I know a person when I see one

I dont know this person, but whats not to like?

I recently had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a class about Ethics taught by a professor of Philosophy at a respected University. I was pleased that the organizers of this event thought me worthy of one of the spots in this class. In this class, however, the instructor presented something that caused me angst and personal moral distress.

Before I go any further, please accept that my distress over a specific piece of academic content by NO means reflects any disrespect for the Professor, his University or the organization that made the class possible. In a secular setting, I am absolutely sure that any of 100 professors from 100 schools given in 100 different places would have contained this content or something similar.  So while I reflect painfully about “The Issue of my disagreement”, this is not a criticism of aforementioned Dr Philosophy Professor (he is actually quite a nice fellow), Respected University or Nice Hosting Facility. To be hostile with them would be “shooting the messenger” and its the message I have issue with. I truly think this experience could have happened anywhere.

We were being taught some principles of ethics and I was happily bouncing along trying to figure out a way to not again forget what “deontological” means (having already learned it and forgotten it 3 or 4 times over the years) and then a specific piece of information was shared…the “ethical” definition of “person” (as defined by John Locke, Benjamin & Curtis with a bit of Peter Singeresque thinking).

Locke says a person is a “rational, self aware being”.  Benjamin & Curtis say that a human becomes a person when they demonstrate “having ability and right to formulate various projects and make various commitments” & having “values and life plan that guide his or her conduct” (page 59 Ethics in Nursing  Oxford University Press 4th Edition, 2010 ).

My snarky sarcastic self will tell you that using these definitions, half the people who live in my house are not “persons” since they are currently failing in the “life plan” and “commitments” stuff, but the less snarky more respectful self realizes that this instructor just told me that (in using their definitions) many people that I might interact with in my life don’t qualify as being called  “a person”.

Oh where to start?

During this actual lesson, I did speak up and asked about this and I was assured that “not being a person does not mean that the human does not have standing” which feels like hollow reassurance to anyone being told they are not a person. I will admit that I have a pretty inclusive definition for person and I fear that a narrow definition is a fast-track to the slippery slope of deciding that anything goes for those we deem not “persons”.  During the class, I was the only one who spoke up at first and I told the collected group that I reject this definition. Another individual chimed in a bit later with a concern based on having a disabled relative, they thought he might not be considered a person.

At a later time, I spoke both to my sons and to the Professor and was told that I really didn’t understand.

There is a possibility that those I was speaking to might have thought I was having a strong reaction only because I have a reputation for respecting unborn life and that is an easy leap for why this type of thinking is fraught with peril, but I already expected those values of mine to be challenged; this went past what I had expected. What if we (for the sake of argument just for a second) accept and agree that the issue of personhood in the unborn is a disputed topic in our society and set it aside and ONLY look at personhood of already born humans?

Using that definition, newborn babies, some mentally ill folks, those with some dementia, and those in comas (among others) are not persons. I would even be OK with using a qualifier like “mentally impaired PERSON” or “dependant PERSON” but to deny personhood is a horrible thing.

I was mortified in my research to learn that Joy Curtis (of the above quote) was a practicing nurse early in her career; how the heck did she get from the bedside (I assume giving care to all sorts of persons with varying levels of ability) to deciding that some humans aren’t persons and writing books that tell everyone so? I searched other nursing theory for definitions of personhood but everything I found assumed a wider definition and didn’t actually define it well. I even emailed Jean Watson (world famous Nursing theorist) and she emailed me back politely with some research leads. None of them gave me a specific definition to counter the ethics definition but again the Nursing literature seemed to assume a wider definition.

Where is Nursing theory when you need it to counterbalance an argument made by other disciplines who make assertions that are contrary to our shared values as Nurses (or people)?

I imagine that there will be people who will read this and they may agree with my sons that I simply don’t understand.

Apparently Philosophers are allowed to say anything they like (did anyone miss the recent article proposing “afterbirth abortion” infanticide as prefferable to adoption for unwanted babies?) and if they have a PhD and can get something published our society seems to go along like a bunch of stupid sheep accepting these ideas unchallenged. To what degree, however, are boring normal people socially pressured (obligated?) to submit to these kinds of ideas. As soon as we take out a student loan to send out children to Colleges and Universities where these books are required reading, we are fully subsidizing and sponsoring them.

I willingly admit to you that while I started thinking about this during the class and afterword with the calm of having participated in a rational academic argument, on my way home I began to weep bitter tears for all the beautiful beings I have cared for and loved who are marginalized by this kind of thinking. I felt marginalized myself for valuing ideas that others don’t share. I felt weary that we have to fight for an idea that seems so obvious to me…and knowing that I can never make people see the beauty in front of them.

I am going to go stand in this corner all by myself…the stupid person who doesn’t understand what well educated people are trying to tell me, the gal who believes that all sorts of folks are persons. I think I have already forgotten what “deontological” means again. I believe that if being considered an uneducated simpleton is what must be for me to hold fast to my inclusive definitions of personhood then that is a price I am willing to pay. Who is with me?


