Allan Powell: Personhood - entering a semantic jungle

December 08, 2011

Many of us have lived a full life without hearing or using the word "personhood." Now we seem to be inundated with its usage in the context of business and biology. Since it has been recruited for use in the service of self-interest and ideology, we would be wise to examine a term that can be stretched in any direction to take any shape.

"Personhood" is a combination of two words — "person" and "hood." A person is defined as: "a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing, a human being who is conscious of his social relations to other human beings — a self-conscious or rational being." "Hood" is defined as a "suffix denoting state, condition, character or nature or a body of persons of a particular character or class" e.g. childhood, priesthood etc." Other definitions used by law, sociology and psychology are given and, as we know, there are usages that switch and change in customary speech.

There are two areas of importance which have been significantly affected by the expansion of the use of "personhood." Corporation lawyers and judges (many of whom were former corporation lawyers) have been successful in altering the definition of a corporation from being a purely artificial "person" to a creature with powers and capabilities normally associated with real "natural persons." They were then successful in convincing the Supreme Court to declare that corporations (as persons) should be guaranteed all the rights of persons expected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court can never do enough for corporations. In 2010, it awarded the personal right of free speech to corporations and declared that their free speech was expressed in gifts of money contributed to political candidates. Here, personhood was stretched like rubber.

Another, even more far-fetched stretch by word magicians took place in Mississippi in a November referendum. Here, in the most conservative state in the union, the state legislature was stopped short of conferring "personhood" to a fertilized human egg. This particular law has been interpreted as a huge overreach that could have made illegal some forms of birth control and in-vitro fertilization. This rush to expand the idea of personhood was again driven by interest groups to advance profit or ideology. Since this referendum was voted down by a 3 to 2 count, we can conclude that the women of Mississippi were smart enough to reject a tortured "personhood" that came at such a horrible cost to womanhood.

A candid look at the consequences of this word magic shows that we have conferred human traits (personhood) to a fictitious entity that permits it to have traits no real (natural) person can have and on the other hand, leaves that entity devoid of characteristics needed to be a real (natural) person: a conscience, feelings, awareness and judgment. Also, there is a structural feature in a corporation that invites problems: the separation of ownership from management.

Corporations such as huge financial firms, lacking a conscience, feeling and unified judgment, lobbied for reduced regulations — which then opened the door to irrational and reckless gambling — with other people's money. They corrupted and wrecked a fragile marketplace and were saved by the generosity of a frightened society. Once saved, they reverted to past failed practices and again paid lobbyists to stall any reregulation. To add insult to injury, they then moved units overseas to countries with cheap labor and lower taxes. A real (natural) person would certainly be justified in calling this artificial "person" greedy and evil.

This radical move to extend "personhood" to extremes beyond its rational application was voted down twice in Colorado, but there is no reason to suppose that these attempts will not appear elsewhere. They will never be convinced of the difference between an acorn and an oak tree or that a fertilized egg is not a person. This concern for the status of a fertilized egg, while ignoring the needs of an adult person — her needs, situation, conditions and health — lacks merit in experience and logic.

One can but be amazed that those who are so fearful about the overreach of an invasive government are now so eager to involve the government in issues related to the most personal and private zones of our lives. It is a puzzle to understand a rush to achieve a political victory over the place of "personhood" while damaging the cause of actual women by diminishing their right to manage their own bodies.

"Personhood" is but one of the words that is caught in a tug of war between competing interest groups and ideologies. The word was defined in a neutral way when the subject was introduced. However, in the real world, words become redefined in usage. We are naive to suppose that words are used to clarify meanings and make communication more precise and free of confusion. As Voltaire once observed, words also are used to conceal what we are thinking about. Maybe real life is like that stated by Humpty Dumpty in "Alice in Wonderland," "Whenever I use a word, it means whatever I choose it to mean." If we succumb to that state of affairs, we will live in a semantic jungle.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagers-town Community College.

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