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A person is an individual with certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which has different definitions across cultures.


A person refers to a human being, whether an adult or child, who is considered to have certain capacities or attributes, which include—depending on who is asked—reason, morality, consciousness, or self-consciousness. A person is often further defined as being part of a culturally established form of social relations such as kinship, ownership of property, and legal responsibility. Part of defining a person comes into defining personhood, which is the understanding of what makes a person count as a person. And there are further questions about personal identity and self: both about what makes any particular person that particular person instead of another, and about what makes a person at one time the same person as they were or will be at another time despite any intervening changes. The term "person" is ambiguous and is often used as a synonym for "human being," despite not capturing the intent behind its use. For example, the common plural of "person," "people," is often used to refer to an entire nation or ethnic group (as in "a people"). The plural "persons" is often used in philosophical and legal writing. Or, if there were intelligent aliens on other planets, these aliens would surely be "persons," such that it could be considered morally wrong to buy or sell them as property. Thus, one of the primary interests in personhood is to distinguish "persons" from "pets" and from "property," with a person being an entity that has the moral right to make its own life choices and to live its life without (unprovoked) interference from others.

Historical perspectives

The term "person" in English is derived from the Latin "persona," which is further traceable to the Greek πρόσωπον, which was originally used to denote a mask worn by an actor. The term would eventually be applied to the role the actor assumed, and finally was used to distinguish between any character on the stage or any individual. The heart of the question of what makes a person and what it means for a person to be distinct from other animals has since been discussed.

Plato and Aristotle

For example, Plato would find intelligence as the obvious distinction between humans and animals, where intelligence, according to Plato, is the most divine thing in a human and the most essential part of the human-animal. Aristotle would agree with Plato, and he also stated that people have the power to respond to universals and meanings, act rationally, and act with deliberation and conscious forethought. Further, Aristotle held that humans were distinct among animals in that the human race because of their art and the powers of reasoning.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder furthered many of these views of humans as a part of the animal kingdom. He viewed humans as an animal in being, though he viewed them as an animal destined to rule other animals, a not uncommon view. When speaking of humans, he viewed them as one of the lowest animals in terms of the frailty of humans at birth and through their early development, but suggested they were superior in their self-awareness. This was an extension of the naturalistic view of humans, even though Pliny the Elder suggested there remained some creative force that was responsible for the creation of man.


Medieval European and theological origins of the concept of "person" begin with Boethius, whose classic definition taught that a person is an individual of a rational nature. Boethius uses the term "substance" to exclude accidents, such that accidents cannot constitute a person. It is believed that Boethius in this way meant substance as a concrete substance existing in an individual, rather than a substance conceived abstractly as existing in the genus and the species. The most important part of this definition, and what it shares with Plato and Aristotle, is that a person expresses a rational nature, and a person is predicated on being an intellectual being.

Thomas Aquinas

For some, such as Thomas Aquinas, the definition proposed by Boethius was not satisfactory, as the words could apply to the rational soul of a human and the human nature of Christ. To Boethius's definition of a person, Aquinas added five notes that make up a person:

  • Substance—this excludes accident
  • Complete—the person must have a complete nature, and what is considered a part nature, either actually or aptitudinally, does not satisfy the definition
  • Subsistent by itself—the person exists in themself and for themself, being the ultimate possessor of their nature and all its acts, and therefore is the ultimate subject of predication of all attributes
  • Separated from others—this excludes the universal notion of a substance, which can have no existence apart from the individual
  • Of a rational nature—this excludes all substances that lack rationality

Further, in Thomas Aquinas' formulation, the second, third, and fourth notes point to an incommunicability in human nature, which would work to create a definition of human nature in which the human soul from the Judeo-Christian notion is a part of the nature of a person, and not, therefore, a person in its own right, even when existing separately.

Charles Darwin

The view of man as solely an animal form derived from the indifferent acts of the laws of nature would be expressed in the nineteenth century by Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution. He came to this view through trans-species similarities in embryologic development, in anatomic structure and function, and in the geologic record. This led Darwin to conclude that humans were co-descendent with other mammals of a common progenitor.

