Home > Malta > When can we say that a human being is a person? – Godfrey Farrugia

Controversies arise when the term ‘person’ is used to denote a definite moment in the life cycle of a human being.

It is indeed a philosophical question with possible legal and ethical connotations. It seeks to decide who is and who is not a person and thus aims to establish that someone is a human being but at the same time not a person, even though one is part of the community.

Biologically, human beings are classified as members of the homo sapiens species. On the other hand, the question of what is life or non-life has a purely scientific answer, as life is described as a condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms.

An embryo is a genetically unique, biologically human and has intrinsic biological properties whose blueprint dictates deve­lopment and growth. It is definitely alive, and the term pre-embryo is an invented, unscientific term. The precursors of life are amino acids which, after all, are the building blocks of DNA. 

Trying to define the scientific term ‘human being’ from a philosophical perspective drives one into a bottomless pit. The terms ‘human being’ and ‘person’ are not the same, as they denote different things in two different specialties.


In the parliamentary debates on the protection of the human embryo, the government is mixing the facts of science with myths, and has gone so far as to quote the late Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott with a political twist.

Gilbert Scott, a prominent development biologist, states: “The entity created by fertilisation is indeed a human embryo, and it has the potential to be a human adult. Whether these facts are enough to accord it personhood is a question by opinion, philosophy and theology, rather than by science.”

To put it bluntly, various philosophical thinkers have tried to give an answer to the question: When does the unborn child become a person: at conception, at birth, somewhere in between or much later in life?

There a number of schools of philosophical thought on personhood, among them John Noonan, Mary Anne Warren, The Social Criterion, and Peter Singer. Prof. Serracino Inglott in 2015 had hypnotised his own opinion. It is truly unbecoming of government to make political capital by mixing science with a personal philosophical statement.

The most recent is The Gradient Theory. It suggests that personhood fits within a spectrum of a variety of degrees. An embryo has less personhood than a foetus, a newborn would have more personhood than both, an infant more than an unborn foetus, a child more still, and so on. Therefore, even if this theory does not deny the personhood of any being, it permits discrimination based upon the level of perceived personhood. Does this mean that when a person sleeps, that individual is less of a person?

The concept of a person is one of the most difficult terms to define and denotes rights and obligations. It is an argument that has been ongoing for decades. Charles Taylor, and others who have the same line of thinking, put forward this definition: “A person is a being who has a sense of self, has a notion of the future and past, can hold values, make choices; in short, can adopt life-plans. At least, a person must be the kind of being who is capable of all this, however damaged these capacities may be in practice.”

This statement defines personhood as a function of feelings, awareness, experiences and behaviour. In this approach we become and may cease to be a person, while we remain a human being all the time. It follows that since the unborn has none of these capacities, they are not a person, and killing the unborn is not seriously wrong. This infers that an embryo and foetus do not have a right to life.

Science factually affirms the contrary. Similarly, it does not make sense to say that a person comes to existence when the functionality of a human is manifested. Good sense distinguishes between what one is and what one does, between actual and function, thus between being a person and functioning as a person. In my opinion, defining personhood in terms of function is inaccurate and wrong.

A human being is a person because one is actually a person, and not because one functions as a person. Obviously, this capacity to function develops gradually in a human’s life and continues throughout one’s lifetime, as all persons have the potential to grow emotionally and intellectually. Likewise, an embryo is a human and a person, who has a natural inherent capacity, and will gradually develop this functionality.

All human beings are actual persons and it is their functioning that is potential. The embryo is not a potential person but a person with much potential. Our embryonic beginning, as members of the human species, starts off a process of development of a person and not a process of development into a person. The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is not one of personhood but of development.

Life should be protected because it is the right thing to do. Humanity dictates it. 

Godfrey Farrugia is an MP for Partit Demokratika.

Ref: https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20180506/opinion/When-can-we-say-that-a-human-being-is-a-person-Godfrey-Farrugia.678333

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