At first glance the title of this chapter is bewildering. What can a “personalist account of persons” mean? Is it simply recognition of the respect we owe one another as persons? That we should never subordinate persons to their social roles or functions? That the very language we use must embody the primacy of reverence owed toward persons as such? Or does the title intend all of these meanings and more? We are deliberately installing speed bumps for our inquiry into the politics of the person by reminding ourselves of the linguistic challenge involved. This is different from our ordinary way of proceeding. When we want to discuss something we usually just go right ahead, without asking permission of ourselves. Are we entitled to talk about persons without further ado? Without taking any special measures to ensure we get it right? As if turnips and persons were more or less interchangeable entities? Even our ordinary language seems to bristle with warnings about so casual a mode of discourse. We know, for example, that we must not talk about persons behind their back. Nor should we talk about them when they are present. Intuitively we are put on alert that this is sacred ground. A proper distance is required. We cannot adopt an attitude of familiar indifference where persons are concerned. Only a sufficiently reverent “thou” is suited to the delicate touch of encounter with an other “I.”
The challenge has been to find the appropriate intellectual means of incorporating that realization. In this chapter we will attempt to gain some sense of the scope of what is entailed. This is why we begin with the question as to whether science can in any sense talk about persons. Merely because we have human and social sciences does not mean that their objective method can apprehend this most elusive dimension of the reality within which science itself lives.[i] It is precisely the realization of the inadequacy of science to the task that prompted, second, the rise of a specifically personalist turn within philosophy. Yet despite the promise of this development there remains, third, something inconclusive in personalist philosophy that is attributable to the insufficiently radical character of its project. Personalist philosophy still clings to the language of objects and has yet to carry its logic into a revolution within philosophical language itself. It is for this reason that the elevation of the person, especially in selecting autonomy as the principal criterion of the person, has yielded consequences diametrically opposed to the inviolable dignity of persons. A focus on autonomy has had the distorting effect, fourth, of suggesting that we now possess an absolute means of drawing the line between human beings who are persons and human beings who are not. We witness the outcome in the dehumanization that follows from the assertion that we possess the means of defining a person. Perhaps this is not so surprising when one considers what is implied in such a claim, viz. that we as persons can now stand in imperious judgment over what it means to be a person. We no longer find ourselves humbled before the mystery of persons for whom we are responsible, and therefore fail to see the extent to which it is other persons who ultimately define us. The easy assumption that persons can be regarded in the same way as all other entities in existence has misled us. The way back is, fifth, to acknowledge the irreducibly different character of the relationship in which, in regard to persons, responsibility is prior to definition. It is through our responsibility for the other that we can glimpse what it means to be a person. When it comes to persons, a coda will suggest, even the law must be ever ready to become more than law.
Can Science Talk About Persons?
Initially it would seem that persons, and the reverence owed them, is incompatible with the objectification science requires. Surgeons who must carve up the human body as a piece of meat, who indeed can fail if excessive squeamishness deters them from their task, must ritualistically separate their dissection from the politeness with which they greet their patients. Can philosophers do any less in presenting a model of the way in which discourse about human beings might take place? Indeed the language of persons and personalism has been developed precisely to suggest such an approach. Human beings are not simply beings in the way in which things in general, tables, chairs, mountains and rivers, are. As persons they may have an external dimension but they are not contained within it. Rather they contain themselves, in inwardness, and are properly known only through the inward movement by which we know one another. Just as mastery of a name or address does not gives us access to the person, neither does possession of even the most comprehensive catalog of details tell us who the other is. At the core the person is a mystery, St. Augustine reminds us, “an abyss so deep as to be hidden from him in whom it is.”[ii] But how then is it possible to “know” one another at all? Surely it is only because we ourselves are persons, inwardly capable of bearing the inwardness of the other in the silence of our hearts. It is for this reason that we really only know the people we love, for love is what bridges the gap when “two solitudes guard and bound and greet each another.”[iii] Through love the inwardness of the other is held fast because it is held within. It is only because we ourselves live inwardly that we can know the inward reality of others, what constitutes the very being of a person.[iv]
Conversely this is a knowledge we must obliterate from our minds if we are to efficiently inflict damage on others. The knowledge that they are persons too must be ruthlessly suppressed. All killing requires the objectification of the other. This is the dehumanization of the enemy so familiar in the experience of warfare, with its attendant cost in dehumanization of the perpetrators as well. Now the question is whether that pattern of reification also extends to students of human nature. Are social scientists in the role of aggressors compelling submission from their defenseless material? Or must they somehow preserve the attitude of friendship by which the humanity of the other is preserved and disclosed? And if it is the latter, how are they going to ensure that their language, of objectification, does not betray the generosity of their initial impulse? Surprisingly this is a question that has received relatively little attention. Despite all of the discussion of methods in the human and social sciences, perhaps even because of methodological self-consciousness, the difficulty of making the transition from a world of subjects to a world of objects has not been sufficiently considered. Eager to grasp refinements we are defeated by the obvious.[v]
Of course we know the difference between persons and things, between a thou who calls forth a response and a datum whose structure must be analyzed. But what if that very distinction represents the limiting horizon of our own thought? What if the difference between persons and things is neither an axiom of our science nor a component of our inwardness? What if we cannot comprehend the distinction at all but find that the distinction is what provides the possibility of all of our comprehension? That far from understanding the difference between persons and things we find that our own existence is contained within it? We begin to see that if we did understand the distinction we would no longer be living within it but would have gone beyond it. If the mystery of the intersection between the subjective and the objective were to be penetrated then it could no longer hold the whole vitality of our existence. In this sense everything depends on our never fully comprehending the distinction we have so easily taken for granted. We do not stand outside of the difference between persons and things and therefore cannot assume we know what it is all about. Rather we must continually remind ourselves of our inability to penetrate it and thereby preserve a proper respect for the mystery within which the enterprise of science itself unfolds. It is good for students of physical nature to be reminded of the strangeness of their status as thinking parts of the material universe, but it is indispensable for students of human nature to bear in mind that they too are the very same as the object of their study. Then there is little danger they will forget that science is only a possibility for persons, that is, for those who can never be an object of study.
Rise of a Personalist Approach
It was the need to articulate this ineliminable horizon of the person that gave rise to a countermovement against the monopoly of the scientific model. Science could not completely overlook the scientist. The problem was to find a formulation that would enable us to navigate the two worlds of the subject and the object simultaneously. A promising beginning was provided by the burst of clarity provided by Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (1923). Of course the problem of defending other modes of truth, especially the revelatory and philosophic, against the encroachments of science has been a preoccupation since the seventeenth century. “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me,” Pascal had declared.[vi] As a project it was unlikely to be fulfilled through a single author or work, not even one encountered as piercingly true. A civilizational crisis can only be resolved, if it ever is, through the formation of the civilizational resistance that is required. However, a single work can play an essential role. It can capture our attention. This was why I and Thou had such a momentous impact. Within a brief 120 pages it reassured dazed modern humanity that its intuitions had not been wrong. Science could not pronounce the truth about our existence; nor could it provide any meaningful instruction on how we should live. Taken in themselves such observations are commonplace, widely echoed in public and private musings of the day. What Buber managed to do was to explain why they hold. Within the pages of his brief treatise he spelled out with unmatched clarity why an objective account fails to account for what matters most. We do not live in the external physical universe, a world of objects, but in the interior life that constitutes a universe of persons. Science, its investigation and manipulation of objective nature, remains but it is far from constituting the only, and certainly not the most important dimension, of existence. For this reason we do not have to bemoan the loss of meaning generated by the expansion of scientific reason. That has never been the horizon of our lives. Human beings have ever and always found their meaning within the relationship to others that is disclosed entirely from within. I and Thou always takes precedence over I and It.
Scientific method, Buber showed, is defective as science. It overlooks the most indispensable knowledge of reality through interpersonal encounter. Of course everyone already knew this. No scientist ever mistook his wife for a hat or addressed his children as robots. Yet we lacked a way of clearly explaining the difference to ourselves. This was what Buber’s little masterpiece provided, a handy confirmation of what everyone, including scientists, have always known. There is a world of difference between the world of Thous and the world of Its. Knowledge of persons is vastly different from knowledge of things. Even when things are denoted by He, She, or They, the encounter is never in the form of a personal address. We know persons only as persons who by their very being address us and toward whom we move in responsibility.[vii] There is no knowledge of the Thou outside of the entry into relationship, just as there is no I that is prior to the relationship. Personal knowledge is not available except through the response by which we become responsible to and for the other person. Objectivity, by which the I can be held aloof from relationship, is unavailable. We cannot respond to the other with less than all of our being for to do so would be to fail to acknowledge what persons require of us. That is why there is no unexposed corner of the self outside of the relationship. Personal knowledge not only expands our epistemological horizon; it stretches our existential openness to its breaking point. To the extent that the primary word of I-Thou can only be heard when we listen with our whole being, the philosophical challenge of establishing it as an authoritative mode of truth comes fully into view. Yet the event of relation, of responsibility toward the other, is no esoteric experience. It is the stuff of our ordinary human existence. To have at least named it, in distinction from the more easily demarcated domination of objects, was no small achievement.
