The value of a person

I saw a print ad in a magazine from the National Down Syndrome Society. There was a picture of a man holding an oboe, and a phrase saying something like "I am the face of Down syndrome." This person apparently plays six instruments and has been on Oprah.

I have no doubt that many people with Down Syndrome are very high-functioning. Some, like the man pictured, are much higher-functioning than some people with normal genomes.

But what is this ad trying to tell us? People with Down syndrome have the same abilities as you and me? Obviously, most do not, so I assume that's not it. I'm guessing the message is supposed to be something like this: respect people with Down syndrome, because some of them have higher cognitive abilities than you think.

Isn't that exactly the message that such a society should not send? What about people with Down syndrome who are not as high-functioning? Should we not respect them? What about the ones who are lower-functioning than most people realize, or who are not as happy or sweet as people assume the cognitively disabled are? What about people with a genetic disorder that is always on the low-functioning end? Are they worthy of respect? This ad has given us no reason to think so. Indeed, it reinforces the message that people are valuable insofar as they have cognitive abilities.

I would hope such a national organization would emphasize that people who are not high-functioning are also valuable. We should value people with Down syndrome not because some of them are high-functioning, but because a person's worth is not directly correlated to her intellectual ability. Even low-functioning people are valuable - they feel and think and emote and relate and form personal connections and have beliefs and desires. We value them even if they cannot play any instruments at all.

UPDATE: Found the ad. Got it a bit wrong, but the point still stands. The picture is of a guy with Down syndrome in Indiana Jones-ish garb, and the text says: "Sujeet Desai, THE TRAVELER. I play six instruments. I've visited eleven countries. I've traveled to thirty-two states, and been hnored by the President of Singapore. I've met Oprah, been featured in Time magazine, and performed on the clarinet before 14,000 people. I have Down syndrome and this is my great story. Do you have a story? Tell us at ndss.org/stories."


  1. I understand your point but I think the point is to provide an uplifting story. Sujeet Desai is a pretty awesome story. Sometimes you have to add some sugar to get a good response. For example when they show pictures of famished babies to solicit funds I quickly change the channel, but showing these same kind of kids happy and fed and I don't.

    When I worked at an ARC camp I was given the impression that they were more like the sunny disposition Down syndrome kids and if they told me what it was going to be really like they might have scared me away. As it was, you can see the face of God in the most unlikely places and in the most trying situations. If I had been scared away I would not have had that experience. I don't think such an experience is ever possible in an ad though. You have to live it.


  2. An interesting question would be "what presuppositions are necessary and sufficient to result in conclusion that people are valuable because they think and feel and emote and relate and form personal relationships." This conclusion is clearly the result of inductive reasoning, but it is shared by almost all humans. Indeed, to disagree is tantamount to announcing "I am mentally disturbed," but as we aren't logically compelled to reach this conclusion, I was wondering if you could recommend philosophers who had explored the foundations of personhood.

    As an aside, I'm not sure this goes far enough. All of the measures (think, feel, emote, relate, and so forth) require a certain level of brain activity, but I would be loathe to withdraw the status of 'person' even to an anencephalic infant. This suggests to me that perhaps our innate sense of personhood is more subtle than simply the presence of brain activity. OTOH, if such cases were common, perhaps we would have evolved different sensibilities about personhood.

  3. whoa, whoa gj, save the psuedo-philosophy potential discourse on eugenics for another occasion. I am not saying it doesn't have validity, I just find it jarring in this instance.

    Elizabeths query seems to be more media related, what should be the public face of that community? I don't think it is a question of are these people people or at what point do they become people.

    Again, I am not criticizing what you wrote, just that when I read it I was pretty much wtf?


  4. C, sorry you found it jarring.

    I think it is reasonable to ask the reasons why humans hold the beliefs they hold, especially when trying to convince said humans to examine their beliefs. It would be especially prudent to make sure the philosophy crew is on-board with these reasons.

    Also, if the ads are running, it would seem to me that there is indeed a question of what 'personhood' means. Newborns feel and think and emote and are able to form connections, so we consider newborns people. But what about a fetus 1 day before birth? Does it not have exactly the same ability to feel and think and emote and form connections? Yet we legally do not consider the unborn as full people; they have fewer inalienable rights than the newborn.

    Anyway, I find the argument that 'personhood' be automatically extended to anything that feels, thinks, emotes, and so forth is in fact not held consistently by our society. I wish we were more consistent.

  5. It's not a pseudo-philosophical question. It's a really important one. My answer was media-related, but is inseparable from the philosophical issue. What constitutes personhood, wherein personhood is something that is necessarily valued?

    And we are not consistent. Most notably, as I've written, that we tend to include the intellecutally disabled, but not animals.

    I did not mean to give a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. I do think human DNA is relevant, but not necessary (yes, possibly androids). I meant to suggest a general area of where we might start to look, especially for borderline cases. I would tend to think an anencephalic infant is not a person.

    Some notable philosophers on the topic: Jeff McMahan, Mary Anne Warren, Christine Korsgaard, Allen Wood.

  6. BTW, just because something is not a person does not mean it is worth no moral consideration whatsoever.

  7. WHy would an anencephalic infant not be considered a person? I'm sure you wouldn't tell the grieving mother that she had given birth to a non-person, nor would you refuse to bury the body of an anencephalic infant in a cemetery reserved for people only. So we clearly treat such cases as persons in some circumstances.

    But you object, the anencephalic does not have any consciousness. Neither does a person in a deep coma or under anesthesia, yet (I hope) we would agree that loss of consciousness doesn't result in loss of personhood. Isn't the loss normally temporary in the case of a comatose person? Usually, but in cases where there is doubt, we (I hope) do not declare the individual not a person. Isn't that because there is the possibility of revival, however faint? Perhaps, but I would observe that, just as we can regrow body parts in animals (and in the not-too-distant future humans), it is not impossible to imagine medical intervention that grows the missing brain portions of an anencephalic infant. The theoretical possibility exists and I'd go so far as to claim it is a certainty that humans will one day in the not-too-distant future be able to repair this abnormality[1]. So what essential difference is there between a comatose human (with no current medical treatment) and the anencephalic infant (with no current medical treatment)?

    [1] The nice thing is, with no prior brain states to preserve, the repaired brain's conscious identity is the original identity. We won't lose a unique consciousness.

  8. In the case of an anencephalic infant, as I said, just because it is not a person does not mean it warrants no moral consideration whatsoever. And I tend to think cemeteries are for humans. I might consider a dolphin or an android a person, but wouldn't bury them in a cemetery.

    I would have moral qualms about aborting an infant generally. Not so an anencephalic infant.

    I would consider a comatose person with no hope of recovery (setting aside all epistemological issues of how that is determined) a non-person.

    If an anencephalic infant could grow a brain, then that would be different. But I would think it's a non-person until the brain comes into being.