This Sunday we are discussing the question: What is a Person?
This discussion should be as interesting as last Sunday's talk about the
fragility of life. In the meantime I would like to remind you about
Alfonso's exhibition in Cuenca and Laura's visit to the free cinema
tomorrow, Friday, night.
Alfonso has a painting exhibition in Cuenca until the 13 August, at the
Centro Cultural Aguirre. I have included a scan of the leaflet Alfonso
gave me on the Picasa photo website. The address is:
Lawrence, I would like to invite the group to see European cinema...
Friday night, for free. I am going there Friday the 18 July, 2230, to
see "Grvabica" . The web says "Ciclo de CINE EUROPEO DE VERANO al aire
libre. Todos los viernes, entre el 11 de Julio y el 29 de Agosto, ambos
inclusive, a las 22:30 h.en la Sede de las Instituciones Europeas en
España, Paseo de la Castellana, 46 - Madrid. La Oficina del Parlamento
Europeo y la Representación de la Comisión Europea en España, se
complacen en invitarles al Ciclo de Cine Europeo de Verano, donde podrán
disfrutar de ocho películas europeas en versión original subtitulada,
bajo el cielo de la noche madrileña.
The whole programme can be found in
See you there , I hope :-)
Take care and see you Sunday or maybe tomorrow night
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What is a person?
"What is x?" type of questions are part of what is called the Socratic
method. Briefly, <1 the Socratic method starts with a proposer asserting
a thesis and by a series of questions the philosopher gets the proposers
to agree to certain propositions that lead contrary to the thesis of the
Look at this quotation from the Meno: "Soc. How fortunate I am, Meno!
When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them,
which are in your keeping. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the
swarm, and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer
that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as
bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they
not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example
beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?
Men. I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees." <2
Following the Socratic method we can ask ourselves is: Can we give an
example of a Person? Of course, this is nearly an absurd question to
ask, because all we have to do is to look at the first human being we
come across and say, "There you are, a person!" And you will be right,
of course. We might even ask to point out anther person and we, once
again, will point at an other human being and so on. Now we can ask
ourselves the following question: can we point at a person without also
pointing at a human being?
So either the answer to our question is: a person is a human being. Or
the question What-is-a-Person? is just not a valid question. I would
submit that at the very best this type of question is not universally
valid with any concept. A very extreme position would be to claim that
the question, "What is x?" is just plain invalid; its a non question.
What is clear is that some what-is-x? type of questions can be answered
empirically while others are not clear whether we are looking for an
empirical or rational/metaphysical answer. For example what-is-a-table?
is an empirical question and in most cases we have no problems answering
it, but what-is-good? or what-is-virtue? are not so clear and
Is the question what-is-a-person? a question with an empirical answer or
a rational/metaphysical answer?
I do not think that the question what-is-a-person? is simply answered by
"a human being". Which in practice would mean that what-is-a-person? is
an empirical question. Although I am prepared to concede that
what-is-a-person? is a valid question since it has an empirical
component, it is also meaningless without the necessary context, which
would make it a rational question as well. Thus what-is-a-person? should
be accompanied by such other questions as, what is the purpose of having
personhood? What are the rights and duties of a person? Why do we need
to have personhood besides also having human being?
What I am suggesting is that to answer the question what-is-a-person? we
have to go through a two step process. The first would be to qualify the
term human being which will give us the status of person. And then to
identify the context that would give us the Modus Operandi for personhood.
Another issue that also needs clarifying is the relationship between the
question what-is-a-person? and what-is-personal-identity? There is no
doubt or ambiguity that these are not the same question. What am I? is
different from Who am I? Our task now is to answer the question What am
I? although of course who am I? is an important component of the
question What am I?
The importance of personal identity is that we think of the question in
terms of personhood over time. Am I today the same person that was
yesterday? And will the person I am today cause the person I will be
tomorrow? And what constitutes that I am the same person over time? What
does being the person that you are, from one day to the next,
necessarily consist in? <3 For example what person would I be if I
forgot everything about me? Or maybe if I only existed as a brain in a
jam jar that is somehow kept in a functioning order?
