Who Is Not A Person?

Dov Michaeli

We intuitively know who is a person; we don’t need a dictionary definition for it –we know it when we see it. Certainly, Goldman Sachs is not the first thing that comes to mind. But here is a question that on the face of it sounds ridiculous: who, or more appropriately what, is not a person. The obvious answer is: anything that is not a person. But this is circular logic. In order to break the cycle we need to define what we mean by “a person”, and then classify everything else as a non-person. Now, before I tell you why I am wasting your time on such abstruse philosophical issues, let’s look at the definition of “a person”.

Charles Taylor: (The Concept of a Person”, Philosophical Papers. Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 97-114.):

“person (plural: persons or people; from Latin: persona, meaning “mask”) is a human being, or an entity that has certain capacities or attributes strongly associated with being human (collectively called personhood), for example in a particular moral or legal context. Such capacities or attributes can include agency, self-awareness, a notion of the past and future, and the possession of rights and duties, among others”. An entity possessing moral duties? We now know that moral values, altruism, cooperation, all those good things are hard-wired in human beings’ brain. Where do they reside in an inaminate entity? In the corporate server? The CEO?

But the story doesn’t end here. As so often happens, when scholars, politicians, lawyers, theologians and other assorted self-appointed sages argue an issue among themselves, the conversation becomes progressively abstruse and divorced from the physical reality we live in. The outcome: reams of serious manuscripts on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (the answer, for whatever it’s worth, is 3). Or think of the philosophers struggling to define what is “life”. The vitalist school posited something called “life force”; nobody saw it or found evidence for it; nevertheless they did develop a whole school of thought based on philosophical argumentations devoid of any relationship to the physical world.

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