The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

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

For Kraynak, neither philosophy nor science is capable of comprehending our full dignity. Science is bound to understand us impersonally or materially—as nothing more than “physio-chemical” reactions. Philosophy understands our dignity in terms of minds alone or of minds united to bodies. So philosophy, too, is incapable of seeing each of us in our irreplaceable uniqueness. The philosophic view of the world as primarily hospitable to the human mind is, in its own way, just as opposed to the mystery of personal uniqueness as is materialistic science. Both philosophy and science reduce the “who” each of us really is to some kind of “what.” As dignified “whos,” we know that we are mysteriously more than we can describe, and it is that elusive dignity that should temper the pride of the scientists and philosophers in any biotechnological effort to change who we are.

Dennett’s response to Kraynak is that any perception of mystery is only temporary. We will, soon enough, have a wholly materialistic explanation for all we think and do. That’s good news, however, because we will then be able to perfect our use of the fiction of dignity.[18] It seems to me that if dignity really is nothing more than a useful fiction, then what could protect our dignity better than a fictional theology based on a personal God who promises each unique and irreplaceable human being eternal life? Lots of people these days think that nothing matters because there is no support from God or nature for their personal experiences. Their anxious feelings of being so precariously contingent overwhelm any confidence they might have about their personal significance. The scientific hypothesis that our need for personal dignity is best served by a lie about personal theology is one that deserves more attention.

Moral philosophers Robert P. George and Patrick Lee[19] seem to say in their contribution that Dennett makes dignity dependent on seeing ourselves as less than we really are; we can see with our own eyes that our dignity is no illusion. Kraynak, meanwhile, insists on making dignity dependent on what we can see only with the eyes of faith. George and Lee, as good Catholics, surely believe in personal immortality and God’s personal love for each of us, but they do not think that each person’s unique dignity really depends on such beliefs.

For George, human dignity is a natural human excellence we all share. It is our “rational nature” (and not, as Kant says, our denatured reason) that elevates us, making each of us a person, not a thing, with the natural capabilities for conceptual thought, deliberation, and free choice. Each of us has what it takes to shape our lives as persons. That capacity to give moral self-­direction to one’s own life is worthy of “intrinsic ­respect”—whether or not a particular person has accomplished anything along those lines. We have dignity—and with it, absolute rights—the whole duration of our existence, because we are unique beings from the moment of our conception to our biological death. So we can never be viewed as expendable with someone else’s purposes in mind. The standard of nature allows George and Lee to include Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, the Declaration of Independence, and Abraham Lincoln among those who share their view.

Diana Schaub, who takes her bearings from the American Founders and Lincoln and not at all from the Bible, wonders whether there is any need to speak of dignity at all to make George and Lee’s case. Our free and rational awareness of our irreplaceability and precariousness—and our natural desire to preserve ourselves—is what should condition our relationships with other human beings. We refuse to be fodder for anyone else, and the contractual relationships we form are based on the reciprocal recognition of the justice of our refusals. The latest advances in science have shown that George and Lee are right to say that I am “there” from conception to natural death. Our Framers did not know enough to be able to say whether or not embryos have rights, but, Schaub reminds us, they did tell us to follow the light of science.[20]

For Schaub, it is science—and not some Stoic or Kantian or Christian conception of dignity—that has led us to a truer understanding of what is required to protect the rights of human beings. Her objection to dignity is that it introduces questionable, meritocratic, and completely unnecessary considerations into our political discourse. So Schaub sides with Pinker on dignity but with George and Lee on the reality of natural rights.

George and Lee do concede that, according to reason, there is only a very strong case for free will, while somehow remaining scientifically certain about human dignity and human rights. Schaub is less than fully scientific when she contends that, for public policy, it is better to rely on the authority of our Framers and Lincoln than on any theoretical or religious ­certainty about human rights. Less than fully certain is different, of course, from basically uncertain, and the preponderance of evidence about human freedom and dignity is clearly more with Schaub and George and Lee than with Pinker and Dennett.

