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Persons: The Difference Between “Someone”?and “Something”

by Robert Spaemann

Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $85

WE SOMETIMES encounter questions that are both philosophically puzzling and practically significant. The temptation then is to bypass the philosophical puzzles and come at the practical problems in ad hoc fashion. No doubt that is often the best we can do. The more serious the problems, however, the more likely we will be driven from practice to theory in a search for consistency and clarity.

Among the questions troubling and dividing our culture in recent decades are many that force us to ask what we mean by persons (or, to use a common but, I think, mistaken formulation, to wonder which human beings have “personhood”). The language of persons , so important in developing and expanding our concept of human rights, has more recently been used to restrict rather than expand the community of rights-bearers. This issue came to prominence in our society’s debates about abortion, but it has spilled over into many other issues.

How, for example, should we regard those whom dementia or severe retardation has robbed of many or most personal qualities? Persons are, we think, free and autonomous. So we argue about whether they ought to be able to exercise a kind of control or mastery over the conditions of their dying”or even seek assistance to bring about their death. We are tempted to think that persons shirk their responsibilities if they do not shape, as best they can, the characteristics of the next generation. Yet, when we contemplate pharmacological manipulation of our moods (such as anxiety, melancholy, shyness), we may be encouraged to think that this free person is really nothing more than neurons firing in the brain.

Part of our puzzlement, then, grows out of the fact that, while those of us who are incontestably persons affirm our freedom and responsibility, others of us seem to become less persons than things to be shaped, manipulated, and mastered. Moreover, this split may run right through one’s own person: We think of ourselves as things to be altered, en­hanced, or euthanized”and also as free to make such decisions.

In the face of these hard practical problems, we may profit from a little theoretical help. And the subtitle of Robert Spaemann’s Persons The Difference between “Someone” and “Something” ”makes clear that he is tackling the deepest underlying issue. Along the way, in order to explore from many angles what it means to be a person, Spaemann takes up a wide range of important topics”religion, death, the soul, conscience, and promising and forgiving. Fundamentally, however, the discussion of this wide range of topics is in service to his exploration of what it means to be a person.

A person is someone who has a history, not something that has certain properties. Although persons are members of a species, which has certain properties (and, hence, a nature), they cannot be understood simply in those terms. Persons have that species-specific nature, but the singular individual who has it is more than a member of a species. Likewise, persons are not instances of a universal concept. They are members of a community in which each “occupies a unique and distinctive position entirely his or her own.” (Spaemann is clear, by the way, about what this means for species other than homo sapiens . The community of persons is “open in principle to those of other species,” so if there are other species of living beings who, at least sometimes, manifest the characteristics of personal life, we would have to recognize all members of that species as, along with us, persons.)

What characteristics lead us to identify someone as a person? There is a certain two-sidedness to persons, as is already evident in saying that persons have their nature or exist in their nature. “No one is simply and solely what he is,” or, as Spaemann also puts it, we are “non-identical” with our nature. The “hallmark of the person” is the experience of an “inner distance” from one’s own states. A stone falls from a building and is simply an object constrained by laws of nature. I fall from that same building and know myself as a falling object”which I both am and am distanced from. In the midst of his complex discussion of such matters, Spaemann can find occasion to illustrate the difference between who we are and what we are even from fairy tales: The prince who is changed into a frog and eventually back into a prince somehow”as a person”­persists through these several ­transformations.

This understanding of what it means to be a person is neither obvious nor necessary. It has a history. Indeed, “without Christian theology, we would have had no name for what we now call ‘persons.’” It turns out, then, that in order to think philosophically about persons we must give attention to the history of Trinitarian and Christological dogmas as they developed in the early centuries of the Christian era. To say”as Christians gradually learned to”that God is “three persons in one being” is to say that the oneness or unity of God is a process of self-mediation. The three persons”Father, Son, Spirit”are numerically but not qualitatively distinct. They can be distinguished not by any properties they individually possess but only by their relations to each other. So the Son is not different from the Father but other than the Father. “When all is said and done,” as Spaemann puts it, “it is a purely numerical distinction.”

When the Church turned its attention to Christology, it needed a way to describe Jesus that did not turn him into a hybrid being: two natures simply glued together. The better alternative, which won the day, was to say that both natures of Jesus (divine and human, with their respective properties) are had by one person, the eternal divine Word of the Father. The personal name Jesus does not refer to a particular nature but “to ‘someone’ . . . who bears it . . . . . What is born [of Mary] is not something, but someone.”

In short, it was Christians”trying to figure out how they ought to speak about Jesus and the God who had been revealed in Jesus”who first learned what it means to be a person. They learned to distinguish between what we have (our nature) and what we are (our person). And the consequences are incalculable. Were human beings simply members of their species, it might sometimes, Spaemann notes, make sense to sacrifice “this or that member to the interest of the species as a whole.” But, as persons, human beings are incommensurable. “That is why we prefer to speak of human ‘dignity’ ( Würde ) rather than human ‘value’ ( Wert ). The value of ten people may be more than that of one, but ten are no more than one in point of dignity.” Thus, persons are incomparably unique and of “incommensurable dignity.”

If this account is true, however, it clearly raises for us a certain problem. The mysterious “I” who experiences an inner distance from himself or herself might seem hard to locate or pin down. This is not a problem we experience in identifying ourselves; for we know ourselves from within. But how do others know us, or we know them? We cannot know each other from within; on the contrary, we need some sort of “external criterion” by which to locate these strangely singular persons. That criterion, Spaemann thinks, must be and can only be “the identity of my body as a continuing existence in space and time.” Thus, the body is inextricably connected to the person, and we could not identify the latter apart from the former.

