Chapter 6

Self and person

But let us stop speculating about what might have been but clearly is not, and return to some of the implications of our nature as embodied spirits, even in our fallen condition.

Let me define a couple of terms, and then discuss them.

A self is a being which possesses itself, and makes itself be what it is.

A person is a self as related to other selves.

These are not the traditional Scholastic definitions, and owe a good deal to existentialism as well as Scholasticism. The Scholastics don't really make a distinction between a self and a person; and when their definition of "person" is analyzed, it comes pretty close to my definition of a "self."

The history of the concept of "person" is rather interesting. The Greeks had no such notion. The term "persona" was used by the Romans, who needed something to refer to an "honorary citizen," who was not by birth Roman, but who was to be treated in law as if he were a Roman. The persona (from per, through and sonare to sound) was the name given to the actor's mask, which had a megaphone inside it so that he could be heard; and since the Greek for this mask was the prosopon, the "face," a "person" then was a kind of "character" the law put upon an individual, more or less as we now think of a corporation as a "legal person," able to be sued, and so on.

Then, when the early Christians wanted a term to describe the Trinity, who was one and the same being but still had a triple distinction which was not one of distinct parts (so that the Father was [all of] God, the Son was [all of] God, and the Spirit was [all of] God), they used the term "persona" to describe each of what was multiple about the Trinity. So there was one God and three distinct persons, each of whom was God Himself, with the Son homoousios (one and the same reality) as the Father.

By analogy, then, since we were the "image and likeness" of God, we also were persons--though of course only single ones; and since we were given our personhood by God, then our "legal status as person" came from God and inhered in our nature rather than being some kind of mask that was put on us by civil law, giving us privileges that we didn't really deserve.

When the Scholastics began asking themselves what it was in our essence that was our personhood, in which we were analogous to God, they came up with the definition of "person" as "suppositum rationale": a "rational supposit." A "supposit" is a "substance" that is an actually existing whole being, as opposed to a "substance as distinguished from its accidents," which is a "principle" of being.

So, according to them, a "person" is an actually existing thing which is "rational," and so which knows itself and wills itself; or in other words, it is what I called a "self" above.

Why I use "self" for this and reserve "person" for something else will appear shortly.

In any case, in my view, a "self" is something that recognizes what its being is and actively chooses that being, and so creates itself by its choices. God is the only self who absolutely knows and chooses himself with no restrictions whatever; all other selves, of course, have restrictions on what they can accomplish by their choice.

I would think that pure (finite) spirits, who are pure forms of activity, would have the option of choosing which form of activity they wanted to be, which implies that they could recognize what was involved in each of the different forms of existence, and pick out the one they liked; but they couldn't act except as only one definite form of activity. So the complete unrestrictedness is only for them an abstraction allowing them to choose among the possibilities; but they couldn't actually be any more than one form of existence.

And this, of course, would allow for immorality and its consequent frustration. If we suppose that some angel chose not to be any one definite form of existence, but wanted to be all of them, or wanted to be infinite activity instead of a mere form of activity, then his choice would make him the form of activity that is dissatisfaction with itself; and of course, since he is pure spirit, this choice is eternal, and its consequences are the choice itself; and so he is damned without any possibility of redemption. He also has full knowledge of his act, and so even if per impossibile he were offered another chance, he would refuse it. "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!" Milton has Satan say.

Note that moral evil is impotence, not power; the devil may have power because he is a spirit, but not because he is evil; as evil, all he is is an intention of being something he can't be, and so evil is its own defeat; it can do nothing whatever.

So even though angels are eternal, and so presumably did not "begin" to exist, still they eternally exist as eternally having the options of what forms of existence are possible for them and as eternally choosing the one that they choose. If their effects spill over into our temporal world, this does not make them changing, any more than God's effects on our world imply that God changes, as I mentioned in Chapter 2 of Section 3 of the second part 2.3.2.

A more restricted self would be something like the first parent I speculated about above, who still could design more or less what type of being he wanted to be, but would have certain parameters outside which his choice would be unfulfillable in principle. This kind of self would have to be an embodied spirit: it would have to be a spirit, or it could not recognize itself for what it was, or choose what it wanted to be. It would have to be embodied, because a pure spirit is a pure form of existence, and the choice above implies restrictions within a basic form of existence (like the mammalian).