The question was could it be philosophically elaborated? It is one thing to formulate the issue in principle, while it is quite another to suggest the full range of its consequences, not the least of which is the development of a language appropriate to their unfolding. To the extent that our language has been formed most readily in reference to I-It, including I-He/She/They, relationships, quite an adjustment is required to encompass the more primordial I-Thou relationship, one whose intimacy has all along shielded it from the full necessity of philosophical explication. Buber himself continued to push against these boundaries and made sufficient progress to establish that his central distinction contained considerable possibilities, but he never succeeded in making a decisive impact on the broader philosophical debate. It was left to others, such as Emmanuel Levinas, to more radically develop the implications of his insight.[viii] In part this may have been because of Buber’s own involvement with a broadly theological horizon, one in which he felt called upon to interpret the world religions more philosophically. It was not a calling that took philosophy itself as its primary focus. Without taking cognizance of the revolution required of philosophy, he was unlikely to significantly advance it. But identification of such intellectual limits is not the main interest. A more abiding concern is with the features of Buber’s thought that not only mitigated against its fuller elaboration in his hands but also stood in the way of successors who took up the same task. What are the obstacles that lie in the way of a philosophy of personal knowledge?
Insufficiency of Personalist Philosophy
Buber was not the only one to grasp the significance of refounding philosophy with more deliberate attention to these two fundamental modes of knowledge. Many had glimpsed the possibility of regaining metaphysical openness by beginning with the metaphysical openness of the person. Max Scheler had already shown how the bonds of a reductionist and materialist world-view could be burst asunder through the self-disclosure of experience.[ix] Emotions, the interior life of human beings, were not mere epiphenomenona but a privileged access to the structure of existence as such. Henri Bergson undertook a similar reorientation of thought toward the vital inner processes through which being itself unfolds as we participate in it.[x] The existentialists, especially Jaspers and the early Heidegger, turned phenomenological analysis to the disclosive power of moods, especially those that revealed our deepest orientation within being.[xi] Immanence, the contraction of humanity to a wholly mundane perspective, seemed on the verge of exploding. Metaphysics, that knowledge of contact with higher regions beyond mere finite existence, was about to recover from the long confinement into which the regnant materialism had pressed it. A particular focus on the centrality of the person flourished in France with the growing currency of the term “personalism.” Emmuel Mounier had written a manifesto of Personalism, Gabriel Marcel had tilted his existential reflections in a similar direction, and a convergence was also underway from the Neothomist perspective of Jacques Maritain.[xii] It is a movement that continued to flourish after the war, particularly among theistic circles who were convinced that if God was to be found anywhere in a godless world it must be within the inextinguishable openness of the human person. Thus it was not surprising that, when Karol Wojtyla and the school of Christian humanism in Lublin sought to mediate between Thomism and phenomenology, the results would appear in the form of a study of The Acting Person.[xiii] Yet the ambition of a fundamental reorientation of contemporary thought seems not to have been realized. The component parts, phenomenology and Thomistic philosophy, have gone their separate ways, and the project of a personalist philosophy has yet to engage the intellectual mainstream. Indeed the very contours of what has been designated as “personalism” are likely to remain in doubt.
What is it that accounts for the inconclusiveness of such a promising start? In large measure it seems to arise from mistaking the wish for its fulfillment. It is not enough merely to propose a project that wins wide admiration, for nothing is achieved without following through to the fullest possible realization. Advocates of a personalist philosophy never got much beyond advocacy because that is largely where the efforts remained. Further application would have entailed a deeper engagement with the consequences of the shift toward the perspective of the acting person. In particular it would have required more sustained reflection on the philosophical transformation that was sought.[xiv] How would philosophy itself be changed in the process? Would it be possible to leap from a largely objectivist perspective on the person to one more deeply attuned to interiority without revolutionizing our very pattern of thought? Could a philosophical revolution be attained without a comparable revolution in its language? The challenges were, in other words, more daunting than the proposed change of direction seemed to envisage. To make the inner life of the person central while continuing in every other respect with a language patterned on subject-object mastery was indeed to have changed very little. A bugle call had been sounded, but little else. To actually wheel an intellectual regiment more arduous attention to the details would be required. It was, for example, no accident that the most powerful philosophical mind associated with existential openness, Martin Heidegger, shifted his own attention decisively away from philosophical anthropology. He saw that fidelity to the project would entail more than fidelity to it.[xv]
One could not simply graft recognition of the incommunicable uniqueness of the person onto a general account of human nature. It is one thing to acknowledge that one cannot know a person until one knows him or her personally and another to explain how this relates to the universal category of personhood they all share. If each is a whole in him or herself then what is the whole that includes them? Without confronting the core problem that persons can only be known in themselves, never as an instance of something more universal, we can never become clear on why it is that the person must always take precedence over what they represent. Heidegger understood that nature could only become a question for a being who could not simply be bound by it, that is, for a being whose very existence is a question. Yet even he did not recognize the source of his insight within his own existence as a person. Too much influenced by the convention of persons as hypostases or substances, he sought to avoid anything that might reify the movement of his thought and, in the process, overlooked the source of that movement itself within the person. Being can only be put in question by persons because they alone are not what they are. The reason why persons cannot be included within the horizon of thought is that thinking is only possible by persons. To think is to exist within the openness that occurs only within each and every person. How can that which thinks be included within what is thought about?
It has been the inattention of personalism to this question that has led to the confusion of personal and essential modes of analysis.[xvi] As a consequence personalism has been left with a duality of approaches whose uneasy tension it has neither been able to resolve or comprehend. We know that over and above everything that a human being says there is the inarticulable addition that can be grasped only by personal encounter. Why this must be so we cannot say until we have understood that the personal dimension is not some optional extra but the very core from which all saying arises. No matter how deeply we may intuit this, it cannot be appropriated until we have seen why it must be so. It is not just that persons always say more than they say, but that all saying arises from an overflowing of its beginning. We cannot separate the personal coloration from its content without draining the latter of all that makes it significant, because what is said is always more than what is said. Even the most technical conversations cannot be reduced to their metrics. This is why computers cannot talk or, rather, their talk only makes sense to human beings. In all discourse we listen for the voice of the other that is nowhere contained in the sounds for it can only be heard by listening for what cannot be sounded. We alone can overhear what cannot be heard because we too are not confined to the expressed. Communication and meaning are not only a possibility for persons, they are only a possibility for persons. Nature as such, we must finally concede, can be grasped only by persons for whom it is possible to go beyond nature. The challenge for a personalist philosophy is to incorporate its own insight into its elaboration.
The uniqueness of every single person must not just be acknowledged. It must be understood in its inescapability. Shocked by the suggestion, so nonchalantly advanced by Peter Singer, that human beings should be regarded as replaceable, and appalled by the prospect of homogenization within cloning, we nevertheless must be able to explain why this must not be so.[xvii] The singular inexhaustibility of each particular person may be deeply embedded within us but that does not necessarily mean we know why. Everything within our relationships to others may be premised on such a recognition, even though the language of generalities seems destined to subvert the possibility of stating it. A personalist philosophy must be willing to concede the scale of the challenge it confronts. How can there be a philosophy of the unique? How can we name it, when even proper names defeat the project of singular identification? We must refuse to be satisfied with the admission that persons are unique in the same way as every blade of grass is an instance distinctly different from every other. The uniqueness of persons far exceeds that numerical identity. In fact knowing everything about human nature as it has manifested itself over all of recorded history tells us nothing about the one person that stands before us. Nothing, that is, that is of any value in really knowing him or her. To know a person he or she must be known in all their unique singularity because who they are is wholly contained within them. A person cannot be explained by anything outside for each explains him or herself or, at least each begins to explain what even he or she cannot exhaustively unfold. Each is unique because each is a whole within him- or herself. To acknowledge this but then revert to the language of substance, as even St. Thomas does in his careful formulation that the name “person is not given to signify the individual on the part of nature, but the subsistent reality in that nature,” is to already forget the source of the insight.[xviii]
It overlooks the extent to which we would not even know what it is to be self-subsistent if we were not ourselves persons. That oversight also goes a long way toward explaining why the notion of substance and self-subsistence became such a philosophical thicket. Locke could not locate any definite meaning for substance and Spinoza could locate it only in God, while Kant turned it into the nebulous thing-in-itself. Yet the fault was not entirely theirs. Some portion must be assigned to the ambiguous condition in which the idea of substance had been transmitted by the classical and medieval traditions. As the mysterious ‘we-know-not-what’ that subtends the existence of things, the idea of substance could never claim to be more than the suppositum we must of necessity posit to make sense of phenomena. It was inevitable that under closer scrutiny it would tend to melt away as unidentifiable. Largely overlooked within this hoary dispute is how we might have arrived at such a conception. Self-subsistence is not something we have to attribute to entities we cannot see but the inexorable movement within which our own existence unfolds. We can conceive of that which exists through itself, that which contains and sustains itself, because this is how we ourselves are. This does not mean that we create ourselves but that we take an irrevocable role in our own creation. Self-determination, the distinguishing mark of what it means to be a person, is not a principle but the reality of what subsists through itself. Kant was mistaken in naming freedom a postulate for it is the absolute core of our existence. We know it by virtue of living within it. To be free means to be a substance responsible for its own existence, and to be a substance means to exercise such uncontainable freedom. In this sense, the category of substance does not admit of univocal application, for it is more like a spectrum that reaches from inanimate things, through everything living, all the way up to God. But it is only at the level of persons that the meaning of self-subsistence becomes transparent to itself, for it is persons alone that bear responsibility for who they are.
