When is a human not a person?

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david43's picture
When is a human not a person?

One concept I always found interesting is the idea of personhood: the idea that a creature with certain intelligent and, probably more important, emotional skills has a 'special' status in the animal kingdom. A lot of people used human and person interchangeably, even though they're not the same thing. While many humans are people, not all people are humans.

Just to give an example which most people can agree on: A human in a vegetative state is generally not considered a person. Sure, they are still human and they are alive. Yet that 'soul' or 'being' is missing. All that is left is an empty shell that is used to be a person.

So the question here is at what point can a human, or any creature for that matter, be considered a person? I always thought that some animals act more like a 'person' than human, though this is more due to a human either being severely mentally handicapped or being unable to care for nobody but themselves, just as a sadistic serial killer.

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Randomhero1982's picture
Just to give an example which

Just to give an example which most people can agree on: A human in a vegetative state is generally not considered a person

This is not something I would personally agree with, they are still a person and should be treated with the some dignity and respect as any other person.

For me, and this may be quite basic but, from the point you start to have a fully functioning body I.e. all vital organs working etc... you are a human/person.

But this is simply my viewpoint and I'm fully aware not all agree on this.

david43's picture
Yeah, that is a bit basic. I

Yeah, that is a bit basic. I'm not trying to say we should disrespect a vegetative human because of this. No more we should disrespect a spider for being a spider. From my point of view, a human is just a layman classification of our species. A person is a being with complexed ideals and moral, though I will admit right now I'm not satisfied with my own definition here.

Sapporo's picture
"A human" to me denotes

"A human" to me denotes individuality.

I would consider a human in a vegetative state to be a person. I would also consider a human in a dead state to be a person.

As for embryos: I'd rather let the law decide that, as well as the women carrying them.

david43's picture
First part I agree with. The

First part I agree with. The embryo part, however, baffles me. I'm pro-abortion, but even I admit that an embryo is a human. Sure, it an undeveloped human, but I don't think the law is fighting over basic biological fact.

Sapporo's picture
David: First part I agree

David: First part I agree with. The embryo part, however, baffles me. I'm pro-abortion, but even I admit that an embryo is a human. Sure, it an undeveloped human, but I don't think the law is fighting over basic biological fact.

Some countries I believe that permit abortion treat the killing of fetuses as murder for example if the mother is killed by a bomb. That might seem inconsistent.

Embryos are certainly composed of human cells and can survive the abortion deadline in countries where abortion is legal if they are born premature.

I don't think it serves any purpose to say an embryo is "not human" one day, and the next day it is "a human". I simply recognize something as "a human" if the mother and the law so determines. Maybe the reasoning is similar to how something is determined a work of art. That is not to say that I necessarily defer to the law on all things.

JohnLFrazer's picture
An embryo cannot survive

An embryo cannot survive apart from the mother. That's dangerously close to the straw-man that says a zygote or blastocyst is a human.

Most jurisdictions on the planet defend a preemie baby from elective abortion, at the point medical science can keep it alive (~20+weeks)

If the mother is killed while 13 weeks pregnant, support treating that as a double homicide, though I also support death penalty in certain cases (if the prosecutor & judge bet their careers and lives on the certainty, which should be the case to prevent railroading) and you can only hang a murderer once.

Cognostic's picture
@David: A human is not a

@David: A human is not a human when they identify with a label.

I disagree with you. It is the human that is real. It is imagining that you have a soul, or are somehow special because you label yourself in some way special that you cease to be a human being and begin acting as a person. The most difficult thing for anyone to do is simply be a human being. Anyone can be a person.

david43's picture
Well, that certainly a fun

Well, that certainly a fun way of looking at it. I would even agree to you, at least halfway. As I'm looking at it, a human is just a biologically lay term used to describe our species. If it talks like a human, act like a human, it is a human. A person, which I'll admit is hard to define, is what make us more than just a pile of meat that can do funny tricks. While I said soul earlier, I was just trying to put into terms that I can best describe. To the religious, this thing is a soul. To the neuroscientist, it is electrons that spark together in our head. To the biologist, it is all the cells, human and non-humans, that interact with one another to keep the body going.