Still more restricted would be a self that has control over any sub-forms (like race and sex), but cannot control the basic kind of body which it is. There are a few human beings who, because of genetic abnormalities, actually have the characteristics of both sexes; and such people have to choose which sex they will be when they reach puberty, because they must spend their adult life as one or the other, but neither one is predetermined for them.

Of course, the ordinary human self has no control over his sex or race. There is no contradiction, I think, in something like a transvestite's dressing as one of the opposite sex (or all women nowadays would be guilty of sin; in our culture, transvestism is frowned upon only if it is a man who does it); but when a person tries to have a "sex change operation" and actually modifies a part of his body so that what used to have a function no longer has it, he has violated his reality. That sort of thing would be an attempt actually to change one's sex, and is doomed to fail.

As to race, it would not be immoral for a White person, for instance, to dye his skin (provided it was safe and didn't cause health problems) so that he would have a skin as black as a Nigerian; but of course, this would not make him a Black person. It is difficult to see how a person could actually violate his reality by doing something to imitate one of another race; but then, it is difficult to see how anything a person could do to himself would be construed by anyone as actually changing his race, the way the mutilation of one's sex is regarded as a "sex change."

So finally, we get to the lowest kind of self, that which we are, the one who can choose what level his biological equilibrium is to have, and what properties are to be stressed and what deemphasized or even not exercised at all (as when a person chooses to be celibate); but whose choice has no control over what form of activity nor what subform it is.

It is, of course, selves that are referred to by personal pronouns. Actually, personal pronouns is probably a little more accurate, since they would only be used in a community to refer to selves; a self that was completely isolated would have no occasion to speak of himself, let alone use a language involving personal and impersonal pronouns.

It is, of course, unfortunate in one respect that as our language developed, the personal pronouns had gender attached to them, and the neuter pronoun was the impersonal pronoun--so that we have no pronoun to refer to genderless persons such as angels or God, and have made do by having the masculine do double duty as both masculine and neuter personal pronoun. I mentioned this in the preceding section when talking about language. But I might remark here that these "personal" pronouns also refer to non-persons that are male or female, if they are animals. We do sometimes talk about female holly trees, but it would sound odd to refer to one of them as "she"; on the other hand, dogs are quite naturally referred to as "he" or "she" in spite of the fact that they cannot (so far as we can tell) understand relationships--which means that they can't know what they are and so can't choose to be what they become, and therefore are not selves.

The selfhood of the self does not exist only when he is actively choosing or actively knowing himself as such, or we would cease to be selves when we fall asleep, and would become mere animals, which is ridiculous. So it is obvious that our selfhood does not come from our properties but our nature: the structure of our bodies, and the fact that they are organized with spiritual souls, not immaterial ones.

Hence, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 11: A self is a self for the whole of his existence, even when he is not exercising (or cannot exercise) his acts of understanding and choosing.

This is an important conclusion, because there are some nowadays who would deny "personhood" to human fetuses and unconscious humans on two grounds, the first of which is that they are not "free, self-determining individuals" ("selves" in my sense) because they are incapable of determining themselves because they are unconscious.

Thus, the fetus--or at least the embryo--would not be a self yet, because he hasn't yet a brain, by which he could make choices; a human being in a permanent coma or "persistent vegetative state" has stopped being a self because he has permanently lost consciousness and so cannot be self-determining any longer.

As to the second case, the fact of being unconscious clearly does not, as I said above, deprive the self of selfhood, because then everyone would stop being a self as soon as he fell asleep. And since the people who define the "permanently unconscious" as not selves do this as grounds for its being all right to kill them, then by that logic it would be all right to kill anyone as long as he was asleep. This is why they add the qualification "permanent."

Unfortunately, there is no way to distinguish a "permanent" unconsciousness (or "vegetative state") from a temporary lapse into this condition, except that if a person dies while still in that condition, it was permanent. There was a case within the past year or so in which a person in a "persistent vegetative state" had the feeding tubes removed, and the shock woke her up. Granted, it's rare; but if it ever happens, this is evidence that the self is still "there," and simply can't exercise its powers of self-determination because of bodily damage.

