Person Research Paper

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The term person is usually used to indicate someone. This meaning is the result of a complex theoretical legacy, which, in many cases, derives from the use of the term person as nomen dignitatis. At the crossroads of theological, philosophical, juridical, and political debate, the concept of person, however, is likely to become equivocal. Specifically, to understand the ethical and anthropological controversy present in bioethics, we have distinguished the analogous concept of person, which can be predicated of several entities, from the univocal concept of human person. In everyday language, the term person already seems to indicate a human being, and therefore, it may seem redundant to write the term human person. In fact, as can be seen from the historical reconstruction, the very distinction between person and human person allows to identify and clarify the meaning of the current debate. The definition of human person extends to every human being at all existential stages: it implies that the human being is always someone. On the contrary, the notion of person indicates a series of qualities which when attributed to an entity make someone. Depending upon usage, the notion of person, in its semantic shifts, can therefore favor maximum inclusion or maximum discrimination between human beings. The debate is therefore open: to clarify the terms is indeed the first condition to promote dialogue and ethical discussion.


The term person has a two-thousand-year history. Originally developed in the theological context, to designate God, it has today become a common notion in the lexicon and culture of the Western world, where it usually serves to indicate the human being. It has acquired particular importance in the language of contemporary bioethics. If, in fact, on the one hand, there is almost unanimous consensus in recognizing the prerogatives of the person to dignity, inviolability, and entitlement to moral and social rights, on the other, there is no agreement on a definition of who a person is and what the characteristics are in order to ascribe this recognition. Moreover, in some cases, the notion of person has even been compared to that of being human, to which it had been connected for centuries, with obvious repercussions in terms of ethical reflection and juridical perspective. The tendency to replace the term human being, a univocal notion, with the term person, an analogous concept, also used at times in an equivocal way threatens to undermine the significance of the same Universal Declaration of Human Rights where the two notions, of person and human being, do not indicate the same being, that is they do not carry the same “extension” conceptually. In addition, the debate has been further complicated, with the attribution of person also to those animals believed to possess functions similar to those of human beings. Therefore the notion of person requires clarification regarding its meanings and usage.

History And Development

The history of the notion of person is intertwined with the entire cultural condition of the West. The etymological derivation of the word persona, of Latin origin, originally refers back to the ancient Greek word pròsopon and its generic meaning of “theatrical mask” and the verb form per-sonare, the reverberation of the voice of the actor through the artificial face brought on stage. However, more careful linguistic and historiographical analysis indicates that pròsopon also takes on other meanings that are, all the same, related to each other. Pròsopon is in actual fact, “what is in front,” the front, or apical part of something, therefore in an extended sense, the face.

In Stoicism, prosòpon is sometimes used to indicate both the individual and the role or the task played by the human being in the cosmos. The reference to the mask, that is, the function of representation, becomes predominant especially in ancient Roman law that distinguishes the human being (Homo) from person (persona): it indicates the social status of the concrete human being, determined with reference to libertas, civitas, and familia. In modern times, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) defines the State as persona civilis, and it is on this artificial construct that he develops a theory of representation and authorization. Person, therefore, remains in the legal context, and in political philosophy, a term that serves to “endow” someone or something with power, responsibilities, rights, and duties and ends up merging with the contemporary concept of legal entity. In this perspective, the notion of person has no real anthropological significance.

As far as philosophical lexicon is concerned, the concept of person is related to the genuine semantic turning point accomplished by Christianity that comes to use it to talk about God.

