Letter to the editor: The tangled concept of personhood

Zygote — Nina Sesina via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Hartley, Iowa City

Personhood? Who has recently tangled themselves in that labyrinth and fallen for the heartbeat cliche? And how ironic that the Christians, for millennia the purveyors of patriarchal prejudice and, too often, downright hate, with its resulting mayhem, how ironic that they have fixated on the heart as an indicator of anything. Any microbiologist worth the salt in a single cerebral neuron can readily trace the phenomenon of a heartbeat back to the cellular origin of life on Earth through most of our three-plus billion-year history.

Is it possible the courts are going to jump into this same tangle? The courts, which can barely discern, and then only when video evidence has reached and enraged at least a million people over the internet, that if a black teenager has been shot 16 times in the back, there might have been some degree of malfeasance on the part of the uniform? Those courts?

Even beyond the issues of normal racism and stupidity, the courts are certainly not competent to deal with the philosophical matter of personhood. It is simply not decidable as a matter of fact whether your neighbor’s dog or your bowling ball has consciousness. That is a problem related to the universally acknowledged, most difficult issue of philosophy, taken up by Aristotle 2,500 years ago, wrestled with by every thinker since then, and, in the estimation of our best modern scholars, we have made exactly zero progress on it in all the long history of what passes for thinking. We don’t know whether it’s a person or a gob of slime mold as a matter of fact, or whether a gob of slime mold has more enlightened consciousness than the Gov. of Alabama. Behavior is decidable; consciousness is not.

And as a matter of fact, all the persons I’m aware of, every single one, have one decidable thing in common, one thing which we can see and verify: they all live on their own, not requiring any other person’s 100 percent support to maintain their blood flow, body temp, respiration, nutrition, excretion, hormones. If the zygote (with the heart of its heart beating within the DNA) is a person, fine, let it come out, with or without consciousness, live as a person in a bottle until it’s ready to hatch, pass through foster care and join the other unwanted birth results where they so often wind up, in Alabama’s prison system. Congratulations, Gov. Ivey; you’ve lined up some serious potential clients. You did your Christian duty, perhaps with God whispering in your ear another undecidable mystery.

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