The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 21, 2017

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

The Christian thinkers and Kass agree that we have dignity, and that dignity is more than our productivity or autonomy. But their concerns about dignity differ, at least in emphasis. The Christians’ concern is for the equal dignity of all human beings against the ideological and scientific destruction of unfit or inconvenient human lives. They uphold the dignity of every human being against euthanasia, “death with dignity,” denial of equal treatment to the disabled or otherwise “unfit,” murderous eugenics, abortion, and the scientific destruction of human embryos. Actually, not all the writers in this ­category are Christian, and many of them show with considerable credibility that theirs is the genuinely scientific view.

The special concern of Kass and others like him is that modern biotechnology will destroy the social conditions and natural capabilities that make a dignified ­human life possible—a concern more classical than Christian. They hold that a large part of human dignity is living well in the acceptance of necessity, and not in the undignified effort to throw every resource into fending off death, eradicating every form of human suffering, and creating for oneself an absolutely secure environment. The dignified flourishing of human beings is based on using our natural gifts well—not in replacing natural meritocracy with techno-equality. We assault our dignity, for example, when we chemically alter our memories and moods to make ourselves happy and proud without enduring relationships or any real accomplishments. These classical concerns are given a new urgency in Kass’s writing by the Nietzschean fear that we might actually be capable of transforming ourselves into contemptible “last men” living in a Brave New World of chemically induced contentment. In a certain way, Kass writes to defend the natural inequality of human dignity; he writes to fend off the degradation that would make absolute equality all too real.

It is perfectly possible to be alive to the concerns of both groups, and to see that human dignity, in truth, has its egalitarian and inegalitarian dimensions. But the writers in the Council’s book do mostly focus on one concern or the other.

Why Do We Have Equal Dignity?

The thoughtful evolutionary scientist Daniel Dennett, in his very positive contribution to the Council volume, says that human beings are different enough from the other animals to need morality, and he adds, contrary to Pinker, that we even need confidence in our equal dignity. He agrees with Pinker that claims for dignity have been basically Christian, and that these claims have been refuted by the scientific discovery that everything we think and do has a material cause. Our beliefs in dignity and the soul have the same status as the discredited belief in mermaids. It is no sillier to believe in a half-woman/half-fish that no one has seen than to believe in a half-body/half-soul that no one has seen.[15]

Dennett, however, has a scientific explanation for why we need the scientifically discredited belief in dignity. We are social animals who have brains big enough to conceive of projects that will enable us to live purposeful lives, but there is no scientific basis for the freedom at the foundation of human conceptions of purpose. So we cannot live well without useful illusions—free will, love, dignity, etc. Even the idea that any particular human life matters at all is merely a fiction—but a fiction worth maintaining. We have seen that nihilism has all sorts of undesirable social consequences; therefore, we need to sustain these illusions in the face of what we know about our accidental, material, and evolutionary existences.

Dennett’s ingenious solution to the incompatibility between scientific truth and our need for dignified belief is that we should justify our allegiance to the useful fiction of equal dignity by acknowledging the good life it makes possible. It is indispensable for the habits and trust needed to perpetuate social and political institutions. We can stop all this pointless obsessing over whether the belief is actually true by just admitting that it is not, but science can still explain why we need to believe it anyway.

Dennett’s pragmatic hope that we can stop caring about whether our belief in dignity is actually true is not shared by any other author in the Council’s book. In fact, the pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty had a simpler idea: let’s call true whatever belief makes us happy. Rorty, of course, never called his approach dignified. Dennett himself is too dignified to deny the truth of what he thinks he knows, and there is some dignity, too, in his humane intention to spare us the consequences of a dignity-free world. It seems he denies the reality of the dignity he himself displays only because to do otherwise would require admitting that human beings are mysteriously free from nature or materialistic causation. Yet in Dennett’s well-­intentioned confusion, he remains stuck with acknowledging that, in some way, we are the only species that can be held responsible for perpetuating both human nature and the very conditions of life on our planet. Is there really no dignity in that?

The eloquent and profound Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender agrees with Dennett in his contribution that any adequate defense of equal dignity would have to be Christian. For Dennett, this means that there is nothing you can really do to make yourself dignified. For Meilaender, there is nothing you can do to make yourself undignified, because your dignity comes from God.[16]

Meilaender acknowledges that the limited truth of the classical view of dignity is reflected in the ways we rank people according to their excellence in life. That is why the reconciliation of equality and dignity cannot be achieved through our relationships with each other, only in our common relation to God. We are all loved by and equally distant from Him. Christianity, Meilaender claims, “caused a great rupture in Western culture...that gradually reshaped the classical notion of dignity.” We cannot see our equal dignity without Christian eyes—which is not quite the same as saying “without Christian belief.” There is a dim perception of the truth about the mystery of our being in anyone who reflects compassionately about our common weaknesses and limitations, especially “our common subjection to mortality.” Every attempt to speak of dignity or equality in a wholly secular way leaves us disoriented, angry, and sputtering.

Meilaender means to distance himself from Kass’s view that dignity depends on human agency—and thus, necessarily, on unequal human accomplishments. Kass is wrong, he claims, to say that patients who lack agency lack the capacity to display their dignity. He gives the example of the patient who patiently endures his increasingly (but always) dependent condition. Such patients can be more dignified than Aristotle’s magnanimous man—who takes pleasure in his greatness, in part, by forgetting about his natural contingency.

Kass responds that a dignified patient remains dependent on his capacity to engage in thought and action appropriate to his human situation; he is always partly patient and partly not. A pure patient—say, someone in the last stage of ­Alzheimer’s—would be perfectly passive and so incapable of displaying his dignity. It is not so clear that, for Kass, pure ­patients are dignified, and that explains why he does not defend human embryos on the basis of equal dignity and equal rights. It is finally Meilaender’s faith that gives him confidence that every human life has equally irreplaceable significance, so he never has to engage in deliberation about the dignity of any particular patient. But to what extent should anyone’s religious faith be the basis of public policy? Part of Meilaender’s response is that even our Declaration’s defense of equality depends upon Christian premises.

The Roman Catholic, Augustinian political theorist Robert Kraynak agrees with Meilaender that in the genuinely Biblical view what we call our dignity is ultimately based not on our natural “essential attributes” but on God’s “mysterious love” for each of us. Kraynak adds that “God’s mysterious election” of each of us is what gives us an irreplaceable worth. Nothing is as important for understanding our dignity as “God’s creation of each of us for special care,” and that care is the basis of our loving duty to care equally and specially for each other.[17]

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