What is a Person?

Egg Being FertilizedThis week the citizens of Mississippi will vote whether to legally assign the status of “personhood” to any human egg that has been penetrated by a sperm. I, for one, think that being a person is a serious gift. And I hope that if Mississippi awards personhood to fertilized eggs, they will take this seriously.

Consider what that might imply: God or nature aborts approximately half of all fertilized eggs, most before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. These fertilized eggs end up, at a certain time of the month, wrapped in tissue in waste baskets before being picked up by garbage trucks. If these bundles contain deceased persons, then the state of Mississippi to my mind has responsibility to grant each of these small packets the most basic and ancient dignities of personhood: a name and a proper burial. Perhaps the organizations that have come together to pass the legislation can devote themselves to bringing in the dead and then providing some ritual to honor each person on his or her way to the grave.

Once this system of naming and last rites is in place, should they not turn state medical resources to saving these lives? Are any of the micro-persons still alive at the moment when God or nature aborts them? How about between the moment of fertilization and expulsion? Could they be kept alive? Think of the great lengths we go to save the life of one person with cancer or diabetes or heaven knows what. Shouldn’t even speck-sized ball-shaped persons be given urgent lifesaving attention?

Lastly, perhaps there should be some thought given to whether in some way these micro-persons might eventually be endowed with the actual attributes that have long defined personhood: the ability to think and feel, to have preferences and intentions, to value one’s own existence, to experience pleasure and pain. I’m not talking about putting them into a laboratory or alternate womb where they might gradually become persons, but whether there might not be some way for them to actually be persons at the time they receive the designation. What the heck are you talking about?—you ask. I don’t know either.

Ok, I’ll stop. Obviously I’m skeptical about whether any of the three point plan above will get implemented. But I cannot state this strongly enough: It is time that we stop talking about whether the Mississippi law will be expensive or will affect fertility clinics or contraception or biomedical research. It is time we engaged the real conversation that the Religious Right has put in front of us.

Personhood is a concept with tremendous weight, both in spiritual tradition and in civil tradition, which is why it has been invoked by both religious institutions who want to control the beginnings and ends of life and by corporations who want to exploit our vast tradition of civil rights for persons. You can get a better feel for the concept of personhood by looking at three related concepts: compassion, rights, and responsibilities.

The Platinum Rule

by Planeta

Compassion: The concepts of personhood and compassion have long been intertwined. Compassion combines two things: a feeling of empathy and a moral responsibility for the wellbeing of other sentient beings. In spiritual traditions around the world, it is embodied in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is a part of Christianity, although it long predates Christianity. The highest version of the Golden Rules, called the Platinum Rule, says: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

The Platinum Rule requires very clearly that the other person be able to have a preference. What they want is the guide for how we treat them. But even in the Golden Rule, this ability to have preferences is implicit. We are asked to use our own experience as a proxy—to use our capacity for empathy to make a best guess about the feelings of the other party. The moral obligations here require that the other party be capable of having feelings. During a Seattle event called Seeds of Compassion, the Dalai Lama mused on the limits of compassion. He commented wryly that he sometimes “gives blood” to a mosquito but that he has his doubts about whether a mosquito is able to appreciate the gift. Religious traditions around the world vary in terms of the bounds they place on the Golden Rule. Some apply its obligations of personhood only to male members of one’s own tribe, as in the early Abrahamic traditions. Others, like the Jains, apply it to the smallest sentient being. But sentience is fundamental. It is the quality that the Dalai Lama contemplated: What is the mosquito capable of experiencing?  It is a quality that is lacking in both fertilized ova and corporations.

Rights: The United States Constitution opens with a bold statement ceding certain rights to all citizens: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why these three? At a most fundamental level, they are what every person wants for him or herself.  By calling them inalienable, the writers of the constitution recognize the universal ethical obligations that we have to other persons—the same obligations religions express through the Golden Rule. Indeed, for the past 200 years what people love about the United States is that it provides an almost unparalleled opportunity for these three. Americans may argue about whether they are best served by cowboy individualism or by strong communities and infrastructure, but we all want civil law that respects and empowers citizens not as automatons who serve the state but as persons—conscious beings with ideas, goals and dreams all their own.

As civil rights leader Van Jones has said, there was a broad chasm between America’s founding ideals and our founding reality. In reality, the full rights of citizenship were afforded at the beginning only to a small group of moneyed white males. We have spent the last two hundred years struggling to bring our reality into line with our ideals, time and again, asking, “Who counts as a person?” Black slaves? Indians? Laborers? Women?  The rights of full personhood: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . . are precious and hard won.  At the edge of this struggle today in our society are those fighting for full human rights for gays, whose status in society has often been closely bound to that of women. In art and literature, the question goes even farther.  In the now classic “Bladerunner”, Phillip K. Dick asks, What about cyborgs? The movie District 9 asks, What about aliens?  Nancy Farmer’s novel, The House of the Scorpion asks, What about clones? In each of these, the question turns not on human protoplasm but on the capacity to think and feel, to value one’s own life, to love and be loved.

