« Chris Eisgruber and Lawyer-University Presidents | Main | McConnell, "A Defense of Citizens United" »

April 22, 2013

"What Is a Person?"

On Friday, at Notre Dame Law School, I had the pleasure of participating in a really interesting interdisciplinary roundtable-conference, which was generously organized by Prof. David Opderbeck of Seton Hall (and, this semester, of Notre Dame).  One of the presentations was by (and several of the discussion-sessions were about) Christian Smith, who presented the basic argument of his fascinating book, What is a Person?  Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago 2010).  How cool, to write -- and to pull off! -- a book with that title.  

Not to give too much away, but . . . a person is "a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who -- as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions -- exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world."  It's critical realism, personalist theory, antinaturalistic phenomenological epistemology, and Charles Taylor about social structures, human dignity, and the good.  Wow!

 

Posted by Rick Garnett on April 22, 2013 at 02:06 PM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I've found something to love about this book already. The Amazon prices are $45 for the hardcover, $21.61 for the paperback, and (get this) $7.12 for the Kindle version.
http://www.amazon.com/What-Is-Person-Rethinking-ebook/dp/B004L62GZG/ref=tmm_kin_title_0

It is extremely rare that I can justify spending $45 on a book, even if I am certain it's going to confirm all my biases! Now, $21.61 is quite reasonable for the paperback, but at $7.21, the Kindle version is a "must have." I wish we could see this kind of pricing more often for books of this nature, although as someone who spent his entire career in book publishing, I suppose it is not always an option for the publisher.

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 22, 2013 2:22:48 PM

Not to push this thread too much in a tangential direction, I found a book I'd like to get but the Kindle version on Amazon is $43. Seems steep for a stream of electrons...

Back to our regular programming.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 22, 2013 4:19:41 PM

I hope Professor Smith included the self evident fact, that a son or daughter of a human person can only be a human person.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 22, 2013 4:23:29 PM

I'd rather see it this way: only a son or daughter of a human person can be a human person. The difference is trivial perhaps. But then, the question is "what is a person?" which implies that a person need not be a human.

If a person is one who possesses the listed attributes, does a person have to have all the attributes at one time at least some of the time? People asleep are not conscious, and often they are not reflexive. (Shouldn’t that be “reflective”, capable of meditation or contemplation?)

Is a corporation a person under this list of attributes? I think not; tho’ it would possess some of the attributes (durable identity).

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 22, 2013 4:45:59 PM

Human persons are embodied souls with an intellect and a will.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 22, 2013 5:02:19 PM

And as human persons, our call to Holiness, is a call to live our lives in relationship with one another in communion with God, as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters...

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 22, 2013 5:15:47 PM

While my grasp of cognitive science is quite limited, I fear that a definition of "human person" that requires possession of "intellect" and "will" might exclude unborn persons at certain stages of development and severely brain injured/impaired persons.

Posted by: dfb | Apr 22, 2013 5:36:26 PM

I am not aware that, e.g., a fertilized egg has "an intellect and a will," but perhaps the idea is that they have a soul with some form of this. At least, using current Catholic doctrine though there "is no constant teaching in Catholic theology on the commencement of personhood."

http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0492_0490_ZX1.html#492_US_490fn3/11

Also, there might be a different between "life" and personhood. See, e.g., Roe v. Wade, F22 ("The theological debate was reflected in the writings of St. Augustine, who made a distinction between embryo inanimatus, not yet endowed with a soul, and embryo animatus.")

Posted by: Joe | Apr 22, 2013 5:43:38 PM

Fascinating definition, and a great way to begin a discussion of the difference between a person (this is actually quite a limited definition) and a human life. The seamless garment seems to apply to definitions of human life, but not personhood.

Posted by: Joseph | Apr 22, 2013 7:31:15 PM

"Person" is said primarily in three ways:

Way 1: For A to be a person just is for A to be a member of the species homo sapiens.

Way 2: For A to be a person just is for A to have certain psychological characteristics (e.g., a rational nature, second-order volitions, self-consciousness).

Way 3: For A to be a person just is for A to have a right to life.

These are all obviously different. Yet arguments of the following form are ubiquitous in philosophy:

1. A is a non-person in Way n.
2. So, A is a non-person in Way not-n.

For example, often people argue that we can kill fetuses as follows:

1. A fetus is a non-person in Way 2.
2. So, a fetus is a non-person in Way 3.

This is a transparently invalid inference. It works only if you add a premise like

1*. X is person in Way 3 if and only if X is a person in Way 2.

But (1*) is ludicrous, and at any rate I've never heard anything approaching an argument for it.

