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A person is a legal concept both permitting rights to and imposing duties on one by law. In the fields of law, philosophy, medicine, and others, the term has specialised context-specific meanings. In many jurisdictions, for example, a corporation is considered a legal person with standing to sue or be sued in court. In philosophy, "person" may apply to any human or non-human actor who is regarded as self-conscious and capable of certain kinds of thought; for example, individuals who have the power to reflect upon and choose their actions.[1] This could also extend to late fetuses and neonates, dependent on what level of thought is required.


Scientific approach

As an application of Social psychology and other disciplines, phenomena such as the perception and attribution of personhood have been scientifically studied.[2][3] Typical questions addressed in social psychology are the accuracy of attribution, processes of perception and the formation of bias. Various other scientific/medical disciplines address the myriad of issues in the development of personality.

Who is a person?

In addition speculatively, there are several other likely categories of beings where personhood might be at issue:

  • Unknown intelligent life-forms - for example, should alien life be found to exist, under what circumstances would they be counted as 'persons'?
  • Artificially created life - at what point might human-created biological life be considered to have achieved personhood?
  • Artificial intelligence - assuming the eventual creation of an intelligent and self-aware system of hardware and software, what criteria would be used to confer or withhold the status of person?
  • Modified living humans, cyborgs - for example, how much of a human can be replaced by artificial parts before personhood is lost, if ever?
    • Further, if the brain is the reason people are considered persons, then if the human brain and all its thought patterns, memories and other attributes could also in future be transposed faithfully into some form of artificial device (for example to avoid illness such as brain cancer) would the patient still be considered a 'person' after the operation?
    • If the person (or "individual") could go back in time and relate to his/her earlier self. Would it then be two persons yet the same being. Or one person in two bodies?
    • Are the surgical separations of conjoined twins cases more complicated, challenging and controversial than abortion?
  • Do we have to consider any "willing and communicative (capable to register its own will) autonomous body" in the universe, no matter the species, an individual (a person)? Do they deserve equal rights with the human race?

Such questions are used by philosophers to clarify thinking concerning what it means to be human, or living, or a person, or an individual.


Implications of the person/non-person debate

The personhood theory has become a pivotal issue in the interdisciplinary field of bioethics. While historically most humans did not enjoy full legal protection as persons (women, children, non-landowners, minorities, slaves, etc.), from the late 18th through the late 20th century, being born as a member of the human species gradually became secular grounds for the basic rights of liberty, freedom from persecution, and humanitarian care.

Since modern movements emerged to oppose animal cruelty (and advocate vegan philosophy) and theorists like Turing have recognized the possibility of artificial minds with human-level competence, the identification of personhood protections exclusively with human species membership has been challenged. On the other hand, some proponents of human exceptionalism (also referred to by its critics as speciesism) have countered that we must institute a strict demarcation of personhood based on species membership in order to avoid the horrors of genocide (based on propaganda dehumanizing one or more ethnicities) or the injustices of forced sterilization (as occurred in many countries to people with low I.Q. scores and prisoners).

While the former advocates tend to be comfortable constraining personhood status within the human species based on basic capacities (e.g. excluding human stem cells, fetuses, and bodies that cannot recover awareness), the latter often wish to include all these forms of human bodies even if they have never had awareness (which some would call pre-people) or had awareness, but could never have awareness again due to massive and irrecoverable brain damage (some would call these post-people). The Vatican has recently been advancing a human exceptionalist understanding of personhood theory, while other communities, such as Christian Evangelicals in the U.S. have sometimes rejected the personhood theory as biased against human exceptionalism. Of course, many religious communities (of many traditions) view the other versions of the personhood theory perfectly compatible with their faith, as do the majority of modern Humanists.

The theoretical landscape of the personhood theory has been altered recently by controversy in the bioethics community concerning an emerging community of scholars, researchers, and activists identifying with an explicitly Transhumanist position, which supports morphological freedom, even if a person changed so much as to no longer be considered a member of the human species (by whatever standard is used to determine that).

Nonhuman sentient beings as persons

The idea of extending personhood to all animals has the support of legal scholars such as Alan Dershowitz[4] and Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School,[5] and animal law courses are now taught in 92 out of 180 law schools in the United States.[6] On May 9, 2008, Columbia University Press published Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation by Professor Gary L. Francione of Rutgers University School of Law, a collection of writings that summarizes his work to date and makes the case for non-human animals as persons.

There are also hypothetical persons, sentient non-human persons such as sentient extraterrestrial life and self-aware machines. The novel and animated series Ghost in the Shell touch on the potential of inorganic sentience, while classical works of fiction and fantasy regarding extraterrestrials have challenged people to reconsider long held traditional definitions.

See also


  1. ^ Strawson, P.F. 1959. Individuals. London: Methuen: 104; Locke, John. 1961. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London:Dent: 280; Fellow Champions Dolphins as “Non-Human Persons”, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, January 10, 2010; Midgley, Mary. "Persons and non-persons", in Peter Singer (ed), In Defense of Animals. Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 52-62.
  2. ^ Person Perception. Second Edition. Schneider, Hastdorf, and Ellsworth. 1979, Addison Wesley ISBN 0-201-06768-4
  3. ^ Second-Language Fluency and Person Perception in China and the United States
  4. ^ Dershowitz, Alan. Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights, 2004, pp. 198–99, and "Darwin, Meet Dershowitz," The Animals' Advocate, Winter 2002, volume 21.
  5. ^ "'Personhood' Redefined: Animal Rights Strategy Gets at the Essence of Being Human", Association of American Medical Colleges, retrieved July 12, 2006.
  6. ^ "Animal law courses", Animal Legal Defense Fund.


  • The category of the person. Anthropology, philosophy, history Edited by M. Carruthers, S. Collins, and L. Steven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985
  • Cornelia Vogel The concept of personality in Greek and Christian thought. In Studies in philosophy and the history of philosophy. Vol. 2. Edited by J. K. Ryan, Washington: Catholic University of America Press 1963. pp. 20-60

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