The early years of Christianity are characterized by laborious intellectual labor that responds to the need felt by Christians to clarify the peculiarities of their faith. Christians are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; but how may one express this faith in God revealed through Incarnation, and still remain strictly a monotheist? The first author that attempts a doctrinal synthesis is Tertullian (born around 160) who introduces the term Trinitas and connects it to person in order to clarify the Christian concept of God; with the help of various philosophical sources, He indicates in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit the Tres Personae of the one God. For the first time in the history of the word, persona is used to speak of God. Tertullian does not offer a proper definition of person, a term he uses to indicate the real distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he is careful to distinguish it from the notion of substance. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), in De Trinitate, reflects the heritage of Tertullian; however, he does not conceal a degree of dissatisfaction with the use of this notion. For the theologian and philosopher to whom we owe the first substantial elaboration of human subjectivity, person refers primarily to the concrete human individual, whose singularity is perceived: it seems to him that an analogous use does not place enough emphasis on the relational unity of Trinitarian life. It is the philosopher and theologian Boethius (475–525) who provides the most influential definition of person that survives to this day, with various modifications. Boethius seeks to find a formula that is able to embrace both man, created in the image and likeness of God, and the Triune God and the angels. Person, according to Boethius, is an individual substance of a rational nature (rationalis naturae individua substantia). This definition for Boethius indicates a perfection in the scale of beings: it is therefore nomen dignitatis. In actual fact, this much appreciated formulation was bound to provoke much criticism. Indeed, from the theological point of view, the attribution of substantial character to person is to undermine the Christian monotheism once preached of God, just as the anthropological angle failed to convey the reference to the corporeal nature of the human being already decidedly present in the Aristotelian definition of animal rationalis. Therefore particularly innovative and interesting is the correction made by Richard of St. Victor (110–1173), which replaces substantia with existentia in order to strengthen the analogous use of the term persona: rationalis naturae individua existentia. The change is radical because substance refers to something, while existence reinforces the reference to someone, to subjectivity. But it is definitely Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who introduced the most important revision of the concept of persona. Defining person no longer as individua substantia but subsistens distinctum and assigning it intellettualis naturae set the conditions which allow for this term to be ascribed to the Triune God without tarnishing uniqueness and unity. However, the most significant contribution, from a strictly philosophical point of view, comes from Aquinas when he clearly distinguishes the concept of person, which is analogous, from that of human person, which is univocal, indicating the concrete human being in his or her unrepeatable individuality. The human person, according to Thomas Aquinas, is “this flesh these bones this soul which are the individuating principles of a man” [these are aspects Aquinas continues,] “which, though not belonging to ‘person’ in general, nevertheless do belong to the meaning of a particular human person” (Thomas Aquinas). The Thomistic synthesis leaves no doubt: the human person is the subsistence in itself and for itself of a concrete individual, even if this subsistence is not by itself. The identity and subjectivity of the individual human being is not assured only by the spiritual soul, created directly by God, but from concrete corporeal constitution. The human person is created in the body and is open to the world and to God by reason of his rational nature.

A clear separation of the person from the living body is instead carried out by John Locke, the author who influences liberal bioethics more than any other. Locke, who is involved in the theological dispute on the Trinity, addresses the person issue by self-inquiry on the subject of Resurrection after death and the Last Judgement. His intention is not to define the Trinitarian relationship or determine the relationship between body and soul but to refer the living body to person perceived as a subject to whom one can attribute and ascribe actions and responsibilities. Locke’s definition resembles that of Boethius albeit deprived of its substantive statute. What guarantees the continuity of person is neither existence nor substance nor the living body, but it is conscience. For Locke persona “means a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and… consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places” (Locke 1690). In this perspective only those who are conscious and have memory of themselves can be defined as person. If Descartes’ I is first and foremost a res cogitans placed in relation to a res extensa, instead for Locke I is consciousness that inhabits a body of which it is the owner. The individual is thought of as sovereign and owner of his or her own mind, body, and person: this is why, in addition to being able to dispose of it, it must also be accounted for. Even Locke’s anthropology is profoundly dualistic because it splits the person as a consciential and moral subject from the living body with which there is a proprietorial relationship, as if it were a thing.

