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Fr. 630

May 21, 2015

To this point, if efforts have been made to show just how the question “What is a person?” can fall into overdetermining or prematurely determining the answer across all situations, little has been said, in positive fashion, of how leaving the answer underdetermined can facilitate progress on more concrete wordings of the question in more precise contexts. In short, it is time to show something of what an underlying pragmatist, holistic and epistemically nominal position can say when faced with a “what” question of this breadth. Let us consider then three or four formulations, drawn from different fields, which may make this contribution clearer.

The first arises within a less visible field of ethics, that of “ethics of abomination”, according to which certain practices such as cannibalism or homosexuality are immoral in the measure that these provoke reactions of disgust or revulsion. (The justification and truth of such claims is unimportant for present purposes, as the intent is merely to illustrate how different traits of personhood serve to identify persons for different purposes.) The cannibal’s actions are immoral precisely because they neither confirm the cannibal’s humanity nor respect the victim’s personhood. The cannibal behaves much like an animal, draws too closely to the wild world, and therefore obscures the boundary between human and animal. As regards cannibalism, the judging party holds that the offending party neglects his or her personhood by becoming animal. Here, the mark of person and personhood is non-animality or, perhaps more broadly, civilization.

As for homosexuality, the second example of two examples drawn from abomination ethics, the homosexual’s acts are immoral because they correspond to the reproductive role of neither partner, as determined by their natural, biological sex. (Again, the truth of such claims has been bracketed for the time being.) The homosexual male behaves too much like the biological female, the homosexual female too much like the biological male. As in the case of cannibalism, these acts obscure some characteristic trait of personhood, wherein a person is either male or female. Hence, the mark of person and personhood as defined for present purposes is biological sex.

From a less contentious field, consider alternatively Kant’s presentation of persons, autonomy and respect. As laid out in his practical philosophy, one should respect both the moral law in oneself and the moral law in others. The latter takes on more specific shape in their autonomy, i.e. their ability to formulate universalizable laws for themselves; Kant describes this ability to set ends for themselves more familiarly as their humanity. Insofar as Kant’s answer to the question “What is it to live well?” turns in part on his answer to “What is a person?”, the former acts as a constraint on the possible answers given to the latter. For neither non-animality nor biological sex serve as an answer to the question and context relevant here. The notion of autonomy alone can fill the role of defining characteristic for person and personhood in the present context.

To draw somewhat on the first and third examples, the comparison of human and animal as regards rights can prove instructive as a fourth and final example. On one hand, a negative case for extending human rights to animals might hold that cognitive processes in animals are less developed or that animals lack the robust intentionality found in humans. This would then be attributed to differences in biological composition, which could then be defined in terms of degree, or the role that speech has to play in facilitating cognitive processes. In short, person and personhood can be identified with reference either to the organism’s biological composition or capacity for language and thought. (Certainly, members of this camp would encounter significant difficulties were such conditions to be found in a non-human species which would then merit consideration as persons.)

On the other hand, a positive case could also present itself by showing that that sentience and sapience, at least in certain species, are similar in degree or kind to that found in humans. Thus, attention would turn to similarities in certain sensorial systems and limited cogitive processes. To that end, human rights would be extended to certain animals on the basis that person and personhood flow from sentience and sapience rather than some other source, such as thought.

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