What Makes a Person a Person?

Cross-posted from Secular ProLife

I have written several articles already giving a robust defense of what a person is. But now I’d like to talk about what I see as a key component to a person.

My preferred definition of “person” comes from medieval philosopher Boethius, that a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. There are many things we think of when we think of persons, and various philosophers like Mary Anne Warren and Peter Singer have identified: the capacity for rational thought, the ability to express oneself through language, the ability to form concepts, etc. And of course, I have argued in the past that it’s not our present capacities that ground our personhood, but our inherent capacities. This is why the unborn qualify as persons.

It’s simply counterintuitive to refer to anything other than humans as persons. Even pro-choice writers use the terms “human” and “person” interchangeably… until they want to justify abortion. Then they suddenly want to make a distinction between the two. Even in liberal movies or television shows, in which they’re generally pro-choice, they’ll still refer to a wanted unborn child as a “little person.” Granted, intuitions are not always reliable in determining truth, but we are generally justified in trusting our intuitions unless someone gives us good reason otherwise.

Now all of the criteria I listed earlier are definitely things that persons can do. But there is one very important factor that goes into whether or not something should be considered a person: its inherent capacity for morality. A person is someone who can recognize a moral code and act accordingly. This is why human beings are persons and animals are not. If there were other animals that could determine the moral code and act accordingly, they could be considered people. But I don’t think this will happen, since the differences between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom are vast (e.g. humans have the unique ability to form concepts, and animal sounds are not “true” language).

Consider this: it is wrong for me to kill a human being (a discussion of why is irrelevant to this conversation). I can recognize that it is wrong for me to kill a human being, so if I kill a human being I must be captured, tried, and punished. However, our courts recognize that someone must be in their right mind in order to be punished for a crime, because if you do not understand that it’s a crime, then you can’t be held accountable for it. This is why the insanity defense is allowed, if it can be proven. Bear in mind that they are still a person because the inherent capacity is still there even if it’s due to a permanent illness; it is just not presently-exercisable. See this article for more on capacities. I am just saying that they are not held responsible for their action because they were not in their right mind.

Additionally, we do not hold animals responsible for committing moral crimes. If I wander into a bear cave, I am responsible if I get mauled by a bear. But if someone wanders onto my property and I kill them without giving them a chance to leave, I am held responsible. Murder, rape, cannibalism, and all sorts of moral crimes occur in nature, yet the animals are not responsible for them because they can’t recognize right from wrong. This is the way of things, and it also shows that we simply don’t need to recognize animals as persons, because these things happen in nature, in the wild, anyway. It’s the ecosystem and the circle of life.

Now, obviously animals do feel pain and many of them are conscious. So not recognizing animals as persons does not mean we can treat them however we want. I am morally opposed to hunting for sport. But it does mean that animals are not intrinsically valuable like humans are. An example my friend Josh Brahm uses is also helpful here: rounding up a group of dolphins and killing them is not morally the same as rounding up a group of human children and killing them, even though killing a group of dolphins probably still deserves some punishment. But to consider animals as persons is an illegitimate move by those who would try to deny that very same personhood to human unborn children.

One final word on the matter. Without delving into an off-topic discussion about whether morality is objective, I am not saying that you must agree with us on morality to be considered a person. Peter Singer is still a person, even though he believes that infanticide is morally permissible. But he is a rational entity, capable of recognizing morality, even if some of the moral conclusions he draws are reprehensible. This is why your rational nature is essential to your personhood. As human beings with rational minds, not only can we recognize that certain things are right and wrong, but we can also, through argumentation and logic, come closer to the truth on matters of morality.

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