A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Problem of Personhood in an Emotively Individualistic Society

Richard Heyduck writes the following in a post published yesterday. I quote the post in its entirety for its full force and then I will add some thoughts afterward.
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In the past year or so there has been an uproar about corporations being treated as persons. Continuing my review of Bobbitt’s Shield of Achilles..., I find this thesis (p. 365):

The society of nation-states developed a constitution that attempted to treat states as if they were individuals in a political society of equal, autonomous, rights-baring citizens… In the society of nation-states, the most important right of a nation was the right of self-determination.

If you're familiar with Bobbitt’s work, you know he is exploring the transition from the nation state to the market state. In this context, and taking this quote into the picture, I have several thoughts.


1. The notion that a non-individual person would have attributes of a person, or in some instances be treated as a person is not a new development, and certainly not a evil act by corporate powers seeking to control our lives. While I'm not qualified to speak to the history of the corporation, I do know that the church has a long-standing tradition of thinking of itself as the "body of Christ," (corpus Christi in Latin), in one sense a corporate person.

2. The modern age has seen a loss of ecclesiological substance. I'd even say that our commitment to a biblical ecclesiology has an inverse relation to the dominance of individualism in our culture. As individual waxes, commitment to the church as the body of Christ, a community to which I give allegiance even when it costs me something, wanes.

3. Bobbitt says it has been normal to see the state as a sort of person, a corporate body. That is, this is how things have been in the (now passing) era of the nation state. One of the things that is an impetus to the rise of the market state is the rise of individualism. The rationale of the nation state is to maximize the welfare of citizens. The rationale of the market state is to maximize the opportunities of citizens.

4. One reason the market state is on the rise is that we individualists don't want corporate personhood, whether it be in the state or the church.

5. The market seems to me to be a powerful tool. At the same time, if it is the only tool we have, we're in trouble. The market is fundamentally amoral, just the concatenation of multiple choosings and willings.

If all this is accurate, then the challenge is: how do we avoid nihilism?
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I have been involved in discussions on this blog over the issue of campaign finance reform and free speech. While I have taken the unpopular position that free speech should truly be free whether "spoken" by individuals or groups, I have refrained from going into the matter of what actually constitutes a person in relationship to individuals or groups. The reason is that I think modern presumptions often make that debate unintelligible. Modern construals of personhood are nonsensical when one puts the emotivist individual at the center of moral reflection. Once that happens, what individual personhood means is under the sole discretion of the individual except in cases where that person is unable to communicate her or his personhood (e.g. the unborn and persons in a persistent vegetative state). Thus debates over who or what is a person become arguments over power-- individuals that assert their rights because of their "personhood" only by virtue of the fact that they can speak and assert that right, while those unable to do so are left at the mercy of having their personhood evaluated by those corporate persons, whether constituted in the form of a medical ethics committee or legislators or other special interest groups.

What gets left out of the discussion of personhood is an account of what it means to be human. In a long-ago written essay on this subject, Stanley Hauerwas noted that when Uncle Charlie is no longer a person he remains someone's Uncle Charlie. The great irony is that while the idea of common humanity appears important to some who argue for the notion of the common good, such humanity loses its significance when speaking of individuals in contexts where they cannot speak for themselves. Personhood only has individual significance while humanity is only important when speaking of corporate actions.

The problem for Christians is that very little of this modern debate is Christologically and ecclesiologically informed; and because of this Christians have entered into it with little that is fresh and insightful. We have assumed that the debate, as it is currently framed, works. The reason for this is what Richard notes in his post, "The modern age has seen a loss of ecclesiological substance." What I would say, with a little bit of different emphasis, is that the Body of Christ does not reflect ideal personhood (and I have no idea how that would look), but rather it should reflect God's ideal for humanity.

Thus, the loss of ecclesiological substance is Christological as well in that if the Church is the Body of Christ, it is Christology that reveals what it means for us to become collectively human. Thus, for Christians, it is the concept of humanity that should be at the center of these discussions, not a modern notion of personhood that is, frankly, more trouble than it is worth.

