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A person is not always a human being, but is a human being always a person?

Examples abound of non-human persons: Christians believe that the Godhead consists of “three Persons of one substance”; U.S. judges have ruled that corporations are “artificial persons”; fans of Star Trek argue that androids like Data and aliens like Spock are all (fictional) persons; the Spanish Parliament ruled that great apes are “legal persons”; and yesterday I noted that some ethicists believe dolphins are persons too .

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 various “foreigners” are all groups that have at one time or another been denied either legal or moral standing as persons. While they were typically considered to be human they were not afforded the rights that are imbued by personhood. The judgment of later 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 our culture just as harshly.

Yet while recognition of personhood is necessary for a human to be granted certain positive rights, I contend that it is not required for a basic negative right—the right not to be deprived of life without due process of the law. In other words, people don’t have a right to kill you simply because they don’t want to concede that you are a person.

Rights—whether positive (those that impose an obligation on others) or negative (those that oblige others to refrain from certain activities)—should be assigned based on the ability to respond as moral beings. 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 eating my pet rodent.

Likewise, human beings at the earliest stages of development have not developed the moral accountability to be assigned positive rights. For this reason some people, such as philosopher Daniel Dennett, believe that a class of human beings exists that are not yet persons. Let’s call this class of homo sapiens “non-person human beings.”

For the sake of argument, let us concede that certain humans are not persons, just as certain persons are not humans. This means that a human being can be a non-person but that a person (at least a human person) must also be a human being. No one argues that there are classes of human persons that are not also human beings. Being a human being is, therefore, essential to being a human person. This leads to a peculiar insight.

We can kill non-person human beings (e.g., the embryo) and we can kill human persons that are also human beings. But we cannot kill the human person without killing the human being . In fact, you cannot kill any type of person unless it is already 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-person 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 the dominant view in bioethics.

Most reasonable people—which, unfortunately, doesn’t always include bioethicists—would be horrified if we followed these views to their logically consistent 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 were definitely not persons. Bioethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. says that “fetuses, infants, the profoundly mentally retarded, and the hopelessly comatose” all fall into the category of “nonpersons.” And 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, we should be able to kill them before they wake up.

They may protest that they were persons before they fell asleep. But so were the “hopelessly comatose.” Yes, but the difference, they’ll contend, 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 becomes an irrelevant point. What does it matter that a human being was a person or will once again be a person? If it is morally acceptable to kill non-human persons then what matters is what they are right now .

(You might find my justification absurd. Indeed, I hope you do because this type of thinking is utterly idiotic. The blatant attempts at rationalizing clearly immoral behavior is why Francis Beckwith and other scholars have been able to demolish the ‘functionalism’ argument, that defends the killing of “non-person” humans.)

The reason why 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 even be the case that not all human beings are persons. But all human beings—whether persons or non-persons—are human beings; this is not only a tautology but a scientifically and ontologically verifiable fact.

Advocates for embryo and fetal destruction should therefore stop playing semantic games and admit that what they believe is that 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 slaughter 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 human beings—there’s no need to make the argument personal.

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