365 Journal Questions, writing therapy
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Week 25 Questions for Know Thyself 2019: Personhood

(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!

The next few weeks cover ethical issues. Ethical topics tend to be difficult because there are no definitive answers to ethical questions.  That means for every answer you give, someone could offer a reasonable argument against your answer, give a counter-example (an example that is evidence for the opposite), or show how fuzzy your concepts actually are.

That’s the nature of ethics.  Ethics is descriptive and prescriptive at the same time – it describes how things should be by (at least sometimes) just describing how they presently are.  With respect to the journal questions presented, keep in mind that although there are plenty of contradictions in the evidence and no 100% firm answers, you should try to make a philosophical commitment nonetheless.  But that’s part of self-discovery – knowing what sits right with you, to hell with the evidence sometimes! Enjoy!)

This week’s journal topic: Personhood

dog shaking hands

You shake my hand like I’m a person, but you’re still holding the leash!  Am I missing something?

Personhood is a topic that bears legal and moral consequences. You might have heard about it in discussions of immigration or abortion.  But even if those issues don’t relate to you personally, personhood is still an important topic for you.  Your security and status in society require an entrenched concept of personhood developed over hundreds of years.  Personhood relates to all rights, responsibilities, respect, citizenship, voting, and freedom.

The designation of personhood adds special significance to what would otherwise be regarded as a mere thing.  The personhood designation says: [pointing to someone] That thing is not merely an object, but is a person.  That means it requires special treatment and special ethical consideration – you can’t kill it and can’t treat it however you want, as you would a brick, or a computer, or a stuffed bear.

Personhood Criteria

It’s not obvious what makes someone a person.  Over the last 2500 years there has been plenty of disagreement about what exactly a person is.  I’ve listed some proposed criteria for personhood.  A criterion for personhood should name the essential attribute that makes something a person, over and above being just a thing.

Don’t be confused by the overlap in the criteria (concepts are not detached from each other like islands).  And you might feel strongly about more than one – personhood might be complex and need more than one criterion. Also, some of these criteria would allow certain animals to be included in the community of persons and some would exclude cognitively impaired human beings and children.

The criteria of personhood tend to be an essential feature of the thing, a power/capacity it possesses, or a (self-)interest.

Species/Nature: personhood is awarded according to nature, not function – therefore a brain-dead person continues to be a person and is never an object, while a smart monkey is still just a thing.  A human being is a natural possessor of personhood.  If you’ve got the ‘right’ biology, then you’re a person.

Soul: many religions attribute a human soul to all human beings, and this arrives in the human being at conception. Personhood status is given to any human being and not animals, regardless of their intelligence or emotional life.

Religion: by some religious beliefs, only believers are persons.

Rational function: Only someone who performs rational activities is a person.  A person can lose his status by becoming cognitively disabled or losing brain function.

Rational will: rational faculties along with the ability to form intentions are essential to personhood.  You can self-motivate your own activity. Babies, young children and mentally disabled people who have under- or un-developed wills are not persons.

Free will:  human beings have an internal freedom mechanism that allows us to behave arbitrarily and betray our survival instincts in order to direct our behavior to alternative possibilities.

Consciousness: a person must have self-consciousness that persists over time.  If this is the only criteria, then you could lose consciousness and lose your personhood. Fetuses are not conscious and, therefore, lack personhood. Includes the ability to perceive and interpret the world, form desires/interests, formulate plans and act upon them.

Suffering: the capacity to feel pain and desire to be free of pain implies a level of self-interest and self-awareness.  “Somebody’s home” to feel the pain.

Journal Questions

  1. Make four columns and label them Thing, Animal, Human Being & Person. Based on your own feelings, list some important features of each.
  2. What behaviors of others make you feel disrespected?
  3. Imagine a scenario (e.g. work or a relationship) in which someone else has control of your circumstances – what’s happening isn’t up to you. How does that make you feel?
  4. Based on questions 2 and 3, what do you think that a concept of personhood is protecting for each of us?
  5. Is a brain-dead human a person?
  6. Is a disabled human a person?
  7. Is the capacity to feel pain enough to be given personhood status?

How to get the most out of Know Thyself 2019

Don’t rush through the questions. Try to do only one question every morning, leaving space to add thoughts that might come up later during the day. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.

If you liked this week’s post, please like or comment! I appreciate the feedback and use it to choose future topics. If you want to see more posts like this one, let me know!

1 Comment

  1. proclus9 says

    Good stuff. I made a copy. I’ll be able to use some of these points in my article for Routledge publishers. Love, Dad 


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