To gain that insight, however, more is required than simply maintaining Buber’s twofold distinction between I-Thou and I-It. The reflection must go on to consider whether the formulation itself could be included within the alternatives. Is the distinction of the two primordial words spoken from within them? If not then is the distinction itself primordial? If it is then is it more primordial than primordiality? If the distinction is included within one of the primordial words then how can it be spoken of both of them? How is it possible for the speaking to stand outside of that in which it itself is contained? The issue, while it may appear to turn on the logic of sentences about sentences, is of far deeper moment. At stake is the question of whether the distinction between I-Thou and I-It relations can be maintained if we are unsure of its own status. The suspicion is that if we have been able to stand outside of the two alternatives in existence we have nevertheless assimilated the whole distinction to the I-It model. After all this is the prevailing mode of thought in which the thinker is capable of beholding an object of thought. But then we have made the I-It primordial and nullified the primordiality of the I-Thou. The very distinction we have sought to maintain collapses since there is now only the primordiality of the I-It that may, from time to time, choose to enter into an I-Thou relation, only now always from the vantage point of the primordiality of the I-It. If we are to retain the primordiality of the I-Thou, the position to which Buber and the personalists are most deeply committed, then we must find a way for the I-It to arise subsequently to it. In other words, we must abandon the distinction as itself primordial. The only difficulty then is that we must develop a new linguistic medium that is capable of reversing the ordinary evolution from a language of externality to one of interiority. Somehow it must be conveyed that the interior language is not at all derivative from an objective frame of reference but is, rather, prior to all possibility of naming objects present before us. Before there is the word of I-It there must be the word of I-Thou.
The philosophical and communicative task is formidable. It is no wonder that twentieth-century personalists managed to overlook it. But it has not entirely escaped attention. The preceding analysis is not wholly original for it derives in considerable measure from the advances within both continental and Anglophone philosophical development. Of course the irony of a more personalistically attuned philosophical language arising within circles less ostensibly committed to a personalist orientation should not surprise us. If the intuition of personalism was indeed valid then it follows that the enlargement and deepening of the philosophical conversation should lead to its confirmation, even if the original personalists were not fully up to the task of sustaining their own meditation. What matters is that the primacy of the personal has been asserted more forcefully through the recognition that its formulation cannot betray its content. To retreat one step into the domain of the impersonal, even by way of linguistic concessions to convention, is already to lose the new footing that had been sought. The primordial can only be established through the authority of its primordiality, never by compromises with the secondary. There is no way of defending the priority of the person other than with the full investment of our own persons. Buber and the personalists may have said that we can only hear the word of Thou with the fullness of the I in responsibility, but more is required to give the imperative the kind of evocativeness that leaps from the pages of I and Thou. A way must be found of making the philosophic commitment the exercise in the self-sacrifice for which it calls. Only the unconditioned gift of self can adequately bear witness to the inexhaustible priority of the person before us. Generalizations about the value and dignity of the person never quite shake the confident tone of superiority in which they are spoken.[xix]
The task asks more than we had anticipated. But this must not be taken as a demand for perfection, that we must always measure up to the immeasurable responsibility required of us. A utopian demand can too readily be rebuffed as impossible. Or worse, we might even feel compelled to impose the impossible as in the revolutionary schemes of brotherhood that sought to achieve through force what could only be reached through love. No, the demand here is more radical because it is more deeply and inwardly present to us. It is nothing less than the demand of the moment in which we live. Philosophy must become capable of articulating the horizon of the person within which its own reflection is conducted. Thinking must itself arise out of the debt owed toward the other before it even came on the scene. Otherwise thought permits itself a respite from responsibility to which it never truly returns. Philosophy is then in the ludicrous position, echoed frequently in contemporary debates, of wondering if it can talk its way back to goodness. “A man who goes undauntedly through life on the category that he is not a criminal but not faultless, either, is of course,” Kierkegaard observes, “comic.”[xx] By beginning with moral self-assurance he has robbed the entire movement of existence of all seriousness. There is no gap between the I and what it owes toward the other. Not even the thought of the other can indemnify it. Existence is inseparable from speaking of it so long as the speaking wishes to retain the truth of existence. A similar imperative of transparence, we might say, has overtaken Christianity in the modern era. For what are the castigations of Nietzsche but a sustained complaint of the failure of Christianity to remain true to itself? But again this must not be taken merely as a prideful assertion of superiority over a desultory theological tradition. Such elements may well be present without exhausting the deepest meaning of his antagonism. The incomparable service he provides is not just the reminder that Christians should bear more faithful witness, but the insight that their witness should never arise out of anything but the awareness of its own defectiveness.[xxi] The only adequate formulation of Christianity is one that partakes of the very imperative of being on the way from which its content springs. A personalism that arises from any lesser urgency has already failed to say what it is.
Autonomy as a Distorting Absolute
The issue of how we should talk about persons is nowhere more critical than in the many public debates that revolve around the definition of a person. It is at this point that the inconclusiveness of the personalist turn of modern thought is ill prepared for the most aggressively elemental questions posed of it. Rights we concede apply to persons, but who is a person? When does he or she begin? What are the criteria of personhood? At what point is the person no longer present? The questions have a familiar ring for they are at the center of the controversies concerning life and death that confound an easy resolution. Mastery of the conditions of our existence suggests an extension of control to include our existence itself. Can we intervene in the processes from which human life begins through a variety of reproductive technologies in concert with genetic manipulation? If we are thus permitted to take a hand in the design of ourselves, then what is to prevent us from taking a role in determining the conditions of our own demise? What can any longer inhibit us from extending control over all of the constituents of human life from beginning to end? Consent would normally be the principal stumbling block but here we are dealing with issues that must be resolved prior to or subsequent to its exercise. Neither the unborn nor the comatose are in a position to issue or withhold their consent. They must have others who speak for them. But that is a responsibility that can only be assumed when we have assured ourselves either that the person is not yet present or is not in a position to make his or her own decision. In different yet related ways we find that we cannot avoid taking a stand on the meaning and limits of personhood. When does personhood begin and at what point do its prerogatives cease? If the capacity to exercise consent defines the boundaries of the person then what residual respect is owed to the conditions of possibility for self-determining beings? What do we owe to those who are on the way to becoming fully actualized persons and what to those whose possibility of actualization has virtually ceased?
No better example of the danger can be found than the failure of person-centered arguments in the field of bioethics. Indeed we might suggest that it has been the focus on the person that has been at the root of the elimination of protections for the integrity of the person. By concentrating on the features of personhood the result has been a devaluation of the prepersonal elements that are their indispensable foundation. Personhood has begun to assume a kind of ghostly reality easily detached from its mere physical basis. Biology has become peripheral to consciousness. Despite the widespread awareness of our physiological processes, now studied and understood more thoroughly than at any previous time in history, we are closer than ever to the understanding of ourselves as disembodied spirits, largely indifferent to the fate of our disposable outer shell. It is a strange disconnect.[xxii] We have never been more concerned with the condition of our bodies, yet we have never been more unable to make them integral to our selves. Bodies lack the dignity of minds whose autonomy must be jealously guarded. We have no compunction about taking a wholly instrumental perspective on our bodies, whose parts can be routinely replaced, exchanged, or upgraded with a view to optimum functionality. Even the prospect that our organs might be traded or utilized according to the dictates of a market does not strike us as so appalling that it cannot be contemplated.[xxiii] A market mechanism of supplying the demand for organs is simply one of the available options because we have so thoroughly accepted the notion of ownership of our bodies. The person is the core, the master of the house, while the physiological residence is a replaceable possession. Why shouldn’t we be entitled to dispose of our parts as we wish? Who else might own them? These are the readily accepted grooves along which our thought rolls, not just because we live with the powerful influence of commercial society, but much more because we have become accustomed to think of ourselves as persons first and bodies second. It is no wonder that bioethics is primarily focused on preserving our personal autonomy, and only secondarily on broader considerations of integrity as a whole.