And what does simply being human even mean? I will agree that human is hardware/software we build off to create a person and all those labels we humans like to apply to ourselves. Yet a human is also a being who is built from the community and labels that swirl around them.

LogicFTW's picture
The finer details of what is

The finer details of what is a human or not ("a human" is not a very objective descriptor when it comes to details,) unfortunately comes down to opinion.

It is is pretty easy to say a dog is not a human, but to try and draw a precise and fine line down to the smallest detail is extraordinary hard, if not impossible.

For any finely detailed definition of human, I think all of us could rather easily find an exception to the fine detail presented. Even dying is not the fine line we all would like to think it is. But instead a process.



I am an atheist that always likes a good debate
Please include @LogicFTW for responses to me
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david43's picture
Really? Isn't human just a

Really? Isn't human just a layman term for our species? I think you misunderstood. I'm not asking if a human is a human. A human fetus is a human, a dead human is a human, and a child is a human. I'm asking what make that human a person. Or to help clarify it, a dog is as smart as an infant who is 2-2.5 years old. So before that time, is a dog more of a person then that infant?

Cognostic's picture
@LogicFTW: A is A. First

@LogicFTW: A is A. First law of logic. A human is a human, it is not a doctor, a cop, a teacher, a Buddhist, a Christian, a soldier, a mother, a father. Humans adopt these roles, positions, lifestyles. The realization that you are not these things leaves you with only one undeniable thing that is valid and verifiable. You are a human. I don't think there is an exception. A is not non-A. Human's are not really the roles they play, though we all play them and thy have real consequences to the human. I am this and you are that is the root of all conflict. We are both human beings moving from point A to point B and in this movement we adopt belief systems. We are not our beliefs but for all intent and purpose we often forget we are human and pretend we are our beliefs. Example: A cop does not die a cop, he dies a human. The cop may die when he retires if he lives that long and then he is stuck just being a human who was once a cop.

You are a husband until your wife leaves you. You are a doctor until you are charged with malpractice and can not get hired or afford insurance, You are a Christian until you are a Buddhist or Muslim. These are just Roles Humans Play.

LogicFTW's picture

I need to re-read this in the morning.

As of right now I am stuck on this and this does not make sense to me. This may require further explanation to me.

Cognostic's picture
@LogicFTW: A is A. First

I duplicated the post sorry. It had an attachment to help explain. If it is not below, I will re-attach it here.

chimp3's picture
I consider all humans persons

I consider all humans persons. I have taken care of many persons in vegetative states. They have the right to be cared for with dignity and respect. They are entitled to human rights. Depersonalizing humans tends to result in cruelty, tyranny, genocide, etc.

Cognostic's picture
@Chimp3: Sounds like we have

@Chimp3: Sounds like we have quite a few of the same experiences. We have a labeling difference. I call them human beings. (Being a human is all they need do to deserve the respect of another human being.) "Person" I identify with "Personality" or "Persona" noun the aspect of someone's character that is presented to or perceived by others. "her public persona" a role or character adopted by an author or an actor.

Human Rights are different than personal rights. Teachers get to drink coffee in the teacher's room. Humans don't. A soldier can enter a military base here in Korea, just being a human will not get you in.

Obviously I am in 100% agreement with your regard for others and could actually care less about how you label them. You must be a very good person --- He he he --- not like me :-) So, excuse me for being overly pedantic once again. We may simply have to disagree on our labeling. It obviously will not affect our mutual care for others.


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chimp3's picture


IMHO a Human Right is the right to free from violence, rape. Recently a young woman in a vegetative state delivered a child and a nurse has been arrested. She had the right to be free of this. I normally don't form a dichotomy between "Human/Person". They are synonyms. Simply the topic of this thread and it is interesting.

Cognostic's picture

We agree on Human rights. All you have to be is human to have human rights. It makes no difference if you are in a vegetative state, mentally challenged, male, female or any ethnicity on the planet. Regarding this, we are in 100% agreement.

