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personhood Though often taken to be innate and intuitively obvious, the European concept of personhood is neither. The Western idea of the ‘self’ as a whole and independent entity developed over time, and was influenced by particular philosophical, legal, and religious traditions. ‘Personhood’ is not found in many dictionaries or reference works. Manhood is a much older term, signifying adulthood, maturity, virility, and legal independence. Personhood, as a genderless form of the same concept, is a relatively new category.

What constitutes and defines a person varies greatly from culture to culture, entailing different rights, duties, kinship bonds, and titles. Most attempts to define personhood recognize that the human person must extend beyond a merely biological basis to include some form of consciousness or rationality. In Western political and social discourses, we distinguish persons from animals and inanimate objects (rocks and computers, for example). This raises metaphysical questions about the identity of consciousness over time, about the identity of states of consciousness with particular bodies, and about how we differentiate ourselves from what is not ourselves. It also raises ethical questions. The concept of personhood allows us to isolate appropriate objects of moral concern — persons, as opposed to anything else, deserve or require moral recognition. The notion of personhood also allows us to differentiate amongst those that are appropriate, in so far as personhood may admit of degrees. One human being might be more or less a person than another. Hence a comatose patient could be considered less a person than an alert one, while a fetus might be thought of as less a person than an infant. Some people reject this last view, arguing that by any definition of ‘person’, a fetus qualifies. According to this argument, one can be a potential person.

Many cultures — the Kwakiutl Indians, Heiltsuk, and Bellacoola, among others — mark each stage of life with a new identity, a new name, and new relationships to the clan. Taoism and Buddhism emphasize the individual as a composite and historical being. Hindu and Buddhist cultures are among the many that believe in reincarnation, where a person is reborn as another person or animal after death. Many Native American cultures also believe that a person is the incarnation of his or her ancestors and animal spirits. Personhood in these traditions is more a process than a state or category of being. The person as actually embodying part of his or her ancestral past is foreign to Christian tradition. Modern gene theory posits a literal continuation between generations in a family. The idea of a spiritual continuation, however, is not part of the Western European tradition, which believes each soul to be individual and unique, the inhabitant of only one body.

The idea of a person as having an inner life and inner consciousness arose largely through a Christian tradition, which held that every person has a soul, regardless of legal or social status; a serf, who had very little autonomy, still possessed his or her soul and was solely responsible for its salvation or damnation. Christianity thus helped to establish the idea of the person as not only a legal, but a moral entity. Protestantism emphasized the autonomy of the individual in relation to God. Interestingly, there have been debates throughout European history as to whether various groups, including Native Americans and women, have souls.

The Western legal concept of a person as a citizen of the state with both legal rights and responsibilities originated in ancient Rome. In Latin persona originally meant ‘mask’. The term came to imply an identity, but one which was assumed, external, not entirely identical with the individual who wore it. A persona was a legal entity, someone with specific rights and responsibilities to the state. Slaves, for instance, were not ‘persons’ in ancient Rome. Where and how they worked, ate, and lived (and died) was determined by their owners. Nor were slaves considered to have ancestors or any form of property. The status of an enslaved woman's children has frequently been an issue throughout history, but is almost always determined by her owner or the laws of the ruling elite. John Locke, at the end of the seventeenth century, proposed that all people, by birth, were entitled to certain ‘natural’ rights of life, liberty, and property. This was a radically egalitarian notion, and much of European history since then can be seen as working out who is entitled to such ‘personhood’.

Personhood and civil rights in the West are and have been associated with physical characteristics such as sex and race. The perceived physical inferiority of women, Jews, blacks, and Native Americans, among others, has served as the basis for denying these individuals the right to participate in legal society as full persons. Modern legal definitions of personhood include states of semi- or potential personhood. During the eighteenth century, for instance, the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution of the United States posited that a slave counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representative government; and European laws of coverture maintained that women, children, and the mentally handicapped and insane, were legally represented or ‘covered’ by their guardians, husbands, fathers, and so forth. During the last two centuries, more and more of these categories of ‘person’ have been awarded legal and civil rights. Homosexual activists presently lobby for full civil rights, including the right to legal marriage. Few would now argue that homosexuals are not people, but the status of the fetus as a person is more controversial and has been the focus of much debate in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the case of abortion, an abstract and theological conception of personhood, specifically Aquinas' theory of the ‘mediate animation’ of the fetus, has been used in order to restrict the rights of pregnant women, who should also be considered persons. The right to life, be it the mother's or the fetus', is often considered paramount to all other rights.

Personhood is no doubt an open-ended concept that defies philosophic analysis in unclear cases. Given the cultural diversity and philosophical confusion surrounding the concept, some contemporary philosophers have questioned whether the notion of personhood is useful, or whether its definition is merely the product of prejudice and parochialism.

Sarah Goodfellow,, Ashley E. Pryor,, and Benjamin S. Pryor


Carrithers, M.,, Collins, S.,, and and Lukes, S. (1985). The category of the person: anthropology, philosophy, history. Cambridge University Press, New York.