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Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics

The President's Council on Bioethics
Washington, D.C.
March 2008

Part 3: Dignity and Modern Culture

Chapter 10: Modern and American Dignity

Peter Augustine Lawler

Modern society-or at least its more sophisticated parts-is distinguished by its concern for individual dignity. Individuals demand to exist for themselves. They refuse to be reduced to useful and expendable means for ends that are not their own. Increasingly, modern government is based on the dignified principle that the individual can't be understood to exist for a community, a country, an ideology, a God, or even a family. We think it undignified to believe that earthly or real human beings exist for heavenly or imaginary ones, as we believe religions once led us to believe. We also think it undignified to regard today's individuals as existing for human beings of the future, as did the millenarian ideologies that disappeared with the 20th century. Protecting my dignity, from this view, means protecting what the moral fanatics are all too ready to sacrifice-my particular life, my particular being, myself.1 My purpose here is to explore some of the modern dimensions of the dignified "I," and so to show how indispensable, wonderful, and strange the idea of personal dignity is for us Americans. One reason for this exploration is to show how technology and biotechnology are both reflections of and challenges to our proper understanding of our ineradicable human dignity.

The Christian Understanding of Human Freedom

Our understanding of the dignity of the individual or the person originates, I think, with Christianity, particularly with St. Augustine. We find it in Augustine's criticism of the civil and natural theologies-the respectable theologies-of the Greeks and the Romans for misunderstanding who the human being is. Civil theology-the gods of the city or political community-is based on the premise that human beings are essentially citizens or part of a city. But that's not true. Human longings point beyond one's own country and can't be satisfied by any kind of political dedication or success. It's finally undignified or untruthful for a Roman to identify himself or his fate with Rome. Augustine didn't deny there was a certain nobility or dignity of citizens who subordinated their selfish interests for their country's common good. But even or especially the best Romans were looking in the wrong place for genuine personal security and significance or immortality. They were looking in the wrong place for personal meaning or transcendence or perfection.2

The polytheism of civil theology was also undignified insofar as it was an offense against the human mind. It required that educated men degrade themselves by feigning belief in unbelievable gods and engage in a futile effort to fend off moral deterioration as their country became more sophisticated. Such efforts were also degrading to others; they opposed the particular human being's efforts to free himself from what are finally selfish communal illusions. Civil theology, by defining us as citizens and nothing more, hides from us the dignity that all human beings share in common.

Sophisticated Greeks and Romans, Augustine adds, rejected the gods of their country for nature's God, the God of the philosophers. But that growth in theological sophistication in the direction of impersonal monotheism was only ambiguously progress. All reasonable theology is monotheistic; the orderly universe and essentially equal human beings must be governed by a single God. But Augustine still saw two problems with nature's God. First, he is too distant or too impersonal to provide any real support for the moral duties of particular human beings; dignified personal action or personal existence can't be based on a God that is finally not a "who" but a "what." Second, natural theology is based on the premise that the human being is a part of nature and nothing more. So it can't account for the realities of human freedom and dignity.

The God of the philosophers is meant as a replacement for civil theology and later becomes a competitor to Biblical theology. The philosopher orients himself toward the truth about God by liberating his mind from all the moral, political, and religious illusions that allow human beings confidently to experience themselves as at home in the world as whole persons. He frees himself from the illusions that give most people some sense of dignity or significance. The philosopher discovers that the human mind is at home in the world, and so that God must be the perfection of our intellectual capacity to comprehend all that exists.

