Sunday, August 14, 2011

Who Is a "Person"?--The Science, Law, and Prejudice of Personhood

by Richard Crews
Back in 1776, the United States' Founding Fathers didn't like the way things were going with England (mostly tax-wise). So they went to a lot of trouble to do something about it.

It was a dangerous game. They knew if they didn't stick together and the British cops got them, they would lose everything (as Benjamin Franklin said, "We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately").

Their efforts seemed pretty ridiculous to most of the world--which meant to the British world: "Britannia rules the waves," "the sun never sets on the British Empire," and all that. How on earth did a few upstart woodsmen in a savage province think they could get away with thumbing their noses at one of the world's super powers? As Kenneth Roberts said, they were seen as "rabble in arms."

The "upstarts" wanted to give their rebellion stature in the eyes of the world--that is, of the scholarly and politically powerful world. So they set about answering the questions, "Who are we?" "What are we up to?" and "Why are we doing this?" in as resounding and philosophically compelling way as they could. Their educations were classical--from Socrates to Locke. So there, philosophically, is where they started.

Out of that humus and hubris came Thomas Jefferson's famous words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." That, in a sense, is a carefully thought-out definition of "personhood." Jefferson was trying to answer the question, "When you strip it all down, what does it really take to be a full member of civilized humanity, and what do you get for that membership?"

First, the "who" was "men," by which he meant wealthy, adult, white, Christian men--certainly not women or children, certainly not blacks or Native Americans. And certainly not apes--even smart apes--or crows or whales or elephants just because they may know hundreds of words, make and use tools, call each other by personal names, organize social events, act altruistically, mourn their dead, and so on.

Second, as to what they get, they are "created equal," that is, they start out their sojourns in life on--somehow--an equal footing. And WHAT is it that is "equal"? Clearly not their abilities, their inheritances, or their potentials. No, only their "rights" are equal. And a pretty constricted set of rights at that: "life" (don't kill them--without a good reason), "liberty" (don't lock them up--without a good reason), and "pursuit of happiness" (let them do as they choose--as long as they don't interfere with any more powerful person's "pursuit").

In the 21st century there have been some broadened concepts of "personhood." For example, in addition to questions of human rights and animal rights, the Supreme Court recently ruled in a case called "Citizens United" that corporations have the Constitutional right to free speech which, through strange legal metamorphosis, becomes the right to secretly use massive amounts of money to influence elections. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful, recently said, in response to a question about taxation of businesses, "Corporations are people."

And what "rights" are on the horizon for computers that are smarter than human beings--that can beat the best human chess players, find oil and ore deposits more efficiently, solve medical and engineering problems more effectively, and out-remember and out-calculate any human brain?

In our modern world we have made the concepts of personhood very complex, and they promise to get muddier still.