Thursday, November 1, 2007

Human Person Summary

Firstly, I want to thank everyone who came out for the Thursday discussion group. You all are very enthusiastic and have a lot to say, and have proved yourselves as quite worthy of a 50/50 split with Wednesday. I will actualize that in an email later.

I wanted to get this summary out of the way while it was still fresh in my head, so here it goes:
  • In the beginning we had some trouble getting off the ground with what a human person was without starting to talk about animals, robots, or space aliens in the form of a counter example, and therefore we bracketed animals, robots, and space aliens, which was very productive for discussion purposes.
  • We also realized the inherent difficulty of attributing any characteristics or categories that can be evaluated objectively to personhood, because this sets up a scenario where one human person could be considered to be "more of a person" than another person. This sort of objective evaluation of persons pops up all over history and is easily linkable to various social abuses, slavery being the one that seems most obviously linked to personhood.
  • We also differentiated between the concept of a human being and the concept of a human person. We thought of the human being as more of a biological category, namely that of the homo sapiens, where the person was more of a performative construction akin to gender, where one is a person in the context of recognizable participation in a larger society.
  • So what are some of the performatives that persons utilize in order to participate in this context of a lawful society, or even be able to relate to each other? Two characteristics came to the forefront of discussion:
    • Rationality: This one is for the thinkers. Rob mentioned the ability to use second order reasoning outside of one's "direct experience of the world" in order to objectively evaluate decisions that arise from situations, and I think this is the perfect criteria for rationality. When you are making a decision (we used the word choice) as a result of a situation, you posit a duality where you can use this second ("higher") order apparatus of rationality to aid you in seeing which choice will be of greater benefit to you. Rob and I differentiated this from the animal who "makes the decision" to eat as opposed to starving, because that's simply biology talking.
    • Empathy: There was a lot in the original topic about "feelings" and I'm not big on this touchy feely stuff, probably because of my relentless testosterone fueled manhood, but I'll give it my best shot. I stated initially that empathy has a sort of rational content to it, because you have to evaluate or understand someone as a person in order to empathize with them to begin with. However, Rory was careful to make sure that I didn't subsume empathy under the category of rationality entirely. What I think Rory was pointing to, was that rationality by itself is not enough to TRULY understand and recognize a person's personhood/humanity, because if you as a person don't at least have the CAPACITY for empathizing with another person, then you don't really UNDERSTAND and recognize that person the way you understand and recognize yourself as a person. I think it is also important to recognize the capacity for social abuses if rationality is not mediated by empathy, and I think Rory had this in the back of his mind as well.
    • Desire: The third element of personhood that we didn't flesh out as much as the others, but nonetheless an important one. The desire to learn for example, is not really a biological need, but it is something that a lot of humans desire on that "second order" level of things. Therefore, the desire to learn is already being mediated through rationality, and the desire to learn could easily be linked to an empathy about other people. The classic example of "getting to know someone" seems to apply rather well here, where one desires to learn things about another person in order to better empathize with them.
  • After these were fleshed out, the discussion of a priori reason came to the forefront, when I started talking about rationality as a performative construction. This prompted a discussion of subjectivity as a key aspect of personhood, with much said about Descartes' thinking thing, which dovetailed nicely with Rory's assertion of self-awareness as the defining element of personhood.
  • At this point there was a bifurcation in the conversation where I went to talk to the cool kids who were smoking at the bar. Cool kids that they were, they had some things to say:
    • Rob presented an account of determinism vs free will as important aspects of what we considered to be a person. Prosch disagreed with both these notions as being too absolutist, but Rob stressed the strength of the arguments for deterministic accounts of personhood within a sociological context of thinking. Rob seemed to hint at how these deterministic accounts of personhood haunted him as someone who recognized the existential truth of free will and the power of the individual as someone vested with free rational choice.
There. That pretty much sums up everything that I remember, and if anyone wants to add anything feel free, because you're a person too!

Love and Peace,

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