Penetrating the Word Maze

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 41 (December 1989): 126-237.

Taking a look at words we often use - and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

 Today's words are: human/person.

The Dictionary definitions: Human: of, relating to, or characteristic of man; having human form or attributes. Person: human being, individual; the individual personality of a human being: self. [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA (1987)].

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There are few focal points for misunderstanding in discussing ethical issues related to human beings that are more commonly encountered than the identification of  "human being"  with  "person."  It is perfectly understandable why this happens; even the dictionary supports this approach. But when one gets into discussions of human values, the sanctity of human life, and the variety of ethical issues that hinge on the decisions made in these areas, it is critical that one make an appropriate distinction between these two terms.

Popular conceptions of what it means to be  "human"  take on several different forms. Probably the most common response to the question as to whether an unknown creature should be considered  "human"  is whether or not it looks and behaves human. Debates along this line will probably get increasingly more intricate as computer technology continues to develop, at least as far as the  "rights"  of human-resembling computers are concerned.

Even in these cases, however, it is likely that we will try to retain the traditional definition of  "human," namely that  "human"  means that the entity being described is part of the human species,  Homo sapiens . This definition is essentially a biological one, for what identifies a particular unidentified creature as being a member of Homo sapiens is ultimately the kind of genetic material that gives rise to its biological development. (Here, too, there may well be complications if genetic research continues to develop creatures with mixed human and non-human genetic material.)

One need not debate, however, when an unborn conceived by a woman and a man becomes "human," any more than one needs to debate when such an unborn becomes "alive." Both sperm and ovum are independently alive and human, and certainly their union to begin a new creature is also alive and human. The question, "When does the unborn become alive?" is readily answered by, "At conception." Similarly the question, "When does the dying become dead?" is readily answered by, "At the cessation of all biological life."

Keeping these distinctions clear will help avoid misunderstandings, but this will not in itself really answer the kinds of questions that people are interested in asking. When the popular question, "When does the unborn become alive (or human)?" is asked, the intention is not to ask the question discussed above, but rather to ask a quite different question, "When does the unborn become personal and therefore in possession of all of the prerogatives of personal humans?"

Now, when the unborn "becomes personal" is not answered by pointing to some particular event on a time-scale, so that the unborn is not personal before the event but is personal after the event. "Becoming personal" is a process that begins at conception, develops over time with the development of the necessary biological structures and patterns, and extends beyond birth until the neocortex is functional. It is only then that selfhood can be experienced and manifested.

To speak, therefore, of a "human being" with the implication that every human being is by definition a "human person" is a profound source of confusion. A human person is a human being who experiences and manifests the characteristics of selfhood and personality, what the Bible means by the word for soul. It is toward human persons that most of the biblical injunctions abut the sanctity of life are directed. This does not mean at all that non-personal human beings can be treated as valueless, but simply that they do not have the same status as personal human beings if a conflict of concerns arises.

At the end of human life, becoming personally dead usually occurs some time before becoming biologically dead. Do we still have a human being after personal death has occurred? Yes, we do, we still have a human being who is biologically but not personally alive. We continue to treat this creature with concern, respect and care, not because it has the sanctity of life associated with personal human life, but because we remember with respect the personal human life that has now come to an end. We may have the ability to keep the biological human life going for some time after personal death - perhaps even without limit, given increasing technological facilities. Whether we should keep this biological life going after personal death, for a variety of good motivations in principle, is a complex and troubling question.

The critical nature of the issue is clearly seen at present in the subject of organ transplants. In order to effect a useful organ transplant, the donor must be certified as personally dead but biologically alive. The organ to be transplanted is taken from a "living human being" and given to another "living human being." Without the critical distinction between "human" and "personal," this procedure would make no sense at all.

In all discussions of ethical issues involving human beings, it is essential that the distinction be made between the general category of "human being," which is essentially settled by a biological criterion, and the category of "human person," which depends upon the presence and the activity of the required biological functions to manifest the characteristics of selfhood.

The impossibility of establishing some kind of non-personal/personal boundary means neither that non-personal human life is valueless and can be treated any way people like, nor that non-personal human life has exactly the same rights as authentically personal human life. The situation is more complex, and in a complex situation the meaningful use of words and terms becomes even more critical.

Do you think that you can define your concept of what it means to be human, without getting too personal?

Richard H. Bube

Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305