What Makes a Person a Person?
[Today’s guest post by Clinton Wilcox is part of our paid blogging program.]
I have written several articles already giving a robust defense of what a person is. But now I’d like to talk about what I see as a key component to a person.
My preferred definition of “person” comes from medieval philosopher Boethius, that a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. There are many things we think of when we think of persons, and various philosophers like Mary Anne Warren and Peter Singer have identified: the capacity for rational thought, the ability to express oneself through language, the ability to form concepts, etc. And of course, I have argued in the past that it’s not our present capacities that ground our personhood, but our inherent capacities. This is why the unborn qualify as persons.
It’s simply counterintuitive to refer to anything other than humans as persons. Even pro-choice writers use the terms “human” and “person” interchangeably… until they want to justify abortion. Then they suddenly want to make a distinction between the two. Even in liberal movies or television shows, in which they’re generally pro-choice, they’ll still refer to a wanted unborn child as a “little person.” Granted, intuitions are not always reliable in determining truth, but we are generally justified in trusting our intuitions unless someone gives us good reason otherwise.
Now all of the criteria I listed earlier are definitely things that persons can do. But there is one very important factor that goes into whether or not something should be considered a person: its inherent capacity for morality. A person is someone who can recognize a moral code and act accordingly. This is why human beings are persons and animals are not. If there were other animals that could determine the moral code and act accordingly, they could be considered people. But I don’t think this will happen, since the differences between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom are vast (e.g. humans have the unique ability to form concepts, and animal sounds are not “true” language).
Consider this: it is wrong for me to kill a human being (a discussion of why is irrelevant to this conversation). I can recognize that it is wrong for me to kill a human being, so if I kill a human being I must be captured, tried, and punished. However, our courts recognize that someone must be in their right mind in order to be punished for a crime, because if you do not understand that it’s a crime, then you can’t be held accountable for it. This is why the insanity defense is allowed, if it can be proven. Bear in mind that they are still a person because the inherent capacity is still there even if it’s due to a permanent illness; it is just not presently-exercisable. See this article for more on capacities. I am just saying that they are not held responsible for their action because they were not in their right mind.
Additionally, we do not hold animals responsible for committing moral crimes. If I wander into a bear cave, I am responsible if I get mauled by a bear. But if someone wanders onto my property and I kill them without giving them a chance to leave, I am held responsible. Murder, rape, cannibalism, and all sorts of moral crimes occur in nature, yet the animals are not responsible for them because they can’t recognize right from wrong. This is the way of things, and it also shows that we simply don’t need to recognize animals as persons, because these things happen in nature, in the wild, anyway. It’s the ecosystem and the circle of life.
Now, obviously animals do feel pain and many of them are conscious. So not recognizing animals as persons does not mean we can treat them however we want. I am morally opposed to hunting for sport. But it does mean that animals are not intrinsically valuable like humans are. An example my friend Josh Brahm uses is also helpful here: rounding up a group of dolphins and killing them is not morally the same as rounding up a group of human children and killing them, even though killing a group of dolphins probably still deserves some punishment. But to consider animals as persons is an illegitimate move by those who would try to deny that very same personhood to human unborn children.
One final word on the matter. Without delving into an off-topic discussion about whether morality is objective, I am not saying that you must agree with us on morality to be considered a person. Peter Singer is still a person, even though he believes that infanticide is morally permissible. But he is a rational entity, capable of recognizing morality, even if some of the moral conclusions he draws are reprehensible. This is why your rational nature is essential to your personhood. As human beings with rational minds, not only can we recognize that certain things are right and wrong, but we can also, through argumentation and logic, come closer to the truth on matters of morality.
As always excellent article.
"and animal sounds are not "true" language"
What exactly makes you say that? Do you have a source for this? In fact, I think that I previously saw a some show on some channel where, if I remember correctly, it was determined that the sounds of dolphins and perhaps some other non-human animals *do* in fact compose/make up a language due to the frequency of various sounds and "words".
"But there is one very important factor that goes into whether or not something should be considered a person: its inherent capacity for morality."
And how exactly does one test for this to know if a species has this or not?
"Additionally, we do not hold animals responsible for committing moral crimes."
Well, we don't hold human infants responsible for committing moral crimes either, do we?
"rounding up a group of dolphins and killing them is not morally the same as rounding up a group of human children and killing them, even though killing a group of dolphins probably still deserves some punishment."
While I am unsure about whether or not killing dolphins should be considered to be as bad as killing children, I am tempted to say that killing dolphins (which *are* self-aware) should probably result in a greater punishment for someone than killing some non-human animal which is *not* self-aware.
And Yes, I agree with your point about Peter Singer being a person, though I want to point out that his arguments in regards to personhood simply appear to be the result of him taking some pro-choice arguments in regards to personhood to their logical conclusions.
I just saw it on nova. Dolphins have their own complicated language composed of squeaks and vibrations.
