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Question of the Month

What is a Person?

Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.

One of the most fundamental questions of anthropology is that of personhood. We might also consider it the starting point for all philosophy. Indeed, it was Martin Heidegger who most forcefully underlined the connection between anthropology and ‘the apprehension of Being’, that is, metaphysics. For him, only the human person might hope to find meaning in the world around them. Hinging on this dilemma of how to define the person are all of the perennial issues of philosophy, of ethics, and of sociology.

To define it succinctly: a person is a being endowed with imagination. A person is able to think abstractly, to project themself into imaginary situations, to plan for the future, and to reflect on the past. In other words, a person acts in the present moment not bound by mere instinct, but usually able to transcend the limits of the animal mind. A person is also inherently social. In order to flourish, a person should exist in communion with other persons, and in sovereignty over its inanimate surroundings. Its faculty of imagination is constructed of accumulated experience, and thereby continually works in relation to the world and to other beings inhabiting it.

This definition covers many possibilities. It seems likely that our Homo erectus ancestors would qualify for personhood. It also seems plausible that future artificial intelligence could hit the mark. Perhaps certain animal species might exist on this spectrum, at the lower scale. But what happens when we pass through the spectrum of personhood onto something greater? Why should consciousness end with personhood? Might there be other levels of consciousness superior to that which the person enjoys? Such a state would pass beyond both instinct and imagination to something more. Might this be what the Scholastic philosophers termed ‘Perfect Knowledge’? Such knowledge would go beyond instinct and imagination in the way we apprehend them, ignorant as we are. In a certain sense, then, personhood is constrained only by Plato’s cave of illusion, and by our bodily limitations. This might not be a bad thing. It is our cave after all, our world, and our social playground.

Anthony MacIsaac, Institut Catholique de Paris

The question of what a person is, isn’t exclusive to philosophy. Consequently, there are many answers. In a physiological and biological context, a person is a human with certain essential physiological and biological characteristics. Legally, the answer is broader. According to the law, a person is anyone or anything that can initiate and be subject to legal proceedings. By this conception, any adult, corporation, or institution is a person, but a minor is not a person, a foetus is not a person, and a humanoid robot like Hansen Robotics’ ‘Sophia’ is not a person. This highlights that legal personhood is dependent solely on legal recognition. In this sense a legal person is similar to a political person. A political person is anyone who has citizenship. The robot Sophia has been granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, which demonstrates the contingency of political personhood. Moreover, there is no shortage of people who have had their citizenship stripped, whose political personhood is therefore non-existent.

In philosophy, morally, a being is a person if they’re a moral agent, making moral judgements and taking moral actions. Metaphysically, the set of criteria for personhood include rationality or logical reasoning, consciousness, self-consciousness, use of language, ability to initiate action, moral agency (again) and intelligence. Robot Sophia, a young child, and even an alien may meet sufficient criteria here. Even a foetus would potentially meet the criteria.

In practice, however, only legal and political personhood are of significance, and these are contingent on recognition by political or legal institutions. However, metaphysical and moral personhood provide an intellectual foundation upon which to discuss legal and political personhood. Therefore I suggest that a person in its full sense – both theoretically and practically – is a metaphysical and moral being with legal and political recognition. The latter is sufficient for practical personhood, the former for theoretical personhood, and both are necessary for full personhood.

Diogo Joao Baptista Gomes, Brachtenbach, Luxembourg

The answer is deceptively simple at face value. I am a person. You are a person. Every relative, friend, colleague, and acquaintance in your life is a person. Perhaps then you are tempted to say that a person is a human being. However, ‘human being’ evokes the human animal, whilst ‘person’ is something more esoteric, linked with one’s personality or intelligence, for example.

Boethius agreed. In his Theological Tractates he defined ‘person’ as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’. Boethius used the etymology of the word to help him to form his definition. I find this interesting because ‘ persona’ in Greek was a theatrical mask. So is personhood a mere façade? Are we all just animals masquerading as something more? And if we are all lowly beasts with overblown egos, is it possible that other species fit the criteria for personhood better than we do?

John Locke argued that a person is something that ‘can conceive itself as itself’. By that definition, it isn’t just human beings who qualify for personhood – great apes, elephants, and dolphins would qualify too. Philippa Brakes published an article titled ‘Are Orcas non-human persons?’ Orcas are self-aware, intelligent, and emotional beings. Their paralimbic (brain’s emotional) system is highly developed, even when compared to those of humans, and their insula cortex (which is linked to compassion, empathy, self-awareness, and sociability) is the most elaborate in the world.

