“A person’s a person, no matter how small!” So wrote children’s writer Theodor Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss. That sentence has swelled beyond its illustrated frame and become a celebrated cliche… er… quote. But what is a person?
The question seems simple enough. After all, we are persons ourselves, and we can hear echoes of that personhood in those we meet. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and fictional spy James Bond both famously said in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” Admittedly, those two were talking about obscenity and gold.
I asked my dictionary to define a person and it replied: a single human being. Surely we can do better than that. After all, would anyone argue that the television character Spock of “Star Trek” wasn’t a person because he was a half-alien Vulcan instead of fully human? If angels exist, are they not persons? Jinn? Hobbits? Our fantasies, mythologies, and religions abound in non-human persons.
History, in turn, shows us many alleged human non-persons. In the United States alone, some humans have been considered only a partial person at best in the eyes of the law because of their race or physical characteristics. Others have been stereotyped as beastly merely because of ethnicity...