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The Concept of a Person and Ethics

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The concept of a person and ethics

The term ‘person’ is an ambiguous term used in many different ways to refer to a number of realities. Some people refer to supernatural beings like gods and angels as persons, others regards as individuals only those belonging to our own species –Homo sapiens—while others, namely animal activists, consider animals as persons too. Clearly, the concept of what makes a ‘person’ differs from one person to another. Different fields of study –theology, ethics, law, biology, psychology, philosophy—all have their own criteria in determining when a human becomes a person, each proposing different boundaries and thresholds in defining personhood.

Defining personhood

Personhood has been a topic of international debate since time immemorial. Personhood touches many fields of study and sparks off different questions. The legal domain asks ‘who has legal rights and duties?’ Theology tries to solve moral dilemmas like abortion and reproductive rights; Ethical Theory attempts to understand when life attains personhood; and the corporate field asks ‘When does a corporation attain the constitutional rights that qualify it as a person in business?’

Attributes common to definitions of personhood includes human nature, linguistic ability, dignity, agency, self-awareness, a notion of time and space, and the possession of rights and duties, among others notions . However, the concept of a person is difficult to define in a way that is universally accepted, due to its historical, contextual and cultural variability.

In our day to day lives we have no problem deciding which entities to refer to as persons: human beings generally qualify as persons while objects, abstract concepts and animals generally do not. Yet through the centuries, philosophers have wrecked their brains and wrote avidly in their attempt to determine what makes a human a person. The following is a brief overview of the main lines of thinking across different fields of studies through time.

Classical Thought

The earliest explicit definition of personhood comes from the sixth-century philosopher Boethius, who laid emphasis on one’s possession of rationality. This capacity has featured in subsequent attempts at defining personhood, namely in the attempts of two most influential accounts of personhood, those of John Locke and Emmanuel Kant. For Locke, there were three essential characteristics of personhood: rationality, self-awareness, and the linkage of this self-awareness by memory across time and space. In his words, a person is “an intelligent being that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself the same thinking”.

The Theological Branch

Christian theology, in contrast, gives priority to the person’s relationships, namely one’s relationship with others and also one’s relationship with God. According to this view, it is the effective and active participation in these relationships that bestows personhood on an individual. This tradition tends to be very comprehensive, given that it also considers the importance of interpersonal relationships between persons who lack the basic psychological capacities.

The 13th century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas speaks about the concept of a person in his work Summa Theologica. For Him a ‘person’ is someone who has proven completeness, subsistence, separateness and rationality.

Kant also spoke profusely about this topic and emphasized that an individual is really a person if he/she is intelligent. Intelligence for Kant was not measured by University degrees but by its role in enabling one to act morally and distinguish between persons and things . The basic difference between humans and animals for Kant is what he terms ‘dignity’. By dignity he understands humans’ intrinsic value which comes not from their usefulness but from their values as persons (in contrast with animals and objects which are only seen in how useful they can be).

Cognitive Science

A more modern construal of persons, within the framework of cognitive science was offered by Dennett (1978). Similar to Locke

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