To the extent that we define ourselves as persons, we have already set aside the prepersonal components as outside of ourselves.[xxiv] Everything apart from the activity of self-reflecting consciousness has become objectified. The self holds all of the non-self at that distance from which it can sit in dominion over it. Whatever value our organic basis holds is one that the self has imputed to it and can therefore freely alter in accordance with its absolute prerogative. Far from constituting a republic, the parts of a human being are under the grip of an dictatorship that is entitled to dispose of them at will, and certainly without consulting their needs or interests. Rights attach to persons; none extend to the organism on which persons depend. Absent is any notion of the common good of the whole by which all constitutional rule is sustained. Given the absolute dominion at the center of this physiological realm, the consequences for the members are completely foreseeable. No one can guarantee a limit to the indignity to which the body and its parts may not be exposed. Even the much vaunted concern with the indignity of suffering does not extend to the corporeal vessel through which suffering enters. Mortal remains are increasingly dispatched with efficiency. We have no difficulty contemplating the endless multiplication of our body parts through cell manipulation, genetic patenting, and the nightmare of reproductive cloning. A long standing example of such casual disregard is the practice of sperm donation by which a single individual may give life to thousands of children utterly unknown to him. Of course none of this forgetfulness removes the consequences that inevitably return to complicate our self-sufficient lives. Children of sperm donors do seek out their biological fathers. But the point is that complications are only discovered after the fact. There is nothing in our exclusively person-centered morality that rings alarm bells in advance. Having installed the person as the undisputed master of his or her own mortal frame we have nothing that reminds us of the intimate web by which we are connected to all other living beings.
Nowhere is the situation more depressing than in the disregard for our offspring. The much agitated issue of abortion persists because it is couched in terms that are irresolvable. Rights of persons, the mother or the fetus, are posed on either side and with an absoluteness that cannot be compromised. This is in the nature of rights claims. It is not simply that rights are abstractions and inherently unlimited, although that may be a part of the problem. The real difficulty lies in the character of personal prerogatives. A person is a whole, a world unto him or herself, defined by self-determination untrammeled by outside interference. One cannot exercise partial self-determination, for any mitigation is tantamount to the surrender of control to some other source. No, there is something unassailable in the modern clarification of what is owed to persons as such. Unless one is fully responsible for oneself one can hardly be counted as claiming one’s humanity. Even obedience to the law of God requires the free exercise of decision if it is to have any value, for conformity without inward agreement is of little value. It is because autonomy cannot exist in part that it generates such difficulties, whenever we are nearer than the proverbial distance porcupines must maintain between one another. The whole concept of autonomy requires, therefore, enlargement in the direction of embodied autonomy if we are to appropriately deal with those relationships in which we are closer to others than we are to our own selves. Perhaps an embodied autonomy is not really autonomy at all, especially if the mother’s bodily connection with the child has already robbed her of the freedom of choice. What does autonomy mean when we are already obliged before we begin?
It is this deeper meaning that is often overlooked when we use the language of personal autonomy. The situation of the mother and child may bring it into focus but the dynamic of responsibility toward others is inherent in the very meaning of responsibility. We may think initially in terms of freedom of choice for we are intensely conscious of the degree to which the weight of decision falls on us. No one else can accept the call to responsibility on our behalf. The initiative is wholly ours. But is it? Where has the impetus for the decision come from? Does it not begin outside of us? Of course we are free to decide whether to respond or not, but this is only the most superficial dimension of the freedom we possess. As we enter into the enactment of our resolution we become more conscious of the extent to which we have been robbed of the initiative. We realize that we were never really free in an absolute sense. Obligation always means the recognition that we are obliged, without a choice of alternatives. The other has already presented me with an imperative before the possibility of imperatives has even arisen for me. In any moment of genuinely moral resolution we see that the image of autonomy as a realm of impregnable personal freedom has been a mirage or, at best, a partial perspective on the dynamic of existence in which we find ourselves. We are still free to disregard the call of duty, in that sense we are free, but we are not free simply to disregard it for that is the very meaning of duty. Our freedom, at the very point at which we become most aware of it, has already been spoken for. The static conception of autonomy prompts us to think that we possess it, in the same manner as we possess our good looks or our lunch, but the truth is that autonomy possesses us, in the way that a wave is carried by the ocean. Autonomy is the movement of obligation through which it is exercised.
The problem is that the language of autonomy robs autonomy of its most serious connotations, suggesting an unlimited caprice rather than an acknowledged obligation toward others. Those others can lay claim to our responsibility only to the extent that we have opted to make ourselves responsible for them. Responsibility is always conditioned, never thrust upon us in all its unconditioned primacy. Our moral language, the words by which we live, seems to have curiously betrayed us. A strange disorientation pervades contemporary society as we blame the very highpoint, the differentiation of autonomy, for the decline of responsibility universally lamented. Autonomy, utterly disconnected from any other imperatives, has led us into a narcissistic wasteland where the possibility of truly moral action has evaporated. Semblances of the heroic struggle may still be indulged but they rise no higher than the exertions of contestants in trivial competitions. “Reality TV” is of course so-called precisely because of its unreality. Life itself is not a game from which one might withdraw or be withdrawn, nor is it a struggle to which one can commit oneself only in part. Yet everything about the discourse of autonomy suggests that we retain the capacity to opt in or out as the inclination takes us. It is too late that we discover that this vaunted independence, by which we may choose to give ourselves only in part, is an independence unworthy of the name. A responsibility become wholly discretionary has made it impossible to lead genuinely human lives. Love, tragedy, and joy have become possibilities foreclosed to us, for they are not available to the faint-hearted. Only those willing to risk all can gain all, the only self-determination worth achieving. Interpreted strictly in its own terms, self-determination never moves beyond the self. Autonomy holds out a promise as spurious as any of the self-absorbed celebrities that pervade our mass media.
Definition of Person as Depersonalization
The deformation we inflict on our true selves is not by any means the cruelest effect of our cultural obsession with the self. Amnesia in regard to the moral enlargement required of us is only a prelude to the callousness we direct toward others. Lives that have become superficial are already inclined to view the suffering of others with superficiality. Indifference to our own destiny is of a piece with indifference toward the fate of others. But what is most disturbing is not only that the language of respect for persons provides no obstacle to this devaluation of persons, but is actually complicit in their destruction.[xxv] The loss of self at the hands of a language of self-determination is a prelude to the willingness to destroy other selves. How has this come about? The answer returns us again to the insufficiently developed account of the person, the discussion of persons as if we stood outside of the universe about which we discourse. Ironically, it is the heightened sensitivity to the autonomy of persons that has left us so insensitive to the violations we perpetrate. Less inhibited by traditional moral strictures we move ahead, confident that the resources of a personalist perspective are sufficient to guide us. At the point where we least expected it, our conviction of moral superiority, disaster has struck. The problem is so close to us, so inescapably tied into our dominant modes of thought, that our world has scarcely been able to account for the crisis afflicting it. Indefinable anxiety about the moral environment in which we find ourselves is a long way from piercing the source of foreboding. How can we admit that it has been our very principles, about which we were most certain, that have betrayed us? How can we even think about the crisis if we no longer have reliable categories of thought? Such painful reflections are offered by way of a preparation for rethinking our moral discourse, which must begin with the recognition that even its most forceful critics have scarcely scratched the surface. The accusation that an exclusive focus on autonomy yields only a superficial self-absorption is itself only a superficial critique.
The deeper problem is that the discovery of autonomy, our conception of the person, suggests that we have understood ourselves. Now we, as persons, can stand outside of ourselves. A new self-assurance has taken hold where, by right, a deepening of mystery should have been acknowledged. One begins to appreciate why Heidegger turned away from ethics as a realm of peculiar thoughtlessness. Precisely where modern man had discovered the self, the innermost imperative of autonomy, forgetfulness has overtaken him. Now he is in possession of a definition. What could be further from the truth? How can we as persons know what it means to be a person? We can live within and deepen its mystery, but to comprehend it would be to somehow overleap the condition through which we think about ourselves. Nowhere are the consequences more appalling than when the definition is wielded as a weapon. Self-assurance brings with it the confidence that we now possess the confidence of drawing lines. Where tradition had left demarcations between the personal and the prepersonal murky, now we approach the task with full mastery of the requisite distinctions. The point at which the person is present and the point at which he or she ceases to be could be identified with precision. No longer would the appeal be made to the standards of an indefinable metaphysics. Now we possess the more concrete and realistic criteria that the language of personal autonomy has provided. Interminable irresolvable disputes could be dispatched by resorting to the requirements of personal autonomy that inform every discussion. The only problem is that such resounding optimism has been sorely disappointed. We have not put paid to the disputes and it is instructive to consider why.