Contemporary debates regarding the relationship between mind and brain are largely influenced by both Cartesian anthropology and from Locke’s theory of personal identity. Even for Kant, the concept of person loses every empirical connotation and is used as nomen dignitatis: the categorical imperative that requires treatment of oneself and others also as an end and never merely as a means strengthens the separation between the phenomenal I and the empirical I. All reference to substance and existence having fallen, person becomes a fluid notion that is always on the verge of becoming ambiguous. The early twentieth century saw the flourishing of different currents of thought which define themselves as personalistic, from the Communitarianism of Emmanuel Mounier, to the spiritualist thought of Charles Renouvier, J. Lacroix, Maurice Blondel and the dialogical thought of Martin Buber. A special mention must be given to the work of Max Scheler who sees in the person the human being’s spiritual and intentional center. The notion of person also finds its own particular relational and social coloring in the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas and in the communicative ethics of Karl-Otto Apel and Jurgen Habermas. Lastly, given the very articulate use of the term person, the contribution of those authors who consider it necessary to regain possession of the Aristotelian categories of nature and substance in order to speak of personal identity and among these mention should be made to Peter Frederick Strawson, David Wiggins, Bernard Williams, and Robert Spaemann.

The history of the notion of person cannot therefore today be considered closed: the wealth of contributions and speculative additions found in contemporary philosophy highlight how complex it still is for human beings to define themselves.

Conceptual Clarification/Definition

The term person may be used as a noun, tonight I am expecting to have dinner with a person, or as a predicate, God is person. Its meaning may vary, but what prevents it from becoming ambiguous is the constant reference to “someone.” The term person as a noun, in anthropology, has the same extension as the term human being. Someone is never something: the human person is someone corporeal that is generated, develops, is born, falls ill, and eventually dies.

Being someone is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the manifestation of intelligence, will, freedom, and self-consciousness, which are substantial attributes of someone. Therefore, the cognitive and volitional activities of someone are not someone but rather one’s temporary manifestations which depend on the stages of development and health of someone. With respect to the topic of consciousness, being someone precedes self-consciousness, because it is its ontological condition. From this point of view, being generated by persons, that is, from a human being, is the simple condition for being persons and to be recognized as such. In this perspective it is evident that the body, which constitutes someone’s identity, is the first manifestation of the person. Bodily health has a direct influence not on being someone but on the means of expression of someone. The practices of treatment and care never have as object a generic human life but someone that can be called by name. Compared to the predominant approach that places the identity of someone in consciousness, this theory takes the view that, in reality, conscience does not establish a subject, just as the loss of conscience does not destroy it. Being someone precedes, as it were, the consciousness that one has of oneself, which may or may not be actuated. Even in healthy adults, the experience of sleeping and waking, the dimension of unconsciousness, shows how someone’s subjectivity has a continuity that escapes self-consciousness. The phenomena of mental illness, a limitation of cognitive abilities, their temporary or permanent loss, indicate that someone is always vulnerable in the transparency of the self. In this sense, the Cartesian theory which identifies I in cogito can be declared to be illusory and counterintuitive. Someone, that is, the person, is not confined to the sum of one’s intellectual manifestations. It can therefore be said that in all stages of life, in sickness and in health, someone is, as long as one’s body is alive. Compared to mentalist theories, an ontological approach to the issue of the human person underlines the fact that the functioning of brain activity is a certain physical condition of the expression of someone, but it does not constitute one as such. Recognizing the human being as a person also implies recognition of his intrinsic dignity, since this word has been coined as nomen dignitatis. In an ethical perspective, the term person indicates an ideal to be achieved: it is only when morally good actions are performed that one is a person. There are in fact two ways of understanding dignity. In the first, dignity belongs to the being of the person; in the second, it defines behavior that is the object of praise. While dignity, in the first sense, is not lost nor is it acquired, because it is intrinsic in the second meaning, it varies depending on the actions that a human being carries out. There are also other meanings given to the term according to the dimension of its attribution: person as a moral agent, person as a psychical subject, and person as a legal entity. In the latter case, the term person, as a legal construct, can also be attributed to collective entities. In anthropology, those who use the term as a predicate take the view that no one is in itself and for itself a person, but that one can become and lose the quality of person. According to this usage, there are therefore thresholds of personality that are established or exist through social convention or by reference to cognitive and moral activity. In this perspective, person has no substantial or existential dimension. In fact, this usage introduces discrimination among human beings, by excluding from the category of persons those who do not correspond to certain criteria.

