Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




This dissertation addresses a simple question: Is an anencephalic child a person? These children are born with only a brain stem, and, as such, cannot experience any type of consciousness. If personhood is understood as an articulable moral category, particularly distinct from DNA membership, reasonable evidence would be required to attribute any such moral category in these cases. That is, to claim that children who may never think or feel are persons carries a philosophical burden that extends beyond mere Homo Sapiens membership. This dissertation accepts that burden and answers that anencephalic children are persons. To do this, I first show that natural sciences tendencies and protocols cannot be the basis for personhood because, although proficient in what they do well, they are not sufficiently perceptive where moral questions such as personhood are involved. Second, I then argue that various philosophical groups who agree with me on anencephalic personhood too often fall prey to simple speciesist tendencies, basically asserting that only humans, as humans, are persons. Third, I rely on the phenomenological ethics of Emmanuel Levinas to provide a plausible basis for a non-speciesist personhood attribution, where the child is understood as always already appearing to me as a person. Finally, to anchor these Levinasian claims in practice, I use first-person narratives of caregivers, philosophers, and family members in particular settings, as well as inventive scenarios, to illustrate the personal encounters that Levinas claims occur. These accounts then give credence to claims of primordial personal encounters that ground the relationships I document others as having with these children. If successful, the dissertation overall then provides a reasonable and philosophically articulable basis for personhood claims to such children and, by extension, other such severely damaged individuals.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.