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What Is a Person

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The question “what is a person,” is a question that many use to argue points of contention. In cases relating to abortion, capital punishment, or even animal rights, this question is posed to create a line; on opposite sides of this line lay the differences between “persons” and “not persons.” However, it is not practical, nor is it possible to have one unified definition that defends or refutes any of these points. It is important to note that although this question can be answered for individual points, it is not a question that can be answered with the same boundaries for all points collectively. Although a case by case basis can be given, a unified answer lies in the fact that the all points can collectively be answered ethically. As defined by Mary Warren in her argument that abortion is an ethically acceptable action, a person is a being that fulfills five characteristics: consciousness, reasoning, motivation, capacity to communicate, and the concept of self (the ability to see oneself as an entity). She concedes that there are cases in which a person may be considered a person if that being has several of these characteristics, but also states that in these marginal cases, the greatest benefit to society is that personhood is defined to ethically condone the most moral actions. For example, in the case of a mentally retarded human being who most likely has consciousness, motivation, and communication skills, that person should be considered a person as this person has lived and has the capacity to do so. In the case of abortion, another marginal case, she argues that the right of the mother supersedes the right of the fetus she carries. I agree with this because the both physically and metaphorically, the fetus lives within the “personal bubble” that the mother has, and the mother ethically has control over anything that happens within this bubble, especially the causes of harm that may befall her. If the fact that the baby was carried to term with dangerous implications to the mother, ethically, the right of the mother is greater than that of the fetus she carries, and she has every right to an abortion. Critics of this argument say that proponents of abortion are animalistic (to use an adjective describing a non-person, of course) because there is little difference between an almost developed fetus and a newborn baby. This is because they say that they both have the capacity to survive by themselves. But what they fail to understand is that a person is one that is surviving by itself, not one that has the capacity to survive by itself. In this case, a person is one that is surviving by itself, and just because a fetus has this capability, it is not living by itself, and therefore it is not a person and has the rights fall to the mother carrying it. Capital punishment is another point that pundits on the subject seek to define purely by answering the question of “what is a person.” Although some may see it being able to be defined by the answer to this question, I see the answer lying in the fact that human error has too great an implication in the process. The death penalty is absolute; there is no turning back, admitting mistake, or asking for a mulligan. As we have seen from several cases including the Willingham case reported by David Grann in the New York Times, human influence has too great an impact in deciding the fate of another human. Proponents of the death penalty argue that those deserving of the death penalty are the ones who have forfeited the right to being a person. By execution we eliminate that person (ex-person) as a moral flaw. Proponents argue that this is because we answer to a higher moral authority that is almost a natural law. However, I believe that this is contradictory. Proponents argue that we are persons until we give up the right to life by putting others’ personhood in harm’s way. But why should persons also execute that decision? It is not our duty to execute others, and as we have shown time and time again human error is too great in deciding others’ fate. If any, the only option that we as people have is the ability to separate the malefactors from society, and it is not our role to play - for lack of a better word - god. If we answer to a higher authority, as proponents claim we do, it is our job as people to ensure that persons who harm other persons are removed from society, but it is not our job to end their time in society. In this case, we as people can give up the right to personhood; we as people do not and should not have the power to end the lives of other persons. Persons do not have the moral right to end the life of others, as it is a higher natural law that we answer to. Over time, the line between animal and human has blurred. Genetically, scientific evidence has shown that there is as little as three percent difference in genetic code between us and chimpanzees. Because of this, animal rights have long been in question because of their ability to be similar to humans, and some even go so far to say that they are in fact persons. Peter Singer, a longtime activist for animal rights famously stated in his book Animal Liberation, that the dividing line between where rights should be decided not by whether “they canNOT reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?” He argues that rights should be given on the fact that animals should not be made to suffer because they suffer to the same degree we do. I believe that animals do hold these rights, and more humane methods of animal treatments are necessary for us to consider ourselves a modern society. However, although animals do hold these rights, in our circle of life, it is a necessary part of life to consume animals, both biologically and economically. Even though I am vegetarian, I believe that that is a personal choice, and should not be the only option to be considered an ethical person. One can still be considered a person if he consumes animals because although animals have rights, through natural law, animals are supposed to be consumed, as long as it is done ethically. Arguments against any forms of animal rights say that given the chance animals among themselves will act brutally to one another. But by saying this, critics are lowering themselves to the level of animals, and by their standards have given up the right as a person. We as persons should not treat those who are able to suffer by the standards they treat each other because persons are those that give the morals we have so graciously been bestowed to the animals who do not have the say to defend themselves. Humane animal treatment (even though animals themselves are not persons) is necessary. A corollary needs to be added to be added to Warren’s five points in my opinion. A person is one who has the ability to see even those that are not persons and treat them morally well. On a side note, I do approve of medical testing as humanely as possible because in the long run as studies have shown, the suffering of a few animals saves the suffering of countless humans in return. Although the animals do not have a say in this, it is our duty as humans to understand that it is okay to morally infringe here, as the good of humans in the long run is much more important. As has been clearly demonstrated, there is not one overlapping theorem that describes what a person is. For example, animals have the ability to reason and communicate, but under the qualification I gave for an abortion, a person is one that is surviving by itself. Under this qualification, an animal is a person, but clearly that is not the case, as I stated in my argument dealing with animal rights, but still deserves equal moral qualification. In my argument against the death penalty, I stated that we don’t have the power to end the lives of other persons, yet in my argument for animal rights I say that we have a moral obligation to treat animals with the same moral consideration we have for each other; that is what makes us persons (but we still may consume animals, infringing on our role as persons as defined by my definition in the death penalty argument by causing the suffering of creatures that can suffer). On the other hand, there are several additions that are needed to Mary Warren’s excellent beginning qualifications to what is a person is. These are: one, a person is not a person just because it has the capability to be one, it is a person when it is actually its own being; two, persons do not have the right to end the personhood of another, otherwise they are not persons; and third, a person needs to have the ability to consider the suffering of others. A person must fulfill these obligations, and in a case in which one of these rules infringe upon another, the right falls to the situation in the fewest number of persons are harmed, or the greatest numbers of persons are helped. Finally, if there is a case in which two marginal cases are considered, the one that is more a person must be the one who the rights fall to, if there was a situation in one needed to be picked.

Works Cited:
Grann, David. "Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?" The New Yorker 7 Sept. 2009. Print.
Singer, Peter. "The Case for Animal Liberation." Animal Liberation. New York: Avon, 1977. 609-12. Print.
Warren, Mary. "Book Review:The Nature of Woman. An Encyclopedia and Guide to the Literature. Mary Anne Warren." The Quarterly Review of Biology 56.2 (1980). Print.…...

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