This view complicates the views of personhood, and how does one define what a person is and differentiate a person from other animals, or can they be differentiated? Darwin answered those questions by suggesting that the intellectual powers and moral disposition of humans were the differentiating factors, that further could be explained through evolution. As intellect could be explained as a natural refinement of the mental powers of animals, the moral nature of humans is a more difficult problem, and it can be construed as a combination of social instincts and the higher intellect. However, moving away from the imago Dei view of humans complicates the problems of personhood.


This leads to the question of personhood, or how to discern who is considered to be a person, what being a person entails, or how being a person differs from having selfhood or being an individual. This is more than a theoretical consideration as being considered a person comes with legal and moral repercussions, such as rights and responsibilities. Further, there are various definitions of personhood. One of the simplest being a definition of personhood as the state of being social, embodied, and sentient being, which in itself comes with problems.

Anthropologists, as one example, have worked to solve the problem of personhood. Work in the field points to cross-cultural ethnographies, which exhibit that personhood is not a universal concept but a continuously negotiated concept with definitions dependent on the time and place and in reaction to varying situations and relationships. This makes it challenging to come to an absolute or even satisfactory definition of personhood.

Personhood of homo sapiens

On Earth, humans have established themselves as a dominant population, not through the prevalence of the species, but as the most influential upon the planet. Humans are dynamic and social, with ethnically and biologically diverse people sharing highly developed cultures and linguistics. However, throughout most of human history, from an anthropological perspective, the concept of "personhood" is a contemporary concept. This has led some to consider that the evolutionary theory of human emergence and taxonomic classifications of humans should have no bearing on the concept of personhood, while others consider them equal or greater importance, leaving personhood nothing more than belonging to the species.

Legal personhood

In the legal infrastructures of many countries, the difference between legal terms such as "person" and "human being" represents more than a question of standing or semantics. For example, in liberal democratic societies, such as the United States and Canada, such distinctions can indicate substantive differences regarding concepts such as citizenship, membership in society, and the scope and essential nature of rights and liberties.

In general, in law, the term "person" can be extended to include firms, labor organizations, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers. Often considering these biologically "non-persons" as "persons" is done for the guarantees of equal protection of laws and due process of law. Further, in other cases, the phrase "interested person" can refer to heirs, devisees, children, spouses, creditors, beneficiaries, and others who may have a property right in, or a claim against, a trust estate or the estate of a descendent, ward, or protected person.

Non-human person

Legally speaking, personhood does not have to be synonymous with a human being. But rather, the law divides the world between things and persons. Things are considered to have no rights, while persons are defined as having rights. Therefore, under the law, there can be a "non-human person" in order to refer to an entity guaranteed some rights for limited legal persons.

While the common example of this may be a business or corporation, another example could be the case of Sandra the orangutan, who was granted non-person personhood rights in 2015, undercutting the species-membership as the basis for legally denying rights, freedoms, and protections. The argument in the case of Sandra centered on the orangutan's sufficient cognitive functions. However, due to the limits of human perception, it has been argued that it is inappropriate to humanize animal behavior, as even science is not free from anthropomorphism. This has meant there has never been a sufficient way developed to measure the sentience of non-human species, nor has there ever been a clear answer of sentience or non-sentience.

Metaphysical personhood

Metaphysics, often characterized as the nature of reality, is a common basis for the discussion of personhood. This discussion often focuses on whether everything that exists is just physical or whether there are two kinds of irreducible stuff, referred to as mind and matter. Previously, many metaphysical philosophers would speak of personhood in terms of the existence of a transcendental realm, but more recently the talk of personhood has dropped the metaphysical implications to instead focus on personhood as a basic category of reality. This has led to the suggestion that there are specific qualities that make a person, which commonly include the following:

  • Rationality or logical reasoning ability
  • Consciousness
  • Self-consciousness or self-awareness
  • Use of language
  • Ability to initiate action
  • Moral agency and the ability to engage in moral judgments
  • Intelligence

These categories lead to questions over whether one quality is better than another to determine a person. Do all persons have all of these qualities, or is there a minimum set of qualities a person can have? If there is a minimal set, does it have to be the same set for all persons? Further, it is often said a sleeping person remains a person, even though at that moment they do not exhibit all the necessary criteria for attributing personhood; instead, there is foreknowledge that the individual can exhibit the features.