Could it be that the initial confidence was misplaced? Much has revolved around the conviction that we are in possession of a definition of the person from which unassailable public criteria could be derived. This is certainly the way in which jurists have approached the issue. All of the cases dealing with the permissibility of abortion and, by extension, euthanasia, have conceded that if the fetus or the comatose is a person then they are entitled to the full protection of the law. The law is after all centered on the protection of the rights of persons. This is the one clear point acknowledged by all sides. But having been conceded it is, at least in legal circles, promptly forgotten. The reason is obvious. The law cannot comment on what its operation must presuppose; no legal system can provide its own foundations. Judges cannot be expected simultaneously to apply the law and to step outside of it in order to judge its presuppositions. Already the peculiar nature of these cases is disclosed. Even the admission by judges, that they are uncertain as to when a person, with all of the rights and prerogatives pertaining to such, is present, already opens up a lacuna in the decision that vitiates full legal authority. A fissure has appeared that cannot easily be closed. Could these be the kind of cases in which judges have no alternative but to ask about the presence or absence of persons, precisely what is ordinarily presupposed? If indeed judges must now ask whether these are indeed parties to whom the law applies, then on the basis of what legal warrant will they make that determination? How can the law guide them in assessing what the law itself presupposes? The logical and legal abyss that looms is sufficient discouragement to perceptive jurists who wisely decide to ignore the whole issue. That practical response cannot finally, however, dispel the nagging awareness that “life cases” are not really cases in the ordinary sense of the term. Perhaps they do not properly fall under their jurisdiction.
By default the issue is transferred to the court of public opinion where the question of personhood is debated by the most professionally adept segment, philosophers. There the dividing line is between those who argue on the basis of the autonomy grounded notion of personhood and those who insist on broadening the terms to some foundation in nature. The latter group generally argues on behalf of what is called a pro-life position, or a more vigorous protection of the rights of the unborn and the terminally ill. They concede that while all of the characteristics of personhood, including the exercise of autonomy, may not be present, the unborn and the comatose should nevertheless be treated as persons. Membership in the human species is sufficient to warrant such respect, while anything less is tantamount to a deprivation of human dignity. To draw the line on the basis of any criteria other than possession of human nature is to select some arbitrary basis that ultimately undermines respect for humanity as such. Now whether this is an argument from nature is somewhat doubtful, since it seems to rest ultimately, not on a conception of nature, but on what we owe to others simply by virtue of their membership in the human species. The position is derived, not from a factual judgment about what constitutes a human being, but from the moral conviction that respect for rights requires us to refrain from judging the adequacy or inadequacy of one another’s participation in our common human nature. While not proximately an appeal to what we owe to one another as persons, it is nevertheless an appeal that is derived from such a conviction.[xxvi] In other words it is a variant of a personalist argument that insists on the inseparability of respect for the organic integrity of the person from respect for the person as such. The real strength of this “naturalist” position is the consistency of reverence for the full human being irrespective of position along the spectrum of life. Respect, like the human being to whom it is owed, is indivisible. The weakness of this position is that it has no ready counter to the opponent who argues that we are indeed quite capable of making such divisions. To the extent that the force of the pro-life argument derives from the respect owed to persons, including their full organic integrity, then it remains vulnerable to the ultra personalists who argue that the organic prerequisites can indeed be treated differently. If respect for persons, albeit of different varieties, is the common ground then the advantage shifts to those who assert such respect in its purest form. It is after all persons that must be respected, not their material parts.[xxvii]
The shift of advantage to those who insist on a definition of the person as the guiding thread explains why this position dominates elite public opinion. It is the position most easily articulated. This explains why some version of the pro-choice position is the one from which debate usually begins, for the presence or absence of personhood is a powerful factor in the moral permissibility of abortion. It is only after the initial concession, of a scale of moral valuation from the fertilized ovum, to zygote, to embryo, to fetus, to newborn, has been made that reservations begin to mount as the consequences are contemplated. Reluctance builds, not just at each incremental step, but even at the very process of incrementalization. Should we indeed be engaged in the calibration of the value of human life at all? Is there not something profoundly disturbing in a practice by which we sit in judgment over the merits and defects of fellow species beings? We are in other words dangerously close to the reluctance that animates the pro-life side of the debate. The confrontation might even stabilize around some pragmatic compromise on which all sides could converge. But questions of principle cannot be compromised or, at least, they cannot be compromised in principle. Only a clarification of principle can produce a resolution. The assertion of a right to terminate human life, whether in its pre-conscious or post-conscious phase, cannot finally avoid taking a stand on the legitimacy of drawing a line around the emergence or disappearance of personhood. The definability of the person, especially in the constitutive role of autonomy, must be confronted in the full force of the challenge it represents. If we live within a moral order rooted in respect for the rights of persons as such, what is there to prevent us from limiting the application of rights to those whose personhood clearly makes them claimants to rights?
Both sides concede that inviolable respect is owed to persons as such. They differ only in the extent to which they think the person can be separated from the non-personal constituents. How can we demonstrate respect for the person, the pro-life side asks, so long as we disregard the biological substratum that makes the person possible? How can we pay adequate respect to persons, the pro-choice side asks, if we do not sufficiently distinguish the value of the person as such? Persons are inseparable from the whole by which they exist, or they are precisely what give value to the whole. Opposing sides appear to have reached a stalemate, although they are variants of the same position. Knowing what our moral obligation is, respect for persons as such, has generated the impression that we know what persons are. The dynamic of obligation has frozen into a conceptual moment. This is why, despite appearances, the positions are no sooner fixed than they begin to dissolve. The naturalist, pro-life position, turns out to be a variant of personalist obligations, while the purely personalist position, of pro-choice, is incapable of maintaining itself against the incrementalist pressures of nature. Each side is in danger of conceding the strength of the other. Naturalism slides into personalism, while personalism gravitates toward naturalism. Inexorability seems to be at work behind positions that all sides assumed could be maintained in their fixity. Why? What is it that frustrates our best intentions to dominate the moral landscape with hard-and- fast demarcations? Could it be that we are ourselves part of that landscape, called upon to play our role irrespective of conceptual mastery? Could it be that we as persons can never fully understand what it means to be a person? That the whole enterprise of definitional clarity has been a massive misdirection? Such suspicions occasionally disturb the assurance of the protagonists, especially as they contemplate the inconclusiveness of the debates. But the murkiness is really only pierced when one side or another is prepared to follow the logic of its position to its conclusions. In this regard we owe a debt of gratitude to the most extreme exponents of the pro-choice side.
However unwelcome the contributions of writers like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer may be to their fellow positionists, they have performed an inestimable service in clarifying the implication of the ultra personalist foundation of rights.[xxviii] Quite simply they have acknowledged what few were prepared to admit: that there is no essential difference between abortion and infanticide. The reason why the controversy over partial birth abortions has caused such discomfort is because the debate made the same connection factually clear. Late term abortions are only possible if the fetus is actually killed before full delivery from the uterus. Yet it is one thing to acknowledge such painful medical details and another to declare they are morally permissible. Tooley and Singer have even gone further. They have conceded that the same moral arguments justify infanticide for the first couple of months. The implication is advanced without the slightest hint of irony, unlike Swift’s modest proposal to alleviate poverty by making babies available for consumption. Tooley and Singer have not set out to shock us into a repudiation of abortion. On the contrary their suggestions are advanced with the intention of demonstrating its permissibility. How we might ask was it possible for them to overcome the revulsion that most observers cannot suppress at the prospect of treating the tiniest infants as expendable? The question is important because Tooley and Singer are not bad men. They speak out of the best humanitarian sentiments. In many ways they have reached their position by giving excessive weight to the very principle by which our public morality is grounded. Respect for persons, if it is the bedrock on which we erect an order of rights, implies that we know what persons are. To take the task of definition less seriously is to erode the very respect for persons we seek to enthrone. Tooley and Singer enjoy their notoriety largely because they have carried our principles further than we care to apply them. Could it be that the principles contain the seeds of their own subversion? Does respect for persons eventually bring us perilously close to the project of definition by which they are disrespected?
Let us look at the argument. Respect for persons implies that we can specify what persons are. Tooley and Singer propose a list of criteria derived from our common sense perception of what is necessary to identify someone as a person. The individual must be conscious, capable of deliberate engagement with the world around them, and therefore of knowing the self and the non-self in their fundamental distinction. Such individuals would therefore be open to relating to others, just as they would simultaneously acquire a relationship with themselves. Acquisition of a stable sense of identity, a concept of self, is the essential turning point, for it is then that the person as person has been actualized. Relationships with others can be mutual. But, most importantly, it is only at the point of conscious self-identity that a person can wish for his or her own continued existence as a singular identity. Legally this is the most crucial step, since the assertion of a right to life is dependent on the awareness that one is a wholly separate and identifiable being. Without personal identity there can be no assertion of personal rights. To the extent that this is the fruit of a process of development, we may confidently assert that the entitlement to rights cannot be exercised until the process has reached its conclusion. Adult animals, Singer insists, possess a rudimentary notion of self and therefore entitlement to a corresponding rights respect. But the fetus and the newborn only gradually gain such a notion over a period of months and are therefore not a legitimate locus of rights claims. They cannot expect a certain mode of treatment because they do not yet possess the self-identity from which any expectation can be generated. The logic of infanticide is inexorable once we concede that only persons are the legitimate bearers of rights. Newborns humans are no different from newborn kittens. Lacking even the minimal capacity of self-awareness they can be disposed of in the same way.[xxix] No injury is done to beings that cannot even know that deprivation of life is an injury to them.
