October 15, 1997

What Is a Person? An Ethical Exploration

Author Affiliations

Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Springfield


by James W. Walters, 187 pp, $23.95, ISBN 0-252-02278-5, Champaign, III, University of Illinois Press, 1997.

JAMA. 1997;278(15):1291. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03550150099049

This article is only available in the PDF format. Download the PDF to view the article, as well as its associated figures and tables.


Are human and person equivalent terms? Walters, Loma Linda University Medical Center theologian-philosopherethicist, does not think so. The notions that all humans are sacred and that only full persons are maximally valuable are colliding.

For Walters, the physicalist model is based on the idea that all individuals, by virtue of their physical presence, share in the nature of humanness and therefore possess full moral standing. The personalist model is premised on the idea that only those individuals who possess particular higher capacities of the brain deserve full moral status. Walters writes, "My argument, in just a sentence, is that the more nearly an individual human or animal approximates a life of self-consciousness (such as yours or mine), the greater the claim of that individual to maximal moral status." Self-consciousness, for him, is a necessary and sufficient condition to be a person of full moral status. Consequently, "neither a conceptus nor