Person, Human, and Thing: Afterwords

By Merle Harton, Jr.


There is a presumption among us, built for the most part into our culture and our education and our language, that we are genuinely physical creatures, with traits that we share with mammals, cold-blooded animals, and other less sophisticated biological systems. Some of us, as a result of religious training, personal experience, or intellectual reflection, also have competing views about what a human being is—as something more than mammalian, something more than biological, perhaps something spiritual. These are not easy to reconcile—the physical and the spiritual—but more importantly they are also not easy to express in either form. It is not easy to see the human being as a purely physical creature and it is not easy to see the human being as a spiritual creature.

What do we mean when we say that we are persons, that we are human beings, or that we are physical things? These three terms (persons, human beings, physical things) are not equivalent, so we should be clear about what we mean when we talk about them, and especially if we want to use them to refer to people like you and me.

First, commonsensically we are physical things—like tables, chairs, and tomatoes—because we interact with each other and sense each other like other physical objects. But we are not mere physical objects. We have emotions, actions, intentions, sensations, thoughts and feelings, perceptions, memories. We do not react to other beings like ourselves in the same way that we react to tables and chairs and tomatoes: If I you strike a table with a hammer, or if you cut a tomato with a knife, our reaction to the damage is completely different than if you struck or cut another man. And not only are we are subjects of consciousness, but we are also conscious of self. This is something that we seem not to be able to attribute to other kinds of physical things.

Second, we are human beings in the sense that we fit within biological science's classification scheme: we are in the class of animals called Mammals, in the order called Primates, in the family Hominidae, in the species Homo sapiens, and in the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. We are men and we are women; we are children and we are adults.

Third, we are persons: we are conscious, intelligent beings capable of legal and social rights. If we accept that a necessary condition of having a right is being able to accept responsibility for one's actions, then we should say that rights are attributable only to persons. Few physical things can be said to be capable of acting in a responsible way. If a stone rolls down a hill and crushes someone, we do not blame the stone. And we might say this also of some human beings, because we recognize that children, the mentally disabled, and the impaired—although they are certainly human beings—are not persons in this way, because they are not responsible for what they do in a legal, moral, or social sense.

Many actions are attributable only to persons. As Aristotle has said: "the stick moves the stone and is moved by the hand, which again is moved by the man: in the man, however, we have reached a movent that is not so in virtue of being moved by something else" [Physics, Bk VIII, 4 - 256a]. There is something irreducible in the idea of self and other selves. Efforts to reduce us to mere human bodies seem always to conflict with our common sense intuitions about what we really are.

The contemporary philosopher Wilfred Sellars once speculated that we should perhaps consider ourselves to be "neuroids," beings consisting essentially of a brain and nerves: the bones are there to hold us up, the muscles are there to enable us to move the bones, and the flesh is there as a covering. As we know more about our neurophysiology, the more plausible this view becomes, although it forces us to look to science fiction for convincing examples of this. The movie RoboCop has a police officer, Alex Murphy, physically destroyed by criminal villains. His head, brain, nervous system, and one arm are all that can be salvaged in an experiment to create a humanoid robot. The movie, a disturbing, graphic piece of science fiction, presents to us a believable picture of a person who is neither human nor robot, but a new type of creature. It is not important that this is science fiction and perhaps a medico-scientific impossibility; what is important is that we are able to find it plausible that a man can be such a creature.

As we consider such beings as RoboCop, we get closer to understanding a consequence of Brian O'Shaughnessy's treatment of action in "The Limits of the Will" [Philosophical Review, LXV, 1956]—not only are there no limits to the human will, but we do not even have to be flesh and blood to be persons who act with a recognized sense of legal, moral, or social responsibility. Thought-experiments in which beings act with nerves and limbs that are not flesh-and-blood are sufficient to force us to throw aside such conventions of belief that require all persons to be human. As we are able to do that, we can appreciate that new advances in prosthetics and orthotics may bring us closer to science fiction than we might know.

If, from a philosophical point of view, what a being is made of—flesh, resin, Teflon, fiber-optic cord, sinews of tungsten—is irrelevant to its status as a person, we should of course have to look elsewhere for those properties that make a being a person, or a being so like us that we desire to bring it into our socio-legal sphere of influence.

As humans, we first learn about other persons through actions, and actions are voluntary, purposeful, intentional—they are many things. Most of all, they are deeds that can be attributed to persons who could be said to be capable of doing otherwise; they can be subject to excuses and justification. Perhaps nothing so identifies an action as much as the forbearance, an action that is intentionally omitted. To forbear is to do a strange action, for you will never see it, and yet our ability to refrain from acting, when we otherwise could, marks us plainly, I think, as persons.

Person and Human

Whether as Christians or as pagans, our concept of the person seems like an easy concept to grasp, something with which we are so familiar as not to require any depth of thought, but when my students begin thinking about "person," they just can't seem to turn loose the idea that persons are either male or female—they can't seem to get beyond the human aspect of our idea of a person. This is important. It really cuts into our whole idea of fairness and equality, our ability to talk about other beings without the very special prejudices that our own humanity imposes on our frame of reference, and our need to appreciate the logical fact that our very notion of humanity presupposes our grasp of persons as being without humanity. With my students I try out the realistic beings created in the literary laboratory of science fiction—such as RoboCop, Star Trek's Data, the many thousands of nonhumans on Star Wars, Ursula K. LeGuin's strange, androgenous beings—but like boomerangs their minds come back around to thinking of them as humans or, well, as kind of like humans. Like all logical simples, it takes effort to get past what is obvious, to see what logic requires.

Our idea of "person" is not in fact about a human at all.  Efforts to look upon people as persons in effect requires that we look past them as human beings. Without this ability to talk about persons as nonhuman, we cannot make sense of angels, God, and our Lord Jesus as persons but not humans like you and me. Unable to speak about persons as something other than as beings with our unique humanity, we cannot then appreciate Love as an activity apart from Eros—then Love will always be an emotion which is tied inextricably to behavior encased in the context of human emotions and their glandular origins.

The Inclination

There are just two enduring facts: true or false, yes or no, on or off, 1 or 0. Everything else is mortal. This is why Thomas Merton can declare that "the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice" (Seven Storey Mountain). The human body, brain, hypothalamus, and endocrine system all do more than make us human—inscrutably they also make us persons, beings capable not only of reason but also inclination. Without inclination, we would be forever condemned to sit between the twin towers of true and false, between yes and no, on and off, one and zero. With inclination, we are beings condemned always to choose the one or the other, or to quarrel among ourselves as to which is the better choice.

"Person, Human, and Thing: Afterwords"
Copyright © 2003-13 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved