What is a Person?

Personhood exists within most of our species and is a subject with controversy constantly flowing. A person does not necessarily have to be human. A person simply is a being with a multitude of criteria that follow. This exists on a spectrum and pieces of what make up the being will move the piece on the scale. Persons are ones with rights and duties. The rights are made up of political, social, and legal rights. Persons have intellectual capabilities and a sophisticated consciousness that comes with their intellectual capability. When it comes to persons, a full grown monkey has more ‘personhood’ than a chicken. Personhood is a qualitative feature that exists within the most complex beings on Earth.

          The complex beings that exist within the Earth’s consciousness have a multitude of attributes that grant them personhood. Criteria such as language using have a major link to personhood. Being able to communicate thoughts and ideas gives a person influence and expression. Teleological thinking is a part of personhood because one must have goals and work to strive to reach goals. A human that sits on a couch all day and mindlessly watched television is one who is losing their personhood by the second. A concept brought to light by Harry Frankfurt; persons have a distinct feature that is called second order volition. Second order volition is a desire that stems from an initial desire. For example, if one wanted to smoke a cigarette, but knowing the health effects, they chose against it because it is detrimental to health. The complex mind stems from a sophisticated consciousness. Being aware of oneself is one thing, but when one is aware that they are aware… there is sophistication. When a person can rationally and critically ponder about themselves, they have elevated their consciousness. Additionally, the individuality that comes with personhood is very important. Think of goldfish in a tank at Petco. Each goldfish acts and looks the same. They cannot speak to reveal emotions or thoughts, they simply exist.

          Many have pondered whether genetics plays into whether a being qualifies as a person and the answer is simple. The answer is no. Genetics is simply a coding system that tells cells to grow and mutate in a specific way. Personhood is a concept that exists only within the conscious universe. If there were no conscious beings, plants would still grow and procreate. If genetics played a part, humans would give monkeys the most formal rights since they are our close cousins. Unfortunately, humans treat monkeys like they are nowhere near persons. Personhood also does not need a physical being to connect with it. A cartoon character like Mickey Mouse has more personhood than a fetus. Mickey Mouse may not exist outside of a television screen, but he exists because he passes the criteria that Mary Anne Warren conceptualized.

          Mary Anne Warren came up with five main criteria to describe a person. If the being has all five of these concepts, they become granted with personhood. First, a being must have a consciousness. The one emotion in particular is the consciousness of suffering. They must be able to feel pain. The pain that comes with losing a family member. Next is having reason. It is obvious that a person must have the ability to reason and explain their reasoning. There is an intelligence factor to personhood. Rationality leads to teleological behavior. The third component is being goal oriented. A person must want more out of life than simply existing. They must live, not just survive. Next comes the capacity to communicate. Although a formal language does not need to exist, some sort of language must be in use. This could be anything from eye-movements to a complex language like Chinese. Finally, besonnenheit is needed. Besonnenheit is the ability to perceive the consciousness that is of your own self. This is the concept of being able to step outside of your own personhood and look at it, critically think about it, and possibly change it. One of the greatest gifts is being conscious of oneself and to think complexly about one’s own personhood. This makes the being a person.

    With all that in mind, do you constitute yourself as a person?