We should stop letting the enemies of life and the slaves of the culture of death bully us into talking like them. We should stop *caring*, frankly, whether this or that is a "person" in some complicated psychological sense of the term. We should just ask, incessantly, "May we kill this entity, or may we not?" Inquiry into this question requires no reference, at any point, to "personhood." Indeed, such inquiry is only muddled by references to "personhood."

Posted by: mike | Apr 22, 2013 8:24:43 PM

The life of every person has a beginning, the moment the life of a particular human person is brought into existence. From the moment of your conception, you have been you, and I have been me.

Nothing has been added to or subtracted from the DNA of a human individual, once conception has occurred, thus from the moment we are created at our conception, as a son or daughter of a human person, God Has endowed us with our unalienable Right to Life.

One cannot separate the life of a human individual from the personhood of that same individual, as a particular human life grows and develops during his/her lifetime.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 22, 2013 10:51:56 PM

Poor Christian Smith wrote a 528 page book on this topic, but we think we can settle the question in these little boxes!

To say someone—let's use Christian Smith himself—is a person because he has the DNA of a person gets us nowhere. How do we know that Christian Smith has the DNA of a person? We certainly don't have his genome sequenced, study the huge amount of data yielded, and say, "Yes, this is a person!" We infer that Christian Smith has the DNA of a person because we determine him to be a person, not the other way around. (Also, it is now known that all that makes an organism what it is or will become is not encoded in genes and chromosomes. There is epigenetics to contend with, and who knows what remains to be discovered?)

Also, in human reproduction, we know that in perhaps a majority of cases, when conception occurs, the resulting "thing" does not survive for more than a few days. In some cases, it is undoubtedly the case that things have gone well with the conception itself, and there is something wrong with, say, the potential mother's uterus that interferes with implantation. But in a great many cases, it appears that something has been produced at conception that is so genetically faulty that it has no chance of developing more than a few days. Robert George has said the following:

**********
Moreover, as almost all authorities in human embryology note, many of these unsuccessful pregnancies are really due to incomplete or defective fertilizations, and so in many cases, what is lost is not actually a human embryo. (To be a complete human organism, a human being, the entity must have the epigenetic primordia for a functioning brain and nervous system, which may be lacking as a result of a severe chromosomal defect.)
**********

So many times, a sperm and an egg join, and the resulting cell organism lacks the "epigenetic primordial for a functioning brain and nervous system." This entity has a human mother and father and is made up of human DNA, and yet I doubt that anyone would call it a person. The only way of knowing if the joining of a human sperm and a human egg results in a human person is to wait and see if it develops into a human person. We can say in retrospect that it was the DNA of a human person, but we know that only because something we recognize as a human person develops.

DNA was discovered only 60 years ago, but the concept of personhood has been around much longer! Also, the Catholic belief is that DNA alone cannot make a human person. To believe that it could would be materialism. Also, Catholics believe that Mother Teresa, for example, or John Paul II still exist in heaven, and yet they presently have no DNA at all. Are they not human persons?

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2013 2:51:26 AM

As I have found in many years of teaching bioethics, how one defines "person" or "personhood" depends upon how one defines person or personhood. No one has ever (in my experience) changed anyone's conception of who is a person by presenting them with alternative definitions.

Moreover, while engaging in the academic exercise of defining person is interesting and can be the source of many discussions, to me as a bioethics teacher the value of any definition of person depends on its utility in deciding hard cases (who gets to keep the child, how do we handle death and dying issues, etc.). I have yet to find a definition that actually helps judges decide cases. More tragically still, there are cases involving people whom we would probably all agree are persons, such as profoundly intellectually disabled children or adults who have no measureable intelligence at all; these are persons who would fail to fit most definitions of the concept. What does their failure to fit the concept of personhood add to the discussion? In my view, it adds nothing to the debate over how to handle their medical care. They are persons and must be treated as such. Anything else would be inconceivable, at least to me.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Apr 23, 2013 8:01:47 AM

Ellen -- I (obviously) agree with you that the severely disabled, etc., are human persons. And, the Smith book makes it clear that they are, too. The proposed definition is of the heartland, "normal" instance. It is not, it seems to me, an argument against the definition that it is not satisfied, at a particular moment, in every particular case. Given your interests, I would encourage you to read the book (or at least the opening chapter). In particular, I think you would welcome (as I did) the refusal to equate personhood with a particular set of "capacities."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 23, 2013 8:05:33 AM

David: "Poor Christian Smith wrote a 528 page book on this topic, but we think we can settle the question in these little boxes!" Well said.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 23, 2013 8:50:11 AM

From a quick glance at the contents and index and introduction, it appears that Christian Smith is really asking, "What is a human being?" or, "What is a human person?" If that is correct, Smith is not going to shed any light on what human beings, angels, and the three persons of the Trinity have in common that makes them all persons. (Of course, Smith is a sociologist, so I doubt that he wanted to get into talking about angels!)

