The Concept of a Person

                                                The Concept of a Person



I have come to the conclusion that the concept of a person, as philosophers employ that concept, is a bad concept. It leads to the formulation of bad questions that have no answers. The concept does not pick out any natural kind and is quite misleading. It should be abandoned as a concept in philosophy, except in a very restricted setting.

            What counts as a person? We typically apply the word to ordinary adult humans of sound mind, assuming a certain set of mental characteristics—intelligence, consciousness, self-reflection, self-governance, memory, etc. But what about children: when does a human child become a person? Is it at the age of sexual maturity, or when the child starts to walk and talk, or at birth, or in the third trimester, or at conception? Opinions differ radically. According to the standard Lockean definition, in terms of conscious self-reflection, persons must have advanced cognitive skills, so that personhood only begins when the mind reaches a certain level of sophistication—possibly around puberty or later, depending on the individual. So many human children are deemed non-persons—though they have human bodies, minds, language, and will. What about those suffering from various forms of mental deficit—are they persons? Is an autistic adult a person? Does Alzheimer’s destroy personhood? Does coma eliminate the person? Are you a person while asleep, or just before you die in your sleep? And is there a science of persons? Is this concept useful in biology, or psychology? Why do we have the concept? What does it do for us?

            We are apt to restrict the concept of a person to the human species—only humans are said to be persons. Our pets are not deemed persons, nor are our closest biological relatives. Would we call other hominids persons if they still existed—Neanderthals, Homo erectus, et al? Didn’t some people once deny that individuals of other races are persons? But are we just wrong to impose these restrictions—might we discover that gorillas, say, really are persons after all? What would such a discovery involve? Might their DNA make us accept that gorillas are persons, as it might make us accept that they belong to the same family that includes lemurs? Could their personhood be a scientific discovery? And if they are persons, what about other primates, other mammals, or even reptiles—might they too be persons for all we know? Is it that we know empirically that crocodiles are not persons, as we know they are not warm-blooded? Is that a scientific fact? Is it conceivable that turtles might turn out to be persons—but not the shark or the octopus? And when did the biological kind persons evolve? Might we stop calling ourselves persons if our mental faculties drop below a certain level (“we used to be persons but now we don’t measure up”)?

            There is a philosophical subject called “personal identity” in which we strive to find what constitutes the continued existence of a person. The subject involves many ingenious thought experiments, and it is difficult to come up with a satisfactory theory. Presumably the question is not supposed to include non-persons: we are not seeking the conditions of non-personal identity—the question is supposed to be exclusively about persons as such. So we are not interested in young children and members of other species, since they don’t count as persons. But the same thought experiments, and the same theories, can be applied to these non-persons too. A human child, say three-year-old Jill, persists through time, and we can ask what her persistence consists in—what makes this child Jill. Is it her body or brain or memories or consciousness or personality—or none of the above? We can envisage swapping her brain for Jack’s brain, or dividing her brain in two, or erasing her memories—the usual philosophical moves. Yet none of this is about personal identity, Jill not being a person (yet), as we may suppose. Or if you think human children do count as persons, even going as far back as the fetus, what about cats and dogs—what does their identity through time consist in? What makes Fido, Fido? We can swap Fido’s brain, zap his memories, tinker with his personality, and subject him to teletransportation—the philosophical works. Yet none of this concerns a question of personal identity—just canine identity: “Is it the same dog?” not “Is it the same person?” But surely these questions about non-persons are really the same as questions about the identity of persons—we have not got two philosophical problems here, one about persons and the other about non-persons. So the question of personal identity, as it is normally pursued, is not really a question about personal identity as such—that is a misnomer. The concept of a person is not the concept we need to pursue these kinds of questions: it is too restrictive.

            And quite possibly it makes the questions needlessly intractable, because the concept itself is so vague, messy, and unnatural. We can ask what constitutes identity of body, identity of mind, and identity of animal (dog or gorilla, say), but asking what constitutes the identity of a “person” is not a very well defined question, pending some clearer idea of what a person is. What question is left over when we have answered those other questions—in particular, when we have answered the question of what dog identity or human identity is? If we have a theory of human identity over time, don’t we have all we need? In other words, why not focus on species concepts and formulate the question that way? These are sortals in good standing, unlike the putative sortal “person”, which admits of so much indeterminacy. If we find we can settle questions of animal identity—dogs, turtles, humans—why bother with the supposed further question of personal identity? Maybe this just generates pseudo-questions that simply have no answer. We can also meaningfully inquire about the identity through time of minds—what makes me have the same mind today that I had yesterday or a year ago? The answer will specify my mental capacities, as well as certain kinds of psychological continuity; and the question posed may have a clear answer. But this will not satisfy the seeker after the secret of personal identity, which is construed as a question about another kind of entity entirely—the person. For why–that seeker will ask–couldn’t the same person have a different mind at different times, and why couldn’t different persons share the same mind? Such questions appear fanciful, but they are easily generated from the assumption that there is a substantial further issue about personal identity. However, if we simply stop asking that question—that is, stop going on about the supposed category of persons—we can still cover all the ground that really matters, viz. identity of body, animal, and mind. There is really no additional question in this neighborhood worth asking–so at least the skeptic about “personal identity” will contend. There is clearly a challenge here to explain what well-defined question remains once those other questions have been dealt with. The concept of a person is really quite a recent addition to our conceptual repertoire, but surely there were questions about our identity through time before it made its entrance.