Without an understanding of humanity that is Christologically centered and ecclesiologically oriented, all we are left with is a situation where the people who get their rights as persons are the ones who can shout the loudest, while those unable to speak for themselves will be the vulnerable victims of the those who can decide their status for them because personhood trumps humanity.

7 comments:

Chuck Tackett said...

Excellent post Allan. I would agree that the sense of what it means to be human has definitely been skewed by our modern bias.

Our cultural treatment of science has reduced humanity to a mere biological organism. At the same time our American political culture has focused on the "rights" of the individual.

Regardless of ideology our culture defines personhood by the things and principles to which we as individuals are entitled (i.e. right to be protected or cared for by the government and/or the right to be left alone from government intrusion). There is some underlying philosophy behind these ideas but they are characterized as subjective and removed from the conversation.

Objective reductionism drowns out dialog because, as such enlightened beings, we are supposedly capable of understanding our humanity in rational terms that are defined, classified, and cataloged (did you notice how I used the comma before the "and").

Yet at the same time we recoil against this rationalism because intrinsically we know that we are more than just a collection of defined biology and behavior.

Secular ethicists such as Mill or Rawls consider corporate identity but in an inhuman way, more concerned about the larger political ramifications instead of an understanding of personhood. Yet it is exactly that understanding which must inform the remainder of their arguments. Thus they leave us with contrived ideology.

Understanding humanity Christologically is critical in order to have any valuable foundation from which to build a true sense of personhood. Buddhists and Hindu's might disagree with the specifics and atheists certainly will. Yet the atheist has very little else to offer because while they sense humanity they can't define it adequately.

PamBG said...

My question is: How do we protect the poor, who don't have the practical means of ganging up on the rich in a context where the rich have the practical means of ganging up on the poor?

I think we're sacrificing real-world instances of injustice and misuse of resources at the hands of esoteric philosophy.

What is the difference between "emotive individualism" and "compassion for the individual"?

Chuck Tackett said...

PamBG - how can you help the poor without some fundamental and communicable understanding of why we need to help the poor? Without that it's just your ideology against mine.

We have to generate a consensus on what it means to be human.

PamBG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PamBG said...

My reply is to Allan's post. Your post took one direction and mine another.

I don't disagree with you that society needs a common set of values. I'm not sure how we all sit down and hammer that out, though. What it seems to me happens is that laws are made, elections are had and we agree that certain actions are OK and others are not. From that we infer what our values are.

What I see from this process is that we value money/business and "freedom". I'm not sure in which order. "Freedom" in the US seems to be much more about an individual's liberty to do whatever he wants to do than it seems to be about either truth or goodness. (For example, UK liable laws do not include the freedom to tell bald-faced lies about another person and ruin his reputation, by which I infer that the US and the UK have different concepts of "freedom of speech").

I think that the US values the freedom to exercise personal whim above both truth and social responsibility. In such a context, the rich and/or powerful will have have the upper hand. I see the ruling on PACs as a manifestation of these values.

My opposition to PAC does not stem from a love of emotive individualism, quite the contrary. It stems from a love of truth and what I would call "natural justice" (and yes, I know, that's also a debatable term!)

Allan Bevere said...

I think that the US values the freedom to exercise personal whim above both truth and social responsibility.

Actually, Pam that is a rather nice way to encapsulate emotive individualism. I would add that in emotivism, personal whim becomes incontrovertible truth for that individual.

One of the reasons I have not weighed in on the whole debate concerning personhood and corporations is the same reason I have not entertained the same personhood discussion in reference to the matters of abortion and persons in persistent vegetative states-- personhood is problematically nonsensical and is almost always used as a power play, whether it's wealthy groups against the poor who have no voice, or whether it is used by special interest groups to determine the value of individuals who also have no voice.

Having said that, in theological terms the notion of humanity is something that can be a fruitful way forward in thinking about individuals and groups of people, and how both are to live in the ways of truth and justice and compassion; for it can legitimately refer to the individual and to groups, to use a major NT example, the church as the Body of Christ.

I would never suggest that this is a clear solution to the debate, but I think the sooner we jettison the notion of person from the discussion, we will be much better off.

PamBG said...

Then I'm very puzzled why you support the idea that PACs should be considered persons who have rights of freedom of speech above and beyond the human persons who comprise them?