And that, in turn, means that the self depends on the unifying activity of the body, and whether that unifying activity is still making the body live as a unit. There are times, as I said under Conclusion 2 of Section 1 of this part, when you can keep the appearance of being alive in a corpse by keeping the individual parts alive and making them act as if the interaction (the unifying energy) were doing this; and of course in that case, what is there is neither a self nor a human being, nor even, really a body, but a system of parts that are only artificially stuck together.

So if there are times when you can "withdraw life support" and let the body die when the self is in this "persistent vegetative state,"(1)

you can't justify this on the grounds that he's no longer a self, because "for practical purposes" he's dead already. In the same sense, "for practical purposes" you are dead already when you fall asleep; you certainly can't make choices to change your life.

As to the fetus, obviously he is not in a "persistent vegetative state," because he's going to wake up quite soon, to the considerable discomfort of his mother, who will have to spend a few months with him squirming and kicking inside as he gets bigger and tries to be comfortable. It is silly, as I said in Chapter 2 of Section 2 of the First Part 1.2.2 and in Section 1 of this part 3.1, to say that a fetus is not a human being; and if he is a human being, then he is organized with a spiritual soul, and if so, he is a self.

There are some early Scholastics who talked about "gradual ensoulment," that the human first had only a vegetative soul, and then later on in gestation had an animal soul, and finally the human, spiritual soul was "infused" into this animal, either at birth or some time before or after birth; which, of course, would make the human a self only at this last "infusion" of soul.

But the vegetative being and the animal would have to be peculiar beings indeed, since the purpose for this "vegetable" or animal would be a being utterly and infinitely beyond it; and since instability implies a discrepancy between the form of the unifying energy and its quantity, and gives the being its direction, how could it have a direction toward something beyond its form? The quantity of the form it has couldn't determine the purpose, because the quantity is infinitely below it; and the form it has couldn't determine the purpose, because that form is also infinitely below it. Hence, it couldn't be developing toward something greater in every sense than itself, because there would be nothing in it which could establish the direction.

That is, a developing being already is, in some sense, where its purpose is, because it is the fact that the form needs the proper quantity (and doesn't have it) that is the instability. This is the meaning of Aristotle's being "in potency" to what it will be and his "privation of the form."

So there is no metaphysical possibility of a gradual development of different types of souls in a human being; this was another one of those misrepresentations of life based on the soul's being a "something" that got insinuated into a body somehow, giving the impression that all life is identical and so on that we talked about earlier in this section in discussing reincarnation.

Hence, there is no evidence that any living human being is anything other than a self; and those who hold this would logically have to admit other things about human life and selfhood that they are not willing to admit.

So much for the self, then. What does personhood add to this? It adds the fact that some selves are interrelated in their selfhood in such a way that one self's actual realization of himself can be helped or hindered by what another self does.(2)

What this amounts to is that your self-development can be interfered with by my self-development (or helped also), and vice versa. But if my self-development prevented you from developing yourself, then--at least in our "fallen" condition--I would be putting myself in the self-contradictory condition of being the one of the two of us who could really determine himself, while I would recognize that you are a self-determining being who can't really determine himself (because I kept you from it).

And this is why personhood is the basis of rights. Personhood recognizes the fact of interference and help by selves to selves and respects the selfhood of other selves, while demanding the same respect from other selves. Or in other words, personhood recognizes the interactive character of selves who are bodies and demands that that interaction not contradict their selfhood.

Conclusion 12: It is inconsistent for a person to choose his own development in such a way that he prevents another person from being in practice the self that he is. Doing so violates the right of the other person, and so one's own nature as a person.

This needs a good deal of spelling out, but it will have to be left to much later, when we talk about ethics. Let me just make a couple of remarks here, which have a more metaphysical flavor.

First, this respect of rights applies only to persons. Animals have no rights, because they are not selves, and so are not persons, and can't get into that reciprocal arrangement whereby "I'll let you alone if you let me alone." If an animal interferes with my development or does me harm, it does so by the necessity of its nature, and there is no sense in which it could "help it." If a person does me harm deliberately, then he does so as a person, and so is responsible for the harm he has done in violating my right.

I can, of course, defend myself against harm both from animals and other persons, but self-defense against a person is more restricted. I cannot defend myself from having my money stolen by killing the other person, while I could kill an animal that was running off with my wallet. But we will see more of this in ethics. Animals may not be wantonly tortured or killed; but this is not because they have rights. You say, "Well, if we can't do it to them, then why quibble over terms? Why not just say they have rights?" Because there are serious implications in rights; and if animals have any rights, they automatically have very inconvenient ones, like the right not to be sterilized, and the right to life. You would have to exercise great circumspection with your fly swatter if animals had rights.