Think of a case, Spaemann suggests, in which a person seems to experience a split identity. We may be greatly puzzled, but we don’t really think that we face here two persons within one body. We think, rather, that the one person is ill and in need of a cure. And “if the cure succeeds, we do not suppose we have finally eliminated one of the two persons.” It is the body that provides us a way out of that “ultimate solitude” in which we would otherwise find ourselves; hence, “physicality belongs essentially to human personality.”

Helpful as this is, however, it only forces us to attend to a further, troubling issue. Some of the human beings (whom we come to know through the body that locates them) may seem to lack properties that we think of as characteristically personal. The ability to achieve an inner distance from oneself, to know oneself from within as “I,” seems to require rational capacities, an inner sentient life, and a capacity for self-awareness. This obvious fact has led some to regard the class of persons as significantly smaller than the class of human beings”and to regard only those human beings who possess the requisite capacities as persons and bearers of rights equal to ours.

Spaemann’s concluding chapter (“Are All Human Beings Persons?”) is a deeply probing attempt to answer yes to the question the chapter title poses. In part, of course, to have thought with Spaemann about the meaning of a person (and the difference between what we have and what we are) is already to have gone some distance toward understanding why all human beings are, indeed, persons. To be sure, we do think of persons as having certain properties (such as rational self-awareness), but it is the human being (who has the properties) and not the properties themselves whom we call a person. Hence, it is not personhood but persons who count. We do not evaluate human beings on the basis of criteria we have established (and which, presumably, we already meet). Rather, we “recognize” them as persons”as someone, not something. When we recognize a person, we are not just responding to certain personal properties. “The mother, or her substitute, treats the child from the start as a subject of personal encounter rather than an object to manipulate or a living organism to condition. She teaches the child to speak not by speaking in its presence but by speaking to it.” She does not first cultivate certain qualities in a little something until, at some point, that something becomes someone.

I am not sure, however, nor do I read Spaemann as sure, that any entirely compelling reason can be given us to explain why we should recognize others”such as that little child”as persons. This brings us up against the boundary of an essentially religious question. For we have to do here with the fundamental direction of one’s will, opening us to others, and this can only be experienced as a gift”which, like all gifts, can be refused. “The gift of open space is not forced upon us.” Still, there are reasons and arguments that may reassure us that we are not wrong so to recognize all other human beings as persons.

Spaemann notes that, though we classify inanimate objects on the basis of properties that they share, living beings are connected by genealogical relation. “The community of a species is a reproductive community first and foremost. Phenotypical similarity is a secondary factor.” Nor is this mere biology. For the body is the place of our personal presence to each other and, far from being “mere animality,” is “the medium of personal realization.” Hence, we should recognize in each other not merely examples of a natural kind but “kindred, who stand from the outset in a personal relation to one another.”

From that starting point we can think about those who might seem to lack personal characteristics. The small child (or even the unborn child) is not a “potential person””a concept that, Spaemann argues, makes no sense. Nothing that is not a person can develop into a person. But I may quite correctly say, for example, “I was born (or conceived) on January 31, 1946,” even though “the being that was conceived or born on that date did not say ‘I’ at the time.” Likewise, the severely disabled person is not a thing, but a “sick person.” And, in fact, our ability (and willingness) to recognize their existence as persons “is the acid test of our humanity.” Even one who seems entirely beyond the reach of any communication with us, entirely unaware, may remain mysteriously a person. Intentional activity (in which we are simultaneously present in the act and distanced from it) is for us a sure sign of personal presence. We readily see when “someone” acts with intentionality, and we recognize the person in the action. But “we cannot reach the same certainty about its absence.” That is, the seeming absence of such activity cannot assure us that a person, who claims our recognition, is not present.

From Spaemann’s serious, sustained theoretical probing of what it means to be “someone” rather than “something” we may learn how to think better about some of the puzzling questions that trouble our ­society:

• The fact that some human beings”fetuses, newborn children, the severely demented or severely retarded”lack some of the properties that characterize persons ought not prevent us from recognizing in them persons like ourselves (though the ability so to recognize them may be a gift that does not come naturally to us).

• Because the lives of persons are incommensurable, we should be careful lest different ages or stages of development incline us to forget the equal dignity of each person’s life.

• Because persons have their life, they can surrender it in a good cause or at an appropriate time, but to take one’s own life intentionally is to seek to make oneself solely an object. Attempting to act with the freedom of a person, we do just the opposite and relinquish the distinction between someone and something.

• Although mental states and brain states always occur together, we need not conclude that neurons firing is all that is going on. The experience of anxiety no doubt has a corresponding neurological state in the brain, but “to look at a brain is not to look at anxiety.” And still more, an examination of the brain states corresponding to my anxiety cannot explain my desire to manipulate or alter it. It cannot explain the way persons are nonidentical with their nature.
IN THESE WAYS”AND many others that Spaemann takes up”gaining a certain theoretical coherence may help us reflect upon the practical issues that confront our society. And yet it should concern us that this sort of reflection is needed to help us recognize other human beings”whatever their stage of life or condition”as persons like ourselves.

Spaemann notes that Aristotle “thought that anyone who said one might kill one’s mother needed correction, not argument.” Similarly, to see the personal dignity of our fellow human beings as up for grabs, as a question whose answer might go in various directions, is to need correction more than argument. To offer justification for what should be axiomatic may be the necessary work of moral theory, but it is also, as Spaemann understands, a sign of moral failing.

Nevertheless, we live in a world where “what we have” is sometimes confused with “who we are,” and in that world we need to do careful thinking of the sort Spaemann provides. But we should not forget that the very fact that we feel it necessary to go in search of such theory to guide our practice says a good bit about us”and the act of offering theoretical justification is less important than the moral education that enables us to recognize the other persons all around us.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.