Natural Personhood

 L’aveugle parfois a consolé le voyant, Georges Rouault c.1927

What makes a person, a person?  Of late, as it was in its inception, the term’s legal significance has been brought into question.  As it stands in U.S. law, all reality is classified into either that of a person or that of a thing; the former cannot be stripped of its rights’ protections without due process, while the latter has no such rights.  Given that a legal person covers only human beings (and, stupidly enough, their corporations), non-human animals are considered things and without any well-defined, strongly-protected rights.

Although true that U.S. law is inconsistent and ambiguous in its considerations of personhood, the recently-made argument that at least some animals deserve recognition as persons because “there are no non-arbitrary conceptions of ‘personhood’ that can include all humans and exclude all nonhuman animals” is a bad one.  I dispute this claim on two counts: 1) briefly, that it is historically dubious; 2) at greater length, that it is philosophically myopic.

The historical conception of personhood

Underlying the claim that “there are no non-arbitrary conceptions of ‘personhood’ that can include all humans and exclude all nonhuman animals” is the error that human beings differ from all other animals only in degree, and not in kind.  This error has been specifically focused on cognitive capacity, as prima facie this seems the most evident distinction between humans and all other animals.  Once accepted, the classical definitions of the human being as a rational animal (Porphyry [not Aristotle]) and of the person as an individual substance of a rational nature (Boethius) seem no barrier to the inclusion of nonhuman animals, and therefore their exclusion appears arbitrary.

There is a historical mistake here, understandable but not excusable: namely that we by “rational” mean something than what the authors of antiquity meant by it, though in all fairness, those authors should have found or used another word.

Rather than get lost in those weeds, however, I want to show that many have consider the species-specifically human possession of intelligence as resulting in a profound difference of kind from all other animals.

This starts with Aristotle.  That is, Plato may have considered humans as different in kind from animals, but in genus, not only in species.  That is, Plato did not think of humans as animals at all.  Aristotle, contrariwise, was quite clear on human’s embodied nature and defined them not as rational animals, but rather as ζῷον λόγον ἔχων, the animal possessing language (Nicomachean Ethics I.13).

Some may dispute this as an exclusive categorization; after all, don’t other animals commuicate with one another, using sounds, signs, signals, informing one another of where to find food, how to avoid danger?  Don’t vervet monkeys have three distinct calls depending upon the kind of predator approaching?  Is this really any different from what we humans do, only with less sophistication and complexity?

Yes, I believe it is.  This theory of linguistic communication, which Charles Taylor ascribes to the tradition of Hobbes-Locke-Condillac (and which continues even after the Fregean changes), reduces language to a designative-descriptive functioning.  This reduction, Taylor argues, robs language of its deeper vitality: an expressive-constitutive function, which not only furthers our already-existent capacities for dealing with the world but both fundamentally alters those capacities and adds entirely new ones.

Terrence Deacon has made a similar argument, drawing on Charles Peirce’s notion of a symbol (I happen to think Deacon misunderstands Peirce, but that’s another issue); such that only human beings deal with symbols, properly speaking, in their specifically symbolic capacity.

Further, my own dissertation director, mentor, and dearly departed friend, John Deely, spent most of his career attempting to illuminate the species-specifically human difference from all other animals.  Building not only upon the tradition of Peircean semiotics but also of Thomism–including not only Thomists of the 20th century such as Mortimer Adler and Jacques Maritain, but of the Thomistae Antiquae, such as John Poinsot–Deely has an impressive oeuvre (partial bibliography, part I and part II) worth the effort of tackling.  In particular, his books Semiotic Animal: A Postmodern Definition of “Human Being” Transcendening Patriarchy and FeminismWhat Distinguishes Human Understanding, and The Human Use of Signs all provide a compelling argument as to the species-specific difference of human being from the alloanimal superspecies.

In sum, all of these thinkers recognize a specific and profound cognitive capacity which, in the observed universe, distinguishes human beings from all other animals.  I, too, have argued for this distinction (here and here).  Karol Wojtyla (who you might know by his other name, Pope Saint John Paul II) had some pretty compelling ideas about distinctively-human personhood, too.

A philosophical conception of personhood

While there are many thinkers and texts which advocate for a non-arbitrary conception of personhood which includes all humans and excludes all nonhuman animals, it is helpful to be able to distill these many texts into a brief description.  I cannot claim to have complete mastery of the issue, but perhaps I can provide a road into it.

For my own part, I typically begin with the thought of John Deely.  Boiled down to a simple explanation, Deely’s thesis is that all animals make use of signs, but only human beings are aware that they make use of signs.  I think the difference resides in something a little deeper than this; but the awareness of one’s use of signs, a difference Deely terms semiotic as opposed to semiosic (or, at times, metasemiosic), is itself certainly a sign of the human difference.  This is what allows for the species-specifically human development of language.

Disabled persons

A large and legitimate concern about this view is that it seemingly excludes some disabled human beings: those with extreme cases of autism or other profound development disabilities who are incapable of mastering or at all exercising the human linguistic capacity.

