Why a Person is a Person

Roger Scruton once wrote: “The most important task for philosophy in the modern world is to resurrect the human person, to rescue it from trivializing science, and to replace the sarcasm which knows that we are merely animals, with the irony which sees that we are not.”1

If, as most western educated children are baptized into believing, the human species arose through natural evolutionary processes, the concept of human, as anything more that demarcation of species type, is very difficult to maintain. Scruton points to an important modern dilemma. Either our intuition is correct—we are different than the beasts—or our observation is correct – we are the result of a chance process along with every other animal.

If we are indeed the result of the process of natural selection, an uncreated chance emergence, personhood remains the domain of irony. It is no good saying that a person is a person because he is a person. Personomy, a recently coined term used to describe the trail a person leaves when online, is a good metaphor to describe how many now think about personhood. Human exceptionalism cannot follow from the basic premise—that we are a result of time, matter, chance etc—but we believe it to be true of us anyway. We are persons in law, in name, but ultimately by virtue of law and name alone. It is the placeholder for human species, a virtual personhood.

John Gray argues that this illusion should be done away with; we should face up to the fact that we are no more than than the apes we evolved from: “The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. It is the animist feeling of belonging with the rest of nature that is normal”2

Gray's perspective, he believes, follows more logically from Darwin. He exhorts the humanist to give up on the illusion and face the truth. However, for something to follow logically it must obey a universal law of logic. Yet this cannot necessarily “follow” from anything if everything followed from chance.

Scruton's answer is to point to human values of beauty. How, given our natural emergence along with other species, can we admire the arts, feel a sense of awe, worship even, if we are no more than beast? We are, therefore, human, even if we cannot explain what that is.

Sometimes, as Gray points out, the humanist can sound Christian (humanity as the peak of its own creation). Yet the distinction is clear – Christians cannot begin with human persons. Personhood is an intuition not because of our ownership of the principle, but because of God. God is the a priori Person that we derive the intuition from. We are persons because we are made in the image of Person himself. Personhood is underwritten by God; he is its guarantor. When we observe creation, we should not find conflict with this assumption, only confirmation. It is other persons we see before us, other image bearers. This can only be had if we deny chance as creation's principle. Instead we must see it as creation—sustained and guided by its Creator—dependent for every event on the will of the person who created it.

What appears to be the result of chance is the result of God. When we deny this, we deny our own nature. And it is no chance that we deny it either, for that too is the result of the creator's will. As it is the result of his will that we turn to him and repent of our denial of him in our intuition and our observation.

What we intuit as personhood is not virtual but real. Our treatment of person as personomy is, underneath, a denial of God. It is a rejection of personhood's guarantor, a human effort to posit personhood without God. It is this we should repent of and turn to God, the source of all that is – both within us and before us.

1Roger Scruton, The Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (New York: Penguin, 1996), 59.
2John Gray, Straw Dogs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 17.