            It is suspicious that we don’t have a term corresponding to “person” for other species. Some well-meaning people suggest that we should extend the concept to other species, because of their psychological similarities to us; but that seems rather forced and stipulative. What is odd is that we don’t have a more general concept of which person is a special case, given that we recognize that animals have minds as well as bodies. We think Fido is the same dog from day to day, as we think Bill is the same human from day to day; but we don’t have a term corresponding to “person” to add to our description in the case of Fido. There is a natural kind here that subsumes both Bill and Fido, and which resembles the concept of a person, but we don’t actually have a word that does this job—hence we have to say bluntly that Fido is a non-person. We might try using “psychological subject” or “ego” or “self”, but these don’t capture the notion of a non-human but person-like being (a “quasi-person”?). What this suggests to me is that the concept of a person is not really a natural kind concept at all—it is not intended to capture significant natural traits of things. It has a completely different function. That is why we don’t have a more capacious notion of a person, despite recognizing similarities between ourselves and other species, and indeed between adult humans and juvenile humans (as well as others). The job of the word “person” is not to capture the nature of a certain kind of thing; rather, it is to enforce a certain kind of division—to stipulate a certain kind of exclusion. It is intentionally invidious.

            Locke remarked that “person” is a forensic term, i.e. a term of the law. Let me rather say that it is a political and legal term, as is the concept expressed. To classify an individual as a “person” is to grant him or her certain rights—legal, political, moral. A person is precisely someone who possesses, or is deemed to possess, these rights—a right-holder. It is like calling someone a “gentleman” as opposed to a “commoner”: the point is to indicate how such a one is to be treated, not to get at some natural essence. We don’t refuse to call children and animals persons because we think they differ fundamentally from us in their objective nature; we do it because we are marking them out as beyond the normative sphere to which normal human adults belong—the sphere of responsibility, legal obligation, ownership, and so on. True, there are real differences that underlie this kind of forensic distinction, but the term “person” is employed to abstract away from these and focus on matters of law and politics. We declarea young human a person upon the attainment of a certain position in society, as we might stipulate a gorilla to be a person if gorillas come to be accorded legal rights comparable to those applicable to adult humans. It is not that we discover these creatures to be persons by observation or analysis—though we may discover relevant facts about their minds or bodies. The term “person” is a kind of honorific or status term, intended to signify belonging—it connotes legal and political standing. It is like “citizen” or “aristocrat” or “star” or “lady”. It is not the concept of a certain kind of natural entity.

            If this is right, we can see what is going wrong with the philosopher’s use of the concept of a person. It is not a concept designed for, or useful in, metaphysical or scientific contexts, but in political or legal contexts. There is no such question therefore as the “nature of persons” or “personal identity through time”–though there are real questions about the nature of animals and their minds and about the identity through time of animals and their minds. We can certainly ask about minds of different levels of complexity, up to and including the Lockean conception of a self-reflective conscious being that can “consider itself as itself”. But this should not be interpreted as a division into “persons” and “non-persons”: there are just too many grades of animal (and human) mindedness for that dichotomy to be realistic. There is no such ontological subject as persons—at least as that concept is normally understood by philosophers. The kind “normal adult human with legal rights and obligations” is not a metaphysical kind, as philosophers have attempted to make it.   Philosophers have extracted the concept of a person from its natural forensic context and tried to press it into metaphysical service, by asking questions about a supposed ontological category. The failure to make much progress with these questions is an indication that this appropriation was misconceived. Let us then drop the concept of a person from metaphysics and return it to its proper place in law and politics. We can still discuss the nature of animals, humans included, and ask about the identity through time of these entities—recognizing that they are essentially embodied minds—but we will not do so under the rubric “persons” or “personal identity”. There are no persons, as philosophers have employed the concept, primitive or non-primitive, basic or non-basic, analyzable or unanalyzable.


Colin McGinn

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