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Author Topic: What features are essential to personhood?  (Read 3965 times)
Gareth Southwell
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« on: 24/11/08 @ 13:48 »

Some philosophers argue that we can define what a person is by a set of essential criteria. But do these criteria work? What criteria do you think are essential? Are there any problems with any of them? Do we need them all, in order to consider something a person? Or, do the criteria not cover everything? (In other words, could something fulfill the criteria and still not be considered a person?).

Discuss!
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CygnusX1
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« Reply #1 on: 01/08/09 @ 17:43 »

Hmm… maybe we can define what it is to be truly human, by examining the "needs" that we have in common?

Ok, we all need to eat and breathe – a start.

In truth what really makes us human is need? And this need projects itself in many forms. The need for communication, companionship, understanding and love. The need to express ideas with others and the exploration of Self, which ultimately leads to a fundamental question – Who am I?

Why do we feel the need to communicate ideas and feelings?
Is this a consequence of perception and intelligence?
Are all these wants and needs really an affirmation of self reality?

Can we define a human as being wholly selfish?

I feel we can, and this maybe what links all of the above – duality.

If we contemplate the Self, or the Ego we may conclude that we are separate and separated from the world around us. Selfishness is a consequence of Self and separation – because we only understand the world in terms of duality, of subject and object, of this and that, of you and me, of yours and mine?

How else do we define our own reality, other than a continual assessment of what is us, and what is not us – our perceptions and senses are honed to affirm our very reality from each moment to the next. Thus we are all bound into duality, and separation.

The only way we understand the world and ourselves is in terms of duality.

Yet is this merely a human trait?

 Smiley
« Last Edit: 01/08/09 @ 23:09 by CygnusX1 » Logged

You are neither earth, water, fire, air or even ether.
For liberation know yourself as consisting of consciousness,
the witness of these.
[The Song of Ashtavakra (Ashtavakra Samhita) Chapter 1.3]
Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #2 on: 02/08/09 @ 09:09 »

You make a number of related but separate points here:

1. Need as a defining feature. What if I don't need the things that other humans need? Am I then not human? For instance, if I like to live alone (I don't need company), then either I'm not human (not really an option), or 'needing company' is not an essential feature. But what then are the essential features?

2. Selfishness. Aren't all living creatures 'selfish' in one respect or another? That is, they all look after their own interests. Perhaps you don't mean 'selfish' in this way, but if you do, then it would seem that this isn't a strictly human quality (and so doesn't help us define what is essentially human).

3. Duality. This is a stronger point, I think. Our sense of self, and our self consciousness is one of the things that make us human. However, there are two problems with this: firstly, what about human beings who lack this (brain damaged infants, the comatose, the senile, etc.) - are these not human? Secondly, what about animals who may possess self-consciousness (chimps, dolphins, perhaps) - if this is the case, then self-consciousness would seem not to be a purely human feature, and therefore cannot be used to distinguish between animals and humans.

Hmm...more problems!
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CygnusX1
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« Reply #3 on: 02/08/09 @ 13:54 »

Hi Gareth,

Regarding the above…

1. When I talk of human needs, I really mean to infer these attributes at a much deeper level. Indeed, the term "need" itself, although we may as humans project our wants and desires in many forms, may be classed as a general attribute as far as humans are concerned.

I feel the fundamental need for communication and companionship is deep routed because of man's need to express ideas and thoughts and to define his own reality and identity?
This is what may separate him from other animals, (although I do not wholly believe in this separation at all).

2. Again, I mention selfishness to infer the term at a much deeper fundamental level, meaning self-ishness = attribute of the self created, and a consequence of the Self separated in a dualistic understanding in the world.

However, you are correct. Neither of these attributes "need" and "selfishness" really separate us as humans from the animals, or indeed, maybe any other species – does a snake or spider understand or need to ascertain its own identity? And does it understand its own needs in terms of its selfish identity?

Maybe these traits can be wholly ascribed to mammals and warm-blooded creatures alone?