The earliest reference of the term person to the mask and role is still present in reference to theatrical or cinematographic characters: there is usage of the expression “impersonate” in the sense of personify, precisely, to play a part. The difficulty of a single definition arises, however, from the same difficulty in defining the notion of subject in a cultural context that largely rejects the notion of substance understood as “subjectum,” what lies beneath, what ensures duration – in Bergson’s meaning of the term – of he who becomes and transforms over time. The most important thorny point of theory for bioethical reflection is therefore determined by the dual use of the term as a noun and as a predicate. If by person one intends a set of qualities or functions that allow consideration of someone as a subject for rights and duties, it must therefore be concluded that the person does not exist, is not born, does not get ill, does not heal, and does not die. Those who are born exist and are, in fact, necessarily living and persist in themselves, in spite of the change in their characteristics. Therefore, the notion of the human person, as also used in common language, implies reference not simply to the psychological or moral dimension but to concrete corporeal existence. Differently from the term human being, the notion of person as a noun indicates the concrete individual here and now, he or she who is “nominated,” that is called by name: ultimately someone not entirely communicable. In other words, person expresses a specific mode of existence. The term person as a noun is therefore univocal, while the term as a predicate is analogous: the first lends itself to describing and defining the human being and the second to indicate certain qualities and functions.

Ethical Dimension

The term person has assumed centrality in the contemporary era that substantially leaves aside the theological reasons for which it has entered into the cultural circuit of the West. In fact, today it occupies a prominent position in a large part of philosophical reflection and in bioethics in particular. A point of convergence between the different perspectives is constituted by recognition of the inherent dignity of the person and normative value. In some respects, it can be said that the term person has almost replaced the notion of human being in all of the theoretical contexts dealing with rights and duties. However, this unanimity is broken, and controversies begin when one does not think of the term person as a noun but as an attribute. Having been ascertained that the term person and human being are not, however, purely synonymous, the debate revolves around this question: are “all” human beings persons? Should the answer be not all of them, then what are the legitimate consequences of this in terms of rights, beginning with the basic right to life? Is the human being the holder of inalienable rights, or is it the person? And if only a person has dignity, then does this imply that a human being has none?