''It's simply counterintuitive to refer to anything other than humans as persons. Even pro-choice writers use the terms "human" and "person" interchangeably… until they want to justify abortion. Then they suddenly want to make a distinction between the two.''
We have been given decades worth of science fiction displaying to us non human persons and the public had no problem with that or otherwise you would've went and killed the movie producers for how dare they present non human persons to us. The majority of the pro life movement especially is trying to take advantage of the uneducated on the differences between the two words which is why I saw you say before in other comments ''let's skip the talk on personhood and just plainly ask if killing humans is wrong'' that is like a animal rights activists making that claim regarding rather or not killing pigs for a certain reason like for food for example is wrong. Stop trying to take advantage of the fact that MOST humans are still stupidly prejudiced towards there species.
There was always those among us who knew the differences between the two without even being in the abortion debate in the first place. I know a computer technician who has entire logical arguments for including AI's into the category of person for example and knows where they are even currently at on the matter. Ignorance is a computer programmer for example and he knows a lot about Artificial Intelligences then anyone in here does most likely.
The oxford dictionary I have at home for example has the word person defined as a ''self conscious or rational being'' with no hint of species membership in it.
India also labeled dolphins as non human persons not too long ago. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/07/30/1226634/-India-Declares-Dolphins-Non-Human-Persons-Dolphin-shows-BANNED
So really now, the intellectual dishonestly has to SERIOUSLY stop. This goes out to most pro lifers. To Clinton and the other few pro lifers who know what words mean, props to you guys for not lying about what words mean.
''And how exactly does one test for this? After all, we need to be sure about which non-human species have this and which ones don't.''
Clinton gave a definition he preferred ''a person is an individual substance of a rational nature.''
If we were to vanish into thin air for a full week and only one human infant is visible and let's say a alien were to find it, he/she wouldn't know under Clinton's definition if it was a person or not until you actually meant the more developed members of that species that ACTUALLY have rationality. This is why functionalism is important in some ways though anyone here should know rationality has nothing to do with being conscious and self aware 24 hours a day since our power of speech for example, come from our rationality.
What is your opinion on humans who can't recognize right from wrong? I have no doubt that there are some other animals that may have a greater understanding of right and wrong than some human sociopaths.
Also, to the average bear, English probably doesn't sound like true language.
Regarding Josh and the Dolphins I'm not sure that is really helpful. If someone thinks its worse to round up their relatives and kill them as opposed to strangers that says nothing in regards to whether it is less or more wrong and only talks primarily about how they feel about a group they have closer ties to. & someone people would rather save their dog then say a stranger given a choice.
Still looking for a good account as to why materialists insist on present capacities, though I am watching a Yale lecture series on personal identity right now.
"No, but there's a fundamental difference. An infant is not *yet* responsible for its actions, whereas a non-human animal will *never* be responsible for its actions."
Yes, but to a pro-choicer who supports legalizing infanticide, the words "not yet" might be crucial here. After all, such a pro-choicer could say that just like human infants aren't (and shouldn't) *yet* be held responsible for their actions/decisions, human infants likewise shouldn't *yet* be considered persons/worthy of having rights.
"It's important for humans to teach their offspring right from wrong, but they will develop the present capacity to recognize right from wrong."
I am not sure that this will always be true, though. For instance, you can research some cases of feral children.
"It's the inherent capacity that grounds one's personhood because if only the present capacity for rationality, moral recognition, etc., was important, then we would lose our personhood every time we ceased being able to function as a person, even temporarily."
And what if a pro-choicer argues that whether or not the brain structures or whatever which result in this capacity is relevant to who should be considered a person? How exactly would you respond to such a pro-choicer?
Honestly, I myself am not sure which one of these two options would ideally be the best one. However, *until and unless* legalizing infanticide becomes a realistic option, I think that the best move for me right now is to support prenatal personhood and bans on most abortions.
If I'm talking to a pro-choice person who supports legalizing infanticide, I find that to be incredible. No one whose moral compass functions properly should agree that it is morally permissible to kill infants. I know some philosophers do it but philosophers aren't always concerned with whether or not their views make *them* more or less human.
But this still lends them to the episodic problem. Even if they can bring themselves to admit that infanticide is permissible, there is still the problem that in this case, I would cease to be a person when I temporarily cease functioning as one.
I am aware of feral children. In fact, in my next article for SPL I'm planning on looking at an argument for personhood that specifically deals with feral children.
My question would be: why is it the case that the necessary condition is having a brain, if the necessary condition isn't consciousness? Why couldn't biological humanity, then, be the necessary condition? After all, being biologically human is just as important to the ability to think rationally as having a human brain is.
"But it does mean that animals are not intrinsically valuable like humans are."
Clinton, what do you mean by "intrinsically valuable?"
"If I'm talking to a pro-choice person who supports legalizing infanticide, I find that to be incredible."
