Person as an Analogous

Person as an Analogous Term

Over at Siris, Brandon has been arguing that every human is a person. He has received a swarm of objections ranging from the very intelligent to the positively ghoulish. The most intelligent one was from Mixing Memory, which argued that since personhood implied dignity, but not all humans have dignity*, then not all humans are persons.

Now Brandon is one of the better philosophers on the net, and Chris understands a very difficult discipline thoroughly, and so I don’t suspect that my argument here will be one that they haven’t thought of. In fact, the first premise of my response to all this is positively dull: “person” and “human” have many meanings.

Take any analogous term, for example, “single”. Focus for a second on all the analogous uses of the word, even in that narrow group of meanings that speak of human relationships. A person might be called “single” because they a.) are not married, b.) are not seriously dating someone, or c.) simply because they are eligible to date. I ran into this ambiguity straight on a few years ago when I had to give a speech at my brother’s wedding. I come from family of four, and at the time of the speech my older sister had been married for years, I wasn’t involved with anyone, and my other brother (Ben) had been dating someone for many years. The opening of my speech was a dull quip about how it “was kind of a joke that the only single guy left had to praise marriage”. My mother objected right then, calling out “Ben is single too”.

Assume for a moment that we had to take this “dispute” between me and my mother seriously. The obvious response to the dispute is to point out that there is an equivocation in terms, and in effect everyone is right. My mother understood “single” to mean “unmarried”, and I took it to mean either “not seriously dating” or “eligible”. The problem is solved. But there is a related consideration to all this. Not all equivocations are the same. Some equivocations happen by mere chance, like “junk” meaning “trash”, and “junk” meaning “a Chinese merchant ship”; but other equivocations occur intentionally, like “programmed” when said of a computer, and “programmed” when it is said of, say, the instinct of an animal. When we say it of a computer, we are talking about the process by which we make a tool, a device we use for amusement or mere use. When said of an animal’s instinct, it is certainly not a process by which we make a tool. The first kind of “programming” is a sort of art, the second kind of programming is not an art, except, perhaps, analogously. The terms are equivocal, but it is clear enough why we use the equivocation, because it helps us to explain something we are less clear about in terms of something we are more clear about. Examples of this occur all the time between art and nature, where we use the more known thing we make to understand he less known thing that we did not make. We argue by a sort of proportion: as programming is to a computer, so instinct is to an animal. If we lost this first idea of programming a computer, we would lose also the power it gives us to explain the “programming” of instinct. The extended meanings of programming don’t make any sense except in reference to the primary meanings.

And there, I think, is the rub. The root meaning of “person” is simply “an individual human being”. This is not a metaphysical statement, but simply a logical one that has to do with the imposition of words. The primary sense of the word person is not a technical one that has to do with technical terms like “consciousness” or “higher brain activity” or even “a being with a history or personal responsibility”. I don’t discourage the use of technical language, nor do I think a definition of a term is more true because it was imposed first, and is used unreflectively by most of the speakers of a language. It still remains, however, that in the first imposition of the word “person” it makes no more sense to say “not all individual humans are persons” than it does to say “not all single men are unmarried”. In this primary sense of person, it makes no difference if we speak of “a human being with brain damage” or “a person with brain damage”.

The problem with the opinion of Mixing Memory is that he starts halfway. He begins with what isn’t primary as though it were, as when he first enunciates his position:

An individual human person is differentiated from other human individuals, as well as nonhuman individuals, by a collection of memories, beliefs, knowledge, skills, and tendencies. In other words, what defines an individual person is a history.

This account of “person” is fine, but the primary definition of person does just as much to differentiate one human from another, and at the same time from all nonhuman animals. What could be more self -evident than “an individual human being” is both “this individual and not that one” and that they are “a human being” as opposed to being a nonhuman animal? Mixing Memory is using an analogous sense of the word person, and seeking to distinguish it from the first sense of the term. His first principle assumes that some human individuals are not persons. This happens because he has already defined a person as something like “a being with a history” or “a being with an awareness of history”. He later goes on to say:

From an empirical standpoint, both ways (Brandon’s and mine) of delineating personhood are arbitrary. Both place the line between life and death at empirically verifiable boundaries. What criteria, then, can we use to decide between them?

“arbitrary” here is a key term, which is itself used analogously. The primary meaning is “chosen” while a secondary meaning is “chosen randomly”. Mixing Memory seems to have in mind the second sense: in other words, it doesn’t matter from the empirical givens which definition of personhood one chooses. Perhaps not, but it makes all the difference from a logical standpoint (that is, from the analogous uses of a word). Analogous words do not come to be imposed “randomly” or “arbitrarily”, they grow out of certain more known meanings and are applied to less known meanings. We no more choose them “randomly” than we “randomly” choose to say of instinct that it is “programmed”. The criteria that we use to decide between analogous words is to try to relate the less known back he more known.

Even then, I fail to see why Mixing Memory’s analogous use of the word “person” is necessary. He says that unless we see personal history as being the definition of “person” than we render all that makes us persons “superfluous”. This is true enough in his secondary and analogous sense of person, but it is not true of the primary one. This definition is not arbitrary, it is the one we, or any good lexicon, would place first, before positing definitions like Mixing Memory’s.

And I don’t want to be to quick to dismiss this primary definition, “an individual human being”. How are we so sure that we cannot derive dignity from merely being human? I admit that to loose “personhood” as MM defines it would be a great loss, but it would not follow from this that we lose everything that truly deserves to be called “a person”. There is no contradiction in losing personhood in MM’s sense, and yet truly retaining it in another. Still less would there be a contradiction between loosing “dignity” in the sense that MM understands it, and yet retaining dignity in another sense. In fact, as far as MM’s definition is concerned, we could still lose all dignity as he defines it, and yet retain a dignity that was both uniquely our own, and superior to anything else in the cosmos.
*His proof for this premise was that dignity proceeded from awareness of ones own history, but not every human has awareness of their own history.


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