In the apartheid years in South Africa, for example, the Dutch Reformed Church rationalised the harsh treatment of black people (“non-whites”) on the basis that they have no souls, do not qualify for salvation, and therefore should not be treated as persons. This twisted logic was frequently included by Dutch Reformed Church ministers in their Sunday sermons to the volk.
Slavery is another example. As the property of the slave-owner, slaves were (and in some places still are) used, abused, bought, sold, burnt, broken and disposed of as if they were pieces of furniture. Clearly, a slave is not a person in the eyes of the slave-owner.
Dictionary.com lists a number of different meanings of “person” including “…a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing.” “Person” can also mean “a self-conscious or rational being (in the philosophical sense)”, or “a group of human beings, a corporation, a partnership, an estate, or other legal entity (artificial person or juristic person) recognized by law as having rights and duties.”
So an animal can never be a person, according to at least one dictionary. Of course, the Indian government would disagree, having declared dolphins to be non-human persons.
There are many different definitions of “person” but they all belong under either (but not both) of the following two headings:
- Every person is a human.
- Every human is a person.
If all persons are human, then a dolphin could never be a person, nor could an alien from outer space, no matter how intelligent or technologically sophisticated.
If all humans are persons, is a newborn baby a person? A newborn baby has no personality and is unable to use language.
Is a brain-damaged human in a “vegetative state” a person?
Is a psychopath a person? A psychopath uses language and technology and can masquerade as a person, but has no conscience, no emotional intelligence, and no capacity for empathy. Was Hitler a person? Stalin? Pol Pot?
A human who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder) can be a person, but is each of that person’s identities a fully fledged person in their own right? Is there such a thing as a “fractional person”? Or are persons like integers, always whole?
Orson Scott Card’s Hierarchy of Exclusion is a useful framework in which to think about personhood. The hierarchy includes members of one’s own species but from another world or culture (“framling”), and strangers from another species (“ramen”) who are capable of communicating with members of one’s own species, to list just two items in the Hierarchy. Check it out for yourself.
Can a group of people be a person? Can a nation be a person? A city?
In his poem “Natural music” Robinson Jeffers’ suggests that “...if we were strong enough to listen without divisions of desire and terror to the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities, those voices also would be found...”
In his book “Primitive Mythology” Joseph Campbell discusses the public performance of religious rituals, including ceremonies that “continue for many nights, many days, uniting the villagers in a fused being that is not biological, essentially, but a living spirit---with numerous heads, many eyes, many voices, numerous feet pounding the Earth---lifted even out of temporality and translated into the no-place, no-time, no-when, no-where of the mythological age, which is here and now.”
Another example from Campbell’s work concerns instinctive (unlearned and unlearnable) behaviours such as the mad frantic dash of newly hatched turtles from the dangers of the sand dunes to the relative safety of the sea.
As Campbell points out, instinctive behaviours triggered by external factors enable an animal to respond to circumstances not experienced before. But the entity responding to the trigger factor is not the individual “...since the individual has no previous knowledge of the object to which it is reacting. The recognizing and responding subject is, rather, some sort of trans- or super-individual, inhabiting and moving the living creature.”
In similar vein, one can imagine that standing behind each species of living creature is a shadowy, non-corporeal person existing outside of time and space: the genius of the genus as it were.
How about the planet herself? Is Gaia a person? Is the god named Jehovah a person? Is/was Jesus? The ancients saw their gods as people, with personalities, needs and wants, parents, strengths and weaknesses, even birthdays.
Fraught with nested sets and sub-sets, the gestalt of personhood can be drawn as a Venn diagram showing (at least conceptually) multiple persons existing through and across each other at multiple angles, levels, or dimensions of engagement, as in the earlier example of Campbell’s villagers and the “fused being” born of their shared purpose.
In my view, there is no satisfactory definition of personhood. I don’t know of any bundle of attributes the presence of which reliably and unambiguously signifies personhood. The following list, however, is not a bad starting point for analysis and discussion:
- capacity for abstract thought
- capacity for experiencing complex emotions
- language use
- integrity (ie whole, unfragmented and contained within a boundary).
Nor does language use necessarily qualify something as a person. Computers use language to communicate with each other and with computer users. But computers are not persons (not yet anyway). Primates have been observed (and trained) to use language, but as to whether those primates are persons in my view remains an open question.
Oh, and I almost forgot to identify the biggest person of all: the entity known by many names and titles, including Everything.