No doubt this reductio in extremis is one of the strongest arguments on the pro-life side, calling attention to the inconsistency of a cut-off criterion at any stage of fetal development. But our purpose here is not to applaud the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing sides. We pause only to note the irony. The strongest argument against abortion is provided by those who favor it. A deep illogic is at work within arguments that follow their logic only to find it overturned. Why does respect for persons cut both ways? Including right through the center of the human beings involved? Is the violence inflicted on bodies, albeit tiny ones, somehow already present in the language through which we think about them? Could it be that the heightening of reverence for the autonomy of the person has not gone far enough, to include a reverential heightening of the language in which the aspiration is itself expressed? In other words, it appears that the personalist approach to the life issues has fallen short in a way that parallels the deficiencies of personalist philosophy as a whole. The mistake has been to assume we could talk about persons in a non-personalist way. Confident that we always know what we are talking about, we could not allow the personalist revolution to challenge the formulations in which it was expressed. Definition of the person was allowed to intrude, rather than submit to the realization that the person remains indefinable. Or this insight might even be conceded in general, but never allowed to penetrate our actual speaking. We remain the owners of language, no matter what the content may acknowledge, for speaking establishes our superiority to the said. We might even have been able to get away with this invincibility, except when it came to discoursing about persons. Then we could not quite shake the awareness that we too are persons and incapable of sitting in dispositive judgment on other persons. We can only regard others as persons to the extent that we enter into conversation with them. The other must always be a Thou if he or she is to escape becoming an It.
Responsibility is Prior to Definition
When we talk about persons as beings whose autonomy must always be held sacred, we mean that they can only be known as persons, through their free self-disclosure. The philosophical naiveté of the attempt to define the person is evident once the project is contrasted with the inner access to the other that is the only basis for our knowledge of others. But the putative definition fails also on its own terms. The very meaning of autonomy, as that which follows its own law, is irreducibly self-determining. What is the value of such a definition, if it is not to proclaim that no definition is possible? A person is, strictly speaking, indefinable. Otherwise he or she could not be a fount of limitless self-enactment and self-disclosure. No matter what a person says or does, he or she is not what is said or done. Whatever the expression, the person has already escaped it. This is the very meaning of what it is to be a person. One is always that which escapes the modes of tangible presence, otherwise one could not carry out the diurnal process of self-unfolding. A person remains a mystery, unfathomable even to him- or herself. Whatever they are, whatever definition is advanced, even the most exhaustive enumeration, they are not that. A gap has intervened that is not a sheer absence but a mark of the infinity from which each one springs. The possibility of endless love and limitless conversation between human beings arises from this evanescence of what, if it were to be present, if it were to be identified or defined, would suffocate life within the black hole of finitude. Inexhaustibility, unfathomablity, unattainability are the marks of the person, but they are always marks in the mode of what escapes all identification. There are indeed no marks, only traces of what cannot be traced because the person has already moved beyond the place occupied in tracing. It is this uncapturability that Kant and his successors sought to designate with the term autonomy, not its reduction to a faculty psychology to distinguish those who can speak for themselves from those over whom we may work our will.
Even in their least expressive state human beings never recede to the point of indifference in our relationship toward them. It is not necessary for them to be capable of addressing us for the word of address to reach us. Thou is said even by one who can no longer say anything at all. This is why we care for them out of the certainty that they never reach the point of expendability. There is no moment at which their value is exhausted, not because of a reserve capacity they possess, but because they have already bestowed the inestimable value of obligation upon us. Before any weighing of contributions and attainments, before any talk or thought of any kind, there is the primordiality of obligation. We are bound in relation to the other before we even know the other is present. We cannot place conditions on a relationship that is unconditioned, for we cannot ordain in advance what the limits of obligation might be. It is the other in his or her need who imposes the limits on us. Nothing of course necessitates our response. We remain free to turn aside, but we are not free to ground our freedom in anything but the unmerited and unanticipated gift of the other. Emmanuel Levinas has emphasized that the other is closer to me than I am to myself, in the sense that the relationship to the other is prior to my relationship to myself. My freedom, the exercise of my autonomy, has no other source than the movement of obligation that the other has already placed upon me even before I have come on the scene. Freedom is the opening toward the other. Response-ability may still fail but failure cannot abolish the possibility from which it itself arises. Nor can that possibility be hemmed in by conditions in advance, for that would be to narrow the range of possibility to the point of extinguishing it. Unconditioned responsibility is made possible by the inexhaustible obligation the other may place upon me.
We cannot define the other for we are already defined by him or her. That is why the project of defining what constitutes a person suffers an inner collapse. We cannot reach the goal before the other has already addressed us in his or her primordial need. The fetus is, in this sense, not a minimal other, a diminished assertion of personhood, but the maximally evocative other, the purest presence of personhood beyond all characteristics.[xxx] Who could be more in need? Who could be more completely and totally dependent? Who could be more vulnerable? Such questions aim, not at awakening a sense of guilt, the pangs of conscience, but at the more fundamental relationship through which moral discourse becomes possible at all. Appeals to moral responsibility can always be rejected through the most reasonable refusal of unreasonable burdens. We have no obligation to remain tied to the famous violinist who will surely die if we sever the connection, as in Jarvis Thomson’s hypothetical illustration of pregnancy.[xxxi] But can we disconnect ourselves from obligation as such? Can we reach the point where we consider in supreme indifference the nature, limits, and rights of all involved? Is it possible for us to choose the obligations to which we will submit? How will such submission ever be obligatory for us? Responsibility is not something we choose but something that chooses us, otherwise the possibility of responsibility would cease to exist. We may not have responsibility for the violinist who needs a continuous blood transfusion, but we can never step outside of the bonds of responsibility as such. Sooner or later the cry of the other will pierce our shell as the voice we recognize precisely because it was already present within us before it was even uttered. Is this not the essence of the fetus? He or she is the purely other that we know as other because it is an otherness we have always carried within. The child, Levinas has emphasized, is another I, but not the same, as truly other.[xxxii] Knowledge of the other is reached through responsibility. To kill the other is therefore not just a possibility, but the abolition of the possibility within which we live.
The moral language of personal autonomy has failed to intimate the enormity involved in the termination of life. These are not just options within a field of possibilities but the very boundaries by which the range of possibilities can be demarcated. To abort the child is not just an action open to our indifferent choice, one without reverberations for the actor him- or herself. Rather, over and above the termination of the child, is the abortion of the mother. It is to turn aside from the possibility of motherhood. More destructive than the loss of life is the nihilation of possibility as such. Physical death is evil but only in the finite way that the foreclosing of a future is always undesirable. Real spiritual darkness arises from the turning away from the maxim of life. In the former case only one possibility is foreclosed, the latter is the foreclosure of all possibility. We are not free to pick and choose between the obligations to which we will respond, for they are indivisible. We can only be serious about one if we are serious about all. To fail in one is in some sense to fail in all. That is why the breach of the moral order is so momentous. It is not an incidental shortfall. Somehow, our very existence is implicated in the breakdown. Being as a whole is infected by the outbreak. We play a role in the cosmic drama of good and evil whose ramifications go beyond our individual selves. What do such metaphysical extrapolations suggest if not that we cannot step outside of the moral universe in which our lives are transacted? Our preference for developing definitional parameters in advance cannot be supported. We are always too late to define what has already defined us.
The mother does not define the child, no more than the friend defines the comatose patient for whom he or she is responsible. Each is already defined by their love for the other that is prior to anything else. Who they are in each instance is defined by the other, the unique one who has uniquely called them into relationship. To some extent we acknowledge this in accepting that only the mother can decide or only the next of kin can determine what happens to the other. Responsibility cannot be objectively determined by third parties. But we have not quite faced what this says about the one who decides, viz. that he or she does not decide. The other, the unique one, has already decided. Responsibility cannot be shifted to an extraneous third party outside of the relationship. What I can know of the other is therefore only accessible from within the relationship. It is responsibility that illuminates who the other is. The other becomes knowable when we become responsible for him or her. This is the deepest affirmation of the personhood of the other. He or she has addressed us, making us responsible all the more by virtue of pure needfulness. Who could be more helpless than the embryo or the unconscious? Without communicating they nevertheless communicate to the consciously living. Their whole personhood, we may say, has been reduced to simply being there, yet somehow that is enough to be counted as a person. Why? How do we know? Certainly not by any objective criteria, for by all definitional tests of personhood they fall short. The only way is through the responsibility they evoke in the care-giver. Even before we know it their call has already reached us; they have taken us hostage without the possibility of escape. All talk of definitions and criteria in that context sound like rationalizations for evasion of responsibility. Could there be a more powerful testament to the presence of the other than the elaborate schemes of avoidance by which the burden is resisted? Before the silent unaccusing one, the pure presence of need, there is no escape. My responsibility is the measure of the other, for there is no measure that would limit my responsibility in advance. When the other, whether at the very beginning or at the very end of life, depends wholly on me then their call penetrates to the whole of me. Total dependence calls forth total self-giving as the only adequate response.
