Thursday, March 24, 2005

On Being a Human Person

One thing that has startled me recently has been the discovery of how many people have a view of what it is to be a person that explicitly denies that human persons are anything but a stream of higher-order thought. This is, to my mind, an utterly irrational view of human personhood. Human persons are not merely rational streams of consciousness; they are rational animals. They do not merely exhibit the functions of reasoning, communication, and the like; they also exhibit functions like digestion, secretion, respiration, and so forth. These are part of what it is to be a human person, because these are part of what it is to be alive.

What makes a person a person, traditionally, is being an individual example of the general sort of thing that usually exhibits rationality. It does not follow from this, however, that persons are nothing but exhibitions of rationality. If the person is an individual example of the sort of thing that exhibits animal functions, this, too, is part of the manifold of actions and passions that are attributable to the person. But human beings are such persons; we are animals.

Claims, then, that higher-brain death is death simpliciter, that a person who has ceased having higher-order brain functions is no longer a person, appear to me to be utterly irrational and arbitrary. They are a denial of the fairly obvious fact that human personhood is exhibited in all our vital functions. They are a flight from human animality, a pretense that higher-order thought is all that there is to being a human person. (It is an old story. The excuse that some human persons should not be regarded as persons because they do not properly exhibit rationality is one of the oldest moral dodges in the book; it has been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism, sterilization of the mentally disabled, and the like. If you are going to go this route, you had better have a damn good argument for doing so.)

So long as a person is exhibiting vital functions, so long are they alive. And so long as they are alive, so long are they persons. It is merely a desperate abuse of language to say that someone who is breathing, digesting, circulating blood, etc., is a corpse. To say that such a person should no longer be referred to by personal pronouns, as Lakoff recently has done, is merely an irrational fiat. Since a human person is the subject of the sort of stable functions pertaining to human life, and this includes various biological functions other than higher-order thought, there appears to be no rational reason why one should restrict human personhood to higher-order thought functions. And what is more, I have seen no reason given for it at all.

Some people like to pretend that the point is one of rationality versus religion. I have seen no rational arguments from those who claim to be on the side of rationality; I have seen a lot of dogmatic pronouncements. Were I to have seen any genuine rational arguments coming from them, I would be more sympathetic; but I haven't.

In this sense, people who have advocated the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube on this basis seem to me to be committed to something like the situation Jack Perry has suggested they are in: they should, if they were consistent, allow that shooting her would be just as effective; much as it is generally thought better to shoot a dying horse than let it drag out its life. At least, they have given no serious reason to think otherwise.

(Another pet peeve of mine that has also begun to rear its head again and again in the Schiavo case is the assumption that when people are talking theologically about the soul they are talking Cartesianism. Theologically, 'soul' is a technical term for the principle of life; it does not imply Cartesianism, although Cartesianism is one particular take on it. Theologically, anything has a soul that is alive; this is simply true by definition. It is against this background that we have the age-old questions of whether the soul is material or immaterial, formal or substantial. If you didn't know that, perhaps you should stop saying ignorant things about the subject.)

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