R.J. Snell emphasized that he did not want to establish and defend a thesis about the meaning of personhood.
“I’d rather us just try to reflect together on some basic intuitions that we may or may not share,” Snell said. He described a hypothetical situation in which the audience would debate whether one of the particular audience member was a person. He said this would be unsettling.
Snell is the director of the Center on the University and Public Life at the Witherspoon Institute and a former philosophy professor at Eastern University.
“I want to engage in [the question of personhood] in a way which isn’t guilty of the very problems I just identified; of demeaning, objectifying, belittling,” Snell said.
Many pro-choice theorists recognize that the embryo is a biological human, Snell argued. However, since these humans lack basic functioning and attributes common to humans, they are not ‘persons’ in the sense that they should be accorded human rights.
“No longer human rights, but person rights count,” he said.
Snell told an anecdote about how he was afraid to let his newborn child out of his sight in the hospital because he was afraid that he would be given a different child. He also asked the audience if they would find it acceptable to marry their expected fiancée’s twin brother.
“I think we’re convinced that persons do not, in fact, exist as specimens of a class,” he said. “Personhood, in fact, is not a classifier.”
Snell said that while ‘human’ can be used as an attribute — Socrates, for example, is a human — ‘person’ is not attributive because personhood is not a categorization. Each person exists completely as their own.
“I am an instance of human,” he said. “But I am not an instance of person, for I am my own person, never to be reduced, class of one.”
While we can judge whether or not an individual lives up to the standard of humanity, we cannot do the same for persons, Snell argued.
“There’s also no ideal type of personhood against which we judge whether this or that individual is, in fact, a person,” he added.
Snell said that even a completely unified theory that explained all aspects of physical sciences is unable to account for the person — subjective “I” — because it reduces or equates the person to the level of an object.
“Persons, or at least as we experience our own persons, don’t seem to be explainable at all,” he said. This is because people can only be experienced through themselves.
The lecture took place at 4:30 p.m. in Guyot 10 on April 19. It was co-sponsored by Princeton Pro-Life, Princeton Faith and Action, and the Anscombe Society.