The peculiar character of the bioethical debate is that it has polarized the questions around this issue, in the belief that it was enough to answer these questions to solve old and new problems that have arisen from the development of science and technology. It is believed that in order to determine whether abortion, stem cell research, transplants, cloning, interventions on the human genome, euthanasia, and so on are morally legitimate or not, one must move through the issue of the person. The other relevant aspect is that ethical issues are traced back to some sort of first axiological principle, represented by the person. In this sense we can say that the term person is taken as an indicator of value from which all other values are derived. There is, in this usage, a similarity to classical thought and the Christian tradition, with a radical difference that in these contexts the meaning of person was attributed first to God and human beings took part in so far as they were created to “His image and likeness.” Contemporary ethics places itself, in the majority of its currents, out of any reference to rational or revealed theology: the dignity attributed to the person is therefore linked to the quality or functionality that is manifested and not simply to being a human being. The appreciation of rationality, responsibility, freedom, and relationalism of the person is therefore the basis for the recognition of dignity. Consequently, determining whether or not all human beings are persons is of fundamental significance. Some authors, such as Hugo Tristram Engelhardt Jr. and Peter Singer, among the most influential and well-known protagonists of the ethical debate, have resumed analogous use of the concept of person to establish that not all humans are persons: at the same time, asserting that it is not necessary for all human beings to be persons. Engelhardt writes that the archangel Gabriel who appeared to Mohammed in the desert and E.T. that crosses a modern city in this century are examples of entities that are persons but not human beings. The latter hypothesis, however, does not authorize another statement, namely, that all those belonging to the species homo sapiens are “human beings,” just as one cannot say that all ETs are not “extraterrestrial persons” and all angels are not “angelic persons”(Engelhardt 1986). If the term person does not coincide with the human being, it does not coincide with any other entity but only with certain functions that can be found in many entities. If the term person indicates cognitive and volitional functions, a certain moral capacity, one cannot ignore the fact that these functions are always someone’s functions: they do not exist in themselves and for themselves but in reference to something else. If there are some human beings who have those qualities, it is because the human person is a living corporeality that is born, develops, grows, and dies. To reply to the question whether all human beings are persons, there must be reflection on whether the notion of person indicates functions that belong in themselves and for themselves to someone – and so help to define identity – or are they only transitory and contingent aspects, which in fact do not contribute to making that entity specifically that actual entity and no other. Is it conceivable that an Archangel, an E.T., and a human being may not also be a person (analogous use)? If so, then it is not decisive to attribute those characteristics to those entities, because they would remain Archangels, extraterrestrials, and human beings even without those qualities. Otherwise, it should be said that wherever those entities exist, those qualities also exist, even when they are not manifested. If the human being is removed from underneath the person mask, what remains is pretense. To conclude: if in origin the human being is not a human person, there can be no possibility of becoming one. The classic categories of actuality and potentiality can clarify this argument. The human being is in fact in actuality a human person, and what is in potentiality that depends on factors such as development, health, and environment is the exercise of reason, freedom, and morality. This thesis can be expressed by saying that by nature, every human being is a human person. By nature is to be understood, in the Aristotelian sense as the set of characteristics that are transmitted through human generation. Persons generate persons: development and the environment will affect the manner of existence of each person, but they can never transform someone into something. It does not arouse any wonder that a human person may even not act or express himself as a person in the ethical and psychological meaning of the term: even an apple tree may fail to blossom or bear fruit, but it still remains an apple tree. The approach which separates the concept of person from that of human being has sources such as Locke, Kant, Mill, as well as Roman law. In fact, despite the apparent novelty of these arguments, which intertwine all functionalist theories of the person, they end up by resuming and emphasizing ancient theses in which human life was not considered a primary value and the distinction between human being and person was valid. Singer points out that in the Greek and Roman era, species membership was not sufficient to ensure protection of life. In fact, there was no respect for the lives of slaves, barbarians, and sick or deformed newborn babies who were killed or left to die by abandoning them to the elements. Even Engelhardt, referring to the proprietary rights of Locke and the Istitutiones of Gaius, says that until children emancipate themselves, they remain in the hands of their parents who exercise their legitimate patria potestas, which means that, for ancient Roman law, children did not have any rights, not even the basic right to life, and they were totally subjected to the will of their parents. According to these premises, abortion, neonatal euthanasia, and even infanticide do not constitute any violation of a right or moral value: these acts would, in fact, be carried out on nonpersons. Those who claim that mankind has value in itself would make the ethical error that Singer called speciesism. Singer believes that speciesism is similar to racism and sexism because, for him, the difference between humans and animals is morally irrelevant and arbitrary: the real difference is between persons and nonpersons (whether they be, in either case, human beings or nonhuman animals) (Singer 1987). The premise of this reasoning is that the human being is an animal and that all animals are equal: for this reason, it would be unjust to prefer human beings to animals solely on the basis of a difference in species. But what matters from the moral point of view is the person, not the human being. Even in this variant person does not indicate any real being but only the contingent situation in which any adult and healthy animal may find itself. It may be argued that to give animals the status of persons, one must, however, greatly reduce the very distinctive characteristics of a person. If person is understood in a moral sense, in fact, it implies the ability of recognition, respect, dedication to others, and assumption of responsibility that is not manifested at all in the relationship that the animals of different species maintain with each other or with human beings. A lion that encounters a gazelle in the savannah will never recognize it as a person to be respected or protected. Even for functions of a cognitive kind, it is necessary to greatly reduce the threshold of their complexity in order to attribute them to monkeys, pigs, and various mammals. In order to attribute the term person to so-called nonhuman animals, one should ask the question: are these animals in their full cognitive development able to demonstrate the capabilities that a human person is able to demonstrate at the same stage of development and health? If the answer is, as it must be, a negative one, then it must be said that animals should be respected and protected because they are animals, not persons. In fact, only human persons can protect animals and even assign them rights. It should be noted, moreover, that those who defend the value of the human being in no way intended to defend the species, neither do they do so on behalf of the species: what matters on the contrary is precisely the single individual, even if this protection does not improve the species at all.

