Traditions, Myths, and Utopias of Personhood: An Introduction
18 German Law Journal 5 (2017), 1017-1068
52 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2017
Date Written: June 1, 2017
Legal personhood continues to serve an important role in the legal system. The millennial distinction of persons and things, while often unarticulated, is an essential building block of all legal relations. This introduction to persons and things outlines the past tradition, draws on present myths, and construes a utopia of which the articles on this special issue will comment, clarify, and criticize.
The tradition of personhood has been well-established in recent academic commentary on personhood. Often construed as a gradual evolution and expansion from its modest original scope covering only adult male heads of household to present universal human personhood, the concept of legal person is tightly connected to the rule of law and the emergence of human rights. On this tradition, personhood is reserved an emancipatory role: Personhood is a legal fiction that sets everyone on an equal footing before the law. Also, due to its fictional character, collective human enterprises from state to corporation are donned with personhood as tools for realization of humane personhood. As such, the tradition serves an important part in perception of law and justice as ultimately egalitarian and often blind.
Recent interest in legal personhood has come to criticize the traditional narrative, claiming that it construes a myth concealing the fact that law remains profoundly discriminatory and unjust partly because of the way legal personhood is defined. A range of new entities commanding some or all features of a legal person — such as animals, cyborgs, and fetuses — are left outside legal protection due to their wanting personhood. Clinging on ideas equating humans to persons lead to affronts of morality in name of legality, the critics of the traditional narrative argue. According to them, rather than maintaining a material bind to a human being, a legal person should be a concept of art reserved to an artificial bundle of rights that can be allocated to anyone or anything. As truly artificial, legal personhood would better serve justice by providing rights to everyone and everything unlike the traditional account.
The utopia proposed by this introduction as well as by all of the articles forming this special issue pushes both the tradition and its critics to their limits. The utopia, on the one hand, argues for a fully material account of personhood where all things stand initially on an equal footing and, on the other hand, demands that also artificiality takes itself seriously in its denouncement of any material bind. We argue that such a utopia will better highlight the functions personhood serves in law and allows for a reevaluation of our appreciation of things.
Keywords: personhood, legal personality, legal theory, international law
JEL Classification: K10, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation