What distinguishes people and animals, what makes a human into a person?

I have to write a mid term paper “what is a person?” My instructor wants me to explain what distinguishes humans from animals, and when does a human become a person? I need help defining infants as persons, since they are not self aware or rational. If you know of Peter Singer, Head of Bioethics at Princeton U, I need help refuting his philosophies concerning infanticide. It would also be of assistance if you could tell me your thoughts on applying different values to the lives of different species, say mice vs. chimpanzees. I have a problem with the intelligence/complexity argument, because we eat pigs, which are as intelligent as primates. Thank you for any contribution.

My Mom Reflex just kicked in and said, “Honey, I think your instructor probably wants to hear your thoughts on the subject, not the thoughts of the Teeming Millions.”

That said–woof! Snuffy, this is something that people have been arguing about for thousands of years. You’re touching on deep philosophical issues here, not to mention abortion.

The intelligence/complexity argument may be refuted (if you think your instructor will go for it) by saying, “Yeah, but how are you measuring ‘intelligence’? When you say, Pigs are smarter than primates, how are you measuring that? How are you defining ‘complexity’?” It depends on the instructor–some of them will just interpret this as a smartass comment, so it’s your call.

I’m not familiar with Singer, but the simple refutation for anybody who advocates infanticide is to say, “All human life has value.”

I agree with Duck Duck Goose that this requires some serious analysis on your part, but here is a debate thread to give you some ideas: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=60681

Singer created quite a stir and there was widepsread protest to his appointment at Princeton. He has done work in the value of life and proposes the accepted euthanasia of handicapped people and newborns up to 28 days who are disabled.


If a cow kills a person, people say it should be killed (or very often they say so by dogs), yet if a person kills a cow, they call him a meat provider. Why? Two possibilities:

Firstly, because we have opposable thumbs and the intellect to create and use weapons of destruction. Like European colonists and explorers probably rationalized hundreds of years back, we have the gunpowder, so we make the rules. We are more powerful than cows, so we have the right to
milk them, eat them, and use their hide. We are more powerful than chickens, so we can lock them in coops and force them to constantly exert themselves to provide us with eggs. One tribe of savages is more powerful than another, so they have the right to slaughter the latter and eat their hearts. At least until another tribe, whose laws have developed in such a way that cannibalism is considered to be evil, comes, and prevents them.

A second possibility is that somehow man is inherently higher than any animal. Naturally, this level must have been bestowed by someone who has the ability to do so, due to unarguable power over animals, caused by real ownership (i.e., due to having created the objects in question, not social ownership, such as the chattel-slaves of the antebellian south).

So basically, it boils down to: A) Social convention created by the group who has the most guns or B) Divine decree.

This probably belongs in Great Debates, partly because there is no ‘right’ answer, and secondly because it raises emotions on all sides of the argument.

There is much written on the subject in Philosophy of Mind and in Ethics- I’m sure a literature search will help you here, but I could recommend ‘Reasons and Persons’ by Parfitt as a good starting point.

Perhaps for your term paper you could start by offering the idea that personhood resides in a core group of organisms for which there is little argument- adult conscious human beings, and then work outward from there disussing which criteria would include/exclude other organisms- for instance-

Is an anencephalic newborn a person (born with no brain)? -human form but probably no consciousness and no human biography.

Is someone with final stage dementia a person? - human form but probably minimal consciousness, but with a human biography.

Is a higher primate a person? - non-human form but probably with human like consciousness.

Is an advanced computer of the future with the ability to perform many human-like acts a person? Non-human form etc.

Is a fetus or newborn a person?- when is personhood established. Note that many societies accepted infanticide in much the same way that we accept abortion. Unless the child was accepted into society, it had no personhood and could be killed with impunity, or at least with no more than shame.

I’m sure that discussion of such borderline cases, using a variety of teats for personhood- religious, scientific, social etc. would allow you to demonstrate an understanding of the issues and the difficulty of making such decisions. This is probably all the paper is asking for.

If you want references in fetus/newborn/anencephlic cases I can provide, along with references to other cases where personhood has been witheld- chattel slavery etc.

