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What Makes a Person?: An Attempt to Clarify

Updated on April 2, 2012

A short look at defining Human and Person

In Judith Butler’s essay, Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy, she attempts to clarify what is considered human and how it applies to gender roles and human rights. However, she fails to clearly define what a human is and what gives them their moral rights and consideration.

Butler’s (2004) attempt at defining human revolves around what makes a life worth living, or in other words, what gives it value. She uses a “grieve-able life” as the necessary condition of being a human. Butler claims that if we have grieved, we have lost; that if we have lost, we have had; that if we have had, we have desired and loved; which make for a livable life. That having this livable life is what makes this human. I disagree. This definition not only allows for the possibility of what is obviously a human to not be a human, but also for the possibility of what isn’t human to be considered human. All a creature or entity would have to do is possess something, lose it, and then grieve for its loss in any way, shape, or form.

I would also like to make a distinction that Judith Butler did not, the distinction between a human and a person. A person is an entity worthy of moral consideration and a human is merely a species with the moral equivalent of a guppy or a chicken.


What makes a human?

What makes a Human? It should be an easy question to answer. I am a human, and I assume that you are as well. You can point one out on the street as you walk by, you can call one up on the phone, and you can Google pictures of humans online. With something as prolific as a human, how can we not have an answer as to what they are? The simple answer is that it depends on what scale you want to look at things. There are several theories of what makes a human a human. The simplest one is that you are human if your parents are human (Noonan 1970). While this is an essentially straight forward definition, it doesn’t allow for change. If this was the case we would have never gotten a chicken from a dinosaur, or a human from an ape, and so on. Even though the entire genetic code of a human is present, it doesn’t mean there is equivalent moral consideration across the board simply on the basis of the genetic code. A vial of human DNA is not a human.

However I would like to take a bit of the idea that you are human if your parents are human and make a broader definition, that of a species. A species is a group of individuals that can interbreed and produce viable offspring, or offspring that can in turn produce offspring. This not only integrates the previous definition of human but also allows for change. The offspring may be able to produce offspring, but not with its parents species. So by using the definition of a species, we get the definition of a human.


What Makes a Person?

Now, think of a person. I am a person I can assure you with my proof being that I wrote this essay and you are also a person with my proof being that you can read this essay. There are people all around us. What makes these people different from a dog, a rabbit, a mouse, or a bug? The amount of what I’ll call moral consideration that you ascribe to the person is more than you would ascribe to a mouse, dog, rabbit, or bug. Sure there are some considerations that you would give to a dog but not rabbit or a rabbit but not the bug, but there is an entirely different consideration for a person in addition to the ones that you give lesser creatures. You wouldn’t save a rabbit over a human given that there was equal chance of saving either one, but that you could save only one.

The first type of consideration I will clarify is that of a living being. By nature of being alive there are certain things that one ought to do and ought not to do in relation to this living thing, like not causing undue pain to the creature (stabbing a fish with a needle repeatedly because you can for example.) All living things have these considerations, though I will concede that depending on the level of sophistication of the creature some considerations may or may not be made.

The second type of moral considerations are those ascribed to people. It would be wrong to go to Wal-Mart and declare tourist season open and start blasting away at those around you for example.

So long story short, a person is defined as a being that warrants moral consideration, in addition to those already ascribed to it for being a living creature. But a problem that is run into when trying to define a human is also run into with trying to define a person. Sure, you can point one out, but what are the necessary conditions to be a person? Most commonly it is assumed that simply by being human you are a person, which is absurd, for reasons I will touch on later. The best definition I have come across for personhood was created by Marry Ann Warren, which is as follows (Warren 1973).


Cognitive Theory of Personhood

1.Consciousness: (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain

2.Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems)

3.Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control)

4.The capacity to communicate by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics.

5.The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individuals or racial, or both.

So by nature of the entity, creature, being, or whatever identifying term you would like to use, having these traits in any form they have achieved the moral status of personhood and have the same moral considerations as you or I.


A Few Implications

There are a few important things that this definition allows for, as well as some implications that some may find unpalatable, but are features of this definition of a person and not a fault of it.

1.There are some humans who are not people.

The simplest example is a dead human. They lack all of the previously mentioned criteria by nature of being dead. They are still identical in all relevant respects to you, save the state of life. Morally speaking they have the same considerations as a table or a rock. That is not to say that you shouldn’t be respectful to the body’s relatives and to the memory of the person that once was, but that the body itself is simply property of the next of kin.

Another example is a brain dead human. While the body is still alive, usually by artificial means, there is not cognitive function in the brain. What made that person a person has been lost, and the body has the same moral consideration as a fish or a bug.

2.There are some people who are not human

Hypotheticals are the best example here, but I will get to some real world examples. In movies, TV, and books there are many non-human creatures and entities. Star Trek, Star Wars, and many other science fiction stories are prime examples. Those entities are not human, but show at the very least the same and often higher levels, of the cognitive function outlined earlier in the paper. You wouldn’t say that killing off all of the Wookies is an ok thing to do (genocide is genocide) simply because they are not human.

As for a real world example dolphins are the best. Few if any animals that we know of show the cognitive development of dolphins. They meet all of the criteria in Warren’s definition of a person perfectly. Dolphins have been known not only to communicate, show consciousness, and self-motivated activity, but also reasoning skills (problem solving skills especially) but also self-concepts of both themselves as an individual and groups.

When it comes to terminology a few things should probably be changed. Human rights should be changed to People rights, so that all peoples can be afforded the rights that they deserve, be they aliens or dolphins. Referring to solely human problems is absurd and morally defunct in all cases save for strictly biological terms.


Conclusion

Butler’s definition of human being, summed up as brief as possible, being experiencing grief, is not in of itself adequate or solely applicable to humans. There needs to be a distinction as to what is human (a species defined as a group of individuals who can breed to produce viable offspring) and what is a person (a being warranting moral consideration by nature of the cognitive theory of personhood) because what is human is not necessarily what is morally important and what is a person, and vice versa. In summary I hope that these definitions help to clarify future thoughts on what should and should not be done concerning people’s rights and interactions.

H.S.Schepper

References

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. New York. NY: Routledge


Noonan, J. (1970). An Almost Absolute Value in History. The Morality of Abortion: Legal andHistorical Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. P.51-59


Warren, M. (1973) “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”. Monist 57:1: p. 43-61


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Are these definitions (Human and Person) adequate?

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