3. Regarding duality – It appears that we have absolutely no choice whatsoever in defining ourselves and our Self and Ego in terms of separation – these are the chains that bind us?
Indeed it is the Self-aware, the I-consciousness that seeks to reconcile itself, continually, within its surroundings.

Regarding damaged infants, the comatose, the senile, etc. We must not assume that any differences here actually does have affect on the deeper consciousness, since the consciousness still persists as a life force within. Certainly in the case of brain damage and the comatose, the mind may still function and dream and be exposed to the same or similar thoughts and ideas as in any other case. How the mind deals with these is another matter.

The way in which comatose patients miraculously make recoveries with little or no permanent affect on their minds serves as an indication that the mind and thoughts, dreams and ideas persist regardless of circumstance, and may be the method of Self-preservation, and the guardian of the I-consciousness?

Regarding other animals, mammals, insects and even plants – again you are correct, and I do not really believe that consciousness, or self-awareness is excluded here. The only difference may be our contemplation of duality? Yet, again I suspect dolphins, elephants, chimps and even birds may indeed contemplate this also.

Personally, and as a human being, I feel a great affinity to most mammals as do many others, and contemplate their sufferings and contemplate their own notions of sufferings in relation to my own understandings – this may be no coincidence?

Even where more distinct species like birds and reptiles and even insects are concerned, I notice I may be open to these same levels of compassion and understanding of sufferings for these also, if I merely adjust my mindset to incorporate these species.
How about a virus? Can I stretch my mind to incorporate compassion for a flu bug?

And what about dolphins? Do they feel compassion and understanding for us also?

 Wink

Oh well, back to square one – at least it’s a start !
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You are neither earth, water, fire, air or even ether.
For liberation know yourself as consisting of consciousness,
the witness of these.
[The Song of Ashtavakra (Ashtavakra Samhita) Chapter 1.3]
Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #4 on: 04/08/09 @ 10:57 »

Square 1 is where I live!

Firstly, I can now see where you're coming from as regards 'needs' and 'self-ishness' - and I agree, I think, but - as I've pointed out (and you agree also) - these are not enough in themselves to conclusively define what humans essentially are (for the reasons that I gave in my last post).

However, this is not to say that these features are not still important - and, in fact, they absolutely are: if we think of a person, we think of 'self' and 'ability to communicate/be conscious' as key features. That they also conflict with other features, or things get messy when we try to draw a neat circle around the things that meet these criteria, maybe isn't so important. Perhaps we should just treat them as 'ideal' features? In other words, a human being in the fullest and highest sense has these features - which would perhaps suggest that personhood is a matter of degree (some have it more than others). Another way of thinking about it is by analogy with happy families: Tolstoy once wrote that "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Perhaps this is true of persons? "All complete persons are alike; every incomplete person is incomplete in its own way"...? Grin Perhaps we might even think of developing more personhood (and treat our current status as a stage of development - how might we do that...?).

As regards your third point, I think this is interesting. I think you are right: our conscious experience is what creates our duality - not merely being conscious, but being conscious of being conscious (what has been termed 'apperception'). If animals are different from us, then it is in this regard, I think, for being aware of our own thoughts, of conceptualising experience, is what would seem to make us a distinct 'self'. So, if animals have no 'souls' (as Descartes thought) then it is for this reason, I would say. However, this does not draw a clear line between humans and animals, but merely a blurry one (after all, who knows what mental experience the higher primates have? We might be surprised.).

But there is also a problem with this. You say that there may be a 'deeper consciousness' within the comatose, senile, etc., that we are unaware of, and that they may still dream/think/etc. But this is a metaphysical position: modern science would say simply that the brain is damaged, and therefore consciousness is not possible. If you want to argue otherwise, then it would seem that either (a) you are arguing for a soul (and some sort of mind-body dualism), or (b) the conditions of consciousness are different from what neuroscientists take it to be (for instance, it may persist in individual cells in the brain, even when key structures are damaged). I'm not against either of these views (and neuroscience is pretty much all at sea as regards consciousness anyway), and I think it is also interesting to consider if it is possible that 'lower' forms of life (insects, flu viruses) have any forms of conscious that we could recognise. However, this becomes a very difficult position to maintain or prove. I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this.

