Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Humans, Persons, and Others

Matthew Cornell raises a really interesting question: Are you still human when you're under general anesthesia? If self-awareness is what makes us human, then what are we when self-awareness is absent?

It's not just general anesthesia, either. What about dreamless sleep? What about the state of "flow," when one is so focused on a task that self-awareness vanishes?

Some of his commenters make a distinction (in legal terms) between "human" and "person." When unconscious, Matt is still human but is not a legal person -- indeed, the law specifies that a genuine person must make decisions for him. Similarly, the law recognizes a class of "persons" who are not human: corporations.

In the future, I can see the law recognizing other classes of nonhuman persons: cetaceans, perhaps, and/or other primates, artificial intelligences, or even sapient aliens.

Also, it seems to me that "personhood" is not simply a matter of self-awareness -- which is perhaps why I prefer the term "sapience." Self-awareness is one criterion, but there are others: intelligence, emotionality, autonomy, etc.

"Personhood" is a continuum, not on on/off switch. A rock (so far as we know) has none of these and is not a "person." A tree has more than a rock but not enough to be a "person." A hamster? Still not a person. A chimpanzee? Currently not a person, but that could change.

A human infant? Legally, not a full person...but has some of the aspects of "personhood." A severely mentally retarded human? Somewhat the same: human, but legally only partially a "person." A human fetus? A human embryo? Certainly both are less "persons" than an infant...but are they more "persons" than a chimp?

It occurs to me that a lot of the abortion debate rests on this human/person distinction. As usual in highly emotional arguments, both sides are using the same words to refer to different concepts. Would the debate be improved if everyone could agree on more precise language for words like "human," "person," and the like?

What about a human corpse? Still human, but not a person? What's the difference between a freshly-dead corpse and a human under general anesthesia? What if you rush the corpse to shock trauma and they resuscitate it? Do we have to get into questions of "potential" personhood?

And finally, isn't this whole thing just another form of the mind/body dichotomy? Is "human" the body and "person" the mind? Does your DNA make you human, but your brain makes you a person? But your DNA makes your brain, doesn't it? What about corporations -- they are persons, do they have minds? Do we need a new class for entities composed of more than one mind? (In Dance for the Ivory Madonna I riffed on the idea of the Superorganism as a multi-minded entity: there I posited that the Baby Boomers were an example of a Superorganism.)

I don't have answers to any of these questions...but they sure are fun to think about, aren't they?

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