April 30, 2022

In the middle of a dream filled (as dreams are) with impressions, moods, little fleeting scenes, I had a few moments of waking-style verbal thought. In the dream, I was sitting with my childhood cat, and we were feeling great affection for each other. And in the dream, I thought to myself something like: “This affection is so interesting. It’s the logical extreme of one of those stories where circumstances conspire to bring a odd pair together, and by the end of it they overcome their differences and recognize their similarities and become fast friends.” Here our circumstances are life on earth, and our differences are profound: a species barrier. Our similarities are in possessing some measure of personality.

Personality. Person-ality. Normally Latin suffixes like “ity” confer importance and rigor. (I remember, in college, chuckling at a particular English professor’s fondness for “facticity” in place of “factfulness” or simply “truth.”) Yet here the more mundane version actually sounds more astonishing: if we were to speak of the person-ness of animals and other beings, it would be more obvious that we are making a quietly provocative philosophical claim. We see animals and things with personality not as being human, but as still being at least somewhat a person, just as we see animals as having some consciousness.

Yes, maybe some of this is mere looseness with language (we throw around the term “personality” for things as abstract as brands), but it hardly seems loose in describing, say, the animals we develop deep bonds with. As we think of certain animals as dear friends, confidants, companions, we think of them as basically “like us.” We think of person-ness (like consciousness) as a spectrum, not a switch—one that extends well outside humanity. Similarly open-minded is our readiness (our eagerness!) to redraw the boundaries of family to include pets, who are not related to us as either individuals or species. If we can do this, surely embracing gay marriage, polyamory, or any other “controversial” family configuration is within our grasp.

That we so readily redraw the boundaries of person-ness to include animals seems quietly, impressively open-minded. That we do the reverse—readily think of groups of marginalized people as not persons—means that this philosophical flexibility is not a universal good.