Thank you for your concern about the ethics of my asking the Teeming Millions for help with my paper. I intend to cite my sources and am calling this one a “survey”, and believe me, I have plenty of thoughts on the subject, but I need ammunition. It’s odd that you “woof” at me because I, Snuffy, am a Standard Poodle. (an intelligent rational creative species whose IQ compares with that of a pig or primate)

*Originally posted by gigi *
**I agree with Duck Duck Goose that this requires some serious analysis on your part, but here is a debate thread to give you some ideas:

I can’t thank you enough for the sources!:slight_smile:

This thread is pretty much custom-tailored for our Great Debates forum. I’ll bump it over ther for you.

I would think that babies can be defined as human beings because it is presumed that they will eventually gain self-awareness and rationality when they grow up. Singer, of course, argues that this wouldn’t apply to babies that display severe disabilities, but what about the possibility that modern science will come up with a cure for whatever condition they suffer from?

Good point! I appreciate you addressing infants and making such a profound point about scientific advancements. This is for an ethics class, but I am not a philosophy student, I’m a scientist in training!

It’s simple.

Sentience: that which makes us aware of ourselves in relation to our environment.

Animals are not sentient. They do not ponder their environment. Animals may develop ‘emotional’ attachments with humans, but on a very primitive level. Animals can be taught to do tricks and to figure things out but not to ponder the whichness of what, nor their place in the great scheme of things.

It is doubtful if they have self-awareness, that is, a concrete conception of self.

Children of humans eventually reach a point in their early development where they are aware of self and begin to feel that the world revolves around them. They consider themselves and their immediate family to be the norm. When they become more self aware, that is when they start having conflicts with other children because other kids are not responding to their sense of norm. Then they start developing coping skills, levels of negotiation, comparing things and discovering that not only does the world not revolve about them, but others do not act as expected so they learn adaptation.

Animals never develop this, but do develop basic emotional responses for cooperative efforts. Grooming, acts of cooperation, kindness and affection feel good, so they learn them. Self survival is a built in instinct in both humans and animals, but humans will develop it on many levels, where animals will do this on only a few. Mating for animals is an instinct. Humans mate for fun as well as reproduction.

Animals can develop a love or intense affection for owners or companions and mourn their passing. There was a story of a farm cat, semi-wild, who developed a great companionship with a horse and vise versa and when the horse died and was buried, the cat was spotted daily spending time curled up on the grave for months afterwards. Dogs have been known to stop eating and die when their owners passed on or even to know from great distances when their master died.

Some wild animals have developed friendly relationships with humans.

None are sentient, though. None can form complete thoughts or rationalizations. None ‘talk’ in their heads as we do, none can add or subtract, none think in linear lines, but basically with emotional ‘feelings’. A squid might open a jar with a screwed or corked lid to obtain a tidbit inside, but cannot understand the screw threads on the item nor how to recork it.

A very young child can.

Great apes are the closest to sentience that we know of and, according to some, just might be, but this is after intense work with them in a closed environment. Apes in the wild do not develop like apes in captivity.

All human segments, no matter how primitive, have developed a religion with forms of structured worship. No animal species has. All species of humans have developed a comprehensive, functional language for communication and found ways to communicate with other, alien, humans. Animal haven’t, though various species do work in cooperation with each other.

Virtually all known races of humans have developed a form of comprehensive art, which indicates a level of higher contemplation encompassing various forms of beauty and mental pleasure. Animals have not. Most humans have developed a form of creating a written record, animals have not.

Humans create art for their own pleasure and for the pleasure of others. Animals don’t.

Art created by various animals with human assistance is not a sign of sentience. Spontaneous art is. ‘Art’ created by animals in mating rituals is not sentience, but instinctive, like the Bower Bird creating a spectacular bower out of colorful shells, bits of rock, flowers and twigs to woo a mate. The work may signify to the female that the male will be a good, solid nest builder and therefore a good candidate for potential offspring.

A human is not only sentient; self-aware, but acts to alter his environment to his needs, is able to actively rationalize interactions with other species, develops a religious of some sort, creates and appreciates art, develops a functional language, and uses structured thinking including mental verbalization. He is also a problem solver, expert tool user and creator of records. He also ponders the intangible and is curious/inquisitive beyond his need for survival. That is, he wants to know what is over the next hill because it is there.

