Question: What Makes a Person a Person?
Blog Post
Question: What Makes a Person a Person?

Quick question: What makes a person a person? Is it size? Weight? Color? Background? In the last blog, I discussed how the fact-value split that influenced the debate about abortion. While society has embraced body/person dualism, all is not lost. While it may sadden some of us and make others furious to see such a cultural turn, there are tools that we can use to engage our friends who are in favor of abortion.

The most significant weapons we have at our disposal in dialoguing with people who disagree with us are sincere, focused questions which get to the heart of the matter. Consider two direct questions regarding abortion, given the body/person split: If personhood is not equated with being biologically human, then what does and when does it begin?[1]

It seems that bioethicists offer different answers. Some state that personhood materializes upon the development of neural activity, consciousness, feel pain, heartbeat, etc.The late Joseph Fletcher, founder of situational ethics, gives 15 criteria for establishing personhood, such as language, self-awareness, minimum intelligence, memory, sense of time, self-awareness, concern for others.[2] The result is that if a biological system known as a human doesn’t score high enough in one or all of these categories they are deprived personhood and thus are expendable.

Another problem that emerges is that the person/body split creates arbitrary lists that come with their own set of problems. Why did Fletcher narrow his list to 15 instead of 14 attributes? Why not increase to 16 or 20? If a certain level of cognitive function is required to be a person, which cognitive functions are absolutely pivotal for defining personhood and life? How self-aware does one have to be? What does Fletcher mean by minimum intelligence, and what is the standard for it? Why is that standard for minimum intelligence better suited to define personhood than someone else’s whose standard may be different? See the problem? In trying to define the point a biological human becomes a person, the one who embraces the body/person split is left to deal with a subjective standard in which it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the biological matter becomes a person garnering protective rights.

Furthermore, most of these characteristics emerge over time. They are not traits that someone either has or does not have; they are matters of degree-quantitative differences.[3] The overarching implication is that the ethical code rendering that all people are created equally at all stages of life is a farce and is determined based on the ethical whims of individual cultures and societies. In essence, it is the ultimate life or death lottery, in which the person most impacted (the biological human) has no say in the matter.

It seems, then, the only reasonable grounds for adopting the ethic that “all men are created equal” is the appeal to a transcendent creator God who has endowed people with inalienable rights, not by meeting some arbitrary list of their fellow man, but by merely being an image bearer of God. In adopting the Christian worldview, where the body/person split is non-existent, the concept of personhood is not based on what someone can do, but who a person is. There is no need to earn the right to be treated with great value because, at the foundational level, God has already given them every person.[4] Thus, given the two options, those seeking true equality for all people, regardless of biological geography, should reject the body/person split, embrace the holistic view of personhood provided by the Christian worldview and love their fellow human, whether they are 1 week old (in the womb) or 100 years old.


Photo Credit

[1] Nancy Pearcey. Love Thy Body: Answer Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 53.

[2] Ibid. 53

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 55.

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