Moral personhood

The moral sense of personhood often and simply denotes individual beings who are moral agents. Moral agents engage in behavior that can be evaluated as moral or immoral, morally right or wrong, or morally permissible or impermissible. This makes a person responsible for their intentional actions. For example, a human being is generally considered a moral agent. Whereas a nonhuman animal, such as a lion, killing another animal to eat, is not considered to be engaging in morally impermissible or blameworthy behavior. However, some pet owners, when shouting "bad dog," are implying some moral agency based on rudimentary moral expectation or anthropomorphism on the part of the pet owner.

Moral personhood can be held to include being a moral patient or a being who can suffer at the hands of wrong agents by moral agents. But being a moral patient is distinct in many ways from being a moral actor, and nonhuman animals and humans are held to be moral patients.

Outside of legal personhood, moral personhood is another field in which a non-human entity, such as a corporation, team, group, society, or nation, can be considered as a "person" or a "moral person," because the entity is one that can be praised or blamed for its actions and held accountable for them.

Bioethical personhood

Bioethicist criteria of personhood suggest the construct offers certain moral, legal, and other statuses to an entity declared a person. To declare an entity, a non-person allows for different legal and moral treatment of the entity in question. The narrative around who is a person or who is a non-person has been debated in specific ethical cases, such as how disabled persons are treated, how women have been historically treated, or abortion laws. For example, in Canada, the Person's case in 1929 established that women are persons to the full extent. Criteria for personhood have been variously proposed, as explored above, with every changing criteria. This changeability has led bioethicist Joseph Fletcher to suggest fifteen criteria for being a person:

  • Minimum intelligence—below an IQ of 40, individuals might not be persons; below an IQ of 20, they are definitely not persons.
  • Self-awareness—he notes the emergence of self-awareness in babies, and when it is gone, for instance, due to brain damage as necessary for being a person.
  • Self-control—because a person understands cause and effect, they can effectively work toward fulfilling freely-selected goals.
  • A sense of time—persons can allocate their time towards purposes, where non-persons "live" completely in the present moment, like animals.
  • A sense of futurity—persons are concerned about their futures, lay plans and carry them out, and build their futures.
  • A sense of the past—persons have memories of their pasts, they can recall facts at will, and they honor the past.
  • The capacity to relate to others—persons are social animals; they form bonds with others, both intimate and collective.
  • Concern for others—persons always reach out to others; non-persons draw into themselves, even pathologically so.
  • Communication—persons are capable of communicating with other persons, and if they become completely cut off, they become sub-personal.
  • Control of existence—persons take responsibility for their lives; those who do not guide their own behavior are sub-personal.
  • Curiosity—persons naturally want to know, and if they lose this desire to know, they can be considered less than human.
  • Change and changeability—persons can grow into new phases of life, and if they resist change completely and totally, they are sub-personal.
  • Balance of rationality and feeling—persons have both reason and emotion; one who is distorted either way is not whole.
  • Idiosyncrasy—all persons are different from one another, and the less individuality, the less personhood.
  • Neo-cortical function—personhood requires cerebration, meaning if the higher brain is dead, there is no consciousness and therefore no personhood.


Further Resources


'What Is a Person?' A Meditation on the Grand Existential Question

Maria Popova


November 2, 2011

'What It Means to Be Human': A Historical Perspective, 1800-2011

Maria Popova


December 15, 2011

Defining Personhood -- Journal of Young Investigators


March 23, 2002

The Difference Between a Person and a Human - Sonderbodhi - Medium

æ | Ed Alvarado


June 30, 2014

The difference of being human: Morality

Francisco J. Ayala


May 5, 2010


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