January 14, 2012


Modern and American Dignity (Peter Augustine Lawler, 2008, Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics)

Our view of human dignity as human freedom from impersonal natural necessity or merely political determination may well depend on the Christian view of inner, spiritual freedom. As Bob Kraynak explains, the Christians believe that each person is radically independent of the social and political order and does not depend on external recognition from other human beings, although it may depend on my genuine recognition by the personal God who sees me as I truly am. And that inner freedom, in fact, is perfectly compatible with external servitude. My true understanding of my freedom comes, in fact, from coming to terms with the truth about my dependence, my limitations, my inability to achieve autonomy through either technological or rational efforts. According to St. Augustine, this truthful self-understanding is impossible without faith. Otherwise, we sinful beings are blinded by unreasonable pride or fatalistic despair about our personal or individual freedom.

Does the American understanding of dignity depend upon Christian faith, or a belief in the personal God? The view expressed in our founding documents and our complex tradition is not that clear. Our understanding of human dignity draws from both the modern understanding of the free beings with rights and the Christian understanding of the dignity of the being made in the image and likeness of the personal Creator.iv In our eyes, the doctrine of rights presupposes the real, infinite significance of every particular human being. For us, our dignity is guaranteed not only by the individual's own assertiveness but with some natural or divine center of personal meaning. Nature's God, for us, is also a providential and judgmental God, a personal God. That means our understanding of natural theology is not the one criticized by St. Augustine or the one that was quickly displaced by morally autonomous and "historical" claims for freedom by the modern individual.

The American view on whether we're more than natural beings, or on whether there's natural support for our personal existences, is left somewhat undetermined. That means that we waffle on whether or not we're free individuals as Locke describes them, on whether being human is all about the conquest of nature or rather about the grateful acceptance of the goods nature and God have given us. That waffling is judicious or even truthful. Even many Christians would admit that there's a lot to the Lockean criticism of Augustinian otherworldliness, if not taken too extremely. And the Americans Tocqueville describes and the American evangelicals we observe today find their dignity in both their proud individual achievement and their humble personal faith.

America is largely about the romance of the dignified citizen; all human beings, in principle, can be equal citizens of our country. The politically homeless from everywhere have found a political home here. But that's because we've regarded citizenship as more than just a convenient construction to serve free individuals. We Americans take citizenship seriously without succumbing to political theology because we can see that we're all equal citizens because we're all more than citizens. Being citizens reflects a real part, but not the deepest part, of human dignity.

All human beings can, in principle, become American citizens because they are all, in another way, irreducibly homeless or alienated from political life. Human beings are free from political life because of the irreducible personal significance they all share. We regard religious freedom as for religion, for the transpolitical, personal discovery of our duties to God. Our religious liberty reflects the dignity we share as, in some sense, creatures. We seem to agree with the anti-ideological dissident Havel that each of us can be a "dignified human 'I,' responsible for ourselves," because we experience ourselves truly as "bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in the extreme cases even everything.for the sake of that which gives life meaning," to the foundation of our sense of transcendence of our merely biological existence.

So there is, in our tradition, a personal criticism of the dominant modern understandings of nature and God. If human beings are naturally fitted to know and love particular persons, then their natural social instincts can't be reduced to mechanisms of species perpetuation. Our dignity, from this view, comes from the mixture of our social instincts with the self-consciousness found in members of the species that has the natural capacity for language. It comes from our ability to know and love-and to be known and loved by- other, particular persons. And, as Kass writes, "if we know where to look, we find evidence of human dignity all around us, in the valiant efforts ordinary people make to meet necessity, to combat adversity and disappointment, to provide for their children, to care for their parents, to help their neighbors, to serve their country." Each of us, thank God, is given demanding responsibilities as self-conscious, loving, social, finite, and dependent beings, and so plenty of opportunity, if we think about it, to display our dignity or irreplaceable personal significance.

My personal significance doesn't depend primarily on my overcoming of an indifferent or impersonal nature or even necessarily on my hopeful faith in a personal God. The evidence of my personal dignity comes from lovingly and sometimes heroically performing the responsibilities that I've been given by nature to those I know and love, and from living well with others in love and hope with what we can't help but know about the possibilities and limits of our true situation. My dignity depends, of course, on the natural freedom that accompanies my flawed self-consciousness, my freedom to choose to deny what I really know and not to do what I know I should. I'm given a social and natural personal destiny that I can either fulfill or betray.

From this view, Augustine misled us by unrealistically minimizing the personal satisfactions that come from friendship, erotic and romantic love, family, and political life. His goal was to focus our attention on our longing for the personal God and for authentic being, but the effect of his rhetoric in the absence of that faith was to make human individuals too focused on securing for themselves their dignified independence from their natural limitations and from each other-even at the expense of the accompanying natural goods. It's just not realistic to say, as we often do today, that each human individual exists for himself. It's not even good for the species.

The truth is that our dignified personal significance is not our own creation. It depends upon natural gifts, gifts that we can misuse or distort but not destroy. Biotechnology will in some ways make us more free and more miserable. And we will continue to display our dignity even in the futile perversity of our efforts to free ourselves completely from our misery. We will continue to fail to make ourselves more or less than human, and human happiness will elude us when we're too ungrateful for-when we fail to see the good in- what we've been given, in our selves or souls. Our dignity rightly understood will continue to come from assuming gratefully the moral responsibilities we've been given as parents, children, friends, lovers, citizens, thinkers, and creatures, and in subordinating our strange and wonderful technological freedom to these natural purposes.

The bad news is that, to the extent that our dignity depends on securing our freedom from nature, we will remain undignified. The good news is that our real human dignity-even in the absence of a personal God on Whom we can depend-is more secure than we sometimes think. Thank God, we have no good reason to hope or fear that we have the power or freedom to create some posthuman or transhuman future. We're stuck with ourselves, with our souls, with being good in order to feel good.

We can't recommend Mr. Lawler's book, Modern and American Dignity, highly enough.

Posted by at January 14, 2012 3:31 PM

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