Introduction to Philosophy/What is a Person

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At one time the general view in some religious societies was that people had souls, which, when they died went to heaven or hell, or else were reborn. The soul was considered the essential core of what a person was. This idea is perhaps less fashionable now, but it forms the basis of most religious beliefs. This belief in the separation of mind and body is known today as dualism.

Current scientific thought tends toward the alternate view: monism. Bodies are viewed as complex biological entities responsible for all behaviors and thought processes they express. Since no evidence for a soul exists, only the physical entity remains for consideration. To say that X now and Y then are the same person is to say that there is bodily spatio-temporal continuity between them.

The question of personal identity, which was first raised by Locke and later expanded on by Leibniz, would at first seem trivial in nature. When looking at a person or an object one can easily trace that person throughout his life. If I place a pen behind my back and then pull it back out again it is obviously the same pen. Problems arise when we discuss cases where this is not so straightforward.

Let us return to the example of the person; from the time you are born to the time you die you change a large portion of the matter in your body, are you then the same person? A tree that grows from a nut shares the same thing in common throughout its entire life, mainly its origin, however is it always the same 'tree?' How about when it is just a nut, or firewood behind my house. When does an object cease to be an object and become a different object?

Perhaps the most famous historical example comes from the ship of Theseus. The ship of Theseus has 100 parts to it, and within the hold are contained 100 replacement parts. The ship sets sail on a voyage and on the first day out the captain discovers there is a problem with a piece of the boat so he replaces it with the one in the hold. The next thing happens on the next day, and the next, etc. At the end of 100 days the ship returns to port with every piece of it having been exchanged with its correlating piece in the hold. Is the ship the same ship? What if the captain emptied the hold and built a new ship with the parts that were originally the ship of Theseus, would those be the ship of Theseus or would it be the ship he sailed into port with?

Concerning personal identity at what point does a person cease to be a person? If your arm is chopped off are you still a person, still the same person? What do I need to remove in order to take away your personhood?

The question of what makes a person is charged with all types of implications. For example, is an unborn human a "person?" Ask a pro-lifer and you will likely get one answer; conversely, ask someone from Planned Parenthood and you will almost inevitably get another. If an unborn human is a "person," at what point does it become recognizable as a person? Is it, perhaps, implicit in the being? What, then, differentiates between an unborn human from an unborn chicken? Both contain similar levels of sentience at the time, it would seem. Many questions like these are raised no matter which definition of personhood is used.

Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person[edit]

Harry Frankfurt (1929- ), wrote, "[The criteria for being a person] are designed to capture those attributes which are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives." In philosophy, "what is a person?" is not a question of biology, but a question of other attributes. Harry Frankfurt says that one of those attributes is the structure of the will.

Within the Free-will Debate, there are three main schools of thought: Determinism, Libertarianism, and Compatibilism. The libertarians and the determinists hold that in order for a person to have free-will, under all of the same conditions, one must be able to choose different courses of action. For example, let us imagine I go to the grocery store. I stop in front of the ice cream. With all of my inner states and psychological states and every condition remaining the same, I must be able to choose EITHER the chocolate OR the neopolitan (in order to have free-will). Some compatibilists will say that this is irrelevant to free-will.

Determinists hold that, under any given circumstances, the following outcomes or events are pre-determined, guaranteed by the laws of nature (or sometimes a Divine Being). Everything in nature is made up of atoms that behave according to the laws of nature, and we are no different. Determinism is the view that everything happens necessarily due to the circumstances that precede it; people are unable to truly make their own decisions, because the laws of nature pre-determine what people will do under certain circumstances (circumstances which were also pre-determined). Virtually everything we know about science and the physical world point to this conclusion.

Libertarians, on the other hand, hold that this is not the case. They point to everyday experiential evidence to show that people have free-will. What about deliberation? People can only deliberate about choices that are truly up to them. Or what about the basic feeling I have in my gut that tells me I am making things happen? I feel like I am making my own choices, and that I am free to pick among different alternatives. These feelings and behaviours are not explained by determinists, and offer a strong counter-argument to determinism.

Throughout history, the majority of philosophers have found middle-ground, and argued that free-will and determinism are compatible. David Hume is a good example of this. Hume argued that people are free as long as they are doing what they want to do. I may not be able to really make my own choice (in the way that determinists and libertarians mean), but as long as I wanted the chocolate ice cream, and I was pre-determined to "choose" it, I have free-will.