Communication with the unconscious other has been purified of all that is extraneous. It has become pure inwardness. The situation is similar in regard to the dead whom we can only know in the same way. Nothing overt passes between us. There are no words, no exchanges, no tangibles by which the relationship might be measured. But the dead are not present to us in the same way. They have no need for they have passed beyond all needs. The other, in the case of the pre-conscious baby or the post-conscious patient, has by contrast been reduced entirely to need. He or she no longer has anything to offer, not even by way of gesture to let us know who they are. Only their need, the need of the living, brings them within us. Their presence, to the extent that they are no longer or not yet present to themselves, lies wholly within us. This is of course essentially the same with all others who are known, not primarily through the gestures by which they address us, but through the inwardness by which they are held in themselves beyond all gesture. Even the name by which the other is familiarly known fails to attach a stable identity to the other. Only the inwardness by which the other is known beyond all fixity of names gives us access. That is paradigmatically the case with the fetus who has not yet been named and the comatose who can no longer answer to a name. Far from falling short of the requirements for personhood we might say that they exemplify them perfectly. Their claim rests purely on the inwardness by which they are known, thereby bringing to light what it is that enables us to know persons at all.
The project of defining the person, an unfortunate consequence of our heightened awareness of what constitutes a person, fails because a person is precisely what escapes all definition. Abortion and euthanasia cases, far from turning on the definition of the person, are in effect the point at which the defintional project is overturned. Personal relationships through which we assume responsibility for the other cannot be subsumed within universal categories outside the concreteness of those relationships. We can no more assume impersonal responsibility for the other than we can come to know the other impersonally. Somehow the personal exceeds the universal. This is what Buber sought to convey in insisting on the irreplaceablility of I-Thou relationship. So long as we remain at the level of generalities we have not even begun to know the concrete otherness of the person. No one is exempt from this imperative of concreteness or this concreteness of imperative. The other cannot be known outside of relationship to the other and relationship is impossible outside of the acceptance of responsibility for the other. The person is that which exceeds the universal.[xxxiii] This formulation of Kierkegaard is the closest we come to a definition, that is, a definition that operationally cancels itself. The challenge of developing a personalist language of persons cannot be avoided. It certainly cannot be sidestepped by simply distinguishing between a personal and an impersonal formulation, I-Thou and I-It, as a distinction that can be maintained simply by stating it. The divisions bleed over into one another, as the abortion / euthanasia debates illustrate, because we must constantly shift from the language of others to the language of third parties. The personal and the impersonal cannot be so neatly held apart unless we want to risk the kind of confusion in which talk of the dignity of the person opens the prospect of depersonalization. A far-reaching change is required. From the easy confidence in our ability to conceive a resolution, so long as definitional arguments are sufficiently mastered, we must shift to a perspective in which our capacity to talk about others as third persons, with all the unavoidable objectifications, is utterly abandoned. Before we talk about human beings we must first take responsibility for them.
The suggestion seems elementary, even pious. Suffused with the superiority of discussants we are inclined to regard the admonition as perfunctory. Having conceded its desirability we can force our way through the amnesia that overhangs our debates. Perhaps we could not even debate if we allowed ourselves to be interrupted by the cry of those whose distress scarcely makes a sound. But the hollowness of argument would have reached our ears. Even in the absence of a sound from the other there is still the echo of our own voices become irritatingly noticeable. The illusion that we talkers are alone in our discourse has been shattered. Yet even for those who allow the unease to penetrate and disturb their serenity the situation is not easy. How do we talk about third persons in the mode of otherness? We do not have a readily available means of making the transition. Nor can we simply avoid the topic altogether. We have to address the rights of the unborn and the comatose while we are not immediately and directly responsible for them. Policy is not generated out of each person’s individual world. The otherness, the personhood, of those coming into and departing from life must be protected while they are not at this moment others to us. Merely pointing out the difficulty, as personalism has done, is not sufficient. A way must be found of taking the language of third persons, with all of its definitional and calculative character, while simultaneously subverting it, in the name of the other who exceeds all categorization.
Law of Going Beyond Law in Responsibility Toward Other
More than merely recognizing the one who speaks for the unborn and the unconscious, the law must find its own way of assuming responsibility for what lies beyond the law. An opening is already provided in the acknowledgment that we are not all equally situated to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Special weight is assigned to those who carry the other inwardly through personal bonds, whether of blood or affection, that affirm the irreplaceability of the other. Law has thereby secreted within itself the question mark that overturns its own universality. Contrary to the conception of law as applying impartially to all, irrespective of individual differences, here it is conceded that the relationship of individuals makes all the difference. This is more than the self-recognition of the limits of law. It is tantamount to the admission that the prerogative is usurped by the uniquely positioned individuals. Their responsibility exceeds the responsibility of the law. Why? Because they have been entrusted. By whom? By the other who cannot speak for him- or herself. In other words, it is the authority of the I-Thou, of the other who addresses me before I have even been able to decide whether I am ready to be addressed, that surpasses the external authority of the law. The vulnerability of law is unexpected but only if we assume that law is invulnerable to the unexpected. To the extent that law is rooted in the unanticipated call of the other, indeed of all others, it shares the vulnerability of the person that is the very possibility of relating to others. If we are the sort of beings who can become responsible for others then there is no stepping outside of the perspective of responsibility. Openness to others is the very root of law itself, for it is from that source that the demand that all third parties be treated as others arises. The modification advocated here is therefore, not that law be radically overturned, but that it recollect its own emanation from the imperative imposed by the other. Recognition that those personally responsible are entitled to speak on behalf of others is not merely a desirable modification; it is indispensable to the very principle of the law itself. How then would such an acknowledgement unravel the tangle of the life debates? In particular, how would such an approach conform to the universal responsibility of law that must step in when personal responsibility fails?
The answer is that law’s intervention must be informed by awareness of its own incapacity. It cannot put itself in the place of the mother or the next-of-kin, yet it must, if it is to be in touch with the reality it engages. Why should the law value the other less than the one to whom responsibility for the other is addressed? Even though the law is not thus addressed, made personally responsible, it is nevertheless in the same position if it values each as much as a mother or a friend does. In other words, the law is in the position of the mother or friend but more secure against the possibility of failure. This is its guarantee, a protection against the vicissitudes of personal relationships. As the overarching mother or friend the law must bend itself toward the perspective not naturally available to it. Indifferent to the particular, the law must be prepared to acknowledge the pull of the particular other as the inestimable. Only in this way can respect for persons be accorded as that which can never be fully enough respected. Without entering into relationship with the other the law must acknowledge that disclosure of the other is only reached by such relationship. If the law steps in, as it is intended to do, in place of the relative or friend, then it can no longer be neutral in regard to the other. Law too looses its freedom. It has no choice but to see the other as a person who calls on it, because the other is nothing but the need of the call itself. Whatever definitions of personhood law brought in advance to the situation, the urgency of the call of the other has shoved them aside. To raise them anew would be to murmur tones of dissembling that only thinly veil a desire to avoid the exertion that responsibility brings. The law too, once it has become responsible, has no choice but to regard the other as a person, no matter what vague generalities about consciousness and self-concept may be floating around in the background. The one who is responsible, whether it is single or multiple, is in no doubt that the other is fully a person in all that matters. The address of the other has penetrated all the way through. How can there be any doubt about an other who, even in silence, has been able to lay an imperative upon us from which there is no escape?
Law makes use of fictional persons but it might also itself be viewed as a kind of artificial person. Failure to live up to the responsibility uniquely placed upon it will have the same devastating effect. The viability of law, its capacity to represent persons in the care it exercises towards them, is deeply affected. If law turns its back on the most defenseless and most vulnerable how will it any longer be able to claim the authority of their protector? Why should anyone care about the condition of law if it turns out to be least useful when it is needed most? Who needs the law more than the most marginally existent members of the human species? If it is not made for them then who does it serve? These are difficult questions for a legal system to confront when it has immunized itself through professions of neutrality and anonymity. Yet things stand very differently if we follow out the logic that law is rooted in respect for persons. That requires law to place itself on the side of persons, leaning against an indifference that might be deaf to their call for life. The pressure is such that law too cannot afford to do anything less than lend all of its weight to their defense. In case of doubt about their status it must always lean toward giving them the benefit of the doubt. The task should not prove too difficult, given that the law is not entitled to doubt the other whose responsibility has been placed upon it. Just like the mother, the relative, the friend, law too shares in the uniqueness of the one called, even when that call is generically extended to all who stand in need of its defense. Studied indifference is no longer an option.