The second grounds on which some have tried to deny what they call "personhood" to the fetus and the comatose deals with "personhood" in this sense of requiring respect for others. They say that fetuses and the permanently unconscious are not persons because they are not "part of the moral community," since they can't interact in this reciprocal way, and so have no rights, even if they are human beings and in some sense selves.

But this won't wash either, because sleeping people would then be selves that aren't persons (because they certainly don't interact with others in a personal way while asleep); and so everyone would lose his personhood and all his rights as soon as he fell asleep--and if you had a good reason for killing someone, all you'd have to do is wait until he was asleep, and you wouldn't be violating his right to life, because as a temporary non-person, he wouldn't have one.

The fact that fetuses are not recognized as persons by many in our age does not deprive them of personhood nor of their rights, any more than the fact that Blacks were not recognized as persons two centuries ago in this country actually made them non-persons or gave them no right to liberty. They were, as Jefferson (who owned slaves) realized, self-determining and persons; and so they could not in fact be owned by anyone, even if that person thought he could own them.(3)

Women in fact have the right to pursue careers that are not traditional women's careers (as long as they don't interfere with anyone else's personhood while they are at it); and if the majority in the country at one time didn't think they did, then the majority were wrong, because the majority didn't confer this right upon the women, they had it because of their being selves.

Secondly, notice that personhood has nothing to do with "equality." We are not persons because we are equal to each other; each person lives at his own biological equilibrium, and some are greater human beings than others. We are persons because we are free to choose our own reality, within the limits given for us. And we do not have rights because we are "equal" either, still less a right to be equal to others, or even to have "equal opportunity." The right is negative: not to be interfered with, not an affirmative right to be helped by others toward your goals--except insofar as not helping (e.g. withholding food) would be the equivalent of doing damage to your present condition. We also have rights against superior beings such as angels and devils; no angel may interfere with me against my will.

But let that suffice here. The study of rights will be deferred to the modes of interaction and the modes of conduct.

As to the positive side of personhood, that of helping others, then there are two things to note:

First, since the person is a self, and so self-determining, then it follows that there is a certain sense in which persons are "independent" of one another, and if I want help from you (subordinating your self-development to mine, as in asking you to teach me), then I must compensate you for your wasting your time in my behalf by doing something to help you achieve your goals.

This is the whole area of economic activity, and it will be treated later in the modes of interaction.

Secondly, it is interesting that, because of the condition we are in, in which we understand by knowing relationships based on sensations and being affected by energy coming into the nervous system, it follows that we cannot know ourselves as selves unless we observe others like us determining themselves.


Conclusion 13: A human being cannot develop himself as a self without being a person, related to other selves.

So-called "feral children," those brought up without any human contact, lose the ability to function as persons if they do not have human contact by the time they are twelve or thirteen. If they were brought up by animals, they then behave their whole lives as animals. They apparently have lost the ability to understand themselves; and if they have any understanding, it is buried in the practice they have had of using their brains simply to make connections.

Hence, we need other persons in order to be selves; and this means that a part of our selfhood is the effect of other persons' actions.

This also has moral implications. Since children are physically helpless and since they need to observe other people (adults, too) in order to know what their possibilities are, and since they cannot hope to compensate their benefactors for this service (because certainly at that time they have nothing to give), then this implies several things:

First of all,

Conclusion 14: Human beings must not always demand compensation for performing services to others.

That is, if a human being is a parent, then the very act of causing a helpless human being to exist means that the parent then has the duty of performing the services that that child needs, until he can be in practice self-determining--without expecting compensation for this from the child. Otherwise, he contradicts himself as a parent.

And since all of us have been children, and been the recipients of this uncompensated service, it follows that we cannot then say that we will never perform uncompensated service to others, or we deny that we are interdependent beings.

Hence, the purely economic way of looking at personal relationships is not consistent with human nature; we have a different sort of relation to others that has nothing to do with economics.

And this is the second point to note.

Conclusion 15: Human beings are related to each other not only economically (as "independent," with rights), but socially also (as "interdependent" and loving).

