Horton Hears a Person: What Do You Hear?

by Lois Saylor

Reprinted from the Summer 2017 edition of Shalom!

MOST OF US know Dr. Seuss and Horton the floppy soft elephant from the Jungle of Nool who listens with great concentration to hear the wee voices of Who-ville. He saves their lives three different times at great personal cost and public ridicule from a sour kangaroo, her young one, and a slew of Wickersham relatives. But through his ordeal Horton affirms with great philosophical wisdom and theological grace that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Many people agree with Horton. The pro-life community also believes that size doesn’t matter. A small person is still a person—embryo, fetus, a premature baby, or a newborn. Recently, however, Horton’s adage was used in a new way. A radio show discussed an insect that uses vibration to communicate. Apparently wind turbines were disrupting the messages vibrating back and forth. What to do? How should conflicting interests (clean energy vs. insect life) be resolved? No answer was proffered but the radio commentator said the idea of communication made the insect seem more “like a person.” Endearing sympathy for the little insects he said, “after all ‘a person’s a person, no matter how small’.”

The Brethren in Christ core value, “Pursuing Peace,” begins with the affirmation that “We value all human life.” To value human life is not to devalue other life forms, but it does draw a line of distinction between human life and all other life on our planet. We are right to be mindful stewards of the earth and life. This was the command in Eden passed down to us. We do not, however, legitimately equate insects with communication abilities to “personhood” as the radio commentator suggested. After all, animal communication is not unusual, but rather a creation norm from singing whales to chirping crickets to all kinds of distinctive mating rituals.

The question that is before us is how we use and define personhood or person. The radio commentator wanted to elevate the interesting insect by equating communication skills with personhood. Others want to use personhood to devalue humans. Humans with disabilities or the wrong age (too young—preborn; too old—near death) or in a state of non-communication are said not to have personhood even though they are human. In this way humanity is not denied, but the value of that particular human’s life is denied. When lacking personhood, individuals may be deemed expendable and then “rightfully” their lives can be terminated whether for their own good, the good of someone with personhood, or society’s good. Non-persons have no rights, not even the right to life.

Noted philosopher and professor at Princeton University, Peter Singer, divides personhood from being human. He once wrote, “…we should not accept that a potential person should have the rights of a person, unless we can be given some specific reason why this should hold in this particular case” (Practical Ethics). In other words you may be human, but you do not necessarily hold personhood; and personhood is the golden ticket to rights. The unborn, defective newborns, and people groups we want to dismiss can all be relegated to non-persons. Even without Singer’s sophistication of thought, humans naturally de-humanize those we dislike or want to take advantage of. A mafia boss in “The Godfather” said it was okay to sell drugs in the ghettos because those “dark people” were “animals.” They were non-persons to him. In another movie example, it has been pointed out that George Lucas’ violence in “Star Wars” was made palatable by the storm troopers’ armor, which rendered them as non-persons. In real life, we know the U.S. legal system did not recognize slaves as full “persons.” Based on German social Darwinism from the late nineteenth century, Nazi racist ideology “regarded Jews as ‘parasitic vermin’ worthy only of eradication” (Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia), which led to the mass murder of millions. We devalue humans whether we take away their humanity or take away their personhood. Our more modern delineations can lead to very old evils.

Looking from a religious perspective, Surjah Homglemdarom writes, “The Buddha tradition, especially the Theravada tradition, clearly states that personhood starts when the process of fertilization takes place.” Does Christianity recognize and respect the unity of personhood and humanity from conception to natural death? What should a Christian perspective be on the various issues we face especially in a world of rapidly changing medicine, greater understanding of complex animal life, and the burgeoning of artificial intelligence (AI)?

We already have literature and movies dealing with robots that evolve into persons (“Bicentennial Man,” 1999), or robots programed to love (“A.I.—Artificial Intelligence,” 2001) or romantic relationships occurring between a man and his AI computer operating system (“Her,” 2013). “Star Trek’s” Commander Data wrestled with the question of humanness and personhood in every episode. A dark forerunner into the question of what is human was the 1982 dystopia nightmare of “Bladerunner” where flesh and blood replicants blur the line between AI and human beings.

We should consider carefully and biblically who or what we elevate and whom we devalue when we work through these meanings of “human” and “personhood.” If Horton is right and “a person’s a person no matter how small,” we need to know and not assume we all agree on what a “person” is.

Lois Saylor is a member of the Harrisburg (PA) Brethren in Christ Church and serves on the editorial committee for Shalom!