Meilaender and Kraynak still have reason to believe George and Lee cannot give an adequate account of who we are without accounting for the mystery of love or personal logos, for that which animates our rationality. Even Kass, in thinking about our obvious dignity as begetting and belonging animals—in thinking about how we are godlike in some ways but not in others—turns from the scientists and philosophers to the superior psychology of Genesis.

Thinking about Dignity

This sketch of only part of the argument that animates the authors in the Council’s volume on human dignity has not resolved anything for certain. The defense of liberty in our time might well depend on knowing who we really are and why we are dignified beings; it is also possible that we can get by without talking truthfully about our dignity at all. Dignity, as Dennett claims, might only be a useful fiction or, as Schaub claims, a private concern. What should be obvious is that Steven Pinker is simply wrong to claim only tyrants and fanatics believe it is time to think carefully about dignity.

It also seems clear that understanding dignity purely in terms of autonomy and productivity will render it practically impossible to choose against productivity-oriented biological enhancement. Today, we allow people to get nipped, tucked, ­Botoxed, and brightened—to turn themselves into patients though cosmetic surgery and cosmetic neurology—for reasons that have nothing to do with health. The patient’s autonomy has come to trump even the physician’s Hippocratic Oath. But why do people usually make these free and allegedly dignified choices? To enhance their personal marketability or productivity.

Our society is more meritocratic than ever. So these are the best of times to be young, smart, pretty, and industrious. But the pressure is on as never before to possess those qualities. It’s no wonder that more and more people in our aging society are doing whatever it takes to avoid what seems to be the indignity, and certainly the loneliness, of looking and behaving anything less than youthfully pleasing.

If it is an offense against autonomy to say there’s something wrong with choosing against nature and for enhancement, then few may find themselves able to choose against enhancement for their natural moods, memories, or bodies. Even the most pointy-headed intellectual who actually needs to be paid won’t feel himself free to choose against the mood that makes him most productive in terms of the reigning standards of quantitative assessment. If there are no natural, relational, and dignified limits to our free choices, it will increasingly seem that we have no choice, really, but to maximize our productivity.

Republished from the current issue of Intercollegiate Review 44:1.

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  1. Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (2008). A version of this book will soon be published by the University of Notre Dame Press. I have an essay in the book—“Modern and American Dignity”—but it does not figure in the analysis here. The book also includes my “Commentary of Meilaender and Dennett,” from which I have borrowed some for this article.
  2. Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” New Republic, May 28, 2008.
  3. See Pinker’s testimony to the President’s Council on Bioethics, March 6, 2003, available at
  4. Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity.”
  5. The history of dignity presented here is indebted to the Council book as a whole, and particularly to Adam Schulman’s “Bioethics and Human Dignity” and Daniel P. Sulmasy, O.F.M.’s “Dignity and Bioethics: History, Theory, and Selected Applications.”
  6. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).
  7. Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 10.
  8. Charles Rubin, “Human Dignity and the ­Future of Man,” in Human Dignity and ­Bioethics.
  9. Kant, Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1981), 40.
  10. Leon R. Kass, “Defending Human Dignity,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics.
  11. Susan M. Shell, “Kant’s Concept of Dignity as a Resource for Bioethics,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, gives a more positive and arguably more nuanced view of Kant’s possible contribution to our understanding of dignity than the one presented here.
  12. Leon Kass, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity (New York: Encounter Books, 2002).
  13. The International Academy of Humanism’s 1997 statement in defense of cloning research in higher mammals and human beings, as quoted by Leon R. Kass in “Science, Religion, and the Human Future,” Commentary, April 2007.
  14. Kass, “Science, Religion, and the Human Future.”
  15. Daniel C. Dennett, “How to Protect Human Dignity from Science,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics.
  16. Gilbert Meilaender, “Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics.
  17. Robert C. Kraynak, “Human Dignity and the Mystery of the Human Soul,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics. See also Kraynak, “Commentary on Dennett,” in the same volume.
  18. Daniel C. Dennett, “Commentary on Kray­nak,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics.
  19. Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics. I have attributed this argument primarily to Council member George simply because it is mainly identified with him.
  20. Diana Schaub, “Commentary on Meilaender and Lawler,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, with Schaub, “Commentary on Nussbaum, Shell, and Kass,” in the same volume.
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