And this, of course, opens up the whole social relationship of human beings with each other, which cannot be reduced to the quid-pro-quo of the economic relationship (nor can the economic relationship be reduced to this one); and that also involves several chapters of its own, to be treated in the modes of interaction.

Let me make one remark which I couldn't fit anywhere else to finish off this section and this part, before we get into the modes of thought:

There is nothing so useless and counter-productive as having ideals and standards, especially standards for others' behavior and conduct.

An ideal is something that you created using your own imagination, and has no objective reality, even if you got it by abstraction from a lot of instances. Obviously, as I have pointed out before, as an ideal, it doesn't exist.

Its function, as we can now see, is that ideals can be turned into goals by using them to create instabilities in ourselves and working toward them. But if the ideal is simply kept as an ideal, and used to compare the facts to, then it is sterile--and often pernicious.

A person who has a set of ideals has a number of (made-up) standards he uses for making evaluative judgments about the world, complaining about the fact that it doesn't agree with his idea of the way it "ought" to be. These evaluative judgments are certainly facts: i.e. it is a fact that the world doesn't agree with your ideal; but there is no factuality to the ideal itself, or to the "oughtness" you impose on the world.

Conclusion 16: All that ideals and standards that are not turned into goals allow you to do is complain about the way the world is.

And the point is that complaining is a futile activity. It gets nothing done about the "wrong" or "bad" situation, because it merely recognizes it as something that does not meet your lofty standards. It also gives the evaluator a false sense of self-importance, because it looks as if he knows the way the world "really ought to be," and is more intelligent (or has "better taste") because he has high standards. But of course, the standards have nothing objective about them, and the fact that he can imagine things as different from the way they are gives him no real insight into the way things really are, and is simply a misuse of the ability he has to form goals for himself.

And I suspect that the chronic complainer, who makes no effort to turn ideals into goals, will be a complainer forever in the life after death, because he chooses to consider an unreal world as the "real" world and look on the real world with contempt, not respect.

There is nothing wrong with considering the world as not what you want it to be, and having goals for it that respect its reality and lead it toward the goal you have for it. But if you have "ideals" and "standards," then woe to you:

"Judge not, lest ye be judged."



1. We will have to wait until much, much later to see this. There are times, as long as you are not choosing the death.

2. God, of course, cannot be affected in his divinity by anything any creature does. But he freely chose to "empty himself" in one of his "reduplications," which then restricted himself to acting only as a human being (and so he "took on" a human nature. This particular "reduplication," then had only one existence (of course), but two different natures: he was simultaneously truly God and truly a man.

Jesus, of course, is one self because of his one existence (which is identical with the Father's); but this particular self, as a "reduplication" of the Father's existence, is the one that is also "emptied" into the restricted human nature, and so it can be said that within this one being, there are two interrelated selves, inasmuch as the Father is not so restricted. And the same goes for the Spirit; since it is the Spirit who unifies all human beings into the "one body" St. Paul speaks of who lives with the life of God, and so dwells in each of us and all of us as a kind of special unifying energy, this "reduplication" of God who performs this function in human beings is again a self in relation to the Son and the Father.

And therefore, these are not "selves" but persons, because no one of them is "independendent," but is really only a "reduplication" of the one Infinite Act; and their selfhood is bound up with the selfhood of God Himself. And therefore, even by my distinction between "self" and "person," God is one being with three persons, and Jesus is one person with two natures. Obviously, the Persons of the Trinity are only Persons or Selves in an analogous sense; but you can see the point of the analogy by what I just said.

Note that Jesus and the Spirit, at least, are affected as persons by what human beings do; because the person is the unit. Jesus was clearly affected in his humanity by what we did to him, and therefore, since he is a divine Person, that divine Person was affected by us. Similarly, when a human being chooses to become Christian and live with the life of God, then the Spirit, as the unifying "energy" of all these individual "cells" of the Mystical Body, is in some sense different in his activity of unifying, and so that Person is also affected by what human beings choose. But neither Jesus nor the Spirit is affected in their (his?) divinity, of course.

3. Jefferson didn't free his slaves, it seems, because he thought that to do so would be to expose them to starvation or to capture and enslavement by others, and so using the Principle of the Double Effect (which again we will see later) he kept them with the intention of shielding them from a worse fate. I have no particular desire to defend Jefferson, but this at least seems to be what the facts were.