Definition of a Person

I was asked to provide the definition of a person.

It is an axiom that if you are a person, you are a human being. Does being a human makes you a person? In other words, is person a subset of human under any conditions (in which case the answer is no, human does not equal person)?

Definitions of "person"

1. a human being, (man, woman, child) as distinguished from an animal
2. an individual, a unique human being under the law
2a. a group under the law
3. a self-aware or rational human being
4. the self, that is the emotional, mental, spiritual, intellectual, physical aspect of a human being
5. character or role in a story, play, movie, book, etc (not relevant to the argument)
6. an individual human being of importance (such as the Queen)
7. grammatical voice (not relevant to the argument)
8. parts of the Trinity (not relevant to the argument)

Of those relevant to the discussion, only definition #4 is not a synonym for human being. The rest are, including #2a since collectives under the law are treated as single human beings and are accorded rights.
Definition #4 is one frequently used in philosophical arguments. In fact, this definition does not strictly mean "human" but rather "aspect of human." One can begin the discussion one of two ways. First, this definition is NOT the one we use in our legal system. Law is not based on metaphysical definitions. In other words, the law has no interest in the soul. Secondly, where an individual is concerned (person according to definition 2), the law in Canada does implicitly protect and develop the aspects of personhood as per definition #4. So, for example, people have the right to practice their religion and believe as they wish. This is the development and protection of their spiritual and emotional being. People have the right an education, since the state oversees some aspect of educating its public. This is the development and protection of their mental being. If we are assaulted, robbed, etc, the offending party is punished. We also have public health care. This is the development and protection of our physical being. As per the previous post, the unborn child is merely a human at an early stage of development. Unborn children do possess all the aspects described in #4; they merely possess them at earlier stages. Therefore, they require that these things be protected and developed for themselves also.
Definition #3 might place some restrictions on what is a person. In other words, we could attempt to extract a subset of humans and call them persons and others not. This was certainly the case for women prior to 1929 and blacks at one time (but I forget the date). In fact, many of the same arguments for not according rights to the unborn are identical with those used to not accord rights to blacks or women. However persons under the Charter are human beings (men, women, children). This is self-evident. It is note-worthy that we accord rights to children. Self-awareness and the ability to rationalize do not fully appear until ages one and seven years respectively (give or take depending on the intelligence of a child.) Furthermore, we even accord rights to those with no self-awareness at all (those on life support) since euthanasia is illegal in this country and we accord rights to those who are less than able to think for themselves (such as the mentally disabled). This is because all of these things do not affect their status as human beings... persons under the law.
Unborn children are the only exception to this.

If you have another definition of person that cannot be reduced to human being, I would be interested in seeing it. However, until that happens, I maintain that person will always equal human and human will always equal person.


Deepthinker said...

"In the eyes of the law..the slave is not a person."
Virginia Supreme Court decision, 1858

"An indian is not a person within the meaning of the constitution."
George Canfield
American Law Review, 1881

"The statutory word 'person' did not in these circumstances include women."
British Voting Rights case, 1909

"The Reichsgericht itself refused to recognize Jews...as 'persons' in the legal sense."
German Supremem Court decision, 1936

"The law of Canada does not recognize the unborn child as a legal person possessing rights."
Canadian Supreme Court
Winnipeg Child and Services Case, 1997


Peter Thurley said...


Thank you for dealing with persons and for giving your reasons why you might think that persons and human beings are equivalent. It's probably not surprising that I disagree with you. Perhaps it is not fair of me to do this, but I'm going to refrain from responding to your post for now. The reason for this is t hat I'm doing some reading on reasons, persons and the naturalistic fallacy, and I want to tackle your argument and similar ones in an actual paper. You can expect at least one blog post from me in the near future to try and defuse your argument, but I have a lot of work to do before I can lay out my argument the way I want.

Ruth said...

Peter, before you do so, please carefully consider the following verse as you lay out your argument:

Colssians 2:8
"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

Peter Thurley said...

Thank you Ruth for your warning. I'll admit, I get tired of people telling it to me everytime I mention that I do philosophy for a living, but hey, it is important to keep in mind - it's one of my favourite verses, and I've seen what happens if it is not adhered to.

I would also ask (and I am praying as well) that you would keep an open mind in such a way as to realize that even though we may disagree philosophically, it doesn't necessarily mean that I HAVE been taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, nor does it mean that you have been either.

For what it is worth, my youngest sister, aged 15, had an abortion on Friday, behind my parents back. It's hurt the entire family, and is going to take some time to heal. I'm just so glad that my parents welcomed her with open arms, that they cried with her and they prayed with her and that together, they were able to know that even though what she had done was wrong, God still loves her and forgives her. The abortion issue has become slightly more personal for me lately.

John M Reynolds said...

I like that Ruth. Don't just copy what other's have done. Judge for yourself what is right and wrong. I hope Peter's argument is not only based on precedence.

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