Characteristics of Personhood
The ability to reason is seen as being one of the defining characteristics of personhood. Rationality can be summarised in our ability to make considered choices and decisions at a higher intellectual level. Rationality is illustrated in our ability to justify our thoughts and actions through reason, scaled to emotional or practical variables. Aristotle considered that the thought-processes that precede our actions are pivotal to personhood. Such thought-processes generally involve evaluating the positive and negative consequences of our actions, and deciding whether the ‘reward’ is worth the ‘cost’. This ability to predict consequences of our actions isn’t shared by the lower animals, and is pivotal in making the distinction between a person and a non-person. We have the ability to justify our beliefs and actions and to enter into reasoned dialogue with others. Rationality also leads to the ability to evaluate experience and draw logical, considered conclusions which will influence our actions in the future. The lesser animals lack this capability, a view which is illustrated in the following example: the squirrel stores food for the winter in order to survive, however the squirrel does not store food because it knows that food will be scarce in the winter; the squirrel stores food because of impulses governed by animalistic instinct, and nothing besides. The squirrel could not consider the possibility of an abundance of food in the winter, and decide that it did not wish to store food for the winter, and is confined to the demonstration of instinct. To further illustrate this point we could say that dogs have desires but they do not have choices. For example, when a piece of meat is left unattended, a dog would see it and eat it straight away because it desires the meat and has no regard as to whom it belongs or whether eating the meat would be of benefit to it. In this sense, animals such as dogs act on the basis of their desires. On the other hand, we as humans would firstly deliberate between the pros and cons of what to do with this piece of meat, taking into account the various factors and potential consequences of eating it. Humans will not simply act on the basis of their desires but will make a decision and then perform an action according to the decision that we make through our rationality. Possessing a network of beliefs
Possessing a network of beliefs is a characteristic that predominately distinguishes humans as persons, as opposed to animals. A network of beliefs can be formed on the basis of reasons in accordance with our rational nature as persons are able to reflect upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of the evidence of these beliefs, basing our belief system on what others tell us and on our own experiences. It is believed that in comparison to most animals, humans have a much more complex network of beliefs. For example, a dog may avoid eating chocolate because of a bad experience devouring a whole box - but it is doubtful that the dog is able consciously to hold the belief that “chocolate makes me sick”. A human, however, has the ability to make a rational decision from past experiences and act upon this belief. For example, if a person eats chocolate and is allergic to it and is thus made ill by it, through a network of wider beliefs such as “allergies causing illness”, “the feeling of being ill being horrible”, etc a person can deduce that “chocolate makes me sick and therefore I won’t eat it again”. Unlike animals we can have beliefs about the past and future and refer to these beliefs as the past and future; an animal may remember something as a belief from the past such as the chocolate but can only see how it will affect the present. We can also have beliefs about beliefs; humans have the ability to hold beliefs about possibilities and things that may happen in the future, whereas animals can only have beliefs about the actual and fact....
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