Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Watch Your Language!

Sometimes imprecise language used in everyday situations can have deadly implications if taken to their logical conclusion. As the parents of a one-and-a-half year old, we’ve heard people say, “She’s becoming such a little person”—or when she was in her first weeks of life we’d hear, “She almost looks like a little person!” What’s the problem with that? The problem is that “personhood” is a non-degreed property.

Sounds pretty philosophical, right? It’s actually not as difficult as it sounds. A property of a substance is either degreed or non-degreed. Examples of a “degreed property” would be “temperature” and “weight.” Both of these come in degrees, in variations.

A “non-degreed” property is something that either you have or you don’t have. “Existence” and “pregnant” would be non-degreed.

The key is that “personhood” is not something that comes in degrees—it’s something you either have or don’t have. And while not every person is a human (e.g., God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, angels), every human is a person. There is no such thing as a human who is not a person.

Quibbling with words? Hardly. This false distinction between “being human” and “being a person” is at the heart of many of the most contentious ethical debates today. For example, abortion is justified on the grounds that while it may involve the death of a human being, it does not involve killing a person. The logic here is both deadly and wrong.

Now when someone says that a baby is becoming such a cute little person, he or she is probably not thinking about the metaphysics of personhood and its ethical implications! And no, it's probably not the time to reciprocate the baby gift they brought along by giving them a copy of J.P. Moreland's book on Universals. Nevertheless, it would still be wise for all of us to avoid the language that overlaps with those who seek to undermine the sanctity of human life.