But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

Some questions are questions. Some questions aren’t questions, but have other purposes. If my wife walks downstairs ready for a dinner date and I ask, “Are you really going to wear that dress?”, she will not mistake the question for a question. 

personhood failure blog

Jesus received one such question from a religious lawyer (Luke 10:25-37). Having been told that the way to life lay in loving God and neighbor, the lawyer asks a very lawyerly question: “Who is my neighbor?” What might seem to reflect a concern for precision was actually an attempt to justify himself. After all, the answer would draw a distinction between his neighbor, whom he was called to love, and the non-neighbor, whom he could leave aside. In other words, it would shrink the circle of his responsibility.

We still hear the lawyer’s question today. Here is one modern iteration: Is a fetus a person? There has been much discussion over this and much ink spilt. Let me give you one example. In 1999, Tom L. Beauchamp wrote an article titled “The Failure of Theories of Personhood” (Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9.4, 309-324), in which he engaged what has been called personhood theory. In beginning his argument, he writes, “The common sense concept of person is, roughly speaking, identical with the concept of human being.”  Unfortunately, Beauchamp is not content to stick with common sense. He continues:

There is no warrant for the assumption that only properties distinctive of membership in the human species count toward personhood or confer moral standing. Even if certain properties strongly correlated with membership in the human species qualify humans more readily than the members of other species, these properties are only contingently connected to being human.

And so he goes on, one tortuous sentence after another. Although I am generally suspicious of things I have to read repeatedly to understand, I kept reading. His conclusion, however, was quite clear:

Many humans lack properties of personhood or are less than full persons, they are thereby rendered equal or inferior in moral standing to some nonhumans. If this conclusion is defensible, we will need to rethink our traditional view that these unlucky humans cannot be treated in the ways we treat relevantly similar nonhumans. For example, they might be aggressively used as human research subjects and sources of organs.

In plain language, Beauchamp is suggesting that some humans have to qualify to be persons, and that in some instances some humans would have less moral standing than a squirrel. That being the case, maybe it’s OK to remove the liver or the heart of a living human being for research purposes. Or to abort him. 

Some do not bother to do the philosophical gymnastics. For instance, consider the following, from a former abortion counselor: “If we are truly to defend access to abortion, and the personhood of pregnant people, we have to be able to say, unequivocally, that the aborted fetus is not a person. It is not a baby. It is medical waste.” The logic is simple—if we are going to have abortion, we cannot grant personhood to the unborn. Notice there is no attempt to take a serious look at who or what is being aborted. Although starkly expressed, her logic leads to her conclusion: If an aborted baby is not a person, he is medical waste. 

The move is as old as mankind. Draw a circle around persons, leave some people out, and do what you want with them. It is what the Germans did by calling the Jews “swine,” what the Rwandan Hutus did by calling the Tutsis “cockroaches,” what the U.S. Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade, defining persons in such a way as to exclude the unborn, and what some do today in calling those with severe brain injuries “vegetables.” People have a stubborn, instinctive, and God-given revulsion to killing people, a revulsion that must be dealt with if some people are going to come to peace with the killing of other people. “Fetus” is not nearly as threatening as “baby.” 

We know better. But we want what we want, so we engage in word games to justify ourselves. I suppose I could be corrected, but I have a hard time imagining a pro-choice woman, pregnant and sitting on her sofa with her husband’s hand on her belly, excitedly asking, “Did you feel the fetus kick?”

Jesus doesn’t bother to answer the lawyer’s question. He will not engage in philosophical (and philological) gymnastics. He will not even dignify the question. Not only is it not a genuine question, the answer is not difficult. For one who seeks to love, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to determine who qualifies. So, Jesus tells a story of a foreigner who helps a helpless stranger when others would not, a story which does not answer the question, “Who’s my neighbor,” but rather “What does it mean for me to be a neighbor?” We know it as the Good Samaritan. 

There was one helpful aspect of Beauchamp’s article: the title, “The Failure of Theories of Personhood.” Some things deserve to fail. Like the lawyer’s question, such theories do not seek truth, but rather seek to justify our doing what we want to do. Perhaps we should take a lesson from Jesus here, and refuse to play the personhood game. Simply call it out for what it is and get busy loving our neighbor. 

Written by the Rev. Dr. W. Ross Blackburn. Rev. Blackburn is the Rector of Christ the King, an Anglican Fellowship in Boone, NC and an Anglicans for Life’s Board Member.

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