Great discussion!
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MoQingbird
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« Reply #5 on: 08/12/10 @ 16:19 »

I’d like to suggest that the idea of personhood (as distinct from humanity) is a function of the theory of mind.

A theory of mind is only required by organisms whose behavior is contingent upon the behavior of other organisms.  The other organisms may be members of the organism’s society (humans, apes, a pride of lions) and/or members of other species (e.g. a cat’s theory about mice).

A theory of mind is a progressive, emergent phenomena that can vary in sophistication between species and individuals.

Humans have a working theory of mind - they attribute goals, intentions, perceptions, knowledge and beliefs to other humans.  Their theory of mind extends to their own minds, i.e. their Self, and it develops as they grow.  A human child doesn’t fully identify with their reflection in a mirror until they are about 18 months old.  At this age they able to realize that they have a smudge of paint on their faces when they see themselves in the mirror and they’ll reach for their face to touch it or wipe it off.  Before this self-recognition emerges they won’t associate the paint on the face in the mirror with their own face unless they saw or felt it being applied there.

Chimpanzees have a theory of mind that, even at its best, is less sophisticated than a human’s.  They can understand the goals, intentions, perceptions and knowledge of other chimps, but there is no evidence that they understand false beliefs in others.
 
Lions hunting in a pride appear to understand and manipulate the perceptions and knowledge of their prey.  They have been seen to use the distraction of one visible lion to allow the rest of the pride to creep up on a herd, or use a small team of lions to drive a herd towards an ambush.  They will also give up a stalk when they realize that they’ve been spotted.

Subjectively, I would suggest that ‘personhood’ is a projection of one’s theory of mind onto another entity.  I say ‘entity’ because people are apt to project personhood onto inanimate objects, as well as living ones, e.g. my kids and their stuffed toys Smiley 

Over-projection onto, say, a pet cat results in us treating it as a person, albeit a child-like one.  People seem to be able to project personhood onto virtually anything that has a face, for instance, Microsoft’s ‘Clippy’ - the helpful little assistant in the Office suite.  It’s ironic that Microsoft’s attempt to give their help system personhood has resulted in so much naked hatred being directed towards the damn thing! 

Under-projection allows for some of the worst in human behavior, such as murder, genocide, exploitation, and other crimes against people.  It is the denial of the mind in others that allows ‘ordinary’ people to carry out acts that would be unconscionable if they regarded their victims as thinking and feeling human beings.

How do we objectively determine the ‘personhood’ of a creature?

This is an inherently ‘fuzzy’ problem.  We can’t even agree when a human fetus achieves personhood. Pro-Lifers say that it’s the moment when the ovum is fertilized (over-projection?)  Abortionists set it at 28 weeks (under-projecting?)  The law in the UK says that embryos used for stem cell research must be destroyed after 14 days.  Mary Warnock, who sat on the committee that set the 14-day limit, admitted that 14 days was specified because The Law requires An Objective Metric, and that different embryos could be at different developmental stages after 14 days.

If we cannot agree what constitutes personhood in a human, how can we do so for another species?  What kind of test would we use to determine if an animal has personhood?

Demonstrable actions that influence the mental states of another animal?  A bee’s waggle-dance communicates the location of nectar to other bees, but I wouldn’t say that they have personhood.

Demonstrable understanding by one animal that another animal’s mental state has been changed by the actor’s actions?  A big dog pauses in the middle of its meal to chase another dog away, and then returns to its meal when it is satisfied that the other dog has ‘got the message.’  Does this demonstrate that dogs have a theory of mind, and therefore are possessed of personhood?  I think so, though it is at the weak end of the personhood spectrum.

Note the use of ‘I’ in the two tests above.  I am attempting to subjectively define where the ‘objective’ line between person and non-person is.  That’s fuzzy problems for you!
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