  1. Baby Jo

    Your not the stupid person that does not understand. There are several people in my life that I have met over the years that I truly believe have superior intelligence. Now with saying that, there are very few that I would provide this definition. The last person that I met with this intelligence was a professor I had in Connecticut who was teaching a graduate scientific theory class. With that said, people that have superior levels of intelligence, in my opinion, have the ability to look beyond standard theories that are provided (such as the aforementioned definition of “personhood) and able to ask the seriously hard questions as to why that could possibly be true? To me, that sounds as an opinion that was publicized as a theory that will eventually be proven false. Now, why is it that I believe that? I can say until the loss of our daughter, my views on unborn children were slightly different. Then I had the enlightenment of my daughter dying, and then the process of the IVF treatment that followed. I have SINCE learned that personhood begins when their is a sign of life, NOT when someone can speak, think, and theorize. The issue, is that until someone has had said enlightenment through that experience, they may not see the other side of that ethical coin. Have they seen the signs of life in a an embryo? Have they seen how intelligent and strong one little embryo can be as it turns more into the figure of a human body? Probably not. And they won’t until they are no longer on the outside looking in. It is so much easier to stand outside that wrath of pain that families experience and be judgemental and be able to say “ah, that was not a person because it was not thinking” but theoretically, they can not say that the embryo is not a thinking being. No one can prove that-yet. So I hope that this comes as words of encouragement that just because one person or a 100 people decide they will say what a “person” is, doesn’t mean its correct or accurate. No different than when people in Europe declared the “earth was flat” well, we all know how that ended up… It may take a 100 years for people to turn-over that theory, or maybe only 5 years, but eventually, it will be over-turned. So please keep fighting the good fight for all of those little persons that you have cared for and their families. Because those of us who have experienced what “personhood” truly is are right there fighting with you…

  2. Religion is not the answer

    It seems to me that we need to speak directly about what the issue really is. We all know that abortion is the emotional, political, cultural and ethical lighting rod. We all have ideas on it and strong opinions. But the question in the healthcare industry needs to be answered for there to be consistent policy so we can answer real practical questions. A healthcare institution needs to walk a fine line between following the law, following ethics, following the requests of each patient and following ethics for those who cannot speak for themselves. Many times these requirements are at odds. So how do we proceed? Many believe “personhood” should begin at conception. This places the rights of a multi-cell blastocyte even with those who are born, think, see, hear, feel etc. (my opinion next) is that those two things should not be equal in the eyes of the law, morality, ethics or other considerations. A baby ready to be born that day is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The real crux of the question is, when do we give an unborn baby “personhood”? I don’t know. but it is not at conception and it is not at birth. Where in the middle is the line drawn? I thank God I don’t have to be the one to make that decision, but many times someone or some group has to. What I disagree with is the religious/ political polarization that makes people believe that the louder they yell and the bigger the crowd, the more they feel they are “right”. It takes cool heads and a calm transfer of ideas to come to some working practical solution. My experience is that religion and politics are the worst environments today for a healthy exchange of ideas.

    • Working in infant death every day, I am accustomed to the angst of abortion being closely under the surface of any discussion I have. It is common for a person to get very nervous and I can often diffuse it by respectfully acknowledging “well, this sparks reactions in people with regard to their opinions about abortion” (and then respectfully observe that we ALL have opinions which is OK).

      I was, however, being genuine when I say that I really wasn’t referring to abortion in my reaction to this definition. I was thinking of the historical atrocities that have been inflicted on humanity after groups of people were deemed “non persons”. I will admit that in our culture of diversity and inclusiveness, I really didn’t realize that there were any powerful groups in our country who were openly attempting to claim that other groups were not persons.

      Whether those trying to do this are politicians,doctors, those in a military junta or philosophers, I see such profound danger in this kind of definition that I believe it simply should not be casually accepted.

    • Ted Seeber

      I don’t see the above post as a rational argument. Any assignment other than conception as the beginning of life has no rational basis in fact at all.

      And let’s label this “some human beings aren’t persons” for what it truly is- BIGOTRY.

  3. Sandra McKenna

    One of my favorite non-consensus-mode educators, Neil Postman, wrote an article–well, lots of articles–about critical thinking. One of my favorites, “Defending Against the Indefensible,” addresses, among other things, this question of definitions. Definitions, he points out, are neither products of nature nor proclamations of a deity of any persuasion, but are created by people as instruments to assist in achieving their goals. “Whose definition is that and what purposes are served by it?” is the first question that should arise upon coming face to face with any definition. Clearly a useful question to pose in this class. Our history is replete with definitions that have controlled the lives and freedom of one group after another–a nasty habit of language that is not likely to end while the definition-makers hold the guns, the certificates, the jobs, the money, the moral authority or whatever keeps that question in check. Postman defines any definition as a hypothesis in which is “embedded…a particular philosophical or political or epistemological point of view.” He recognizes the power that comes with the authorization–by whatever means–to create a definition that serves a questionable purpose. He points out, however, that although “it is certainly true that he who holds the power to define is our master, it is also true that he who holds in mind an alternative definition can never quite be his slave.”

    • Thanks Sandy, that really was the point I was so emotionally getting to …what IS the purpose of having a narrow definition of “person”? Im not an expert in in world history but there have been enough examples of groups being labeled non persons just before horrible things were done to them.

      I also do refuse to be the slave to this definition and I want to encourage others to not automatically swallow these kinds of things without question.

      This cycles back a bit to the mothers I care for not being compelled to describe their experiences using terms that they feel are not respectful of them. Were allowed to rethink and adapt words to work better for us.

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