The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 19, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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The Human Dignity Conspiracy
Peter Augustine Lawler - 04/17/09

Transhumanists, Charles Rubin explains in his contribution to the Council volume, highlight through exaggeration another reason why it might make sense to identify our dignity with productivity: namely, our powerful inventions. Our present existence is most undignified. We are, as Agent Smith says in The Matrix, a kind of virus or cancer plaguing nature. We are the only animal that cannot achieve equilibrium with its natural environment. We individuals cannot help but be restlessly discontent with nature’s cruel and random indifference to each of our particular existences. Nature itself is an accidental, impersonal process, and we, in our freedom, are accidental exceptions to every natural rule. Surely it is undignified for us meekly to accept what nature imposes on us.[8]

We—the free, technological beings—can transform nature with our desire for individual security and significance in mind. We display our dignity by imposing our will on nature to create a world where we can live as dignified beings—or not, as miserably self-conscious and utterly precarious accidents. We can free ourselves from our all-too-human or natural limitations; we can bring our bodies under our rational and willful control. Dignity is displayed in the freedom that produces the rational control allowing us to give orders to nature, including to our own bodies.

The transhumanist impulse vividly illuminates Hobbes’ latent misanthropy. The point of human freedom is to devote yourself to an endless and ultimately futile effort to make yourself into something else. Kant attempted to counter that misanthropy with the other characteristically modern view of dignity. “Humanity itself,” according to Kant, “is a dignity.”[9] Kant agrees with the modern transhumanists that we are undignified insofar as we are determined by nature, by our embodiment. But he disagrees that our dignity depends on our technological transformation of nature. Each of us is already free and dignified, because what we think and do, insofar as we are human, is not determined by impersonal natural forces. We are free to treat other dignified persons as persons—not merely as impersonal means to achieve our personal goals. Anyone who reduces dignity to productivity turns other human beings into exploitable resources. The dignified being does not have a price, and we are all, as free and rational persons, capable of acting with our equal dignity in mind.

Leon Kass, in his own contribution to the Council volume, explains that Kant actually joins the transhumanists in opposing dignity to the way human beings actually are. For Kant, we are dignified insofar as we are free from the limitations of our embodiment. That means there is no dignity in “begetting”—what we do as devoted parents and children—and there is no dignity in “belonging”—what we do as devoted members of particular communities.[10] Kant’s dignity of rational choice ­accords no respect to what we do out of love; to be human is to be ­rational and willful, but not at all erotic. This means that Kant is the source of a kind of humanitarianism that reduces dignity to personal autonomy. For Kant, the person is fundamentally distinct from the human animal—the whole biological being—whom we actually know and love.[11]

Given the inhuman premises of Hobbes’ and Kant’s views of dignity, as well as the inegalitarian and somewhat vain premises of the Stoics, we might conclude that prudence dictates dignity not guide American public policy. Americans will be free to display their dignity through productivity, but that will be their private affair. Kantians will be similarly free to display their nobility, but the law itself should not aim any higher than the protection of “natural rights.” The Declaration of Independence does not say that the Creator gave men equal dignity, only equal rights. The Declaration does implicitly affirm a kind of dignity or rare excellence in the actions of men who put their lives and fortunes on the line for their “sacred honor,” but it does not suggest that in a rights-based country men should be required to put their honor before their rights. Rights, unlike dignity, do not reduce men to their “cash value” or require of them some supra-natural virtue. We might therefore conclude that our political community is sufficiently formed by our common devotion to equal rights, and that our necessarily unequal dignity should remain a merely private concern.

Dignity Now

Still, almost all the contributors to the Council’s volume, including the scientist Daniel Dennett, share a relatively new but widespread belief that our lives will become worse if we cannot speak publicly and confidently about human dignity. This new belief arose from what was learned in the experiences of the twentieth century—and the twenty-first. What the totalitarian regimes did was much worse than violating rights. The Nazis engaged in murderous eugenics on a massive scale, intent to extinguish whole classes of human beings and to reduce us all to less than who we really are. The Communists wanted to eliminate the very possibility of experiencing the dignity of living in light of the truth. Their goal was to have the historical lie of ideology replace who we really are and what we can really know. Through their courageous and truthful thought and action, great anticommunist dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel gave evidence of human dignity in the face of the ideological lie; their achievement is trivialized if one says they were merely defending their rights. Anyone who mistakenly identifies dignity with bare productivity or abstract autonomy cannot really see the natural, spiritual greatness of men and women ready to sacrifice everything to defend who we really are.

In the twenty-first century, biotechnology promises to provide us with the means of changing our nature to maximize our comfort, security, and happiness. Our dignity—as Solzhenitsyn showed us—might be a natural gift, and so we can say that historical efforts at ideological depersonalization were defeated by the indestructible greatness of who we are. Who we are by nature triumphed over “History.” But all bets might be off if we can actually change our nature. Our spirited resistance to biotechnological assaults on human nature cannot be viewed as merely a defense of our “natural rights.”

After all, Hobbes and Locke were clear enough that we should do what we can to change our natural condition with our comfort, security, and individual freedom in mind. In their view, our natural “gifts” are virtually worthless, and neither Hobbes nor Locke can really tell us why the transhumanist pursuit of freedom from all that we have been given is undignified. They cannot tell us why a professor, for example, has a right to resist taking a mood brightener to improve his teaching evaluations and enhance his research productivity, or why it is undignified to believe moods are just collections of chemicals in the brain rather than indispensable, natural clues to who we really are.

So it is little wonder that the defense of human dignity started to rise to prominence after the Second World War—in, for example, the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These documents do not claim to depend on any clear consensus about why we have dignity or rights, but they sprang from a new awareness that rights are insecure without some deeper notion of dignity. Human dignity also became a special concern of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe and was the foundation for religious liberty in the Second Vatican Council. We are dignified, the Vatican Council document said, because we are open to the truth about God and the human good. The Catholic emphasis came to be on the natural dignity of the whole human person—in opposition to the modern view that our dignity resides only in our autonomy.

Christian thinkers generally began to distinguish between dignity and (the illusions of) autonomy. Secular or Kantian thinkers either identified dignity with autonomy completely or else stopped speaking of dignity at all, because it had come to mean something other than autonomy. For the Kantians, anyone with an integral view of human dignity had fallen victim to “religious prejudice” incompatible with modern scientific materialism. But our scientists actually tend to say that there is no reality that corresponds to either autonomy or dignity. In their view, both ideas are based upon illusions about our moral freedom.

When Leon Kass wrote Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity,[12] he was dissenting, as a scientist, from the scientific denial of dignity. He was reflecting on what he could see with his own eyes about the unique place human beings have in nature. For most scientists, the discrediting of traditional religion has made all views of “human distinctiveness and special dignity” incredible, leaving us with the “scientific” conclusion that “[h]uman capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found in the higher animals.”[13] For Kass, the inability to see the dignified difference that separates us from the chimps and the dolphins is not genuine science, but “soulless scientism.”[14]

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