Persons and Humans

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The Concept of a Person

The Concept of a Person

For various reasons, we need to distinguish between the notion of a ‘human being’ and the concept of a ‘person’. For example, while it may be the case that all of the persons you and I know are human beings, it doesn’t follow from this that all human beings are persons.


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Potential and Ex persons

Potential persons and ex-Persons

A foetus is human but is a foetus a person? And, if a foetus isn’t a person, is a neonate a person? Similarly, if a neonate isn’t a person is a four-month old microcephalic infant a person? (Microcephaly is a birth defect marked by a profoundly small head and brain size.Most die between 4 to 6 months.) Obviously, one would not deny that the majority of foetuses are potential persons, but having the potential to be a person is not the same as being a person.

Just as we might have reason to speak of ‘potential persons’, we might also wish to speak of ‘ex persons’. Like potential persons, it may be the case that all of those we might wish to describe as ex-persons are human beings: but they are human beings who, for one reason or another, no longer seem to be persons.


In 1991 Rita Greene was a human being in a vegetative state: arguably, at that time, she was an ex-person rather than a person. ‘People’ do come out of comas, but do they persist through comas?

This is not a marginal issue. Dementia is a term employed to describe various different brain disorders that have in common a loss of brain function that is usually progressive and eventually severe. The structure and chemistry of the brain become increasingly damaged over time. So, a person's ability to remember, communicate and reason gradually declines and may eventually disappear completely. It is estimated that there are currently over 700,000 people in the UK with dementia.

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Diminished Persons

Diminished Persons

So, it is possible to argue that not all human beings are persons: we might regard some human beings as potential persons and others as ex-persons. Moreover, as dementia is a progressive illness there will, in many cases, be a stage where we may want to say that personhood has been lost: when, for example, a demented relative has lost the capacity to express themselves or is no longer able to recognize his or her loved ones. Similarly, there will be earlier stages where memory is fading, the ability to communicate is partial and while loved ones are recognized their identities may be blurred (so that a son may be seen as a husband for example). During these stages we may wish to speak of diminished persons. A person suffering the early stages of dementia is still a person: he or she may know that they are becoming forgetful and be increasingly anxious about this; they may also be aware that their condition is likely to deteriorate and they may not wish to suffer (or for their loved ones to suffer) their further deterioration.If this seems extreme you might ask yourselves how you would respond to being told you were in the early stages of dementia and that you would progressively deteriorate until ‘you’ died in approximately three to five years time.

It isn’t necessary to trawl through all the ways that a person might be diminished. One more will do. The early stages ofAlzheimer’s disease tend to be characterized by:

Forgetfulness (particularly of recent events or information).

Loss of concentration (having trouble planning or completing familiar tasks).

Communication problems (forgetting the names of objects, mixing up words).

Confusion about time and place (difficulty recognizing or remembering why you are at a location).

Impaired judgments (such as dressing inappropriately).

Impaired coordination (slowing of movements, falling over).

Mood and behavior changes (emotional outbursts, personality changes, increased fear, anxiety, suspicion).

Depression (loss of interest in activities, sitting in front of the television for long periods of time).

The presence of some of these symptoms, such as mild forgetfulness and confusion, does not necessarily indicate that a person has Alzheimer’s disease – the elderly, for example, may simply be experiencing age-related memory changes. However, loss of memory, whether associated with dementia or not, constitutes a serious threat to identity and a diminution of personhood. Indeed, one way to grasp the significance of memory for our identity as persons is to consider the problems caused by amnesia.

There are many different ‘types’ of amnesia – many of which are short-term – some of which have been portrayed in recent films.

Just as individuals without memories have no sense of who they are, neither does a nation without a memory. Indeed, the significance of memory for identity can be seen in many institutions, including schools and colleges where badges, mottos, former pupil associations, regular reunions and plaques commemorating past achievements abound.

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Humans Animals and Machines

Humans, animals and machines

Moreover, returning briefly to dementia, just as we can question whether all humans are persons, we might also ask whether all persons are human beings. As dementia progresses the demented person becomes increasingly forgetful, particularly of names, and may also fail to recognise people or confuse them with others. If we wish to claim, while this process is occurring, that the sufferer remains a person then we might also acknowledge that, as a person, they are increasingly less capable and, perhaps, less capable than some animals that we know. The family dog, for example, appears not only to be aware of its name but also the names of other members of the household – so that on being told to find e.g. Julie it will, generally, look for Julie; it appears to have a memory – so that it can remember where it buried the piece of toast it stole from the kitchen the day before; it can communicate meanings – it scratches the door if it wants to go out; it doesn’t forget places – when off the lead it will follow a familiar route.

One might go on, but two points (both of which we’ll return to) are worth briefly noting: firstly, that being a person may be a matter of degree rather than a matter of kind or type; secondly, that some non-human animals, and possibly some intelligent machines, may be sufficiently complex to be on the scale of personhood. (While a demented relative may not know who I am, my computer appears to recognize and greet me every time I log on.)

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