What Makes Us Persons?

January 07 2019 | by

WHAT IS personhood? Don Ross, professor at University College Cork, confesses that “Along with many philosophers, I think that being a person involves something different to [sic] being a living organism with human DNA. . . The key idea is that our personhood comes from our use of collective ideas about what deserves praise and blame in guiding our actions. That is, we conform to shared assignments of responsibility – reasons – for the consequences of what we do. But this makes no sense unless we suppose that reasons can take precedence over spontaneous, unreflective responses, and can, at least sometimes, be effective causes of our behaviour.”  In other words, persons can talk themselves out of actions that they might otherwise perform and talk themselves into actions they would rather avoid.




Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, lists the essential characteristics of personhood as "rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness.” Therefore, "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living". This seems strange because don’t all human and animal, born and unborn, want to “go on living.” Isn’t this why they fight for their lives when attacked, even if that attack comes in the womb?

Singer, a pioneer in the area of animal rights, is an inspiration for Attorney Steven Wise who, in December 2013, filed the first ever law suit for animal rights in the United States, demanding “limited” personhood rights for four chimpanzees kept in captivity in New York. He is pursuing legal personhood for animals because it “would give some animals irrevocable protections that recognize their critical needs to live in the wild and to not be owned or abused.”

Ross, Singer, and Wise, as well as many others, are pursuing personhood classification for certain animals including elephants, parrots, corvids, dolphins, orcas, apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. However, “an infant or an adult with severe dementia might not be regarded as a ‘full’ person, because they can’t reliably attend to personal social responsibilities.”

Ross, Singer, and Wise are willing to call animals “persons”, even though they do not naturally make moral decisions, because their intellect MIGHT allow them to be TAUGHT. However, these same philosophers will not deem as “full” persons those human beings who, if their intellects had not been damaged, would have been able to make moral distinctions without being taught.


The Bible


The first chapter of Genesis delineates the difference between human beings and animals. The distinction comes, not because of what people can do, but because of what was done to them. God created all things, living and inanimate, and then “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” [Gen 1:27]. The second chapter of Genesis gives a shorter account of creation, but man is again set apart. “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) Musician Carey Landry expressed this same concept in the popular Christian song “Abba Father”. “Abba, Abba Father, You are the potter, We are the clay, the work of Your hands.”

What makes us persons? The fact that God created only humans in His image and breathed into us “the breath of life” which Anthony calls “the sending of the Holy Spirit.” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, p. 16; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova)  When man sins, the “image of God” becomes “deformed and defiled,” but that image is “reformed and enlightened by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (Sermons I, p. 16)

Once we are remade into the image of God by being cleansed of sin, we should follow the advice of Saint Peter. “As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile.” [1 Pt 2.2] Anthony explains, “Rational is what pertains to reason, and reason is that aspect of the mind whereby we see truth in itself, not as embodied; or it is the very contemplation of truth, not by the body. It is, even, the truth itself which is contemplated.’ Rational’ relates to God and ourselves; ‘without guile’ to our neighbor” (Sermons I, pp. 267-68).


Anthony’s definition


Persons, to Anthony, are images of God who rationally seek the truth and act in it toward God and neighbor. In other words, persons are those who love God and others. Animals often seem to love one another. They care for their offspring with great affection. Many animals are bonded to human owners. However, to the best of our knowledge, only human beings can love God and can also learn to love their enemies.

Anthony’s definition of love could apply only to humans. “Love binds together, and so implies two terms. Love is based on two precepts, the love of God and of neighbor, and is to be found only in the good. Love binds two together. The Lord is master of all creation, head of all the cosmic household, the judge of all. God (in Hebrew: El) is the Awesome, the One who sees all. The Greek theos is related to the word for ‘run’, for he runs through all things. Love binds us to God and to our neighbor. . . . The Lord has stretched the line of his love upon the soul, so that it may in turn stretch itself out to love of neighbor. . . . If ever the intention is not firmly grounded upon Christ, the whole structure collapses, and great is the fall thereof [cf. Mt 7:27]. Therefore, Love the Lord thy God” (Sermons II, p. 332).

Anthony would not go so far as to say that only those who know and love God are persons, because he realizes that some people have faulty or nonexistent faith. However, should they become believers in Jesus, they would have the faith necessary to be fully whom God created them to be.


Love wholly


We can love God because we rationally can contemplate the sacrifice He made for us. In one of his Sermons Anthony writes, “For 33 years your God was made your slave because of your sins, so that he might free you from slavery to the devil. Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God who made you, who subjected himself for your sake, who gave himself wholly to you, that you might give yourself wholly to him. Love the Lord your God, then. In his first work, when you were not, he gave himself to you; in his second work, when you were faring ill, he gave himself to you that you might be well; and when he gave himself to you, he gave you back to yourself. Given and restored, you owe him yourself; you owe him double; and you owe him totally. Therefore, love the Lord your God with all your heart. When he says ’all’, he does not exempt some part of you; he commands you to offer your whole self to him. ’By his whole self, he redeemed your whole self’, that he alone might possess you wholly. Therefore, love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . . Love wholly, not in part.. . . If you keep back some part of you for yourself, you are yours and not his. Do you want to have him wholly? Then give him what is yours, and he will give you what is his. Then you will have nothing of your own, because you will have all of him with all of yourself. Therefore, love the Lord your God” (Sermons II, p. 334).

Human beings and angels can do this. Devils know and reject this. These are the categories of persons.

Updated on January 07 2019