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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.