Personally, excuse the pun, I think a person is:
- a living human who once possessed self-awareness
- a living human who has the potential to be self-aware
- a living human who presently possesses self-awareness
Human Beings Once Possessing Self-awareness
However, it seems that some people are quite willing to sacrifice a person if they appear less than human. For example, someone who as experienced a brain injury that causes them to be in a vegetative state may be considered by some to be "less than" a person - if not a "non-person". And so do it may be determined by an apparent lack of self-awareness that they do not warrant the dignity that should be given a human person. This was the case with Terri Schiavo who was starved to death by her husband and the court system in 2005 because they decided that she was not a person any more. Did they stop referring to Terri as she? Unless they stopped calling her by name or referred to her as it, even they continued to at least refer to her as a person.
Human Beings Who Possess the Potential for Self-awareness
The unborn are living human beings with 23 chromosomes from each parent but they are also not considered persons by some people because they do not appear to be self-aware. I would say it is the potential for self-awareness that is important. Most babies do not appear to be self-aware until they have begun to interact with other human beings. This would be when they first smile or follow movement or turn their heads in the direction of their mother's voice. This would imply that a human being must have a certain amount of experience interacting with another human being - another person - before reaching self-awareness. But if you watch a baby in the womb, they smile and frown and cry, indicating that they are in some way they have already begun in some way to relate to others. How early does this happen? We have no way of knowing and so the potential to be self-aware should be included in personhood.
Human Beings Who Possess Self-awareness
If I am asleep, I am unaware of my surroundings. If I am asleep, I may appear to be like Terry Schiavo. I probably would not respond to people if they spoke to me. Does it mean I am not a person. Of course not. It simply means that I am asleep - temporarily unable to respond to others and therefore lacking self-awareness.
What Makes the Human Person?
So, is it current self-awareness that is important to making me a person? Or is it that human beings have the potential for self-awareness that gives them dignity? Or do they deserve to be treated with dignity because they once possessed self-awareness? I would say that it is all three.
The Haves and the Have Nots
If personhood depends on the "haves" - as in currently possessing self-awareness - the "have nots" are in trouble. We must all remember that personhood is intrinsically tied to human nature. We have value as human beings because we ARE persons. And while Horton, the elephant, would say, "A person is a person no matter how small", I think Horton would also say, "a person is a person and that matters all." All persons deserve dignity whether they once possessed self-awareness, or might become self-aware, or whether they are usually self-aware and are only asleep. A person has, had or will have self-awareness as a human being. Has, had and will have are all important terms in defining the human person.