One of the critical points of disagreement in the abortion divide is notions of personhood. So it seems one interesting thing to examine might be what comprises notions and ideas of personhood and on what basis these ideas are founded.

There are role based notions of personhood. I’m told that in Bali for example, your personality (and in fact your name) is dictated by the order of birth. You are “first son”, or “third daughter” a name which indicates who you are. In Rome the notions of personhood and identification of a person was primarily a legal concept. Your status of citizenship, your membership in guilds and other associations defined your legal notions of personhood. But legal and definitions of personhood based on birthplace or occupation are foreign to members of the modern western world.

One of the common notions of self is based on memory, that is you are the sum of your memories and that your memory is the basis of your continuing notion of self. But this is incomplete and insufficient. If, in some speculative fiction, a persons memories are erased we still think of them as the same person, just that they being the person whom they are is now that person sans memory. That is, the memory did not define self. Similarly if, one person’s “memories” in a scenario such as the Total Recall movie were taken and transplanted into another person … that other person would not thereby “be” identified as the original person. We have a common notion that these to persons are in fact distinct. Memory it seems does not define person. Another example that comes to mind is Latro in the Gene Wolf novels whom awakes each and every morning with no memory of his past. How is “self” or concept of ego considered for someone like him.

Organic identity as well does not define person. Again in speculative fiction not just modern science fiction, there are ideas of a person being transformed into something else. He becomes the ghost in a machine (modern computer or whatnot) or earlier works in which his self is moved to another person, animal, or magical animate object. If the ego, the “I”, can be radically transmuted and that memory of whom I am is not self either … what is the constituent thing which identifies self?

One suggestion, given by the early 4th and 5th century Eastern church, expanded by the 8th century theologian St. Maximus, and put into modern context by  and John Zizioulas is that personhood and self are defined relationally. That your continuity of self and in fact your very notions of self are defined only in relation to “Other”. If we refer to the above identification of self through radical transformations, we recall from those stories that the validation of self past the transforming event is that one recovers and is recognized via re-establishing and restoration of those connections with those others with whom one was formerly connected.

Filed under: Ethics & MoralityMark O.Uncategorized

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