I don't think the book is going to answer the question of how, if someday extraterrestrial life is encountered, it can be determined whether alien beings are persons with rights that must be respected. I don't think that is a frivolous or trivial issue, and I think it would help in clarifying questions about the profoundly disabled.

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2013 10:12:23 AM

From a quick glance at the contents and index and introduction, it appears that Christian Smith is really asking, "What is a human being?" or, "What is a human person?" If that is correct, Smith is not going to shed any light on what human beings, angels, and the three persons of the Trinity have in common that makes them all persons. (Of course, Smith is a sociologist, so I doubt that he wanted to get into talking about angels!)

I don't think the book is going to answer the question of how, if someday extraterrestrial life is encountered, it can be determined whether alien beings are persons with rights that must be respected. I don't think that is a frivolous or trivial issue, and I think it would help in clarifying questions about the profoundly disabled.

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2013 10:14:37 AM

I find some of the most interesting personhood questions to be the status of the (extinct) non-homo sapiens hominids and (non-extinct) non-homo sapiens great apes. It seems plausible to me, for example, that the average chimp could easily be described as having a "conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who -- as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions -- exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world."

Moreover, a lot of folks (e.g., Sean and Nancy above) are drawn to ancestry based notions of personhood. Yet many homo sapiens appear to have fairly recent (i.e., within the last 50 millenia) ancestors who were Neandethals or Denisovans. Were members of those species persons or not?

Judging from the book's index, however, Opderbeck does not seem interested in these issues about the boundaries of personhood.

Posted by: WmBrennan | Apr 23, 2013 11:13:49 AM

WmBrennan, it is a self evident truth that a human person can only consceive a human person, and thus you can rest, assured that even with the passage of Time, apes will not evolve to the point that they will be able to govern themselves, and transform the Earth into a "Planet of The Apes".

That being said, in regards to the origins and meaning of Human Life and thus Personhood, I would recommend Pope John Paul II's Theology of The Body, and Love and Responsibility.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 23, 2013 11:51:10 AM

I hope this isn't too shocking, Nancy, but apes already have evolved to the point where we govern ourselves. No particularly well, I grant you, but the point remains.

The question that I find interesting is, which subset of apes count as "persons" and why?

Posted by: WmBrennan | Apr 23, 2013 12:15:44 PM

I’d like to ask a general question: what is the significance of “personhood”? Is a person a thing that, because they are persons, they have certain legal right or social standing? If something is considered “a person” what do we do with that information?

Or is personhood unrelated to social or legal standing (just in case those are not co-incident)? If an extraterrestrial were encountered, how is their personhood connected to legal and social standing?

This of course goes to the question of the personhood of the unborn and of corporations. If we say they are persons, how should that affect our behavior toward them? Should all persons be treated the same, whether human, corporate or extraterrestrial?

As for the personhood of extinct human ancestors, that seems pointless except to wonder what we would do with similar creatures we might encounter yet, and to ask the question about when “personhood” emerged.

On that latter question there probably is no clear answer. There might be a point in intellectual development where we could say “Not yet.” and another point where we could say “By this point, yes.” but there will always be a gap in which we cannot say for sure. If personhood is about cognitive development, we’d get one answer. If it includes legal standing, then we’d likely get another.

This is a tough one because it’s hard to take any disinterested stance. Should we even try?

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 23, 2013 12:18:02 PM

Nancy,

There are many things we can be assured of, but “that even with the passage of Time, apes will not evolve to the point that they will be able to govern themselves, and transform the Earth into a ‘Planet of The Apes’” is not one of them. We evolved over time to the point we became able to govern ourselves, apes could do the same thing. Over enough time, mice could do likewise, or many other creatures.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 23, 2013 12:22:11 PM

I too am interested in applications of "personhood" to non-humans. I also agree with Justice Stevens that "the State's interest in the protection of an embryo ... increases progressively and dramatically as the organism's capacity to feel pain, to experience pleasure, to survive and to react to its surroundings increases day by day." http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0476_0747_ZC.html

I think that what this amounts to is that personhood itself is growing to full fruition. "Human life" is in a fertilized egg, but "personhood" is a more complicated thing, and this affects the average soemone's position on abortion regarding the stage of pregnancy. Thus, abortion is accepted early on, but not at six months, except in very limited cases such as threat to the woman's life.