I think such an objection comes primarily from different presupposed metaphysics.  Behind the philosophical conception of personhood I am advocating is an Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of act, potency, and nature.  (For an accessible entry into this for those who come from an analytic background, I recommend Ed Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.)  In short, this Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics sees the nature of a living thing as the basic organizing principle of a physical body that is disposed to perform the operations of living.  This nature has been called a soul; an anima; a psuche (see Aristotle’s Peri Psuche, II.1).

To say that this principle is one of organization means that it is responsible for the dispositions of all the parts belonging to the organism which serve a unified and coherent purpose.  Rocks, water, planets, moons, stars, solar systems, and galaxies may be organized; but their organizations come strictly as results of the systems in which they are involved or as explicable by the properties of their parts.  That is, the coordination of one part and another in a non-living thing is due to coherent potentialities in each part being made actual in relation to one another.  Living beings, on the other hand–while dependent upon the structure of their systems, both internal and external–have an internal principle responsible for the organization of their parts which cannot be explained by the properties of those parts themselves (such that one could call this organization as strongly emergent reality, if you were so inclined).  If you break a rock, only external forces can put it back together again.  But if you break a limb, it will attempt to heal on its own.

The number of parts and the complexity of their organizations varies widely, from the very simple (such as an amoeba) to the very complicated (such as a human being).  In all living things, the natural principle attempts to develop properties which enable the organism to attain the good which is fitting in relation to that nature.

Quite frequently, external forces affect the attempts of the natural principle to achieve this development.  The result might be minor or major.  For instance, someone may have a genetic defect which renders them a touch intellectually slower than their statistically average peers; or someone might have a mother who consumes copious quantities of alcohol while pregnant, resulting in serious and profound cognitive impairment.  Someone may be born without a limb, or functioning eyes, or a cleft palate; all of these are interruptions of the natural principle’s attempts to develop a potentially-thriving individual by a force external to the natural principle itself (i.e., genes are not that natural principle, but a potentially-faulty instrument of it).

The degree to which such an interruption is a defect follows from the degree to which it impairs that individual’s ability to pursue the ends which are fitting to a human nature.  This is why we laud the efforts of those disabled who attain things considered impossible for them, given their disabilities.  It does not mean that their disabilities are not disadvantages: but, rather that, being still fully human, they have nevertheless been deprived of faculties or potencies which conduce to the fulfillment of a human life.  It is better for a human being to have two legs than to have one; but it is better to be a one-legged human with a strong spirit than a weak-willed two-legged slob, for legs do not make one essentially human.

Nor, for that matter, does the possession of language.  Rather, the capacity for language, such that given no interruption of the natural principle’s development of the organism, language would (given the natural social surroundings) emerge, indicates that one has the essence or nature of being human.  This is why advocates of such a conception frequently invoke Helen Keller, who, despite her profound impairments, nevertheless developed a linguistic ability.  A solution was found for Helen; perhaps, someday, solutions will be found for Trisomy 18, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Autism, and any number of other disorders–and I think it hard to deny that solutions to those problems would be good things indeed.

Non-human animals

So how is it that we can allow profoundly disabled human beings into the class of persons and exclude non-human animals, many of whom exhibit a higher degree of intelligence than the profoundly disabled?

Simply, the profound disabled individual, given the right conditions, would by his or her own nature develop into a fully-abled human being.  While it can be argued that a similar alteration of conditions would produce a linguistically-capable non-human animal, this is false; the change of condition required would in fact require an alteration of the non-human animal’s nature.

Evolution may eventually produce this change in nature.  Even human interference may eventually produce this change.  But allowing this species-specifically human linguistic use is not merely a sophistication of informational transfer about an essentially-pragmatic goal-orientation; rather, there is a more fundamental species-specifically human understanding unlike that grasped through commonly alloanimal perception.  To quote my own draft (The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology, forthcoming: c.4.3):

What distinguishes understanding from perception?  Human understanding entails a singular mode of cognition grounded in a species-specifically human experience of the category of Firstness [briefly, simplistically, presence-to-cognition], such that it (Deely [Introducing Semiotic] 1982: 103) “adds to the perception of an objective world the revelation in these same objects of the further dimension of existence in their own right independent of relations to the knower.”  The ability to understand the “dimension of existence… independent of relations to the knower” allows us to understand objects themselves, in their own constitutions—even when those constitutions include contributions from a human mind—as in principle separable from the Umwelt [see Jakob von Uexküll] in which our physical surroundings are appropriated as objects of use.  Such awareness fundamentally alters the nature of human consciousness, in contrast to that of even the most highly-developed non-human animals; that is, although life has its experience mediated by signs, and it is the work of all signs to encourage a synthetic continuity between the fundaments and termini it relates, the human experience of signs encourages a synthetic unity of the cognitive agent with the Being of its cognitive objects.