As a Person, I also have rights. As a person who is a driver, I have the right to drive a car. Being human is not enough. Driving a car as a human does not make you a driver. If you drive a car as a human you will be arrested. You must be a person with a license. (The diagram above does a fine job of making distinctions.) I frequently need to make such distinctions because of the work I do. IMO - many people confuse roles for who they are as a human being. This can result in psychological or social issues. Again, I don't think we are necessarily in disagreement of any kind. It is more of a semantic issue than one in the real world.


david43's picture
I never mean to suggest that

I never mean to suggest that we shouldn't treat vegetative people, or any living creature, without respect. Even dead human desire rights and proper care. Yet one big difference I have with the term of human and person is that human is a lay term for our species while a person is something else. Personhood is hard to define, since they're so few examples other than humans, but let turn to fiction for an example. Is a robot, rock, planet, ect, who has the mind and ability of a normal human adult more of a person then child? And I should clarify that I see personhood more of a gradient scale than a 'yes' or 'no' answer.

chimp3's picture


I know you did not mean anything cruel. One thing I have learned in caring for people in vegetative states is how family members never stop considering them persons. The children talk to them and make Happy Birthday cards. Parents hold out for unreasonable outcomes, hoping for the return of that person. Nursing staff continues to speak to them during care as if they could hear (How do we know they can not?). Personhood can be bestowed by others too.

david43's picture
True. I think that the last

True. I think that the last sentence is a piece the puzzle of personhood in general. I once had a cat named Jasmine which I had since I was born or near birth. I loved that cat and she lived a to be at least twenty years, a good life for a cat. When she died, I was heartbroken. Now, if someone came that same day and told me some complete human stranger to me killed over, I would offer my condolence, but probably be annoyed with them. To me, Jasmine was more of a person then that complete stranger was. Probably a crass thing to say, but that just the truth of the matter.

Cognostic's picture
@DAVID: I defined it.

@DAVID: I defined it. Human is biological and Person is the roles being adopted. Refer to the chart above. Even with the distinction, it can be confusing at times because regardless of what we are discussing, humans are persons and persons are humans but not all the time. People forget to be human beings and not all human beings become persons.

david43's picture
Oops, sorry, I didn't see the

Oops, sorry, I didn't see the chart. Fair enough!

Peurii's picture
If I've learned anything from

If I've learned anything from Wittgenstein it's that all necessary and sufficient definitions collapse in their own impossibility, with perhaps the exception of purely apriori definitions like "a bachelor". When we use language to frame reality, language usually fails to describe the multiplicity of it.

You run into this problem with "personhood" here. Of course you, we, I are not philosophers of personhood, so maybe there is some definite definition to be found, but more likely than not, personhood is yet another family resemblance concept with vague borders, but some definite core where a normal human being is definately a person, but a pebble is not. Of course all this is subject to historical change too, because in animistic religions objects that we would consider inanimate and thus non-persons, personhood was granted, such as for rivers, mountains or even a specific weird looking rock. The situation is more complex for us too, because we recoqnize inanimate fictional legal persons, like corporations to exist. At the very least this is true of the usage of the word "person" here, that there is no clear borders for the concept. Whether or not people are using the word "person" in a manner that some ace analytical philosopher would like them to use it, is another question of course.

rat spit's picture
“Personality view” is

“Personality view” is considered to be an obstacle in the Buddhist path.

I think the idealization of personage goes into the very heart of our being; our very essence.

Very few people realize who they really are - and not simply who they are to other people - but who they are at their best potential.

People should strive to realize their highest personage and even if they fail to meet it, they should still make all attempts to live up to it.

The idea of personage and highest potential is an intriguing question that delves into the very heart of our being.

We hardly ever comprehend what we are to other people - until that moment when we see ourselves for who we really can be. Then we emerge from self loathing.

We emerge into a state of confidence. A state of well being and compassion. Or depending on who you really are, there are a lot of different personages you can assume.

- rat spit

david43's picture
Hm, interesting way of

Hm, interesting way of looking at it. Thanks for the imput.

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