Define "Person"

There are two aspects to the definition of the word "person." First, there is the definition people give if they are asked to say what they think what the word means. I don't care about this. What people think the word means doesn't matter. People are often wrong. Consensi are often wrong. What I care about is the fact that persons are and should be treated differently by our society. Persons are given legal rights. Sometimes they're even given the legal rights they morally should have! What I'm interested is in how we should define the word "person" so that whatever fits the definition actually deserves the highest degree of moral rights that any being can me morally entitled to. I'm not interested in arbitrary or dictionary definitions of this word. I'm only interested in your personal opinion of what definition is most appropriate.

Develop your own personal definition of the word "person". This definition should meet two distinct criteria.

First, your definition allow us to clearly distinguish between things that are persons and things that are not persons. Explain your definition fully by use of examples. Start with simple examples ("rocks are not persons because..." "humans are persons because...") and go on to more complicated and difficult examples ("chimpanzees are/are not persons because..."). Use as many examples as you can think of to illustrate various aspects of your definition. Make absolutely sure that the things you call persons actually fit your definition, and the things that you call non-persons actually fail to fit your definition.

Second, your definition should clearly distinguish between things that should be given legal rights, and things that should not be given legal rights. Things that you define as "persons" should also be things that clearly deserve to have rights, and things that you define as non-persons should be things that do not deserve to have legal rights.

For instance, should dogs, cats, and birds have all the full legal rights that human beings are given? Where should we draw the line between animals that should have full legal rights as persons, and animals that are not quite intelligent enough to be considered persons.

I'm not necessarily expecting you to come up with a coherent essay. What I am looking for is for you to take the time to seriously think this issue through from as many angles as you can. Your essay doesn't have to come up with a single, unified answer. It does have to show that you've thought seriously about the issue, and that you've tried to come up with that answer.

Finally, if you get that far, argue for your definition as best you can. Give reasons for leaving out the things you left out as well as for including the things you included. For instance, if you think that intelligence is not enough to make something a person, say why it is not enough. Any other comments you wish to add will be welcome.

Don't
attempt this topic unless you can accept at least the possibility that the meaning of the word "person" doesn't automatically include the meaning of "human." If you think that the word "person" is just another word for "human," or "human being," or "human body," don't pick this topic unless you are prepared to either come up with reasons why we should define the word person so that it only includes humans or to possibly change your mind about the definition of a person.

Follow-up questions. These ideas aren't off-limits, if any of them come up in the course of answering your assigned question, go ahead and discuss them in any way you see fit. But I do want you to focus on the question(s) I've assigned to you, so don't make any of these questions your primary topic unless I've specifically assigned you, or given you permission to do that question. If you want to focus on a follow-up question, ask me, and I might give you permission.

Social Persons Is our definition of a person partially based on morality, society or history? Should it be?

Considered What if humans weren't considered persons?

Copyright 2006 by Martin C. Young


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