Fred Hutchison
What is personhood?
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By Fred Hutchison
November 15, 2009

Letter to the Editor, First Things

Robert George defines a person as a "dynamic unity of body, mind, emotion, will, and spirit." This is very similar to how the late and venerable Father Neuhaus defined a person, except that his definition was more complicated. The only time I ever sent a personal e-mail to Father Neuhaus to tell him I disagreed with him was about his definition of the person. Why did I have such effrontery? The way you define the person is critical. It affects everything.

The George-Neuhaus view of the person is not without merit. It makes one take an interest in the full-flourishing of human nature without neglect of any of the parts. Perhaps that is why the writing of Robert George and Father Neuhaus is wise and nourishing.

I cannot offer a formal proof that my definition is correct and that the George-Neuhaus definition is wrong. I can say that my confidence in my definition has increased over the years, because it consistently clarifies issues. My distrust of the George-Neuhaus definition has increased over time because more often than not, it confuses, obscures, and leads down blind alleys. The confusion between Brian Coggin and Robert George is a good example.

I believe that personhood is vested in the human incorporeal human spirit, and that the person expresses his "personality" through the mind, emotions, and will, which some theologians define as "psyche" or "soul." Consciousness and conscience is also vested in the spirit. The person is created at conception, is conscious in the mother's womb, and continues in conscious existence after the death of the body.

A book could be written about how this definition clears up doctrinal, practical, and moral confusion. Another book could be written about how the George-Neuhaus definition creates confusion. Allow me to offer two examples. With my definition, the abortion of a microscopic fetus in the womb is clearly murder, because a created person is attached to the fetus. It is not so clear the fetus is a person if you think a person is a composite being in unity. The fetus apparently does not have a mind, will, or a body. Notice the potential confusion and the dangerous arguments a pro-choice person could do with this.

The exact dangers and confusions arise with the elderly with diminished mental capacities. Are they still persons? The George-Neuhaus model allows a doubt about this question to creep in. My definition allows no such doubt to exist. The elderly with diminished mental capacities are indeed persons and possess consciousness.


A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Fred Hutchison

Frederick J. Hutchison attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as an undergraduate, and Cleveland State University to get his Master's degree in business... (more)

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