A lot more could be said about this human understanding (I say quite a lot more about it in the book… which hopefully doesn’t take another year to be published, but that’s out of my hands).  But I think, rather simply, you’ll find even rather poorly-educated, intellectually challenged individuals are capable of asking, “What does it mean to be ‘human’?” or “What is the sun?”, but you’ll never find such curiosity in a dog, dolphin, or chimpanzee.

A digression on “essentialism”

To some, this may seem like “essentialism”.  The history of “essence” is fraught with confusion, misuse, abuse, and more confusion.  Often, Aristotle (when it really ought to be Porphyry) is made a target, for the idea that beings’ essences are defined by identifying their genera and specific differences, which is shot-through by the arrow of evolution and the evident infinitesimal degrees of possible deviation between one “species” and another.  The end result, it is typically argued, is that either essences do not exist but only incidental configurations of atomistic parts, or that if essences exist, they are unknowable (perhaps in principle, perhaps due to the impossibility of knowing every possible differentiating factor, such that every individual is specifically differentiated from all others).

One of the chief culprits in this mistaken notion of genus and difference as constituents of species-specific identification was the background cosmological image, in which the recurrent seasons and animal behaviors were thought to be motivated by the eternal rotations of the celestial spheres.

That this background cosmological image turns out to be false, it is thought, means the entire system is false.  But this is a mistake; the background cosmological images was assumed to be the reason for the eternal recurrence of species-specific sameness and therefore the easily-classified intelligibility of one against another.  It was not ever, by Aristotle nor by Aquinas, to be thought the reason why there are species in the first place, or what gave things their essences.  To interpret it as such is to force a non-mechanistic philosophy into a mechanistic framework.

That is: it may be that the difference between a dog and a cat is one of infinitesimal degrees, such that they differ little if at all essentially; but the difference between a dog and an oak tree, while it may be overcome by changes over infinitesimal degrees of evolutionary change, is nevertheless truly a difference in kind–just as red is not green, but one can change from red to green by a similar change through innumerable gradations.

So, too, humans and all other animals.

The semiotic animal

That is, where a plant might have a sensory capacity, it lacks a perceptual one; and while a non-human animal has a perceptual capacity, it lacks an intellectual one: by which I mean the capacity to grasp that the objects of our perceptual are irreducible to what our perception makes of them–that they have an intelligible otherness which exceeds our relationship to them, which can be further investgated ad infinitum.

This species-specifically human capacity results in an explosion of what Jesper Hoffmeyer felicitiously termed “semiotic freedom”–the ability to use and produce significance and meaning correlative to the depth of meaning present in experience.  Whereas non-human animals are captivated by their practical-environmental relationships, such that they are poor in world (to use Heidegger’s phrase), human beings are not only rich in world, we are world-building (Weltbildend).

This world-constituting capacity of a human being, rooted in the species-specifically human semiotic awareness which transcends the mere use of signs to include awareness of the use of signs, is what makes a human also a person.

That is, while the nature of every creature determines how we ought to treat it–such that wanton slaughter or abuse of any animal (and, indeed, any living thing) is contrary to its fitting good, and to our own–only the human nature affords it the specific dignity of a person, i.e., an autonomous, self-determining, auto-teleological entity.  If we want to maintain an intelligible position regarding human responsibility, not only in contradistinction to non-human animals but also towards them, we must recognize the species-specific human difference which makes one a person, and not just an animal.

Why this post?

Yesterday, I made the gravest of internet mistakes, and went to the comments section (not here, of course) at the Daily Nous.  As internet comments sections go, it’s not a bad one; most participants are, after all, professors or graduate students in philosophy.   Nevertheless, I am a creature unfamiliar to the majority of philosophers, particularly in the United States and Canada–a Semiotic Thomist.

Most who hear “Thomist” probably say to themselves, “Oh, he’s one of those quaint Catholic-Christian Thomas Aquinas folks, which is interesting and all but a bit simplistic.”  The “Semiotic” part probably rings a dim bell about Saussure or Peirce and maybe even more dimly something about Popper or Eco.

Anyway–I couldn’t help myself.  There was an amicus curiae brief co-authored by 17 philosophers and filed in New York arguing that two abused chimpanzees should be granted the status of personhood.  While I unequivocally condemn all animal abuse, I hardly think that categorizing them as persons will be a long term true solution.  Or, as I said in my first comment:

I think it’s terrible to treat animals as “things”, but I hardly think that classifying them as “persons” is the solution. The rush to efface genuine distinctions will quickly undermine our already-weakened ability to make them.

The question of personhood is one I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering; it is, after all, something the Catholic Church has considered throughout her history, given that God is described as a Trinity of Persons.  Many might dismiss this out of hand–or, entertaining it, be prejudiced against it, looking for even a flimsy reason to justify dismissing it–because of its religious origin.  This is to be as dogmatic as the worst of religions.  Regardless of whether one believes in God, in Christ, in Christianity, or in any religion, there is much merit to be found in the very extensive consideration of Catholic philosophers on the question of personhood.  The linked works in the above text are a preliminary suggestion, only.  Below is a lengthier list of works one ought to consider as well:


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