Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Personhood: A Neuroethics Lens

Post by Anna Nuechterlein

What is personhood? How is it viewed, described, and understood? Indeed, personhood is a complex and dynamic concept that varies across philosophical, political, legal, and cultural domains. In Western discourse, theories of personhood gained traction during the Age of Enlightenment. During this era, John Locke suggested that personal identity is synonymous with “psychological continuity”, grounded in consciousness and memory [1]. Emmanuel Kant believed that personhood is defined by “capacity” and “rationality” – in other words, the ability to act according to human reason [2].

In recent history, the Western individualistic notion of what it means to be a person or hold personhood has been challenged. Feminist accounts of personhood suggest that cultural interactions, societal values, and interpersonal relations intimately shape personhood [3, 4]. Cross-cultural perspectives on personhood further highlight the fluid and adaptable nature of the term. Scholars such as Nhlanhla Mkhize and Polycarp Ikuenobe have written about communal personhood in the African context, recognizing that in many African societies, personhood is achieved and maintained by belonging to a community [5, 6].

Different conceptions of personhood raise unique, culturally-mediated neuroethics considerations for privacy, informed consent, and values, across social, research, and clinical contexts. For example, in societies where personhood is primarily viewed as communal, privacy may be less valued. As a result, Kenyan philosopher Eunice Kamaara cautions that African youth may be less inclined to consider significant privacy risks when sharing sensitive personal and community information [7]. Many Indigenous communities also approach the self as communal and view decision-making and informed consent as largely collective processes [8]. The implications for ethical research conduct are significant: Māorian criminologist Juan Tauri proposes that disregard of communal consent by research ethics boards disempowers Indigenous peoples and perpetuates colonial practices in research ethics [9]. In Western culture, the limitations of current conceptions of personhood have come to fruition through inquiries into disorders of consciousness. Scholars such as Canadian biomedical engineer, Stefanie Blain-Moraes, have proposed that personhood, responsiveness, and consciousness are too often conceptually blended in Western medicine, thereby potentially diminishing personhood in individuals in minimally consciousness states [10].

So, what is personhood? How is it viewed, described, and understood? Ultimately, there is no one right answer to this question. With the emergence of a “global neuroethics” [11], there is a cultural imperative to incorporate diverse worldviews of personhood into theoretical and practical applications of neuroethics. To advance the goals of neuroethics on an international landscape, a flexible approach that acknowledges and minimizes risks such as overstating cultural differences, deepening harmful stereotypes, and perpetuating the “west” versus “the rest” narrative [12] is imperative. Questions and issues relating to personhood must be addressed through a holistic and intersectional lens situated within relevant socio-cultural and socio-political contexts, recognizing the limitations of “ethical universalism” [13]. As emphasized by neuroethicists Arleen Salles, Karen Herrer-Ferrá, and Laura Cabrera, “much conceptual and groundwork remains to be done to respectfully learn from different cultures and promote frameworks that advance the local and global goals of neuroethics”. Rethinking frameworks based on Western conceptions of self and personhood, nurturing international collaborations, centering local ways of knowing [11] and embracing humility are pivotal beginnings toward creating culturally relevant and appropriate frameworks for understanding personhood.

Author bio: Anna is a research assistant and project coordinator at Neuroethics Canada. She is interested in the junction where neuroscience, law, and policy meet, and will be pursuing a legal education at the University of Toronto in 2023. Outside of academia, she loves to read, paint, play guitar, and run (literally) around Vancouver.

Special thanks to Stefanie Blain-Moraes for sharing her insights on personhood and providing guidance for this blog.


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