Well, believe it or not, but there actually *do* appear to be some pro-choicers that support legalizing painless elective infanticide in certain cases.
"No one whose moral compass functions properly should agree that it is morally permissible to kill infants."
In your opinion, perhaps. However, would you say the same thing about people who don't consider embryos and fetuses to be persons/worthy of having rights?
"I know some philosophers do it but philosophers aren't always concerned with whether or not their views make *them* more or less human."
I'm sorry, but I am a little confused here–are you talking about these philosophers when you are using the word "them" here? Also, humanity doesn't really appear to be something which is subjective–after all, we are all full, whole human specimens at a particular stage of human development.
Also, in regards to philosophers, I could be wrong on this, but I would think that philosophers support changing the law to reflect the positions which they argue in favor of.
"But this still lends them to the episodic problem. Even if they can bring themselves to admit that infanticide is permissible, there is still the problem that in this case, I would cease to be a person when I temporarily cease functioning as one."
But then they could respond and say that you, in contrast to infants, already had past [insert ability here] and will have this same ability in the future. While I think that you previously called this argument of theirs an ad hoc argument, I don't think that this makes their argument any less valid. After all, regardless of their reasons for using this argument, this argument itself needs to be attacked and criticized.
"I am aware of feral children. In fact, in my next article for SPL I'm planning on looking at an argument for personhood that specifically deals with feral children."
In that case, I will definitely read this upcoming article of yours.
"My question would be: why is it the case that the necessary condition is having a brain, if the necessary condition isn't consciousness? Why couldn't biological humanity, then, be the necessary condition? After all, being biologically human is just as important to the ability to think rationally as having a human brain is."
Your response here might be a decent one. That said, I might need to think this over a bit more.
I been debating personhood now for quite a while into the extraterrestrial life category with two notebooks going into science fiction, possibilities like facts about stars and galaxies and hypotheticals and I am stunned and shocked to see that the vast majority of the pro life movement is out to ban abortion based purely on the grounds that in the end, only humans can be persons. Once our society finds out the differences between the two words and see that close to half the nation has been lying to us the whole time then something big will indeed happen. Slapping a dictionary in front of my about a definition of the word person even though the dictionary does nothing more but record common usage is insulting to those like myself who has debated that word for quite a bit.
You do understand me do you not? It seems to me, that the pro life position does not mentally prepare our society with interactions with ET's that might be popping up in the future. So, the intensive focus on species membership is in reality, nothing more but a huge distraction from what we should be really doing. This debate has been going on now for a full 40 years and the word person is being debated and the best we can come up with, is just the common usage one?
It is perfectly possible for any infant human to never be responsible for its actions. All it has to do is end up in the "feral child" category, and be no more of a person than any other clever animal, like a chimpanzee.
The default assumption, made by abortion opponents, that humans always automatically eventually attain personhood has been proved wrong, else it would be impossible for feral children to exist.
It seems as if I should be pro choice on the matter since pro lifers are saying stuff like
MamaBear- ''But Adam, the angel may have divine protection, which outranks human constitutions and governments anyway, but what are you going to do when ET moves in? Or one of Asimov's robots?
This guy seems unable to distinguish reality and fiction.''
One of the key points of science fiction is to prepare society for what may happen in the future. Since your a computer programmer from what I read, it was displayed through science fiction Ipods and how some said we would never get up to that point and look where we are at now. The pro life position it seems, is not the position we should be taking in the long run.
Well, try to get as many relevant facts as possible before making your decision. I've gathered quite a few, but you might want to verify them.
Sorry for the delay. I don't get notified when new comments are posted under my articles, so I don't notice them unless I look back at them.
Humans who can't recognize right from wrong are still persons because they have the *inherent nature* to recognize right from wrong. But we label them as insane because we recognize that they are deficient in some way (in this case, in their ability to recognize right from wrong).
Also, animal sounds don't follow rules of logic and syntax like a true language does. It's not just about how it "sounds," but about whether or not it acts as a language. Animal sounds are not a language.
The example is helpful because it helps show that our intuitions regarding intrinsic value are that human beings are more valuable than dolphins (or other animals). My family means more to me than a stranger on the street, nevertheless my intuition is still that it is just as wrong to kill the stranger on the street as it would be to kill my family, even though I would feel the loss of my family to a greater degree.
I mean valuable in and of themselves. A table, for example, is not intrinsically valuable. It's only valuable insofar as it is valued by a human being. Its value is intrinsic. Some things like human beings, happiness, and justice, and good in themselves; they don't find their value in something else.
Not entirely. It shows that those we have strong relationships will hold more relative value to us. Some people hold stronger relationships with their dog over even other members of their family let alone non relatives. & valuations isn't the exactly the same as what grounds a right to life.
Some accounts use what matters to that entity when deciding if it is harmed or not.
This is one subject we will never agree on.