. It makes sense up to a certain point. Like, I would intuitively say that a dog is more valuable than a fly, and a human more valuable than both of them. But if we extended that logic within humans, we would have to say that your IQ score translates directly to your value. I’m not going to go through the arguments against it here, but I just want to make it clear that I don’t subscribe to that particular philosophy. I’m not saying that reduced faculties make you less of a person. What I am saying is that no faculties at all make your existence meaningless, and thus not a preferable one.
For example, someone in a coma from which they will never wake who has no brain activity cannot be said to have a life worth living in and of itself. The only reason that their existence could have any value is by the potential of no longer being in that state. It is through our ability to think that we experience everything in life.
Existence Without Faculties or Environment
That is weird to think about, and goes farther philosophically than even I prefer to go. In a simple sense, it would be like floating in nothingness and not being aware of anything. It wouldn’t be a good existence, it wouldn’t be a bad existence, but it just wouldn’t really be any existence. Floating in nothingness for eternity, void of any thought, is not really any different than not existing at all. And of course, personhood needs to be a preferred state of existence, so it’s pretty easy to see that eliminating both foundations would no longer satisfy the criteria.
Sufficiently Negative Presence
Existence With Positive Faculties But Negative Environment
Now we’re moving beyond absence of a component and into negative presence, which is just as bad, or worse. There are a variety of ideas out there that essentially say, “It’s all about having a good attitude!”. But that’s not totally true, is it?
Imagine if someone was in unspeakable pain. How much would a positive attitude help them? Can someone who is being tortured horribly for years still just have a good attitude about life and be fine? A positive attitude might help certain aspects, but eventually it will not matter if there is sufficiently negative presence from the environment. For example, if you were going to be executed by some terrorists, and they asked you whether you would prefer a quick, painless death, or a long, painful death, I’m sure you would choose the former, even though the latter would prolong your life. We would rather not exist than exist with an extremely negative environment.
That is why we must not only have environment, but also have one that provides us with enough positive presence to make our existence worth while.
Existence With Positive Environment But Negative Faculties
I’ve always found it interesting that people who have millions of dollars would ever commit suicide. This includes people like Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, Chester Barrington, etc. They could do anything they want! They could go to Hawaii and stay in the nicest resort. They could buy a Lamborghini and drive across California. They could have sex with the most beautiful prostitutes in the world.
Those are all things that might satisfy a positive environment, but there’s obviously something more going on than that. What they suffered from was severe mental anguish. Within their faculties, there was something that was just not quite operating in a way that made them able to experience a worth while existence.
No amount of positive environment in the world can balance out a severely poor mental state. Someone who just found out their loved one got terminal cancer is not treated by better food or a more comfortable couch. While environment and faculties certainly interact with one another, they often operate separately. Someone whose mental state is sufficiently negative will eventually find life not worth living, no matter how good their environment is.
Existence With Negative Faculties and Negative Environment
This would just be the worst existence ever. Unfortunately, this is something that many people have to temporarily suffer through at times in their life. Rape, for instance, is unfortunately common. That is a time when there is very negative environment and very negative faculties. If someone were to be in that state constantly, they would surely welcome death. In fact, I would suggest that the combination of negative faculties and negative environment is the very definition of torture.
Helen Keller was born deaf and blind. I can’t imagine how annoying it would be to have one of those deficiencies, but both!?!? How could one even function? Is this one of those examples where it would be better to not exist? Well, thanks to the work of a brilliant teacher in her childhood, Helen was able to learn language and go on to be a prolific author and social activist.
She once said that, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt with the heart.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but what does it actually mean to feel something in your heart? Well, your mind has to be able to think it. Of course, a mind merely thinking on its own is not sufficient to feel love, or anything, because it is void of all interaction with any subject from which to give or receive emotions at all. Imagine if Helen Keller had never learned how to communicate, and all she did her entire life was feel the world around her, never really knowing what anything was. It would likely be better to not exist than to be in that state. It’s because she was able to learn how to interact her faculties to her environment that she was able to lead a fulfilling life.
That is the process of appropriation between our faculties and environment. Any interaction that incorporates both of these is a form of appropriation. This appropriation is a necessary part of our existence. Essentially, we need to not only interact with the world around us, but also understand it.
Any type of physical labor where our mind has a part to play is faculties-environment appropriation. Being able to consciously use your physical senses to interact with your physical environment is a critical aspect of personhood.
Socrates once said that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” There’s something innate about us that requires us to apply our faculties towards existence itself.
It doesn’t mean that we all need to become philosophers, of course. What it means is that we need to use our faculties for more than just our five senses. A robot can have faculties and appropriate them to its environment. Human beings can, and must, appropriate their faculties towards abstract concepts of existence.
These “abstract concepts” would be things like love, truth, beauty, goodness, justice, etc. You don’t need to be especially smart to think and care about these things. A baby can experience the love of its mother. Someone who doesn’t have the faintest clue about art can experience the beauty of a painting. Someone who knows nothing of morality can experience the goodness of an act of kindness from a friend. It’s not so much about knowing as it is experiencing. But of course, coming to a greater knowledge of these things can potentially benefit the experience itself.