Back to Harry Frankfurt. He believes that causation really has nothing to do with freedom of the will and personhood. Frankfurt constructs a hierarchy of desires and volitions. A first order desire is wanting to do something. Mostly every creature has this type of desire. "I want to eat." A second order desire is the want to be different, or to have different first order desires. This self-evaluation, Frankfurt says, is a mostly human trait. A step up from that is a second order volition, that is, when someone wants a certain desire to be his will. Frankfurt says that these volitions are characteristics of people, whereas "wantons" are creatures without these volitions, creatures who do not care about their will and are moved simply by their desires.

These theories, along with others, still exist and are in conflict to this day.

This question must be answered before we can even begin to think about whether it might be possible to build a person. The English term, "person," is ambiguous. We often use it as a synonym for "human being." But surely that is not what we intend here. It is possible that there are aliens living on other planets that have the same cognitive abilities that we do (e.g., E.T., Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, the famous "bar scene" from Star Wars). Imagine aliens that speak a language, make moral judgments, create literature and works of art, etc. Surely aliens with these properties would be "persons"--which is to say that it would be morally wrong to buy or sell them as property the way we do with dogs and cats or to otherwise use them for our own interests without taking into account the fact that they are moral agents with interests that deserve the same protection that ours do. Thus, one of our primary interests is to distinguish persons from property. A person is the kind of entity that has the moral right to make its own life-choices, to live its life without (unprovoked) interference from others. Property is the kind of thing that can be bought and sold, something I can "use" for my own interests. [Of course when it comes to animals, there are serious moral constraints on how they may be "used." We urge you to learn about the philosophical debates concerning the ethical treatment of animals and whether animals may not themselves have extensive rights not commonly accorded them in our society. Persons are not to be treated as property. Henceforth, we shall define a person as follows:

PERSON = "any entity that has the moral right of self-determination." So then, any entity judged to be a person would be the kind of thing that would deserve protection under the constitution of a just society. For example, you might think that any such being would have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." One of the primary philosophical questions that concerns us in the PT-Project is: What properties must an entity possess to be a "person"? Many properties have been suggested: Intelligence, the capacity to speak a language, creativity, the ability to make moral judgments, consciousness, free will, a soul, self-awareness . . and the list could go on almost indefinitely.

Free-will and Ethics[edit]

There is a definite link between ideas of free-will and ideas of ethics and responsibility. Libertarians and Determinists mostly agree that in order for a person to be held responsible for her/his actions, that person must have made the decision to carry out said action. This translates to philosophy of law. We generally do not hold someone responsible for a crime if we do not consider him/her to be the "owner of his actions". For example, if a man with schizophrenia shoots someone in a fit of hallucinogenic rage, we do not believe it was his fault, and we consider him "not guilty by reason of insanity". There can be no blame, nor praise, in a world without freedom of the will.

However, some compatibilists, namely Hume, claim that people can be held responsible for their actions only when they are not free. In his essay "Of Liberty and Necessity", Hume offers a disjunctive syllogism. He claims that either the actions of humanity are pre-determined (like everything else in this world), or else human actions are random and chaotic. He goes on to say that if human action is random, if my actions do not come from my character but only from chance, then there is no ethical responsibility. I cannot be held responsible if my actions do not come from me. However, if everything is pre-determined, then at least my actions are coming from my psychological and metaphysical states. At least then it can be said that my character is causing me to act in a certain way.

Hume, for the most part, lost this battle, mostly because Richard Taylor defeated Hume's syllogism and offered a third alternative: Agent Causation, the notion that a person can cause an event to happen. This is arguably different from determinism and the idea of random, chaotic action. However, even this notion can be countered by determinists who can argue that though a person can be said to have caused an event, the person cannot make the decision that causes the event without relying on the beliefs and desires that followed naturally, or deterministically, from past experience and genetics. If the person's actions do not follow directly from beliefs and desires developed from past experience and genetics, we come full circle and must accept that the world is random and chaotic.

Further reading[edit]

  • John Locke An Essay concerning Human Understanding, especially Book II Chapter xxvii
  • Christian Smith What is a Person? University of Chicago Press 2010
  • David Hume Of Liberty and Necessity
  • Derek Parfit Reasons and Persons Oxford University Press 1984
  • Harry Frankfurt Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person
  • Richard Taylor Freedom and Determinism
  • Simon Blackburn Think Oxford University Press 1999