What is a person?

I am a person (I promise). You are a person (I say that with confidence, as I am only addressing those that can read this). But, what exactly is a person? I’m not going to go through much ground work to establish that “living human” and “person” are non-identical terms, because I think that much is obvious. I am then going to offer a few ideas for defining it.

If we were met by an alien race, a species with complex language, intelligence and social structures, I do not believe we would be too hesitant to call those persons. But they certainly are not human. My background as a language teacher means I have often defined “person” in terms of its familial semantic group, words that share a root word. To be a person is to have personal interests and/or a persona. As it turns out, there are other definitions floating around that very much embody the same ideas.

Being “future oriented”, for example. That means “the degree to which a collectivity encourages and rewards future-oriented behaviors such as planning and delaying gratification” (House et al. 2004). Although that is actually a definition from a Business Management book, you can see how it applies to individuals: it requires the capacity for abstract and complex thought; to conceive of the future and understand the future will depend, in some way, on your actions.

We should guard against thinking of this, I think, in binary terms. If we articulate a set of criteria that convince us a thing is ‘future oriented’ ― like it appears to make plans or demonstrates anticipation or fear ― and then we discover a dog meets all those criteria, we should not think a dog is therefore as much a person as we are. However, it is still a person. This concept exists in a sliding scale. Peter Singer (2011 p 75) defines a person in a similar way: “A rational and self-aware being.” I think we can more clearly see this as a sliding scale.

This is not just navel-gazing to see if I can get my dog considered a person. (Although, I am waiting for data for my MSc dissertation, so there’s some navel-gazing.) Instead, this concept has important legal and moral consequences. We think of ‘people’ as having certain legal and moral rights. There are a number of issues for consideration here, then. In Animal Liberation Singer (1995) argues that moral considerations should be afforded to all individuals (or persons) in relation to their interests. For the sake of this argument, we can say that the moral value of an individual relates directly to how they would score on some ‘person index’; the extent to which the individual is future oriented, has personal interests, is self aware and rational. It is a moral consideration that would alter the operation of huge elements of our society.

This definition of personhood and its relationship to moral considerations is very compelling, in its own right. In addition, I have not come across a rebuttal (and neither can I conceive of one) that doesn’t fall foul of the criticism of being ‘speciesist’. There are ways around that, by claiming some varieties of moral nihilism or divine privilege; they bypasses concerns about speciesism quite readily. But, in general, so long as a person thinks it valuable to consider the worth of our actions, this is a compelling idea to many.

I say this as a person who has argued that it is only by recognising our special place among animals that we can have moral responsibilities toward the environment. I said this in rebuttal to the idea that we should behave more modestly in the environment because we are not special among life on earth. I disagreed that that reasoning followed: it is only by recognising our advanced level of future orientation that we can ever start to look at what responsibilities we have.

It may be that speciesist biases are deeply innate in us. I have been aware of the consequences of this type of thinking for a long time: I should be vegan, but I’m not. Arguably, an insectivorous diet is also morally defensible, but I have also not bothered myself with that consideration.

But we do get into interesting questions with this definition: potential people. If we do away with our basic index case of “living human” = “person”, can we have human nonpersons? Is a person in a coma, who might recover, not a person right now? Is that human not granted legal or moral rights? Don’t bypass this question with ‘contrary rights’, the economics of freeing those doctors and that equipment up for other patients. That’s a cop out. Simply, is it murder to walk into a hospital with a gun and shoot a person in a coma? Does the likelihood of their recovery make a difference?

What about a sleeping person? Is that now an oxymoron? Do you surrender your rights when you fall asleep because you are no longer future oriented?

I think we do away with the ‘sleepy’ problem, quickly. A sleeping person still very much has the capacity for personhood; when they wake up, which they will, they will be future oriented again. The coma patient seems like a Schrödinger’s cat situation; until the human is irretrievably dead or wakes up, it is impossible to make a meaningful call on whether that human has the capacity for what we defined here as a ‘person’. Only the future can inform us of the present.

To take us back to the hospital shooting situation: the human in a coma is a person and has therefore been murdered if, and only if, that human would otherwise have recovered from that coma. It is only in them waking up that we can see they had the capacity to be a person, and therefore were a person all a long.

The question of ‘potentials’ isn’t done there. We have to consider what our criteria is for being a ‘meaningful’ potential. Given currently technology, one could be cloned from blood spilled shaving; but no one is offering moral consideration to lives lost from shaving and nail cutting going mildly awry. What about the female menstrual cycle? Is the egg a potential life? Is failing to have sex at every opportunity a monthly murder by negligence? Worse, is male masturbation a genocide?

Or, to preempt where the comments are about to go, what is it about ‘conception’ that makes that unit potential enough to be considered a person, whereas sperm, egg and small quantities of spilled blood are not?

You may have noticed that I have done a rather poor job of dealing with the question of ‘potential’ humans. The honest answer is that I don’t know; everywhere I look there seems to be some obvious problem with reasoning. It seems to be an obvious moral mistake to say that humans are not persons when they are in a coma, but simultaneously that is the logical conclusion of the definition of person I use. I can get around that by saying a human likely to recover from their coma will be a person and thus is a person, with respect to moral and legal considerations. But then I’ve opened myself up to the obvious question of how far removed from the criteria of being a person something can be, and fairly be considered a ‘potential person’. It might be worth considering steps of human intervention as the metric for the levels of potential. After all, many steps of human intervention have to take place to turn spilled shaving blood into a person. There’s at least one intentional and human intervening step to draw the distinction between ejaculate and a blastocyst. However, a person under general anaesthetic will naturally come around and a foetus will naturally become a person.

But this distinction draws into question medical intervention. A person in a coma will die without intentional medical intervention; by the metric in the paragraph above, that would make the comatose human no more a person than an egg cell. Whereas the need for a complex and technological and human intervention is what stops blood being a potential person, the need for complex and technological intentional intervention doesn’t stop us considering a human in a coma, otherwise realising precisely no traits of being a person, still a person.

Maybe it’s easier to just be speciesist.

1 thought on “What is a person?”

  1. Some “persons” are nitpickers, specifically “I am only addressing those that can read this” should be “I am only addressing those who can read this.” ;o)

    As an amateur philosopher it is clear to me that that there are some questions that need not be asked, as in “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” regarding the price of something unlabeled. Attempts to redefine the word “person” legislatively have been met with general disdain, except in cases in which the legislation was reframed, avoiding actual thought about what that means.

    If one does spend time trying to define such a term, one ends up with myriad possibilities (I could, for example, use the definition of “person” to be he/she whose name appears on a state or federal tax document.) from which one would have to choose without an criteria being applied because that would require an already existing definition of the term.

    In fact, all definitions just involve other words that require definition and, hence, are by definition circular.

    I hope I have cleared that up for you … and please stop using “that” to refer to persons.

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