Personhood, or Being a person

Some recent phenomena have prompted me to write this, in an attempt at a common sense-philosophical study of what the word person means, and how definitions of being a person–sometimes called personhood–have been expanded in recent centuries. I am doing it mostly for my own benefit, to organise my own thoughts, but in our time of sharing and over-sharing, why not share? :)

To begin with, I suppose we must check what the word here means. Without going into more complex things, let’s just list the first senses:

  1. a human being
  2. a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing
  3. in sociology, an individual human being, esp. with reference to his or her social relationships and behavioural patterns as conditioned by culture

The above definitions are found in almost any dictionary and represent the minimum simple usage most often found in our language (see more at “person” in Dictionary.com). They reflect the general understanding that each of us are our own person, and we each relate ourself routinely as compared with animals or inanimate things as well as with other humans. The line between humanity and the animal kingdom is not at all as bright and clear–at least biologically or philosophically speaking–as humans have traditionally thought in Western culture. (Quite a few of the distinguishing marks pointed to in history have disappeared under more careful scrutiny, as science has developed more sophisticated tools.)

Legal Person

Most of us at least intermittently are involved with legal persons in their simple form in form of, say, our parents’ estate. Naturally e.g. government is a form of a more complex legal person, with which most of us are in dealings with more or less (most of us hope it would be less). These days some entities not normally considered “persons” are frequently defined by law to be equal to them in some regards.

Legal persons were probably first created to facilitate collective dealings of one sort or another among the very first humans who engaged in co-operative ventures. That there have been some formal or informal rules regarding, say hunting parties, especially in their relationship with their members and other such collectives in very early times, is clear. Much less clear is how conscious the earliest of such arrangements of our ancestors were, and quite improbable that they had any such expression as “legal person”.

I am also quite certain that what proliferated the different ways in which collective dealings were formalised were the emergence of the modern State and the Industrial Revolution, with the latter making the former necessary by creating a need for different sorts of business entities and bargaining collectives. It certainly seems that innovation in one field fed the same in others. Also were created special needs for States to control the movement of goods and money, most countries operating on different currencies and vastly different taxation policies. Thus were created more elaborate customs and tariffs. It seems that at first, people were still enjoying freedom of movement, few being able to afford leaving home.

Business world looks like the driver of creative legal entities such as partnerships, consortia and corporations. One special case is co-operative trading, which gives more opportunities to particularly consumers, but also agriculture and others. Likewise as a special case finally emerged labour unions, which improved the destitute position of the mill workers.

It was the desperate situation of the mill workers of large European cities combined with the fabulous wealth the same mills created to their owners, which prompted the Communist Manifesto and later Marx’s most famous tome, known most often as Das Kapital even in English. According to some reports, Marx retreated from some positions set forth in Kapital before death, but in any case, it was only when governments enshrined workers’ collective bargaining rights to laws that made punishing workers for participating an actionable criminal offence, when work environments started to become less hazardous and hours less gruelling.

What all these collectives in the business world had in common was that their right to form and enforce contracts as collectives was recognised in legislation on par with persons, thus cutting what economists call transaction costs to a fraction. Thus, corporations have been legally persons as long as their right to form binding contracts has been recognised, but I’d suggest it’s still somewhat open to question whether they are “people”, as a political candidate quipped in a campaign rally earlier this year.

Special Case

One special case among special cases regarding who is legally a person is a foetus, let alone the status of a zygote as a person. There have been different initiatives to create a new class of legal persons by declaring that an egg attains the legal protections of a person from the moment of fertilisation, or alternatively as soon as a pregnancy has been detected. Such efforts have usually been made when efforts to criminalise abortion directly have failed (e.g. Oklahoma, USA); possibly the idea is that such an initiative is more likely to pass than an outright criminalisation.

The result of declaring a foetus a person would naturally be that an induced abortion (in contrast with spontaneous abortion, commonly called miscarriage) would become legally equivalent to strangling a breathing baby, unless a special dispensation for it is specifically created by legislation.  While abortion is quite often experienced as traumatic (as far as the women I know, it’s been traumatic to all who’ve gone through one), there exist some quite legitimate cases where an opportunity to have it done safely should be permitted. Also, in most cases there will be nobody else around more uniquely qualified to make the decision about it, than the woman, who would have to carry the risk to life, or who would otherwise suffer disproportionately, even if you consider that she should bear consequences of her actions. As a man, I am appalled at how seldom men are called to carry their responsibility with comparable energy as women in this matter.

However, culture wars in the U.S. are not mine to fight, so let that suffice. I am bringing up as much as I am, because there has recently been an unfortunate trend to import these kinds of concepts from the U.S. to Europe.

Freedom of Speech

I should bring up a different type of question about legal persons. It is the one concerning freedom of speech, applied to its decision in the so-called Citizens United -case by the U.S. Supreme Court. As I said, these things tend to be imported to Europe, so we are going to be seeing increasing efforts by European conservatives to buy this kind of legislation here, and I use the word “buy” advisedly.

Freedom of speech is probably the first principle permitting open society and democracy. It is also natural to give that freedom to collectives that have an interest in the society, like news media an various associations. Essentially it is in the interest of the society as a whole to have all of its members participate in discussions. One could, however say regarding any collective of citizens that those citizens each already have a voice (and in elections, a vote).

History again helps us understand why collective speech has been deemed valuable. In the early days of universal suffrage it became apparent that the only way to allow the speech of the poorer members of society to be heard was to collectivise them so that they had sufficient funds to obtain legal and other professional advise. Thus we get the temperate societies, improvement associations of various kinds and finally employee unions (history naturally never proceeds in such clear coherent steps as these, but these are instructive).

However, in today’s world we have some very advanced systems, both legal and technical, as well as some that could by this time be called relatively ancient relics. One of such relics is the nation-state, which would deserve another discussion altogether, but in this discussion the relevant aspect of it is that in many (probably most) such nation-states some rights concerning political speech are limited to citizens. For example, in the U.S. politicians are forbidden to accept campaign donations from foreign nationals, and I wonder how the citizenship for Global corporations is going to be decided. Money, it seems, is about as unpatriotic as anything. The fig leaf rule of banning involvement of foreign nationals in decisions in U.S. subsidiaries regarding campaign spending is useless, because there is no way of enforcing it, unless a whistle blower comes forward. Protections for them have been significantly eroded in GW Bush’s era in the White House.

Money, if a form of political speech as claimed by majority in the Citizens United -case, is already extremely concentrated among few natural persons, most of whom own significant interests in more than one corporation. Those richest individuals already are the most able to use this form of political speech, and it is unlikely they will use it to support causes and politicians that further e.g. work environments of the lower-level productive staff.

I will probably be called a Marxist hack by some, European snob by others, but they don’t change the facts in this issue. Conclusions are another matter, and we cannot know about them until some time has passed, and we’ve seen developments in future.

[Weirdly, it seems that using certain formats screws up this template, so I had to reformat this manually after I'd already published it. It took about 15 mins to undo the mess.]

Posted in History, Politics, Society, Sociology
4 comments on “Personhood, or Being a person
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