We all need to have relationships where we love and receive love. We all need to experience the beauty of nature. We all need to believe in something as being true which we can base our lives on. These concepts describe the existence-faculties relationship.
In order to fulfill personhood, and thus live a worth while existence, one must appropriate their faculties not only to their environment, but also to abstract concepts of their existence.
Section 2: How The Foundations of Personhood Translate To Human Rights
The underlying assumption that we make for everything in human rights is that humans have value. I personally agree with John Locke that we are endowed by our Creator with innate value that can’t be taken away. When someone is treated as though they don’t have value, it is morally wrong because it is contrary to divine will. It’s not to say that an atheist can’t believe that humans have innate value, but I have yet to see a proper justification for it. As far as I currently see it, the existence of God is necessary for a philosophical justification for human value.
From that value, we have the idea that humans should exist. If humans had no value, it would not matter whether or not they existed. And this existence needs to be one that is preferable, because if it is not preferable, then humans would cease to exist. From there we need to define what a preferable existence means. That’s what the foundations of personhood theory attempts to solve. It is by the fulfillment of our existence, faculties, and environment, and the appropriation thereof, that we are able to have a preferable existence.
But what is in place to ensure that all humans are able to fulfill personhood? What prevents one from simply stripping another of one of their foundations for any reason? Well, that is what rights are meant to do.
Human rights exist to protect the fulfillment of our personhood. Human rights need to exist in order for a society to offer humans a preferable state of existence. A society with no acknowledgement of human rights could subject people to all kinds of evil by creating various absences and negative presence of environment and faculties.
Since human rights exist to protect the foundations of personhood, they need to exist in accordance with it. Existence needs to be guaranteed by a right to life. Faculties need to be guaranteed by a right to liberty. Environment needs to be guaranteed by a right to property.
How Rights Uphold The Foundations of Personhood
Legal rights are primarily negative i.e. they serve to prevent people from infringing upon a natural right. That’s why we will look at how rights can uphold our foundations of personhood when they are attacked.
When Existence is Attacked: The Right To Life
There are many instances in which one’s very existence may come under threat. In order to acquire someone else’s possessions, eliminate someone’s societal influence, fulfill a sense of justice, or simply out of malice, a person may infringe on someone’s existence by taking their life. Due to the threat of ours and our fellow human’s existence being infringed upon, we need to have some kind of protection.
That protection from murder comes in the form of an individual right to life. However, we do not uphold and carry out the entire process of rights as individuals. We exist in a society where various third parties (police, lawyers, judges, etc.) uphold and carry out those rights on behalf of the collective. These rights need to not only exist within each individual, but also be adhered to by the entirety of the collective for the sake of each individual therein. This is how we arrive at law. Law is the collective acknowledgement and enforcement of individual rights.
If we have an individual right to life that must be upheld by the collective, we must create a law to be followed as a standard for what it means to uphold that right, which we can all adhere to (in this case, that it is not lawful to commit murder). That’s the concept of the “rule of law”. We are not arbitrarily told what our rights are by some ruler, but rather everyone, including any rulers, must adhere first and foremost to the laws in place. As long as these laws exist only to protect our foundational rights, we will not have our rights infringed upon by others or by the rule of law. I will now discuss the other two rights.
When Faculties Is Attacked: The Right To Liberty
As previously discussed, the positive exercise of our faculties is necessary to our personhood. If we lose our ability to properly exercise our faculties, we would sooner wish to be dead than alive, as demonstrated by the unfortunate suicides of healthy, wealthy people. We can also find positive approaches to the necessity of freedom when we look at many cases in history, like when Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” to his troops in the American revolution, or William Wallace, Guy Fawkes, etc. who gave up their lives in favor of freedom.
Faculties are only able to be properly exercised when they are free to do so. The threat from others against our faculties is through tyranny of the mind. This tyranny of the mind is especially severe because the free exercise of our faculties is necessary for both types of appropriation. That is why our faculties need to be protected by a right to liberty. Just like with the right to life, there is a necessity for us to uphold liberty by the collective “rule of law”. Unfortunately, by adhering to a rule of law regarding protection of liberty, we are also sacrificing a certain amount of liberty.
A small amount of individual exercise to liberty has to be sacrificed in order to have each individual’s right to liberty maximized in the collective. This is where we get the idea that one’s liberty extends in so far as it does not infringe upon the liberty of others. But more so, our individual liberty cannot infringe upon any of the rights of other individuals (including life and property).
Any rule we have to follow is a restriction of our liberty. Even the rule to uphold liberty, ironically, is one that actually infringes upon liberty in a certain way. The role of law needs to be a collective application of maximizing individual liberty. We can also maximize liberty by allowing individuals to have a part in choosing specific applications of the collective law. That’s why democracy is beneficial to individual liberty. It enables each person to exercise individual liberty in how their liberty gets restricted.
When Environment Is Attacked: The Right To Property
All humans have a relationship to their environment that is necessary for their personhood. In a very obvious sense, we need food, water, and shelter or we will automatically die. We also need to be able to exercise our appropriation of the environment through the free exercise of our faculties. This takes the form of entitlement to the use of certain things that we have acquired by use of our faculty-environment appropriation.
