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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

What is a ‘Person’?

To be a person, a being must be self-conscious, aware of its identity and its continued existence over time [Derek Parfit]

Persons are beings capable of valuing their own lives. [John Harris]

A person is a dynamically changing, self-organizing, multilevel, quasi entity without sharp boundaries, and embedded in a causal thicket; self is the current organization of the person; and I is the self's point of views, its set of current possible discriminations. [David Galin]

The six key markers of personhood are: 1. Sentience; 2. Emotionality; 3. Reason; 4. The capacity to communicate; 5. Self-awareness; 6. Moral Agency [Mary-Anne Warren]

A mask worn by persons in a play. That was the original meaning of the Latin word persona, from which our modern word person derives. Philosophers’ have identified personhood with linguistic or rational capacity, self-consciousness, physical-biological embodiment, non-embodied thinking substance, a particular strand of DNA, a spirit.

Then, of course, we have the notion of the person defined principally as a property owner—where ‘property owner’ typically meant ‘white men’! Slaves, women, people of colour were not allowed into the august ranks of white male personhood until fairly recently. Indeed, slaves and women were not persons but property.

Lately we have defined the notion of a person so widely as to include not just human beings, but animals, rivers, mountains, eco-systems and even corporations.

If earlier notions of personhood were exclusionary, today’s perspective is that everything is a potential candidate for personhood. We might wonder whether this call for a much more widely applied understanding of ‘person’ or ‘personhood’ comes at the expense of clarity and simplicity. Then again, we might also wonder whether the notion of personhood is really just arbitrary—a convenient legal fiction or a social political or moral construct.

Is personhood something granted to us by politics or law, or is it something we innately are. Or is it, rather, something we must achieve over time? What might be the necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood? What are the constitutive elements, aspects or defining features of a person that can be said to be common among humans, animals and corporations? Does the fact that we live in a digital world change the way we see ourselves? For example, does the present Social media saturated world play a role in how we are formed over time--do we present ourselves differently to others when we become disembodied and anonymous online 'persons'? Is our digital online self distinct from our analog self that lives and breathes in the concrete world of relationships with others?

Where does my personhood end and yours begin? Is the notion of personhood robust enough to a carry the weight of such radically different and even contradictory elements? If the notion of personhood has indeed become so pervasive, vague, arbitrary and attenuated, is it time that we transcended it, and reached for a new vocabulary that might better capture what it is we are trying describe?

My own take--admittedly derived from my own experience--is that personal identity is a gradual ongoing story or narrative that unfolds over the time of ones life. Each of us is a protagonist in this story which can often connect to the stories of others. We learn who we are by telling our own and listening to the stories of others. Our story is a product of history, politics, social context, and language, but it is not entirely determined by the latter. Each of us has the power to tell our own unique story--in other words, each of us as unique and irreplaceable beings have some measure of autonomy and should be afforded dignity and understood as having moral worth, regardless of our capabilities or deficiencies.

Oh, and by the way...Corporations are not persons!!!

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