I submit that what-is-a-person? is not a question that depends on
personal identity, but rather personhood causes personal identity. The
question is whether it is a necessary condition that every person also
has a personal identity? Or whether we can find a person without a
John Locke defined a person as: "a thinking intelligent Being, that has
reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same
thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that
consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking, and as it seems to me
essential to it" (Essay on Humane Understanding, Book 2, Chapter 27,
Section 9)." <4 Furthermore, in the same Wikipedia article there a
clarification of this point, "a person is defined by the characteristics
of reasoning, consciousness, and persistent personal identity." <4
As the Wikipedia article on Person points out, historically some human
beings were considered to either lack some of these qualities or
attributes or maybe not fully developed; women and children immediately
come to mind. Today many societies and religions still regard women and
other human with some unusual characteristic as sub human. As a
consequence this has led and leads to discrimination and exploitation of
groups and members of these groups.
Despite the real situation on the ground, today we all recognise that
the consequences of establishing personhood by human attributes are too
weak to accept. In other words, the option is to look for a demarcation
point <4 or some other fundamental feature or principle about human beings.
Speciesism <4 is a very attractive option. Ironically, speciesism even
has supporters from both religious groups and humanists. However, the
implications or conclusions that lead from speciesism are not held by
all. I do not think we need dispute that at least being born a human
being is ancestry condition for personhood. For example, those from
religious faiths would want to argue and extend this condition to
include a foetus as a human being and should therefore be attributed
personhood; or pre-personhood.
But there are problems with speciesism in the same way that there are
problems with physical attributes. Others would even want to attribute
human status to stem cells, at least those that originate from a zygote.
But why stop there; and some don't. Some want to include primates
because we share a common ancestry if not genes as well. But why stop at
primates, why not include bananas? After all we do have 50% of our genes
in common with banana.<5 But these are dead end arguments.
This slippery slope argument does not highlight the absurdity of
speciesism, but rather it highlights two other important things:
1) Personhood is causally linked to life.
2) Personhood ought to apply to a very narrow range of the spectrum of
life. In the same sense that red and blue colours only apply to a small
range in the energy spectrum.
If personhood is causally linked to life, then maybe religious groups
might be right. Even they apply personhood to a narrow range of the
spectrum of life.
However: how narrow should this range be of the spectrum of life?
Presumably an Egyptian building the pyramids would be attributed
personhood. Maybe the artist who painted the caves at Altamira would be
a person. But would Cro-Magnon man, Homo sapiens sapiens who lived some
40,000 years ago, also be a person?
And what about future human beings who might have evolved in the same
way that cro-magnons evolved; would they also be a person? and can we
say anything intelligent about these future human beings? We might say
something intelligent about these beings, but I doubt we can say
anything relevant. In the same way that Aristotle did not say anything
relevant about using satellite technology for communications.
I want to digress a bit at this point to address a recurrent problem in
philosophy and maybe even science. There is a danger that in our thought
experiments and maybe analogies and metaphors we might cross the line
between plausible future situations and science fiction. There are many
examples of these thought experiments, for example see the Wikipedia
article on Person. <4 What if we could transplant brains into other
bodies? Would this be the same person of the brain or the body? And to
complicate the example, what if we could clone the body of the person
whose brain we are transplanting. Would this still be the same person? I
would say that at the very least it will be a long time before anything
resembling this situation would take place. So anything we say now would
probably be irrelevant, speculation or just idle chit-chat. Conclusion:
let future philosophers solve future problems, we have enough problems
of our own today. And science fiction should really be indulged as a
separate hobby or pass time.
