What is a person? Since we’re all people, you’d be excused for thinking that knowing what makes a person a person is a no-brainer!
Most of us know what a person is intuitively: we can distinguish people from cats and trees without any trouble at all.
But intuitively knowing what something is and being able to define it, or explain it, are two very different things. We’re not very good these days at defining things: this is a skill which we no longer teach in schools, and logic and rhetoric are something of a lost skill-set in our culture.
The inability to define words however means that we won’t understand that term fully, and so will not be able to use it properly. It’s a bit like having only a general or fuzzy idea about the layout of a city: getting from A to B will invariably lead to getting lost!
The importance--and difficulty--of defining words
One of my favorite activities when I start a new class is to get my students to define the word “chair”. Usually, they start by looking at me as though I am slightly (or completely!) mad. Why would I want university students to waste their time defining something so basic as a chair?
But they quickly begin to see the point of the exercise.
Almost invariably, they will start by saying something along the lines of, “A chair is something you sit on.” I quickly point out that I can sit on a table or on the floor, but this does not make tables and floors synonymous with chairs.
They will then try to modify their answers by declaring that chairs are pieces of furniture with four legs and back. But, I counter, some chairs only have two legs (like those modern ones you might see in Ikea). Or one big, round leg like those old high-back wicker chairs.
The exchange will go back and forth like this for a few minutes: each time, the students will try to offer definitions of a chair based on what they think are common physical features of chairs. But this strategy never works for the definition of things because it’s always possible to find examples of chairs that do not fit into this mold.
A basic principle in philosophy and language is that a definition needs to be universal: the definition of a chair needs to encompass all chairs, regardless of their variable features. A definition that can’t be applied to everything in the set of whatever it is you’re defining is a weak definition because it won’t be a universal definition. It would be a bit like trying to define the term “person” based on hair color and weight. People have a great variety of differing physical features, and so a definition of person cannot be based on these variable features. Or imagine having a definition of “fruit” that did not account for bananas, pineapples, pomegranates or kiwis. What use is a definition like that? It’s a bit like having a leaky bucket that doesn’t hold water.
The chair-definition exercise typically ends in an impasse.
University students it turns out, and my experience confirms this time and time again, cannot define what a chair is (I challenge you to try it yourself! If you think you can do it, I’d love to hear from you). But the exercise helps them see that defining things is not easy. Given the difficulty they have in defining such a simple thing as a chair, you can imagine how much more challenging it is to define things like “person”, “love” or “justice”. We use these terms all the time and mostly intuitively. But when push comes to shove, our inability to define the most important things in life is somewhat disconcerting for most people.
Definitions are about more than just words
And there’s another big problem with our inability to define or explain things properly. When we don’t really understand something (and not being able to define or explain something properly is a sure sign that we don’t really know it after all) we can’t defend it properly or see how it is supposed to function or be used. That’s not such a big problem when it comes to chairs, but it certainly becomes a significant problem when we start talking about what it means to be a person. If we don’t know what being a person really entails, we can quickly run into all kinds of problems. We may even fail to understand how it is we should live and interact with others properly.
Experience and history demonstrates this problem time and time again.
Look at the various times in history when people have been treated appallingly: such as by the Nazis in World War II, or by Pol Pot in 1970s Cambodia, and so on. But I often find that while most of my students are appropriately horrified by despots and dictators in history, they cannot readily articulate why what Hitler did, or what Pol Pot or Stalin did, was wrong. They might invoke the “Golden Rule” (the “do-unto-others” brand of ethics) or some ethical system to explain their disapproval. But when pushed to define and defend these moral systems and beliefs, they are, perhaps unsurprisingly, unable to do so. I don’t blame them: it’s not an easy thing to do and, as noted, we’re not in the habit anymore of defining and critically explaining the nature of things in our modern system of education.
No wonder there is such a huge disagreement and debates (in the west especially) about things like abortion, euthanasia and prostitution. The widespread disagreement about the rightness or wrongness of these things stems from the fact that the proponents and opponents of them subscribe to different definitions of what it means to be a person.
And it’s not just the “big” moral issues that we disagree on. Our notion of person (or lack of it) is also responsible for our attitude towards things like education. Education today is now largely focused on churning out students who can do things like run banks, program computers and make things for us to use in the kitchen. Gone are the days when universities were focused primarily on providing a liberal arts education to our young people. In those days, the emphasis in education was not on producing workers for the market place but on forming honest and generous citizens. Careers were secondary; of primary concern was the overall good of society. And that good, in those days since past, was never measured purely in economic terms but in terms of the quality of our inter-personal relationships. That’s because, at least tacitly, our not-too-distant ancestors had a more coherent understanding of person and consequently a more coherent understanding of the rights and dignity of persons.
This understanding however is quickly dissipating today.
Jacques Maritain was concerned about our understanding of "rights"
The French philosopher and Princeton professor, Jacques Maritain, saw the writing on the wall at least as far back as 1948. Maritain was one of the key architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sponsored by the newly-minted United Nations that came together following the close of World War II.
At first, Maritain was quite enthusiastic about the UN and its Declaration. But his enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay when he saw that the member nations could not agree on the definition of what it meant to be a person, and so, by extension, what it meant to be a person in possession of human rights.
The term “right” occurs more than sixty times in the Declaration. But what in fact is a right? You cannot, Maritain realised, have any meaningful use of the term “right” without first establishing a meaningful understanding of the “person”. Neither “person” nor “right” is defined in the Declaration. The concept of “rights” is taken there as a given. But the concept of “right” in Europe and North America is rooted in a Judeo-Christian notion of right while in Arabic and Asian cultures is not derived from the same tradition.
Today, there is no longer a consistent definition of “person” or “right” among European nations or in the west in general. Today, in the UK, the legal definition of a “person” is “An individual, company, or other entity which has legal rights and is subject to obligations.”
This definition of person is quite at odds with traditional notions of personhood. Notice how, in the current definition, a person is such because it has legal rights conferred upon it. In other words, it is the state that decides what a person is. If these “legal rights” are removed by the state, a person, formerly conceived, ceases to be a person.
On the other hand, if we insist—as did Maritain and the original architects of the UN declaration—that human rights transcend the authority of the state, then we need to root them in some other principle beyond the reach of legislators and politicians.
The grounding principle of "rights" and "human dignity"
The Greek and medieval philosophers, by and large, understood this grounding principle to be among the “gods” in the case of the Greeks and Romans and with the Judeo-Christian God in Christian Europe. The “Divine Law” sits beyond time and place and so provides a stable, unchanging basis upon which to base and understand morality.
Nor was this rooting of morality in the divine simply an exercise of convenience. The “divine” was not some option among many for our progenitors of natural law and human rights thinking. It was a logic that both explained and circumscribed human law and the exercise of reason. Without it, there was no basis for insisting that rights and law is anything other than an totally arbitrary exercise at the whim of the powerful and ruling classes.
The atheist and materialist was not able to provide a coherent alternative to this divine grounding of human rights in the natural law. It is for this reason that Christopher Hitchens abandoned, altogether, any hope of establishing a rationale for human rights while Sam Harris has tried, unsuccessfully, to root morality and rights in the study of science. It just can’t be done.
Whether we like it or not, our understanding of human rights is derived from our Judeo-Christian heritage. Without it, there is no coherent explanation for human rights. And given the widespread ignorance and rejection of our Judeo-Christian heritage today, it is hardly surprising therefore that human rights are something of an oddity to a great many people.