To Know a Person is to Recognize a Human

Posted on May 5, 2020 By

by Julia Smucker

Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas once wrote, “My Uncle Charlie is not much of a person but he is still my Uncle Charlie.” This striking sentence introduced his argument on the limits of “personhood” language in medical contexts. Yet it also captures the power of having known a human being as a person, a subjective but universal human experience that belies attempts to categorize certain humans as nonpersons. It’s subjective not in the sense of being a mere matter of personal opinion, but of being rooted in personal experience (the experience of the subject). In Hauerwas’ example, I’ve experienced Uncle Charlie as a person because I’ve known him as a human individual with a name, a relationship to me, and human traits specific to him, and no ethical or philosophical abstraction can undo this.

That may be why children conceived but not yet born, especially in the abstract, are so easily dehumanized: they are not yet known in such a personal way, and so are easily depersonalized. On the other hand, this unknown-ness can be reduced, both through technology and through a welcoming attitude toward the child. One can see physical traits on an ultrasound and even catch early glimpses of personality by following fetal behavior, and one can name the baby before birth. It may even be possible, in the not-too-distant future, to use a human embryo’s unique DNA to predict what he or she may look like at a later stage in life.

Biologically speaking, a human is objectively human – at either end of the human lifespan or at any point in between – regardless of anyone’s personal experience of them. The significance of the subjective experience of knowing a human person, to put it in philosophical terms, is not metaphysical (pertaining to reality) but epistemological (pertaining to knowledge). That is, knowing someone as a person doesn’t make them human, but it’s how we know that they are.

To avoid confusion, it’s worth noting that there are two senses of the word “know,” both of which were in fact used in the preceding sentence. Factual knowledge is knowing (being aware) that something is true. Acquaintance knowledge is knowing (being familiar with) something or someone. Speakers of Romance languages will recognize this distinction in, for example, the words savoir and connaître in French or saber and conocer in Spanish.

What may seem like a minor semantic digression actually makes a major difference in terms of our experience of fellow humans on a personal level. We can know, factually, that each human fetus is an individual member of the human species, but if we don’t experientially know a particular human fetus in a personal way, his or her humanity can be psychologically easier to dismiss. A similar distancing can be done in relation to unseen enemies in war, more easily dehumanized when they remain nameless and faceless, or to asylum-seekers and refugees envisioned as an indistinct invading mass, rather than people trying to survive.

Conversely, the formation of interpersonal relationships across international conflicts or political divides is a powerful peace-building tool. And who can look at an infant whose conception was unplanned and think glibly of his life being cut short before he’d been born? Or who can listen to an asylum-seeker tell her story and think glibly of her life being cut short before she’d made it to safety in her new host country? It becomes harder to be dismissive of a human life when, in the looking and listening and relationship-building, a person becomes known.

For purposes of dialogue – as Hauerwas and others have argued – defining humanness is certainly firmer ground scientifically, at least as a starting point, whereas defining personhood can be more easily dismissed as a matter of philosophical conjecture. And yet, it’s almost universally agreed that the categorization of certain humans as nonpersons or less than full persons has defined some of the ugliest parts of human history, and one would be hard pressed to find an example of it that wasn’t for the sake of dehumanizing certain humans and thereby justifying violence against them. The facts of human biology bear reminding in their own right, but it’s also worth raising the question, are there then any humans that don’t qualify as persons?

It’s through the experience of knowing human persons that the two terms are psychologically linked. That’s why war propaganda perpetuates dehumanizing stereotypes, and it’s why abortion advocates take pains to avoid letting pregnant women see ultrasounds of their babies: seeing the human is the beginning of knowing the person. And once one has some experience of another person with their own personal particularities, that person’s humanity – and value – becomes that much harder to dismiss.

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See other posts from Julia Smucker:

The Price of Violence: When Dehumanizing the Vulnerable Hurts One’s Own Causes

Defining Reproductive Justice: An Encounter

What Does it Mean to be Inconsistent?

On Praying for the Military

Is Abortion Different from Other Violence?

A Healing Metaphor: Pandemic as War

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  1. Melissa says:

    Excellent article.

    I really appreciated how you linked the knowing of a person (the conocer sort of knowing) with accepting the person’s humanity. Much more than the factual, saber sort of knowing, the conocer sort of knowing has a gut wrenching aspect to it. I have often wondered why abortion advocates really resist the use of ultrasound. It seems a no-brainer to me that more information is better than less, and that a woman can’t actually give informed consent unless she actually knows what she is about to do, and who she is destroying. But then again, if she were to realize that the entity she was about to destroy was a who, and not a what, there would be far fewer abortions. (And more children that were in need of care.) The prolife movement is portrayed as being cruel for wanting to subject women to informed consent, because if a woman came to know her child (again, conocer, not just the intellectual realization that a fetus is human) she would be breaking a relationship, and that is heartbreaking.

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