Monday, January 09, 2006

Blogger Limelight: What is a "Person"? Part I: The problem

Are you in the Blogger Limelight?
What follows here is NOT my answer to the question I posed below but, rather, a sketching out of the terrain that an answer has to traverse. If anything essential to the sketching out is missing or if something is incorrect, I hope someone will (politely) let me know in comments.

I should also say that, though I personally support a woman's right to choose, I'm NOT initiating this conversation to set out to justify my position (which, I admit from the outset, is fraught with moral quandries of many sorts). It should go without saying that this discussion also has profound bearing on how to think about end-of-life issues as well (see: Terri Schiavo). But neither do I think that not thinking about the meaning of the word does anyone any favors, either, no matter one's politics or beliefs. So: as I said earlier, the goal here is to encourage those of us who wish to engage in some serious thinking about this question.

The law. Black's Law Dictionary defines "person" thus:
In general usage, a human being (i.e. natural person), though by statue term may include a firm, labor organizations, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers.

Of course, this is the very problem, no? No one argues that the genetic material resulting from the union of sperm and egg is human, but at what point does that material, from a legal standpoint, become a human being?

Biology. As nearly as I can tell, biology in and of itself isn't interested in the question of "personhood" but in stages of development. To some, descriptions of those stages, as they pertain to viability, will be of concern (witness Roe v. Wade's severe restricting on abortions after the end of the 2nd trimester of pregnancy. To others, though (see below), viability is officially a non-issue.

Religion. Christian theology teaches that a soul is created at the moment of conception, and we are familiar with the statement "Life begins at conception." Many are inclined to argue that that statement is tantamount to claiming that the zygote should be considered a person as well.

I'm certain other theologians take up this issue, but I've had time, just now, only to consider Aquinas' definition, which he offers as a correction of Boethius' definition:
I answer that, Although the universal and particular exist in every genus, nevertheless, in a certain special way, the individual belongs to the genus of substance. For substance is individualized by itself; whereas the accidents are individualized by the subject, which is the substance; since this particular whiteness is called "this," because it exists in this particular subject. And so it is reasonable that the individuals of the genus substance should have a special name of their own; for they are called "hypostases," or first substances.

Further still, in a more special and perfect way, the particular and the individual are found in the rational substances which have dominion over their own actions; and which are not only made to act, like others; but which can act of themselves; for actions belong to singulars. Therefore also the individuals of the rational nature have a special name even among other substances; and this name is "person."

Thus the term "individual substance" is placed in the definition of person, as signifying the singular in the genus of substance; and the term "rational nature" is added, as signifying the singular in rational substances. (Summa Theologica, emphasis added)

This is as far as I've gotten. In later posts, I plan to see what, if anything, emerges from the Venn diagram formed by these three disciplines.

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Ariel said...

An interesting intro to a thorny issue. I'll follow with interest. I'm not certain whether I can guarantee a post of my own yet, but I'm hopeful.

You may want to link your initial post to this one, because I think it's still getting a little traffic, at least from my blog.

Andrew Simone said...

I have been thinking more about Thomas' view and he may be barking up the wrong tree.

I have always viewed man as a "relational being" rather than a "rational one." It is, however, not a manner of contradiction between the two but priority.

I will reflect on this futher and hopefully formulate a more defined post. One friend suggests I should return to Thomas' "On Being and Essence." It has been awhile.

R. Sherman said...

I've been thinking about the issue of "personhood." It seems that any set of criteria for judging inclusion or exclusion from the category of "persons" always winds up leaving things out. I wonder if the answer is similar to Justice Stewart's definition of "obscenity:" "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.