One of the problems we have today is indeed a question such as the
status of stem cells or foetuses. I think that stem cell technology
although still at it nascent phase, the question whether these cells are
human beings is redundant because stem cells are not only found in
Earlier I asked, what is the purpose of having personhood? Apart from
stopping us discriminate or exploit others. Let's ask this question:
what will happen if a person falls into a vegetative coma? Excluding of
course the many patients who are misdiagnosed as being in this state. <6
What happens in reality is that this person would still be regarded as a
person despite the state they are in:
Legal: the courts can intervene should there be a dispute in the
treatment and the legal status of this person. For example the Terri
Schiavo case in Florida <7 or Eluana Englaro case in Italy <8
Citizenship: the state can give its citizens the right to decide what
should happen to them should they fall into a vegetative coma or other
conditions. See for example the instructions by the Ayuntamiento de
Madrid on how to prepare and register a living will. <9
Social: this person would still be a member of a family and still a
member of a group of friends.
Medical: health carers still have a duty of care despite the fact that
this would be a very difficult case for them. <6
Economic: this person would still be an economic agent using scarce
resources even though they cannot act or express preferences.
Religion: religious believers hold that the fate of this person is
decided by god but this belief can be in conflict with medial and legal
Political: politicians feel, even if they seem to be somewhat cynically,
that they have the duty to protect people in vegetative state. See the
Terri Schiavo for a complex political case. <7
The question we have to ask ourselves is this: is philosophy going to
deny personhood to a human being who is in a vegetative state? I don't
think so. In the same way that we cannot find a human being without
being a person, we cannot find a person who lacks some human attribute
and ceases to be a person.
Considering that what-is-a-person? is first and foremost a practical and
empirical question, what attributes can we claim of personhood that does
not violate the consistency of attributes criteria? I have already
shown, for example, that consciousness cannot be such a criterion, nor
the brain or self awareness and so on. In fact, it seems to me that
functionality of the body cannot be either a necessary nor sufficient
condition for personhood.
I propose that an attribute that will meet our need for a condition that
is both necessary and sufficient, and does not violate the continuity of
attributes criteria to be this: to be born from a human female mother.
This condition immediately satisfies the necessary and sufficient
condition for being a person. We now have the first demarcation point,
that of needing a human female, who is also a person. Thus we can
exclude the science fiction idea of growing a human being in a vat of
chemical soup. It might also save us the horror of some ethically
questionable endeavour that someone might want to pass as science.
It is also a condition that does not change or degrade over time in the
same way other attributes might degrade such as the brain, consciousness
etc. It is also a condition we all have in common without variation or
Furthermore, motherhood gives us the continuity of identity which,
although it was started with an other person (the mother) it becomes our
identity when we become a person. We do not only inherit our genes from
our parents but also the seeds for our personal identity. Hence we even
satisfy the personal identity condition at birth.
Some might ask what about those mothers who surrender their child for
adoption, how can these children have this identity process if they
cannot know who their natural mother is? Although today there is a
movement in some countries for adoptees to know who their biological
parents are, knowing that one was adopted is enough attribute for one's
personal identity. This is a fact about this adopted person which is
unique to them. Not having access to the historical events and
circumstance of the adoption does not mean that there isn't an empirical
answer relating to these events.
The other aspect of this condition is that of "being born" and not of
"being conceived". We already know that in natures functionality
process, not all conceptions lead to birth. And of course we cannot
second guess nature's way. One might then point out that conception is
also a common feature with birth, but can we really say that a zygote or
a foetus have a personal identity? Which also explains why the condition
must only be motherhood and not fatherhood. This is not to diminish the
importance of fatherhood, but a male can really be an anonymous person,
apart, that is, of his genetic information.
The birth even therefore satisfies two conditions:
1) A human being at birth means that they have reached a stage of their
development phase that is not causally dependent on a human female. We
can say that at birth a human being has reached a critical mass that
makes him or her live independently of the physical human mother. In
fact birth gives us a clear demarcation point between being a potential
person and actually being a person. Birth of a human being is not only
an irrevocable event but also an empirical and philosophical fact. Of
course, human infants still need looking after for many, many years, but
this does not mean that the biological mother or father who have to do
the looking after, even though they ought to.