[i] A parallel critique of the limits of social theory has been mounted by the reassertion of theology as the framing horizon of discourse. See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). What is insufficiently articulated by Milbank and others who claim theology’s preeminence is the personal character of the relationship to God on which it depends. It is a personalist theology that is insufficiently attentive to its own possibility.
[ii] “Tantamne profunditatem creditis esse in homine, quae lateat ipsum hominem in quo est?” St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, XLI, par.13. Corpus Christianorum, (eds.) D. Dekkers and J. Fraipont (Turnholti: Brepols, 1956), XXXVIII: 470. This is from St. Augstine’s commentary on the lines “Deep calls to deep at the roar of thy waterfalls.” Psalm 42:7 of the Revised Standard Version .
[iii] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (trans.) Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1984), Letter Seven.
[iv] Although he is not generally listed as a personalist, Wilhelm Dilthey is probably the most significant theorist of the inner perspective within the human sciences. See Rudolf Makkreel, Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
[v] It seems that confusion engulfs us whenever the question of who we are and where we have come from is posed. “We badly need a clear understanding of what we mean by ‘human,’ otherwise the question of human origins remains confused.” This is the core observation of Brendan Purcell’s great synthetic reflection From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Hyde Part, NY: New City Press, 2012), 35
[vi] Pensées, S233.
[vii] This theme is more extensively elaborated in Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and is central to his whole notion of narrative as the mode of disclosure.
[viii] Some sense of the issues between them may be gleaned from Levinas’s essay, “Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge,” The Levinas Reader (ed.) Sean Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 59-74.
[ix] Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values:A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism (trans.) Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973); On the Eternal in Man (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2010); The Nature of Sympathy (trans.) Peter Heath (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2009).
[x] Bergson, Creative Evolution (trans.) Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan, 1960).
[xi] Karl Jaspers, Psychologie der Weltanschaungen (Berlin: Springer, 1960); Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (trans.) John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1972).
[xii] Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (trans.) Philip Mairet (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1952); A Personalist Manifesto (trans.) monks of St. John’s Abbey (New York: Longmans, 1952); Gabriel Marcel, The Existential Background of Human Dignity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963); Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good (trans.) John J. Fitzgerald (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).
[xiii] Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person (trans.) Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1979; Polish original 1969); Person and Community: Selected Essays (trans.) Theresa Sandok (New York: Peter Lang, 1993).
[xiv] No more poignant example of the incomplete state of personalist philosophy today can be conceded than the inability of even its most noted exponent, John Paul II, to effect a deeper intellectual influence. Among religious circles he is more widely admired for his positions and expositions than for the character of his arguments. Cheered for the firmness of his insistence on moral truth, he has nevertheless been unable to convey its foundation in what it means to be an acting person. John Crosby is one of the very few who even recognizes the extent to which Wojtyla represents an original voice within a philosophy anchored in the person. Yet even Crosby’s laudable efforts to extend and elaborate the personalist perspective have not been enough to connect it with the philosophical mainstream in which it is properly located. See John F. Crosby, The Selfhood of the Person (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996); Personalist Papers (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003). See also Kenneth Schmitz, At The Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla / Pope John Paul II (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), especially the final chapter for the reservations that even a sympathetic reader harbored toward the project. It has proved difficult to allay the fears of the loss of an enduring suppositum of the subject when the focus turns toward the interiority of action.
[xv] “The two sources which are relevant for the traditional anthropology — the Greek definition and the clue which theology has provided — indicate that over and above the attempt to determine the essence of ‘man’ as an entity, the question of his being remained forgotten, and that this being is rather conceived as something obvious or ‘self-evident’ in the sense of being-present-at-hand of other created things.” Being and Time (trans.) John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962), section 10.
[xvi] Even Edith Stein was still held by the convention of a psychological analysis when her philosophical project had been to think through what it is that makes a psychological analysis possible, i.e to think about what is not simply psychological. Finite and Eternal Being: An Attempt at an Ascent to the Meaning of Being (trans.) Kurt Reinhart (Washington: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2002).
[xvii] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 186. Jürgen Habermas has given voice to the shock of the reign of biotechnology without finding a way to ground the protestation. See The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).
[xviii] Summa Theologiae I, Q.30, a.4. Nevertheless Thomas clearly grasps the incommensurability in the notion of person which is overlooked in the widely quoted definition of Boethius that “a person is an individual substance of a rational nature.” See his cautious departure from Boethius in Q. 29, a.1 where he attempts a definition of person. “Therefore also the singulars of the rational nature have also a special name even among other substances, and this name is person.”
[xix] It is a position that is dangerously close to the vanity of the world so brilliantly analysed by Jean-Luc Marion. “The one who loves sees the world only through the absence of what he loves, and this absence, for him boundless, flows back on the entire world; if a single person is lacking, all will fall back into vanity.” God Without Being, 136.
[xx] Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way (ed. and trans.) Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 479.
[xxi] “If those glad tidings of your Bible were written in your faces you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book: your works, your actions ought continually to render the Bible superfluous, through you a new Bible ought to be continually in course of creation.” Nietzsche, Human, All too Human (trans.) R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), par.98.
[xxii] The situation is well analyzed in Patrick Lee and Robert George, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), although the argument for the wholeness of a human being turns on a comprehensive view of the person that is not fully explicated. It is personalist without acknowledging it, because it continually appeals to what it is like to be a person, i.e. that we cannot disregard our bodies. Only a person would know this.
[xxiii] Mark Cherry, Kidney for Sale by Owner: Human Organs, Transplantation, and the Market (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2005).
[xxiv] The critique of this dualism by which the self is a ghost estranged from the body has been forcefully advanced by the “incarnational personalism” of John Paul II. It is at the core of his massive reorientation of the sexual expression of love between man and woman. Yet even this enormously impressive elaboration of a “theology of the body” has not quite been able to shed the implication that everything turns on how subjects regard the meaning of their actions. It attempts to suggest that persons are not simply free to pick and choose between the interpretations placed upon their expressions of love but, without a sufficiently radical account of the person as what can never be expressed truly, the full emphasis on incarnation is not reached. Incarnate persons are still looked upon from outside as if they were never fully incarnate. It is the difference between seeing the body as a means of expression and acknowledging that it is because it cannot adequately express the person that the full dynamic of the body is so precious. In giving ourselves to one another we give more than we can give: the bearing of children that neither possesses singly. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, (trans. and introd.) Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books, 2006)
[xxv] Some sense of the impact of this realization can be gleaned from a remark of Robert Spaemann that seems to capture the provocation for his book on the person. “Suddenly the term ‘person’ has come to play a key role in demolishing the idea that human beings, qua human beings, have some kind of rights before other human beings.” Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ (trans.) Oliver O’Donovan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 2.
[xxvi] Francis Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
[xxvii] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
[xxviii] Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Derek Parfit Reasons and Persons (Oxford University Press, 1985).
[xxix] The reduction of the person to the phenomena of consciousness does indeed carry this astonishing implication that we are free to kill non-conscious persons. It has been countered with the assertion that the person is more than consciousness for it is consciousness that is a manifestation of the self-identical whole that is the person. The question is, however, how do we have access to that which by definition does not appear but merely makes appearance possible? One could respond that the very thought of manifestation is already a grasp of what is not manifested precisely because it is what manifests. Consciousness thus contains more than that of which it is conscious. But that is to concede that consciousness is always that of a person, that to be conscious is to know that one is a person who cannot be contained within consciousness. Indeed even the notion of self-consciousness and a self-concept do not properly speaking contain the self that always remains outside of them. The question of access to what is beyond consciousness is, in other words, answerable from within consciousness as its own inescapable dynamic. It does not require invocation of a soul as a depth concealed from its possessor. Above all we know about the soul, as Robert Spaemann suggests, within the moral life. There the self that is beyond the self, as that which cannot die, is unmistakably perceived as the very core of what is at stake in the moral life of a person. To acknowledge moral obligation is to recognize the immortality of the person for whom the mere passage of time is irrelevant. Spaemann, Persons, Ch. 13, “Souls.”
[xxx] It is notable that Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen in the their fine discussion of the science and the philosophy relating to the human embryo begin with the story of Noah, one particular embryo that was saved from a flooded hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The embryo is in each instance a solitary one whom we know only by having named him or her. We might say that it is only because we carry the name of the other within us, even before the name has been given, that we can know the other as other. What it means to be an embryo is derived from the notion of other. This is why George and Tollefsen, despite their desire to explain the uniqueness of the embryo through the science, nevertheless felt compelled to begin their account with Noah, the one. Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008).
[xxxi] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971).
[xxxii] Levinas, Totalité et Infini / Totality and Infinity (trans.) Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 254 / 277.
[xxxiii] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling / Repetition (ed. and trans.) Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 55.
This excerpt is from Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (University of Notre Dame Press, 2016). A conversation with David Walsh is available here. Our review of the book is available here as is David Walsh’s response and Macon Boczek’s reply; also see Brendan Purcell’s review of this book.