In philosophy, the question is asked seriously, without intention of insulting. A philosopher who misbehaves at a party and is reprimanded by another guest – “Are you a person or an animal?” – could answer, shamelessly: Eh, I really don’t know, philosophers have contemplated that question for hundreds of years.
What then is the philosophical question? It is usually described as the problem of personal identity. What are we, essentially? What constitutes “me”? What holds the self together? When does it arise and when does it disappear?
According to proponents of a psychological view, we (human beings) are persons with certain psychological capacities, such as self-awareness. That psychology holds the self together. If an unusual disease made my body deteriorate, but doctors managed to transplant my mental contents (self-awareness, memories, etc.) into another body, then I would survive in the other body. According to proponents of the rival, animalist view, however, we are animals with a certain biology. An animalist would probably deny that I could survive in a foreign body.
The difference between the two views can be illustrated by their consequences for a bioethical question: Is it permissible to harvest organs from brain-dead bodies to use as transplants? If we are essentially persons with self-awareness, then we cease to exist when the brain dies. Then it should be permissible to harvest organs; it would not violate personal autonomy. If we are animals with a certain biology, however, harvesting organs may appear as using citizens as mere means in healthcare.
In an article in Ethics, Medicine and Public Health, Elisabeth Furberg at CRB questions these views on identity. She argues that both views are anthropocentric. This is easy to see when it comes to the view that we are essentially persons. The psychological view exaggerates the importance of certain supposedly unique human psychological capacities (such as the capacity for a first-person perspective), and underestimates the psychological capacities of non-human animals. According to Furberg, however, even the animalist view is anthropocentric. How!?
How can an outlook where we are essentially animals be anthropocentric? Well, because the very concept “animal” is anthropocentric, Furberg argues. It originated as a contrast to the concept “human.” It distinguishes us (morally advanced beings) from them (less worthy creatures of nature). The animalist view is unaware of its own anthropocentric bias, which comes with the concept “animal.”
At the end of the article, Furberg proposes a less anthropocentric view on identity, a hybrid view that combines the psychological and animalistic answers to the question in the title. The hybrid view is open to the possibility that even animals other than humans can have psychological identity, such as chimpanzees. If I understand Furberg correctly, she would say that many animals are just animals. A snail is identical to the snail. It has no psychological identity that could survive in another snail body. Nevertheless, a number of animals (not just humans) have an identity that goes beyond their animality. Chimpanzees and humans, and probably some other species, are such animals.
I cannot resist mentioning that I have written an article about similar issues: Being human when we are animals. There, I do not purify a metaphysical question from an insult, but investigate the insult, the reprimand.
Furberg, E. 2017. “Are we persons or animals? Exposing an anthropocentric bias and suggesting a hybrid view.” Ethics, Medicine and Public Health (3): 279-287