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What defines personhood?

The distinct difference of humans

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December 8, 2020

Peter Singer, Princeton’s Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values, is (in)famous for his arguments about personhood. For Singer, only beings that have sentience can appropriately be describe as persons. Sentience is the ability to experience conscious pleasure and pain. Conscious pain is that interior state of mind that elicits a pain response such that we say to ourselves or others, “Ouch!” “That hurts!” “Stop it!” “Leave me alone!” etc. So, Singer argues, causing any kind of pain to animals is a moral harm and ought to be avoided. The morally good form of life is a vegan lifestyle. 

Because Singer believes that animals are sentient persons and sentient person have rights, including a right to life, Singer has been an advocate for a granting a “right to life” to Great Apes, dolphins, dogs, and other species.  

Furthermore, for Singer, since “a chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility . . . we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans” (Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 19).  Following his own logic has led Singer to defend bestiality and even the rape of disabled people

Singer’s extremism sometimes makes him easy to dismiss and vilify. But, if sentience is what defines personhood, then he may be right. So it’s crucial to understand what personhood is and to recognize who is a person.

Understanding personhood

Personalism is a school of thought that prioritizes the person. According to the personalist account of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, a person is “the particular kind of being that under proper conditions is capable of developing into (or has developed into) a conscious, reflective, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who—as the efficient cause of his or her responsible actions and interactions exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.” This is a very useful starting point, and every clause is important.

“Person” has a long history in theological discourse, especially in the Christological debates of the early church. Orthodox Christians affirm that each member of the Trinity is a person. Those three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are one God. As the hymnwriter put it, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” The Bible also speaks of other persons, including angelic persons and human persons. The early church spent a great deal of time trying to understand who is and who isn’t a person. 

According to the biblical witness, to be human is to be a person.

According to biblical theology, human persons, as distinct from divine and angelic persons, are embodied from conception onward. At conception, at least one genetically unique human person is formed (twinning may occur during the first two weeks of pregnancy). So the psalmist offers a glorious hymn to God in Psalm 139:

“You created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because of I fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depth of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (13-16 NIV). 

Human persons are, however, the only persons who are made in the imago Dei (image of God). Thus, Jesus—fully God and fully human—is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). Likewise, according to Genesis, “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).

Singer defines persons on the basis of their functional capacities (e.g., the ability to experience conscious pleasure and pain). But the Bible nowhere defines personhood that way. In fact, according to the biblical witness, to be human is to be a person. To be made in the image of God is to be a human person. All members of the species Homo sapiens are persons quite apart from their location (in or out of the womb), age (unborn or born), or functional capacities (cognitively disabled or cognitively healthy).

Note again Christian Smith’s definition of a person as “the particular kind of being that under proper conditions is capable of developing into . . . . a conscious, reflective,” etc., being. Unborn human beings are not, therefore, potential persons. They are persons with potential. Under proper conditions (e.g., not being aborted), they will develop those markers of personhood. But those markers of personhood are not personhood itself, but the signs we typically observe to one degree or another in persons.

In my own view, personhood is not a set of functional capacities, but an ontological status. Every entity who is made in the image of God is a person. All Homo sapiens are made in the image of God. Therefore, all Homo sapiens are persons, regardless of other conditions.

C. Ben Mitchell

Ben Mitchell is the Graves Chair of moral philosophy at Union University. He is also editor of Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics and serves as a Research Fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC. Prior to joining the Union faculty, he taught ethics, including bioethics and … Read More