Responsibilities: I have always taught my daughters that rights and responsibilities are two sides of a single coin, but that is not exactly true. When it comes to personhood, as the discussion above reflects, rights derive from what a person is capable of experiencing. Responsibilities derive from what a person is capable of doing.  The two are entwined but not identical. Part of what a person can experience comes from what they are capable of doing and are free to do. One of the responsibilities of the doer is to consider what the other can experience, hence the Golden and Platinum Rules.

The responsibilities of personhood are absent from our conversations about both corporations and fertilized eggs. In the case of personhood for embryos, the question of responsibilities gets blocked—fatally—by the inability of an embryo to intend or do anything. In the case of corporate personhood, corporations, which are incapable of experiencing anything, have made a play for the rights of personhood without the responsibilities—including the obligations that come from weighing the experience of others: Are we causing suffering? Are we causing harm? What are we contributing to or taking from the wellbeing of other persons? This is the other half of the personhood coin: experiencing and doing, rights and responsibilities.

Faced with both fetal and corporate personhood claims we have failed to ask the most basic questions: What defines personhood? What is this so-called person capable of experiencing; what is this entity capable of doing? And what are the rights and responsibilities on all sides that derive from each of these? There is little more sacred in American civil law or spiritual tradition than the mutual obligations inherent in personhood.  For two hundred years, this country has engaged in a heroic struggle, internally and externally, rising to the challenge of treating all persons like persons—with everything that implies. As our hard-won tradition of civil rights gets invoked in extraordinary ways, we have a chance to treat the concept of personhood with the actual weight and dignity it deserves—or to demand that, for once and for all, political opportunists stop cheapening it.

The Difference Between a Dying Fetus and a Dying Woman

When God Was Pro-Choice and Why He Changed His Mind
My Abortion was Different: Why Women Shame and Blame Each Other
What the Right Gets Right About Abortion and the Left Doesn’t Get
Righteous Abortion: How Conservative Christianity Promotes What it Claims to Hate
Abortion as a Blessing, Grace, or Gift–Changing the Conversation about Reproductive Rights and Moral Values
My Abortion Baby

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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10 Responses to What is a Person?

  1. M.E. Anders says:

    Thank you for chiming in about this topic that has been buzzing around the media lately. Issues (like this one) force us to think for ourselves, outside the Golden Rule purported by the theists. Defining personhood remains a difficult task.


  2. ticket88 says:


    I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your work and appreciate your videos. I was directed here from your youtube page.

    I just wanted to offer a small piece of information…a technical clarification. It’s not really so important, but just in case you ever get into a debate with someone who knows, they may call you on it.

    “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is not found in the Constitution, rather the Declaration of Independence.

    Thanks again for the great posts and insights!


  3. Hi Valerie,

    First, let me thank you very much for your regular insightful writings. :-) Something you wrote in this posting bothers me a little, though:

    > The responsibilities of personhood are absent from our conversations about both corporations and fertilized eggs. In the case of personhood for embryos, the question of responsibilities gets blocked—fatally—by the inability of an embryo to intend or do anything.

    What bothers me is about this is that if we take this to its logical conclusion then it seems that infants and the extreme mentally retarded are not persons either. Thus, I wonder if the criteria you have proposed here as a necessary condition for being considered a person is a bit too strict.


    • Great question, Gregory. I think the answer is yes, that these criteria in combination are too strict a definition of personhood. We can’t define our responsibility to others in terms of their responsibility to us, which is what happens in your logical conclusion. I think that in the moral and legal realm, the concept of personhood functions to help us answer a set of questions: What are the the inalienable rights of personhood? and What are a person’s responsibilities to other people? It get’s complicated because, as you illustrate, being able to experience and being able to act don’t always exist in the same beings or in proportion to each other. I think of personhood existing on a continuum, but that an entity incapable of sentience is off of that continuum.


  4. James says:

    I was going to write my senior thesis on identity and ethical responsibility. So here is some food for thought. If one believes in souls; do conjoined twins have two souls? What if they share the same brain? If one of the conjoined twins commits a crime how can you punish the offender? If one commits murder and falls, while walking into the courtroom, hits his head and can’t remember anything before that time is he liable? If one commits a crime and transfers his thoughts and memory into another person which one is liable or are they both liable together? If one did not actually commit a murder but has the memory of committing a murder, that actually happened, is he liable? Those are the easy ones. Try this: A boy takes an apple from his neighbor’s tree. 30 years later he is the general of an army and wins a decisive victory saving his country. While being presented with a metal he remembers taking the apple. 30 years after receiving the metal he was talking to a friend and recounted the battle and getting the metal but did not remember taking the apple. If memory is what makes us who we are, then the person who received the metal was the same person that took the apple and the person who recounted the victory was the same person who received the metal but not the same person who took the apple. :) So can you solve all of these without finding yourself with a logical contradiction?


    • You ask some fascinating questions. If people thought more about the boundaries of identity and personhood, we might be a little less righteous in our treatment of other people. At the same time, we need to make practical distinctions (even if they are based partially in “adaptive fictions”) in order to function as a collective.


  5. James says:

    P.S. Those who say that what it is to be a person is all about the dna, are you saying that those born with Down syndrome don’t count as a person? Are you saying that the great apes should be included as persons?


  6. Pingback: I am Woman | Away Point

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