Animals are not.

with some exceptions to what you said in the last paragraph-animals are too. And do too.
That said:

I don’t know about much of what you’re saying, Snuff, but here’s my second penny-
One good distinguisher is that we can and do engender guilt in each other and a very guilt-like fear in other species that have extensive contact with us. (Our guilt is nothing more than fear, but a specialized type- I am stopping just the smallest of hairs short of flat-out saying plain ol guilt, re animals).
Animals do not.
It’s only a matter of degree.

Differing cultures rate animals with different status, as they do humans…some cultures consider a fetus a person, others not. I feel a baby is a person once it’s viable. I feel animals should not be wasted. A wild animal,even a mouse, shouldn’t be needlessly killed, but if an animal is destructive or disease carrying, it may have to be. A human is a person before they can reason, like a baby, or after, like an elderly person with Alzheimer’s.

Your argument about potentiality is interesting, but this is Philospophy whiche means:

1/ Nothing is simple
2/ All arguments have to be examined to the extreme.

I do not agree with this line of reasoning, but here is the problem of the potentiality argument with regard to the humanity of children:

‘Infanticider’: Children below a certain age are not human, they are less sentient than many animals. Until they are fully sentient they do not deserve protection. If we give them protection for other reasons, then this a social decision. Most human societies have engaged in infanticide until recently. Potentiality is a red herring, actual sentience is what matters. You are just looking for a way to avoid feeling bad about killing young children for the good of society. Children do not have rights until they are fully human; until then they may be disposed of if society wishes.

Killing people is wrong. People are human organisms with sentience. Young children are a special case because they possess the potential for sentience.

‘I’: I assume that you are as strongly anti abortion as well because a fetus has the same potentiality as a child- they both exist in the world and have potential for sentience.

‘H’: Of Course!

‘I’: How about an hour-old fetus just before implantation- a few cells caused by a sperm and an egg?

‘H’: I suppose that that is right.

‘I’: Well then, we should strive to ensure that such people continue to exist. Many oral contraceptives work by avoiding implantation. So you agree with the criminalizing of many oral contraceptives.

‘H’: I think you’re pushing it a bit.

‘I’: Well, the clump of cells has potentiality. And I haven’t started pushing it yet. How about an egg and a sperm separated by miles, or by a sheet of latex. Surely the two items when considerd potentially have the attributes of potential sentience. There goes barrier conception and additionally you should strive to ensure that as many of these potentially sentient being are brought into existence. So no contraception and you should aim to produce to ensure as many offspring as possible. And by the way, no ‘spilling your seed on the ground’, that would be denying potentiality to sentient beings.

‘H’: Now you’re just being silly! Two separated cells are not sentient.

‘I’: But by your definition they have potentiality. If you insist that killing children is wrong because of potentiality, then abviously the same argument applies to abortion, contraception and avoidance of pregnancy- women of child bearing age should always be pregnant and men should seek to ensure that as many of their potential sentient beings wrapped up in their sperm should be brought to fruition. Funny world that would be.

Summary: There is probably a reason why killing non-sentient children is wrong, but potentiality alone is a probably necessary but definitely not sufficient argument for it. It must require potentiality plus another condition, or just another condition or conditions alone. Potentiality alone will just not do.

What a load of hooey! Humans are animals. Period. There is no concrete line between sentience and non-sentience. Children don’t just cross a threshold one day that makes them self aware. There is a whole continuum of consciousness and complexity. We establish arbitrary definitions merely to make ourselves feel special and comfortable.

We have no ‘right’ to kill animals. We just do. We need to eat and they taste good. Plus, they’re pretty defenseless and don’t complain overly. That’s it.

Philosophers haven’t found easy answers to questions of infanticide and euthanasia after thousands of years because there aren’t any. Who would such morals be established by? God? (If you can’t tell, I’m an atheist, so I’ll discount that possibility.) The universe? Baloney. “Morals” are arbitrarily established by society. Murder is forbidden, because otherwise stable society could not exist. Killing things defined as “non-sentient” is acceptable because (for animals) people gotta eat, or (for fetuses/embryos/gametes) for convenience. You will always be stuck with gray areas, because there is no sharp separation between the two.

