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What Is a Person, Anyway?

Humans, apes, dolphins, dogs, and other good country people. If you said, "a human being," you have a lot of company, but...



Humans, apes, dolphins, dogs, and other good country people.


If you said, "a human being," you have a lot of company, but you've only scratched the surface of the legal and ethical complications that "person" carries. Not all human beings have always been considered persons, and some scientists have taken to calling dolphins "non-human persons" in the spirit of attempts to grant person status to non-human apes. Further confusing the person/human distinction was a 2008 Spanish parliament resolution extending "human rights" to apes, and a recent article by John Homans on dog culture discusses "the personhood of the dog." Whether you're a dog person, a people person, a pod person, or a person of interest, I think you can agree the word "person" is chock full of legal and ethical complications, especially when it comes to extending the word past our own species.

To some, calling a dolphin a "non-human person" may sound like tree-hugging gobbledygook, or mushy anthropomorphization, or maybe just a sign the scientists in question are a little water-logged themselves. It's easy to treat "non-human persons" as an annoying nugget of nonsense, much like PETA's proclamation of fish as "sea kittens." Fish aren't kittens, and dolphins aren't humans-case closed?

Nah. Open as the barn door. Stretching the definition of "person" isn't much of stretch; we've been extending the parameters of personhood since Christ was a cowboy. Besides the obvious evil of slavery-the most notorious example of humans as property, not persons-there have been numerous extensions of "person." Philosophers have speculated whether robots could develop enough individual thought to be considered persons, as in these Oxford English Dictionary quotes from 1962 ("For every feature of a ‘person' or ‘mind' regarded as distinctively human...there...possibly will exist an [sic] feature in a machine or robot.") and 1994 ("Will artificial intelligence develop to the point that a computer or robot could qualify as a person?"). Legally, corporations are treated as persons, and I can't think of anything more inhuman than a mega-uber-corporation. If we're OK with calling Wal-Mart a person, it seems a little-well, inhuman-of us to deny the same status to a dolphin.

This is a difficult topic because "person" and "human" are used so synonymously. An article on TreeHugger goofed up when it said the scientists wanted to grant dolphins human status. But unless they've made amazing advances in trans-species surgery, that doesn't make a lick of sense. A terrific clarifier of these issues is Gary L. Francione, a professor of law at Rutgers University, a major force in the animal rights movement, and the author of Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation. In explaining the title of his book in a radio interview, Francione said, "I don't mean that they're human persons; I mean that they're members of the moral community...." He rejects the logic of anyone who would grant person status to only the smartest and most human-y of animals (such as bonobos and chimps). To Francione, "...it doesn't really matter how similar they are to humans. All that matters is if they're sentient, they are to be full members of the moral community, and we have a moral obligation not to treat them as our resources, and that means that we have to abolish institutionalized animal exploitation."

Though we own animals as we own iPods, Francione points out that our dinners and pets "...have preferences, desires, and wants which our inanimate property doesn't have..." In other words, if you can feel pain and have some awareness of the world, you deserve the right not to be property, just like a slave, a child, or a woman-to name just a few groups that have had to fight for their personhood. Fundamentally, being a person is about not being property.

As a meat-eater and pet-haver, Francione would find me a strange, hypocritical, silly advocate of treating animals as persons, but I find the idea very compelling. If you're having trouble separating "person" and "human" in the thesaurus of your mind, it might help to think of personhood as not just a linguistic concept, but a protective shield-a kind of legal force field that could enable greater protection. Or as a role.

Interestingly, that sense of "person" goes back to the very first meaning listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, which isn't legal or human-y-it's theatrical, as in "A role or character assumed in real life, or in a play, etc.; a part, function, or office; a persona; a semblance or guise. Hence: any of the characters in a play or story."

When you think about personhood as a type of role, the idea of dolphins, chimps, or even dogs as persons may not seems so ludicrous. In Shakespeare, boys played the girls, but they were still boys. If we call a dolphin a person, while extending some person-like rights to them, they'll still be dolphins. To protect them, we're just casting them in a new role, and making that unusual casting choice makes a lot of sense to me. I'd defend my dog with a suitcase nuke if I had to, so why not add "person" to the arsenal?

Photo by Will Etling.




















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