Some authors, while distancing themselves from Singer’s theses on animal rights, believe however that one becomes a person only when one is accepted into a community of recognition: the process of socialization marks the transition from being human to becoming a person. In this case the demarcating threshold would be indicated by recognition from others. It is not always clear whether such recognition is an obliged act in relation to the presence of a human being, in order to include him in the category of persons, or whether for this to occur it is necessary that the human being gives evidence of his being a person by demonstrating certain qualities. Equally widespread is the theory that considers only human beings with a moral life as person: embryos, newborn babies, the mentally ill, and patients in a minimally conscious state or in a coma would therefore be excluded from this definition. As such, the use of this term would not be particularly problematic if it were limited to emphasizing that the exercise of moral life, associated with cognitive activity, varies over time and requires certain conditions, starting from that of being awake. Throughout the history of moral philosophy, it has always been assumed that in order to be moral agents, certain conditions need to exist and that the framework of rights and duties is distributed throughout life. This means that rights that are not possessed as children, for example, the right to education and to drive a car or vote, depend on age. Duties also change in a similar way; the duty of an adult to work ceases to exist with the onset of old age or illness. The only right that remains at the foundations of all other rights and duties is the right to life: rights regard the living, and rights are not preserved without the preservation of life itself which makes it possible for them to be implemented. Being a moral agent, however, does not mean being a good moral agent but only to act responsibly for better or for worse. This means that one should recognize the attribute of person even to those who do not act in a morally good way. One could not, in fact, reprove someone who is not a person.

This facilitates understanding in moral evaluation of the implicit affirmation that a person remains a person even when acting morally badly: therefore, a distinction between being a person and acting like one is presupposed. If it were not so, there would be the absurd situation in which it would be impossible to accuse anyone because, by acting badly, they would cease to be a person. The two principal meanings of person, as a moral agent and as a psychical subject, can never leave aside the anthropological meaning of human person. This applies all the more in all medical practices. One does not treat and care for someone because he or she is abstractly a person but because the individual is a living and corporeal human being. To dissociate the living body from the person is to forget that no action can be accomplished, not even mental actions, without a body. It can therefore be stated that human person is the term that indicates the continuity and duration of someone: one can be a human person even if one does not behave like a person (ethical significance) or does not possess, yet or any longer, psychical activity (psychological significance). The binary and dualistic logic of person /nonperson introduced in the development of the individual human being accentuates the scheme of Cartesian dualism between res cogitans and res extensa. In these perspectives, the human body is reduced to res possessing the same psychical subject as long as it remains conscious and it is always in danger of being handed over to the power of others when consciousness is lost.

There is in these theories a radical devaluation of the human body, thought of as a purely biological object. Despite appearances, there is a revival of ancient Platonic dualism which construes the relationship between body and soul to be like that of the prisoner and his cell.

The bioethical debate around the person is difficult to compose if it remains influenced by pragmatic requirements which tend to change the meaning of the terms depending on the results one wishes to obtain. No philosophical analysis can lose sight of the immediate element of the human conscience which facilitates understanding of the body not as property to dispose of but as the very mode of existence in time of the human person that each individual is.


The concept of person in anthropology is a theoretical invention by which human beings have tried to accomplish two theoretical moves. In the first, they wanted to specify the universal notion of human being to indicate the concrete individual: “this human being here.” The history of philosophy bears witness, in the many insights offered in clarification of the characteristics of the person, as to how inexhaustible the discussion is regarding human beings and their relational and developing identity. The second move has been the self-recognition not only of belonging to a species but of possessing value and being the source of recognition of values: the notion of person has therefore had the function of nomen dignitas. The word person has for years been custodian of the human, from birth to death. Today there is the danger of it placing radical discrimination both within the individual human being and among them: in the functionalist perspective, nobody can in fact be called person. In some respects, therefore, there is a risk of a radical devaluation of the human being by human beings themselves, who should demonstrate their being a person in front of others in order to have full recognition of their rights. The bioethical debate, in the emphasis on the term person, as a predicate or a noun, runs the risk of impoverishing the understanding of human.

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