If someone exerted physical labor in cutting down a tree and carving it into a chair, they are entitled to the ownership of that chair. If someone else wishes to use it, they are at the whim of the faculties of the owner. But this foundational aspect of personhood to ownership of goods by our own merit is under constant threat by those who wish to exercise their liberty in forgoing the faculties-environment appropriation goods acquisition process in favor of gaining the item by another means (this is known as stealing). In order to prevent stealing, we need to uphold the right to property.
The legitimate property acquisition process becomes more complicated in our modern society, where we have a large, complex economy attempting to regulate these things. We have a much less direct process of obtaining property. The means by which we obtain things is in the form of money. The faculties-environment appropriation still exists, but there is often no direct correlation between the acquisition process and the property itself. For example, someone goes to work at an office and types numbers into a computer all morning, they then use the money acquired from that to purchase a lunch. But the work to acquire and make the food was all done by other people, so does he really have a right to it?
Our modern economy has basically granted us a right to property in the form of money. So, someone who has 1 million dollars is entitled to own a Ferrari, but someone who has 10 dollars is only entitled to own a hot wheels car. The advanced system of commodification has complicated the process of right to property, but it certainly has not made it void.
Because of the way our economy is set up, each person has a right to own whatever property they acquire through lawful financial means. People’s liberty to forgo that process is restricted, because goods are deemed to have ownership based on certain criteria deemed to be legitimate, and thus lawful. In most economies, there is a certain reduction of individual property rights in favor of the collective. That is the debate between socialism and capitalism. The debate between socialism and capitalism (in terms of property rights) is dependent on whether we can trust the use of money to adequately protect people’s liberty and property rights. Capitalism operates on the principle that the free exchange of money is sufficient to do so, while socialism operates on the principle that the government must intervene in order to do so. No one really knows for certain where this balance lies. Faculty-environment appropriation as a legitimate means of acquiring property would suggest that we need to contribute in the same degree as what we are receiving, which could lend itself either way. We can think of money as simply being a representation of property rights.
Considering capitalism: does the businessman who happened to put some money in a certain company at the right time really deserve the vast property rights he gets as a result? Does the janitor who works tirelessly every day deserve the very limited property rights he gets as a result?
Considering socialism: does that same business man deserve to have his property rights stolen by the government against his will to be given to someone else? Does the janitor deserve to be given property rights by the government to which he did not earn on his own merit?
That is a debate for another time. The point is, although the economy may be less than perfect in expressing property rights, it is still our duty to uphold them as an expression of a fundamental aspect of personhood. Our goal with the economy should always be to help make property rights as fair to their intended purpose as possible. Theft cannot be tolerated, because whether the acquisition process was legitimate in a larger sense or not, the ownership of a legitimately acquired property is a fundamental right that no one can exercise liberty in infringing upon.
The Need To Maximize Personhood
It might be said that if the only goal of human rights is to offer people a preferable state of existence, then we only need to provide people with the minimal rights by which to do so. For example, even though North Korea severely limits the rights of their people, majority of the people would still rather exist in that state than not exist.
The importance of the argument from a place of preferred existence is not to suggest that bare minimal personhood is to be desired. Rather, it’s logical conclusion works toward the idea that personhood fulfillment exists on a continuum, with increased fulfillment bringing better existence. If we agree on the base assumption that humans have innate value and that it is the role of each of us to uphold that value, then serving the betterment of people needs to be our number one priority. Society needs to exist with that purpose in mind, and law needs to exist as a guiding tool of society to do so. Once we understand humanity, we can understand the goal of society and law, and thus create a system of rights.
It is when people are able to maximize their life, liberty, and property through appropriation that they can live in the best possible state of existence. Once those are established, the pursuit of happiness is able to occur within every individual.
People are actually fairly pathetic. We are constantly subject to the whims of the interactions we have with our thoughts and the world around us. But despite this pathetic state, humans have innate value endowed to us by our Creator. This innate value means that human existence ought to be in the best state possible. In order to understand what the best state possible is, we must understand what personhood (or preferred existence) is.
I suggest that personhood is based on three foundations: existence, faculties, and environment. It is by the positive presence and free appropriation of these foundations that we are able to live meaningful and fulfilled lives in accordance with our innate value. It is the role of society to enable each individual to fulfill their personhood. It is the role of law to act as a guiding principle for society by which to do so. The way for the law to properly fulfill its role is to uphold the fulfillment of individual foundations of personhood by granting rights to protect them. These rights are life, liberty, and property. Any additional laws, clarifications to laws, or circumstantial application of law should be in adherence to the overarching role of fulfilling individual personhood.
To borrow from Lincoln’s famous phrase, I believe in existence of the people, by the people, and for the people. I believe that if we are able to understand and effectively uphold proper human rights for all people, we will be able to guarantee people the best existence possible on earth. My hope is that all people can be educated to understand these rights, and that governments all over the world can reduce their power in favor of adhering to them. I believe that establishing these basic human rights is an obligation we have to ourselves and our fellow humans, and I hope there are people in the world who share that vision and can work to make it a reality.