Postmodern Personhood: A Matter of Consciousness

11 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2004

See all articles by Ben A. Rich

Ben A. Rich

University of California, Davis


The concept of person is integral to bioethical discourse, because persons are the proper subject of the moral domain. Nevertheless, the concept of person has played no role in the prevailing formulation of human death because of a purported lack of consensus concerning the essential attributes of a person. Beginning with John Locke's fundamental proposition that person is a 'forensic term', I argue that in Western society we do have a consensus on at least one necessary condition for personhood, and that is the capacity for conscious experience. When we consider the whole brain formulation of death, and the most prominent defense of it by the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, we can readily identify the flaws that grow out of the failure to define human death as the permanent loss of the capacity for conscious experience. Most fundamental among these flaws is a definition of human death that reduces persons to the capacity of the brain to regulate purely physiological functioning. Such a formulation would, in theory, apply to any member of the animal kingdom. I suggest that an appropriate concept of death should capture what it is about a particular living being that is so essential to it that the permanent loss of that thing constitutes death. What is essential to being a human being is living the life of a person, which derives from the capacity for conscious experience.

Suggested Citation

Rich, Ben A., Postmodern Personhood: A Matter of Consciousness. Available at SSRN:

Ben A. Rich (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States


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