I begin, in my ever didactic fashion, with Part 1: What are the basic criteria for a person?
We are seeking a definition, and by seeking a definition we are seeking first the connotation of the term person. Person is no mere word, and it is no simple word since upon the notions of personhood hang the most basic tenets of morality. If a thing is a person then I tend to believe that I must treat it differently than I treat a rock or a plant. So let’s seek a definition in the likely place, the dictionary.
The online Oxford Dictionary says of the American English word, person, that it is a noun, and that the most common definition for person is “a human being regarded as an individual.” Thankfully Oxford even goes further and gives us alternative definitions, etymologies, tips for usage etc. You can look at it here, it is a very well put together dictionary article. This doesn’t settle the matter however because I am not necessarily interested in what the dictionary definition is, I am more interested in how the word came to be defined as it is in that dictionary.
Thanks to the study of logic, and the likes of Patrick J. Hurley, we also know that a definition is not a simple thing. In his Concise Introduction to Logic Hurley explains that a dictionary definition is what is known as a lexical definition. Lexical definitions are supposed to report how a term is used in the language, and provide the most common definitions for a term. A lexical definition is also supposed to present a kind of standard understanding of a term, and in one sense it merely reports the kind of meaning which a word already has in a language. In other words Dictionaries do not define words! Instead they are simply records of how words have become defined. The actual definition of a term is often complex, social, historical, etymological, and almost always re-definable based on usage. There is no word that has a fixed definition in any language, and all words are open to be reworked and used in new ways. This is why we study language, to see how words have changed over the years and how words have come to be re-defined in adjusting to the changing cultural context.
So we can use Oxford or Webster as a general guide but we must not rely on them to give us our answer.
Now that we have destroyed the easy way out lets go the philosophical route. I could give you the definition of a person set down by one philosopher or another and try to convince you that their definition is a good one. Yet that thought wearies me so instead I will give you my own definition and then provide my best defense for why it is an apt one.
Person: a being that is sentient, capable of making a deliberate choice, and able to in some way indicate its intentions to other beings
There that wasn’t so hard, but now I need to define sentience, deliberate choice, and intentionality. Ah yes, the philosopher’s work is never done. However I don’t need to dig too deep into the old Oxford dictionary to define my terms here, since that won’t really help me anyways. Instead I want to define my terms by usage.
When we talk about whether a being is sentient we are usually in science fiction or talking about plants. You see sentience is supposed to be the great measurement of whether or not some wacky alien critter is the kind of critter I could talk to, or the kind of critter I need to kill. Sentient critters can be talked to, and non-sentient need to be killed, or else ignored. Plants also seem to lack sentience, so there is that. Basically all that sentience means is whether or not some kind of being has the ability to feel diverse sensations. If it can feel pain, pleasure, cold, heat, hardness, smoothness, etc. You see sentience is really just about whether you are the sort of thing that can use some sensory apparatus to get information about the world. It’s about whether you can sense. So a sentient being fits the bare minimum standard for most life forms. Now just because a being is able to respond to environmental changes is not enough to have true sentience. You are only really sentient if you have some kind of nervous system, or some kind of biological mechanism that allows you to process different kinds of sensations. This is usually where we lose plants, since even if plants are responding to their environment, their list of sensations is a bit too short to count as truly sentient. They do not really feel. So sorry plants, but you are not persons.
A being that has made a deliberate choice is one that in the first place can deliberate. To deliberate requires a mind, of some sort, that is able to take various bits of information from the senses and choose between several options, and to make that choice based on some sense of going after a better option rather than a worse one. In other words the ability to deliberate is the ability to reason. Now unlike Aristotle or some of the other ancient philosophers, I am willing to give deliberate choice to several different kinds of animal (read non-human) life forms. Many animals give evidence of pausing and choosing between several competing options. There is even a definite idea that they are choosing based on which options they prefer, over the options they do not prefer. This seems clear enough in dolphins and several great apes. Also humans have deliberate choice so there is that. Now the other side of deliberate choice is the choice part. The ability to deliberately choose is the ability to make a free choice. Rocks are not free, nor are plants, nor are many animals who seem to act merely on instinct. Free choice is only present when a being acts from a sense of internal psychological motivation, rather than in response to external forces. Free choice is an action, and it is the kind of action which perhaps most greatly defines a person. If you don’t believe me then go read some works by Søren Kierkegaard. If you still don’t believe me, then consider this, a being whose actions are forced is not truly responsible for them and is no different than a natural process. Such beings are not beings at all, they are simply forces of nature.
In order to finally be a person it is also essential that a being be set up for communication. If rocks are people because they are sentient and make deliberate choices, I will never know this because they have no way of communicating it. This last criteria is more practical than anything else, since I really won’t know to treat something as a person unless it indicates its personhood to me in some way. When I talk, gesture, write, sing, sign, or point I indicate that I have intent and desire. If I repeat myself, or vary up my communications, then I indicate that I have intent and desire. A bird sings to indicate its intent and desire for a mate. A lion roars to indicate its intent and desire for food. Almost all animals give indication of their intentions, with the exception of animals like oysters or sponges. (Though in the case of oysters or sponges I can pick up on certain limited kinds of indicative intentions if I pay strict attention to them, otherwise we would have classed them as plants and been done with it a long time ago). So what this last criteria boils down to is the ability to communicate.
Now that was my long definition for a person and so my defense must be brief.
This is a good definition since I tend to think that human beings are fairly standard examples of persons and humans easily fit all 3 criteria here. Though of course there are human beings who might not fit all these criteria, still I think most human beings do fit these and the basic cultural assumption (according to the lexical definition) is that human beings are persons.
This is also a good definition since it allows for the inclusion of many different kinds of animals as persons. One of the great problems our species has run into as we gain more knowledge about some forms of animal life on this planet is that we are no longer clear on the difference between ourselves and other animals. The term of person would be a good way to categorize the similarities that humans have with certain kinds of animal life, while still maintaining the human identity as a unique separate species.
This is also a great definition since it would allow us to classify aliens, angels, demons, gods, and/or God as persons. So if we ever encounter such beings then we are able to better understand how they are like ourselves in certain fundamental ways. This understanding could lead to open and honest exchanges between ourselves and them. We could then peacefully coexist with such beings, or figure out clever ways to kill them if they threaten us.
There may be some drawbacks to my definition, but it has not been arrived at arbitrarily. In general I think that this is the essence of the definition of person since we use it in our society to characterize all that makes us special and unique as human beings. Certainly one of the advantages of the idea or definition of a person is that it gives us a better understanding of what it is to be human. Since most human beings are excellent examples of persons.
Well that’s the end to part 1, and now on to part 2: The Possible Candidates for Personhood.