What is a person?
Elliott Pearce | Monday, August 27, 2012
Last year, Notre Dame Right to Life sold T-shirts that said, “A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.” Whatever we believe about abortion, I hope that this cute but profound Dr. Seuss quote made us ask an important question whenever we saw one of those shirts: What is a person?
Throughout history, many different groups have decided, for various reasons, that other groups of human beings were not persons. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution famously agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a person at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Men treated women as property, not persons, throughout most of human history; some societies continue this practice today. Countless religious and political organizations have denied personhood to the Jews. Even now, on Notre Dame’s campus, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students and faculty and their allies are arguing that the University, by refusing to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause, is treating LGBTQ individuals as second-class citizens.
That phrase, “second-class citizens,” helps us understand what it means to be a person in the United States, by calling to mind the struggles that so many have endured to emerge from second-class citizenship to full participation in American society. To quote Thomas Jefferson, Americans believe that “all men are created equal,” and are therefore “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Over time, we have granted these rights to African-Americans, women and even people of different sexual orientations. I think it is fair to say that today, we as Americans agree that every unique member of the human species is a person with the same unalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson first claimed for our nation’s founders in 1776.
What happens when one group decides to infringe upon the personhood of others by denying them these rights? The Taliban violently repressed women and people of different religions and ethnicities within their own country. They feared and hated the United States as a place that elevated to full personhood the same groups they demoted. Therefore, they had no problem helping Al-Qaeda carry out deadly attacks on America and its allies around the world.
Why does injustice in one part of the globe, especially one as remote and seemingly insignificant as Afghanistan, threaten the rights and dignity of all persons? It has to do with the way humans think. We believe that our minds all work the same way, so that when we have correctly reasoned through a problem and come to a conclusion, our conclusion should be “right” for all other people as well. This is true only when we are actually right. As we all know, it is a common human error to come to an incorrect conclusion and believe it to be a self-evident truth. Therefore, when a powerful group latches onto an incorrect idea about who is and is not a person, human nature prompts the group to propagate this idea throughout its sphere of influence. The reach and sophistication of both modern media and weaponry has made even small and remote groups dangerous to everyone.
Confusion within our own society about the status of the human person is even more dangerous than violence imposed from without. Though our foreign enemies can threaten us more at home than they could have in the past, their reach and power is still limited. Ideas about the human person that we come up with ourselves, however, can be quickly implemented through the democratic process.
Furious debates are now raging both in the pages of The Observer and in media forums across the country about possibly grievous offenses against the rights of human persons. Pro-life activists argue that the legalization of abortion has allowed Americans to unwittingly kill over 40 million innocent children, while their pro-choice opponents retort that banning abortion would deny women an essential liberty. Supporters of gay rights argue the statutes that 29 states have passed to ban gay marriage deny gays the inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness; opponents of gay marriage see these statutes as safeguards for their own way of life and for the children that they believe do best in traditional families.
I still maintain that we all agree that a person is a unique member of the human species with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What counts as a unique member of the human species, though? What is liberty, and what is happiness? These are issues upon which we do not agree. Through careful and correct reasoning, we may be able to come to conclusions that are true for everyone. Let us start this discussion immediately – “justice everywhere” is at stake.
Elliott Pearce can be reached at Elliott.A.Pearce.firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.