No doubt some will reject this. Orcas can’t be people. They are infamously brutal killers: they’re even colloquially known as ‘killer whales’. A recent paper by John Totterdell described a coordinated, gruesome orca attack against a blue whale, in which the orcas stripped the creature of its blubber and fed off it whilst the whale was still alive. Surely this can’t be the behaviour of a person? Yet this response ignores the innumerable atrocities committed by human hands.

It scares us to think that other creatures could match, or perhaps exceed, our own intellectual and emotional understanding. But perhaps it is time to broaden our minds beyond the anthropocentric definition of personhood.

Rebecca McHugh, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire

In the first place, to be a person is to be human. Humans are animals, but they are animals who know. All animals can be said to ‘know’ in limited ways, largely defined by their bodies and their physical needs: they recognize what is good for them and they pursue it. This is not to say that we humans are not limited or defined by our physical bodies and needs: indeed we are! Every human person has a body, lives and grows in and as that body. But we can know in a way that extends far beyond the physical. We can abstract and define realities: we do not just see a rabbit and chase it; we know it as a rabbit. I can know myself as myself. We grow in self-knowledge and in knowledge of the world around us. Why ? and What ? are favourite questions. We become aware of the self-evident principles of life. I remember an occasion when I was looking after some small nieces and their even smaller brother. I bought them ice-creams; and because the boy was so small, I offered him half an ice-cream. But no! He was already aware that ‘whole’ is more – and more desireable – than half!

We are aware of and conscious of ‘myself’, but we are also know others as ‘not me’, and in our relationships with others our self-identity, our personality, develops. It is of course possible for the development of personality in a child to be, as it were, smothered by too much attention from already-formed personalities. Ideally, and normally, a child develops as a person as their knowledge of the world grows, relationships flourish, and choices are made and lived. For with knowledge we have free will, just because, unlike the rest of the animal world, our choice is not determined beforehand by the physical – by our bodies. Although the physical necessarily plays a large part in our development, nevertheless, the human, the person, is equipped freely to choose what he or she knows to be good.

Sr. M. Valery Walker OP, Stone, Staffordshire

Perhaps being a person requires some kind of psychological continuity involving memory and self-awareness. Yet, even if Uncle Rob has serious dementia we will continue to treat him as if he is a person. It is as though the term ‘person’ is not really descriptive, more evaluative. We continue to care for him and continue to feel compassion and love for him. Could not one therefore argue that a person is a being that is capable of being an object for care, compassion and love ?

It may be thought that this is irrational and sentimental. After all, we might care for our goldfish but be unconvinced that the goldfish is a person. We might love our teddy bear, which is clearly not a person. But the relationship we have to Uncle Rob is different to those we have to a goldfish or teddy bear. How we treat Uncle Rob is related to our wider vision of human life, including such fundamental factors as the powerful human intimacies that bind us to him, and the suffering and death that comes to all families. Curiously, in this marvellous yet horrendous nexus, Uncle Rob’s lack of cognitive capacity, far from disqualifying him from personhood, becomes one of the facts that reminds us that he is a person. While diminished cognitively, he yet remains an undiminished person. He remains fully the object of the kind of concern we can only direct at persons.

Such a view of persons partly explains our discomfort at regarding computers as persons, despite their cognitive capacities. Even a figure as complex as the Terminator does not strike us as fully a person. We feel that we are dealing rather with a cognitively sophisticated other. This also reflects the fact that the term person, because it is partly evaluative, does not pick out a metaphysical category, but expresses a relationship of concern we have for certain beings.

Robert Griffiths, Enton, Godalming

In a rush to bring order to the perceptual chaos that is our environment, the human brain tends to use rules of thumb, which, by their very nature, promote generalization based on information from prior experiences. In a way, the brain is constantly playing connect-the-dots by making predictions about how the dots are supposed to be connected. Personhood, in essence, is a cognitive construct – a mental picture of an individual drawn by connecting the dots, which are the perceptual features or physical characteristics of the individual. Unlike ‘human’ – a concept grounded in the biological reality of neurons, tissues, and bones – a ‘person’ exists purely within the mind, and thereby is influenced by cognitive schemas of one’s own or with whom one interacts.

This view implies that you can play host to multiple persons, where you are at least partially in control of the kind of person you are, constantly changing and modifying it in response to feedback from your surroundings. That, in turn, affects others’ perception of you, and elicits a similar feedback loop within them, which then changes your surroundings again. You connect the dots of your personhood in a particular way based on your beliefs, while others do it per their own beliefs. The resulting pictures are quite different. Making things even more chaotic, the constant back-and-forth between individuals and their surroundings means the dots keep moving while the lines are being drawn.

