Not every person is a human being, but is every human being a person?
Examples abound of non-human persons: Christians believe that the Godhead consists of “three Persons of one substance”; U.S. Supreme Court justices have ruled that corporations are “artificial persons”; fans of Star Trek argue that androids like Data and aliens like Spock are all (fictional) persons; and the Spanish Parliament even ruled that great apes are “legal persons.”
Clearly, being a member of the human race is not necessary to be considered a person. But should all human beings be considered persons? Historically, the answer has been a resounding “no.” Slaves, women, infants, Jews, and “foreigners” all share a common history of being denied legal or moral standing as persons, despite being recognized as humans. The judgment of recent generations, however, has without exception concluded that denying personhood to these members of the human family is a great moral evil. I have no doubt that future generations will judge ours just as harshly.
Yet while recognition of personhood is the foundation of certain positive rights, it should not be required for a basic negative right—the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law. In other words, people cannot claim a right to kill you simply because they will not recognize you as a person.
Rights—whether positive (imposing an obligation on others) or negative (obliging others to refrain from certain acts)—should be assigned based on a subject’s ability to respond as a moral being. For example, a Belgian Sheepdog has no moral accountability and thus no moral obligations to me as a person. If he eats my hamster, I can’t fault him for not respecting my right to private property. But since I am morally accountable, I have an obligation not to cruelly torture and kill the dog for depriving me of my pet.
Likewise, human beings at the earliest stages of development have not developed the moral accountability to be assigned positive rights. For this reason some thinkers—philosopher Daniel Dennett, for example—believe that a class of human beings exists that are not yet persons. Let’s call this class of homo sapiens “non-personal human beings.”
For the sake of argument, let us concede that certain humans are not persons, just as certain persons are not humans. To be sure, human persons are no less human beings than any manner of non-human person. By definition, being a human being is essential to being a human person.
It is one thing to kill non-personal human beings (such as human embryos), and another to kill human persons. But we cannot kill a human person without killing the human being as well. In fact, you cannot kill any type of person unless it is embodied as a living, biological being. The Spanish may be able to kill Great Apes, but lawyers cannot kill a corporation. What is being killed is not the person but the being.
This distinction is important because those who argue that it is acceptable to kill non-personal humans base their rationale on the claim that what matters is not the being (the living biological organism) but the personhood (a set of functional criteria such as consciousness or rationality). This view has become a common persuasion in bioethics.
Most reasonable people—a category that doesn’t always include bioethicists—would be horrified if we followed these views to their logical outcomes. Ethicist Joseph Fletcher, for example, believed that humans with an IQ below forty might not be persons, and those with an IQ below twenty are definitely not persons. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer believes that since patients with Alzheimer’s and infants up to the age of twenty-four months are not persons, it is not wrong to kill them. Not surprisingly, when you allow intellectuals to define personhood, they will attempt to establish a criterion based on intellect, reason, and consciousness.
Although they intend to include themselves within the lines of demarcation, they are not wholly successful. For instance, if these philosophers were to fall into a deep sleep they would cease to meet the very criteria that they have established for personhood. Using their own arguments, it should be ethically sound to kill them before they wake up.
They may protest that they were, in fact, persons before they fell asleep. But so are the “hopelessly comatose.” Yes, but the difference, they’ll counter, is that they’ll meet the criteria again once they wake up. This is certainly true, but if they are killed in their sleep they won’t ever wake up, so that point becomes irrelevant. What does it matter that a human being was once a person or will once again be a person? If it is morally acceptable to kill non-human persons at all, what matters is their status right now.
(You might find my justification absurd. If you do, I have begun to prove that this type of thinking is utterly asinine. Blatant attempts to rationalize immoral behavior are what prompted Francis Beckwith and other scholars to demolish the ‘functionalism’ argument, which defends the killing of “non-personal” humans.)
The reason it is wrong to kill philosophy professors in their sleep is the same reason it is wrong to destroy embryos and fetuses: Moral people do not kill innocent human beings. Not all persons are human beings, of course, and it may possibly be the case that not all human beings are persons. But all human beings—whether persons or non-persons—are equally human; this is not a mere tautology, but a scientifically verifiable fact.
Advocates for embryo and fetal destruction should therefore stop playing semantic games and admit that they believe it is acceptable to kill some human beings because human beings do not have, per se, intrinsic worth.
They should also stop making the ridiculous claim that their opinions on personhood are based on science (when did metaphysics become an empirical science?) and should instead employ historical arguments to defend their position. History, after all, is filled with examples of people justifying the “termination” of other human beings. If you want to kill certain groups of human beings, you can find a sufficient rationalization somewhere in the history of humanity—there’s no need to make the argument personal.
Joe Carter is the web editor of First Things. His previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.