Personhood and Humanity -- A difference without distinction?

An interesting essay can be found at the Philosopher's Cafe entitled "Mason's Meditations: Killing Human Beings" by Jeff Mason. In the essay, Mason muses over society's determinations of when it is acceptable to kill a human being and when it isn't acceptable.

Obviously, as a Christian of the evangelical bent, it is my belief that God has granted life to all people, and the taking of life ought to be very limited. Exceptions should be made for such things as just war, self-defense, and capitol punishment (but in the latter only if their is clear evidence of guilt and the crime is particularly heinous). But whenever you talk about death and killing, discussion naturally turns to issues at the front and back ends of life, i.e., abortion and euthanasia. On these issues, Mason notes:

Most of the time we know what killing a human being is, and we know that it is wrong. * * * Yet we condone the taking of human life in self-defense, and we condone or forgive it in other cases where there are extenuating circumstances. Are there such circumstances in the case of killing unwanted fetuses or moribund hospital patients?

Sometimes the rationale for abortion and euthanasia is given in terms of a distinction between a person and a human being. Persons have full consciousness, memory, and personal identity. Neither a foetus nor a moribund patient qualifies as persons. They are incapable of doing what we expect from full persons. Killing them, though often regrettable, is not always morally wrong.

Trouble arises if one conflates personhood with being human. It then seems as though we do not actually take human lives when we practice abortion and euthanasia. This cannot be the right defense of the morality of abortion or euthanasia. We must concede that fetuses and comatose patients are human beings. If we think of foetuses or moribund patients as subhuman, or not human at all, then our arguments for the morality of these practices are no better than those which have been, and are being, used to promulgate ethnic cleansing and genocide.

So sometimes we end human lives, and it is not always wrong. It may be the merciful thing to do, both for the life to be or the life that was, and for the lives affected by these deaths.

Essentially, Mason recognizes that the "foetus and the moribund" (to use his words) are both human beings. Moreover, he seems to recognize that treating them as subhuman or non-human cannot be correct or else arguments like the Nazis used to justify their efforts to exterminage the Jews and the gypsies are potentially justifiable. We are together on these points.

Interestingly, he appears to agree that the efforts to distinguish "persons" from "human beings" is not workable. The argument is that persons have "full consciousness, memory, and personal identity." I don't understand how advocates of this position draw the line at these characteristics. On what basis would we define "persons" on the basis of having consciousness, memory and personal identity? Is this limited to human beings, after all my dog has consciousness, memory and personal identity? What if a human being has less than full consciousness, memory or personal identity? Is it okay to find that they are not persons and therefore subject to being treated as non-persons?

It seems to me that people trying to draw a distinction between persons and humans are seeking to justify their desire to allow for both abortion and euthanasia to continue in spite of the clear epistemological problems that result from acknowledging that the foetus and the moribund are both living human beings. It is an effort to give some type of basis for being able to say that one type of killing is wrong while another type is okay. But the entire argument turns on whether their really exists a difference between a person and a human being. Is there?

What is a person? A person is another word for a human being. The terms are synonymous, and the effort to distinguish the two on the basis of characteristics that a fully developed, functioning, sane, 25 year old human being would have only invite trouble. This is especially important because the issues of abortion and euthanasia involve the death of these human beings. If we are going to allow a human being to be killed -- an action which Mason rightly acknowledges at the beginning of his essay is wrong -- then we should, at minimum, agree on what the difference is between a person and a human being.

Perhaps, Greg Koukl said it best in his commentary Fetal Personhood: It's Simple, when discussing the argument that fetuses are not persons:

It's kind of like saying why are you killing those children? "Well, it's because they don't have a high enough I.Q." Well, how high of an I.Q. do you have to have to live? "Frankly, I don't have the faintest idea, but I know these kids are pretty dumb." What is that? That is exactly what this response implies. Nonpersons shouldn't be allowed to live. What's a nonperson? "I don't know, but they're not one of them." If a person is willing to sacrifice the life of a child based on its nonpersonhood, it seems to me they ought to have a fairly clear idea of what personhood actually is. But of course nobody does in a clear fashion. It becomes arbitrary at that point.

The fact is that human beings are persons. They are personal kinds of beings whether they are in an early stage of development or a later stage of development. That's what a human is and it remains itself from the beginning to end. It's very simple. It's not hard. It's not complex. We've known it for ages.

While I don't think anyone is saying that nonpersons shouldn't be allowed to live, they are certainly saying that nonpersons can be killed if it is more convenient to kill them than to keep them alive. But before we kill anyone, it seems to me that we better be sure that we can tell the difference unequivocably otherwise you never know who may be the next "nonperson" entitled to fewer rights than the rest of us.

Mason, after acknowledging that the foetus and the moribund are both living human beings, seems content to say that killing these people is not always wrong due to considerations of justice and mercy. Without a great deal of comment, he seems to assume that killing the foetus and the moribund can be the more merciful and just thing to do. My reaction: that is extremely dangerous thinking. If it is okay to kill another living human being on the basis that it is the most just and merciful to do so, watch out. This approach takes away any need to even attempt to differentiate between human beings and persons. It simply says "if it is most merciful to kill human being X, then we should kill human being X." I am sure that Mason would disagree with that statement and try to explain his meaning further, but if carried to the logical extreme, that would be the end result of his approach.

Mr. Mason, with all due respect, this is an issue you need to think about a second time.


BigFerret said…
A human being is an animal possessing the species-specific characteristics of "homo sapiens". Those characteristics are potentialities for development within a particular direction and range. Those characteristics are present at the moment of conception and lost at the moment of natural death.

A person is a being with intellect and free will. Human beings are persons because they possess the potentialities of intellect and free will at conception. They are incohate.

Rights are a reflection of natural needs and the duty to lead a good human life.

The right to life is grounded in the intrinsic and instrumental natural need for life in order to fulfill one's basic duty to God, to others and to oneself; that is, the self-evident duty to lead a good human life, to seek that which is really good for oneself as a human being, as opposed to what is merely apparently good.

The right to life in alienable and indefeasible. It cannot be intentionally given up, taken or overridden without a moral wrong being committed. The wrong is the interference with that person's fundamental duty to lead a good human life.

God cannot authorize the intentionally taking of a human life (say in a special revelation in a received text) without contradicting himself (what he has already said in his general revelation in creation- the natural moral law).

Intentionally taking a human life is always wrong, whether it be in self-defence, war, capital punishment or otherwise.

Incidentally taking a human life may be justifiable in the limited set of circumstances described in the principle of double effect. This covers tubal ligation, some forms of self-defense, and aggressive pain management.

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