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What makes a person a person?

This might seem like a strange question but I think it may be at the heart of some of the most contentious issues society faces currently and the near future.

It seems to me that many religious people would answer that the possession of a soul makes a person a person. For Christians the soul enters the body at the moment of conception and leaves the body at physical death, therefore all humans (including embryos) are people. This also means only humans can be people. There are (at least) two problems with this definition. Firstly, what is a soul? Secondly where do they enter from and where do they go after death.

The answer many Humanists/Atheists/Naturalists and the nominally religious would give is that personhood is linked to consciousness. This answer is implicit for many people. They don’t articulate it but from their attitudes to certain ethical issues it can be inferred. There are problems with this definition too. How to we define consciousness? How do we assess it’s presence? Perhaps most contentiously, how do we deal with pre-conscious entities?

So we have two definitions of personhood* but why does any of this matter? Lets look at two current and one possible future issue.

  • Abortion – If we accept the first definition of personhood abortion is murder. There really isn’t any wiggle room. If we accept the second definition then abortion is the destruction of a non-person and therefore not comparable to murder. It isn’t that simple though, barring a medical problem an embryo will develop into a person so it seems wrong to not accord it some special status.
  • Right to die – If we accept the first definition then even if someone is in a persistent vegetative state a doctor who helped them to die (at the request of family) would be guilty of murder.^ If we accept the second definition then once consciousness is absent the person is also absent.
  • Non-human persons – This last issue is (to say the least) not a pressing concern, I may be contemned for even including it. If at some future date we were to come into contact with non-human entities (I’m thinking mainly of AI but it could also apply to life on other worlds) with the mental traits we normally think of as human the second definition would allow (require?) us to treat them as persons. The first definition would cause the usual problems for the religious.

I think both definitions have problems but the problems with the first are far greater. Without any evidence to show the existence of a soul it is based on pure conjecture. The main problem with second is that it fails to account for how we deal with what might be called proto-persons.

My thoughts on this subject are unfinished so I’d be interested to here your opinions.

*There are other definitions we might propose. A person could be defined in biological terms, in terms of their genetic make up. A person could be defined as simply whomever society/the State/the law says a person is. Both of these offer interesting discussion topics but I have deliberately ignored them here.

^The position of someone in great pain and facing inevitable death is different, the Christian position here would be that suicide is not permitted as only their god has the right to take life. This position is inconsistent to the point of being laughable, but that’s another topic.


7 Responses

  1. Your statement “there is no evidence” of a soul seems a bit unfair. There is indeed a preponderance of evidence for the existence of soul; and the contrary seems highly absurd based on the evidence. For one presentation of that view read Keeft.

  2. Maybe the essence of what it means to be a person is at core our commonly shared traits and desires. I think it is also the balance of our personal desires against the desires and needs of our country and the world as a whole.

  3. This is fairly well done I guess, but I would’ve been more concise with some of your points.
    A person is essential defined as a rational, self-aware and conscious being.
    Gorilla’s and Dolphins are people by this definition.
    I’d mention something about Abortion but there are far too many views on that. I’d be here all day.

  4. The Bible saith, “The fool saith in his heart there is no God”. Dont be a fool, do not deny what your heart is telling you. There is an eternal, loving God who promises hope for the condemned world. Humble yourself and come at His feet….

  5. I’m back. I’ve found it very difficult to get my head around this. Having read UTC’s comment I now think this is because I’m looking at it from the perspective of my religious upbringing – that there needs to be an objective answer to questions like this and that the answer should place humans in a special category. As an atheist the test is “what is reasonable and practicable?” We see this in how we treat animals. Most of us oppose suffering in animals but don’t object to them being killed for food. Yet even then we make fine distinctions – eating tuna but not dolphins. These are all choices if not entirely logical ones. It looks like there’s no clear answer here, we just have to work it out in each case.

  6. It has always seemed clear to me (since I became an atheist) that there is no such thing as ‘personhood’ that we should concern ourselves with. Humans are no different from any other animal, and our level consciousness is just one point on a continuous scale without any special defining points. We, as a society, choose who or what to consider ‘persons’ based on what seems resonable.
    I suppose this is what makes me unwilling to label myself as a ‘humanist’, and to be quite honest I’ve never quite understood this position.

  7. Great post – this will generate a lot of comments I think. First off there is the question of what is consciousness. Is it awareness of the external world? Is it awareness of the self? It will be very hard to use consciousness as a measure of personhood – what about plants are they conscious of the world around them – if not of the self. I have to think about this. I’ll be back!

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