A non-human animal can have some form of "personhood," and that to me is why we have a special obligation to protect them too. A higher ape particularly would be an interesting question, but even your "average" house cat is to many of us a sort of "person," with feelings, life experiences and a moral right of good treatment. The same is not true of your average worm or something.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 23, 2013 12:41:50 PM

Sean, actually our Life began as a son or daughter of a human person, and unlike any of the living creatures on Earth, from The Beginning, The Human Family has been called to communion with God.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 23, 2013 12:58:12 PM

No, Nancy. We evolved like every other creature on the planet. We did not evolve from apes, apes are a sibling species, they and us evolved from a common ancestor.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 23, 2013 1:40:19 PM

Brennan -- I'm no biologist, but I guess I'd be pretty surprised if it were the case that (quoting you) "the average chimp could easily be described as having a "conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who -- as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions -- exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world." Nothing against chimps, of course -- and I have no interest in denying that they appear to have many capacities and characteristics that resemble, even if they are not the same as, those of human persons -- but I (again) think it's probably not true that any would satisfy (or even come close to satisfying) Chris Smith's definition (which, of course, he expounds pretty fully in the book).

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 23, 2013 1:55:24 PM

Sean, if what you stated was true, I suppose the missing links would not be missing!

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 23, 2013 1:55:44 PM

I am surprised that some people are relying on DNA arguments, when as I understand the Catholic view of human origins, it was not DNA that made the first man and woman (or the first humans) humans, but rather a spiritual soul, without which a human being is not even alive, much less a person. For Catholics who are not creationists (and that certainly must be the vast majority), the conclusion seems inescapable that the first humans had to have had nonhuman parents. Souls do not evolve but are immediately (directly) created by God.

WmBrennan's question is a good one. Were Neanderthals persons? It seems to me, from a Catholic point of view, that probably boils down to whether or not they had souls—a determination it would seem impossible to make. But perhaps it is possible to come up with some theory, while staying within Catholic thought, that there can be persons who do not have souls. I am not quite sure how, since as I understand it, the human capacity for "humanness" exists because of the soul, not the body.

Can those who are not materialists conceive of a person without a spiritual soul? Must all persons have a non-material "component"?

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2013 2:18:25 PM

From Wikipedia:

The idea of a "missing link" between humans and so-called "lower" animals remains lodged in the public imagination. The search for a fossil showing transitional traits between apes and humans, however, was fruitless until the young Dutch geologist Eugène Dubois found a skullcap, a molar and a femur on the banks of Solo River, Java in 1891. The find combined a low, ape-like skull roof with a brain estimated at around 1000 cc, midway between that of a chimpanzee and an adult man. The single molar was larger than any modern human tooth, but the femur was long and straight, with a knee angle showing that "Java man" had walked upright. Given the name Pithecanthropus erectus ("erect ape-man"), it became the first in what is now a long list of human evolution fossils. At the time it was hailed by many as the "missing link", helping set the term as primarily used for human fossils, though it is sometimes used for other intermediates, like Archaeopteryx.

"Missing link" is still a popular term, well recognized by the public and often used in the popular media. It is, however, avoided in the scientific press, as it relates to the concept of the great chain of being and to the notion of simple organisms being primitive versions of complex ones, both of which have been discarded in biology. In any case, the term itself is misleading, as any known transitional fossil, like Java Man, is no longer missing. While each find will give rise to new gaps in the evolutionary story on each side, the discovery of more and more transitional fossils continues to add to our knowledge of evolutionary transitions.

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2013 2:22:06 PM

Rick,
You have read the book and I, alas, have not, so I must defer to your sense that chimps wouldn't satisfy Smith's description of the traits of a "person" as he defines them. As David pointed out, however, it seems that Smith is interested in the narrower question of "what is a human person" and thus it perhaps should not be surprising if he has defined his terms to exclude nonhumans. I would be surprised though, if its true that other primates would not even come close to satisfying his "definition" given the close genetic relationship and the cognitive and behavioral similarities.

Posted by: WmBrennan | Apr 23, 2013 2:40:18 PM

Nancy;

You clearly do not understand science in general or evolution specifically.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Apr 23, 2013 2:50:31 PM

David, the term is missing links. Nothing is added to or subtracted from the DNA of a Human Being once conception has occurred.

We share the same habitat as living things. Similarities in our genetic make up does not make us the same, which is why there is a difference in the genetic make up of java beans, apes, and Human Beings. It is that difference that makes all the difference.

Since the book comes highly recommended by Prof.Garnett, I plan on buying the book in paperback.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 23, 2013 5:19:04 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.