February 20, 2011


The Human Dignity Conspiracy (Peter Augustine Lawler, 04/17/09, First Principles)

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]

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.

Sure, the aesthetic case for faith is less satisfying in some ways than the "personal experience of God" case, but it is still perplexing that even after they mount the former such thinkers as Rorty and Dennett still can't make the leap to accepting it as true.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2011 7:32 AM
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