So is it “wrong” to kill infants? No. “Wrong” does not exist; it is merely something defined by humans anyway. Is it against the codes of certain cultures? Certainly. Is one better than the other? No. Who would define “better” anyway? We do what makes us feel comfortable and serves our ends, and then we struggle to justify it.

Thank you Teeming Millions! Your arguements are enlightening, interesting, insightful, debatable and I love them all, since there is, of course, no"right" answer (if there was a right answer it would not be a good philosophy assignment)

Here’s what I can contribute that I haven’t seen in the threads:

  1. Humans are the only creature with a consience. I define a consience as a self-regulating person training mechanism. Our parents mold it, but when we turn three or so, it kicks in. If we steal, our consience punishes us automatically, we who have an effective consience don’t even need behavior modification of any kind. We can burden ourself with guilt, truly a nasty punishment, almost unjust. Animals can be trained to behave a certain way through behavior modification, but they never become self-punishing.
    2.Humans know they are alive and they they will die. A dog may know his compadre has died, but he doesn’t rationalize that he, too, will die. The dog is also unaware of his life-force. These are hypothesis I gather from handling a couple hundred dogs a month, but I can’t support them with scientific evidence. I simply observe dogs problem solving, rationalizing, and expressing feelings, but it appears they are no more self-aware than a tree.
    3.I can only think of infant humans as potential persons. Maybe it is my sex(female). But all the convincing arguements in the world can’t stop me from reeling when it’s suggested they aren’t as valuable as adults. Most mammals aren’t born precocious, and I value the life of a helpless few day old puppy the same as a six month old puppy. Maybe I’m in denial, or maybe that concience of mine is kicking in.

Thanks again, keep up the good work

Sentience, conscience, art, religion…

Not all humans experience these things. A person in a coma is not sentient, yet he doesn’t cease to be human. Each of us spends a significant portion of our lives unconscious, but we don’t cease to be human when we fall asleep. Not all humans make or appreciate art; not all humans have religion.

Some people, even when awake and aware, exhibit no sign of conscience. We call them pathological, antisocial, etc. Yet, they are still humans.

Many humans are not aware they’re alive and don’t comprehend that they will die: infants, comatose people, sleeping people, advanced Alzheimer’s patients, for example.

I’ve read that an adult labroador retriever has the intelligence of a 6 year old child. Whether it’s true or not, there’s no doubt that some people are considerably less intelligent than some animals. Retarded people, severely ill people, demented people, infants, etc.

Genetic makeup doesn’t determine who’s human and who’s not. People with Down’s Syndrome have an unusual number of chromosomes, yet they’re still human. I have a friend whose baby was born with Trisomy 18; the child was severely deformed and died 10 days after she was born, yet you’d never convince her mother she was any other than “human”.

There is no easy answer to this question. There is no definition of “human” that will hold for everyone we consider to be “human”. There is no neat demarcation between human and animal- no wonder, because we are animals. Our concept of what is human and what is not is socially constructed and fluid.

IMHO, we DO have a natural imperative to survive, and to propagate our species. In fact, I think that this whole dilemma can be reduced to simple mathematics.

It’s okay to use 15 chimpanzees for medical testing and then dissect them in order to develop a treatment for a disease that kills millions of people in a year.

This justifies killing of animals to ensure human survival, but does not allow wholesale slaughter with no purpose. It’s okay to kill to survive, but IMHO, it’s not okay to kill for fun.

On the subject of when a person becomes a person, I believe that happens at birth. Once a person begins to experience the world around them directly, they are on the path to self-awareness.

Anyway, just a couple of thoughts…

But people do steal. If an “effective consience” kicks in like you say, we would not need laws against stealing.

Excellent point! It used to be said that humans are the only animal that uses tools. Then, animals were discovered that made and used tools. So, it was said that humans are the only animals that use language. Well, animals were discovered that used language. Then it was abstract concepts. There is evidence that some animals are capible of understanding abstract concepts.

It seems to me that the difference is an illusion created by us. No matter where you draw the line, you will have trouble, because we are animals.

The difference between animals and people is the ability to formulate and ask the question.