2) Birth also answers the personal identity condition as I have already
said. Although at birth we are born with some personal identity ( the
history of the mother, father and family) this is also the point when
other groups within society recognise and confer personal identity on us
as individuals and not in virtue of our mother. The state grants us the
status of citizenship, people who have a direct relationship with the
new born, for example, health carers, have legal duties toward this
person as an independent person. For example, health cares have a duty
to report abuse or neglect of an infant and the state is duty bound to
seek from the courts that this infant be made ward of court. <10
Although I have claimed that what-is-a-person? is a practical question,
it is also a rational question. As far as we know, only human beings
have the concept of personhood. And this makes sense because only human
beings have developed a survival strategy based on a complex rational
And two aspects of this system are: information about persons and moral
rights and duties. I want to use moral rights and duties here to also
mean legal, political, social rights and duties etc, etc.
As persons we interact with others to survive in our environment. We
cooperate and compete with others to grow food, construct shelter and
make clothes and so on. I submit that part of our personal identity and
personhood relates to what we can do or offer to other members of
society (or persons). Exchanging information about us directly and
indirectly imposes rights and duties on us and those in a causal
relationship with us. If we go to our medical doctor with a problem our
doctor is immediately duty bound to give us heath care. Going to a
doctor also imposes a duty on us to pay our dues for social security or
national health service. Being an English teacher or a lawyer or a
plumber or a CEO gives us the right to exchange our services or labour
to earn a living ( this does not mean that we have to be given a job).
But we also have the duty to give a reasonable and professional service
when we are engaged in earning our living.
Although other creatures do exchange information about themselves and
their environment, we have elevated this exchange beyond the scope of
what other creatures do. Moreover, other creatures, I think act from
instinct, but we, however, apart from acting from instinct, we also act
from a sense of duty or because it is our duty.
Because, therefore, a person is considered a rational agent, this mean
that we have rights and duties as I have just shown and argued. Rights
and duties are one aspect of what it means to be rational, and only
persons can be rational.
Since most of us are familiar with our rights, I want to focus one more
time on our duties as persons. (In any event, someone's duty might also
imply someone has a right.) Given that our acts are not made in vacuo
this means that what we do has implications both for us and others as I
have already demonstrated. The question we can therefore, conclude with
is this: what duties do we have as persons towards each other? In other
words, what duties do we have in common towards each other that should
not and could not be waived, foregone or abdicated?
The first of these duties must surely be to treat all human beings as
persons. And secondly, not to deny a person's personal identity or to
act as if a person is devoid of any personal identity. This does not
mean that we have to be friends with every one, even though this is a
very good idea, it does, however, mean that we ought not to harm other
either as a human being or as a person.
<1 Socratic method. (2008, July 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 21:57, July 16, 2008, from
But also Google <Socratic Method> to see how the Socratic method can be
used in business or other walks of life.
<2 Meno, By Plato: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html
<3 Personal Identity, Carsten Korfmacher, Linacre College, Oxford
<4 Person. (2008, July 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 08:46, July 16, 2008, from
<5 The Naked Scientists, Science Questions:
<6 BMJ 1996;313:13-16 (6 July): Misdiagnosis of the vegetative state:
retrospective study in a rehabilitation unit, Keith Andrews, director of
medical services,a Lesley Murphy, senior clinical psychologist,a Ros
Munday, senior occupational therapist,a Clare Littlewood, senior
http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/313/7048/13 OR see The
Sunday Times, December 9, 2007, The undead:
<7 Terri Schiavo. (2008, July 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 20:09, July 16, 2008, from
<8 Italian Daily News @ Life in Italy: EUTHANASIA AUTHORISED FOR WOMAN
IN A COMA FOR 16 YEARS;
<9 El Ciudadano y el Sistema Sanitario. Instrucciones previas
<10 Ward of court - A minor (under 18) who is the subject of a wardship
order. The order ensures that the court has custody, with day-to-day
care carried out by an individual(s) or local authority. As long as the
minor remains a ward of court, all decisions regarding the minor's
upbringing must be approved by the court, e.g. transfer to a different
school, or medical treatment. Judicial Communications Office: Judiciary
of England and Wales: http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/index.htm
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);
Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);
from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What is a Person? +