We can see evidence for this view of personhood in colloquialisms like ‘He became a completely different person’ or ‘You’re not the same person I fell in love with’. Interestingly, such sentiments are usually not observed when an individual changes their gender or radically alters their features through surgical means. That again suggests that a person is not a physical object but a mental concept, an effort by our brains to construct coherent narratives from the multiplicity of sensory experiences. An individual is a lot like a complex number. The equivalent of the real part is the physical, mechanical structure of a body, while anchored to it is a mental part that contributes to the behaviour and nature of the whole. That mental part is the person.

Rudradeep Guha, Vadodara, India

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin’, thought Alice;’but a grin without a cat! It is the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The inner world of the human being is surprisingly similar to the grin of the Cheshire Cat: the ‘psyche’ (consciousness, perception, needs and motives) seem to be there, but the ‘owner’ is not visible. To see the owner behind the grin is to answer the question ‘What is a person?’

We are each ultimately unknowable to other people, but we also need other people to come to know ourselves. We are dependent on the perceptions of people outside ourselves. According to the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), another person can be revealed only in a dialogue, in the process of mutual understanding in which “the activity of the knower is combined with the activity of the discoverer.” A person then is the mutual co-existence of ‘I’ and the ‘other’ and as such cannot be an ‘object of study’: it can only become a subject in a dialogue, for whom the other is not ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘I’, but a completely developed ‘you’. Therefore, the self is not an individual psychological phenomenon, but a decentred, dynamic and permeable social entity in which consciousness is not the property of the individual but a shared social phenomenon. Consciousness is always a product of responsive interactions, and cannot exist in isolation. Even hermits are still in dialogue, with their ecological surroundings, or with multiple inner voices.

Bakhtin noted that a person has no internal sovereign territory, but is wholly and always on the boundary; looking inside himself, he looks into the eyes of another with the eyes of another. So the ‘owner’ behind the grin is a being for another and through the other, for oneself.

Nella Leontieva, Sydney, N.S.W.

Person’ is an important word. Since a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion, Americans have bitterly argued whether a baby in the womb is a person. If it is, it has moral and legal rights, such as the right to life, and thus it shouldn’t be killed. Note that I said ‘baby in the womb’ and ‘killed’. Those favoring unrestricted abortions would replace ‘baby’ with ‘fetus’, which is a mass of cells that can be aborted instead of ‘killed’. Words matter. However, whatever terms you use, the issue is the same: ‘Is the baby/fetus growing in the womb a person?’

Is the issue a metaphysical one or a moral one? One of being, or one of status in the moral order? At first it seems to be the former, but I believe it is the latter. The biology is comparatively straightforward; everyone can agree on the biological situation, but not whether it is a person. The real issue is, ‘What rights (moral and legal) shall we say that the baby/fetus has?’

It would be wonderful if we could definitely say what a person is so that all the world would agree. But we cannot. Attributes commonly describing a person are consciousness, self-awareness and personal identity, individuality, rationality, feelings (pain and pleasure, love and hatred, fear of death, etc), ability to choose (free will), set long term goals, and experience humor and beauty. I am inclined to think all of these attributes are necessary to the concept of personhood. Unfortunately, each of these attributes seems to allow gradation. Also, the marginal cases, such as newborn babies and comatose individuals on life support systems, lack one or more of the ‘required’ attributes. These considerations imply a scale of personhood. This is disturbing, for in the past such thinking has justified oppression and slavery. Most of us demand that a newborn baby and the comatose patient be considered persons, because we care for them as persons. Our pets have feelings and we have feelings for them, and so in some respects they deserve that we treat them as persons. And we do, but not fully so. As for aliens and robots, I think they can wait until we have a better grasp of the issue here and now.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC

Who am I?
The crying child asked the father.
When am I?
The heart beseeched the absent lover.
Why am I?
Existence sighed under the sullen sky.
Where am I?
The mind questioned the tired body.
What am I?
The man whispered unto himself.

“You are stars stirred with consciousness”
The mirror whispered to the man.
“You dwell in purpose, promise, dream and future plan”
The body told the broken mind.
“You are nothing beyond the will to be”
As the spinning heavens rained its light on me.
“You bleed when nothing else matters”
The lover nursed her broken heart.
“For you are a window, a forest, a reason, a door,
Life’s memory of what came before,
Because you are a person”
The father held the crying child.
“Man unbeknownst to himself
Being unreconciled
Nothing less, my love,
And nothing forevermore.”

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: How Do You Change Someone’s Mind? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 13th June 2022. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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