We grasp our true dignity-the dignity of our minds-only by seeing that the mind necessarily depends on a body that exists for a moment nowhere in particular and then is gone. So my being at home as a mind depends on my radical homelessness or insignificance as a whole, embodied being. Any being that is genuinely eternal-such as a star-couldn't possibly know anything at all. Only a being who is absolutely mortal-or, better, absolutely contingent as a living being-could know both the truth about the stars and the truth about the insignificance of himself. Nature's God can establish the dignity of human minds, but only at the expense of denying the dignity of all human lives to the extent they aren't genuinely governed by thought.3

Understanding ourselves as wholly natural beings means surrendering any sense of real personal dignity to impersonal natural necessity, to a God who is a principle, not a person. But according to Augustine, human beings are more than merely natural beings. They long to be seen, in their particular, distinctive, infinitely significant freedom, by a personal God Who knows them as they truly are. Natural theology can't account for equally free, unique, indispensable, and irreplaceable beings under God, or for human persons who can distinguish themselves not only from the other animals and God but from each other.

Natural theology also can't account for, much less point to the satisfaction of, the longing of each particular human being really to be. Each human being longs to be and is an exception to the general, necessitarian laws that account for the rest of creation. Each of us has the freedom and dignity that comes with personal transcendence: The laws of nature can't account for our free will, for either our sinfulness or our virtue, for our love of particular persons (including the personal God), for the misery of our personal contingency and mortality without a personal, loving God, for our capacity to sense, even without revelation, that we were made for eternal life through our ineradicable alienation in this world, and for our literal transcendence of our biological existence as whole persons through God's grace.

The Dignity of the Individual

The Augustinian criticism of both natural and civil theology on behalf of the particular person's or individual's dignity retains its force in the post-Christian climate of modern thought. The individual's claim for transcendent and dignified freedom actually intensifies as faith in the Biblical God recedes. What we faithfully trusted God to do for us we now have to do for ourselves. Our claim is also more insistent because it can now be based in our manly pride; my infinite significance no longer depends on my feigning humble self-surrender to an omnipotent God Who cares for me in particular.

The human individual described by John Locke and the other liberal philosophers regards himself as free, unique, and irreplaceable. I'm so full of dignity or inestimable worth that the whole world should center on what's best for me. The individual has the right to use his freedom to transform his natural condition, to act against the nature that's indifferent or hostile to his particular existence. And he has the right to oppose freely every effort of other human beings- even or especially priests and kings-to risk or even deploy his life for purposes other than his individual ones. His dignity isn't given to him by God or nature; it is found in his freedom, in his singular capability to exercise rights.4

We can call rights natural insofar as we acknowledge that we didn't make ourselves capable of making ourselves free. Freedom from nature is a quality mysteriously possessed by members of our species alone, and that mystery deepens, of course, when we doubt that the Bible can even begin to explain it. But that means, paradoxically, that our singular natural quality is our free or transcendent ability to transform nature to give to ourselves what nature did not give us. There is, in fact, no life according to nature that is worthy of my particular freedom and dignity. From the individual view, the natural life that the undignified species are stuck with living is nasty, brutish, and short, not to mention untranscendent or unfree.i

There was an attempt to revive natural theology or "Nature's God" in the modern world. But it was disabled from the beginning by a basic contradiction: the modern view of nature, like the one of the Greeks and Romans, is of an impersonal principle that governs all that exists. But that view that we're completely or eternally governed by fixed principles of eternal natural necessity really can't capture the existence of the free individual-the being who has the right to use his reason and his will to free himself from his natural limitations.

"Nature's God" returns us to the ancient thought that the world is the home of the human mind, and the Americans today who most firmly believe in such a God might be the physicists who believe that their minds have cracked the cosmic code. But can the mind really grasp as a whole a world in which the individual is distinguished in his self-consciousness and his freedom from everything else? The physicist may be able to comprehend the mind or the body of the physicist, but not the whole human person who, among other things, engages in physical inquiry. That's one reason why the more characteristically modern view is that the mind is for transforming nature to make the individual genuinely at home or secure. Insofar as Nature's God is taken seriously, it mostly undermines the individual's sense of his irreplaceable and unique dignity. If, as Tom Wolfe explains, the dignity of the individual (which we can see with our own eyes) is taken seriously, then we can't help but conclude that the integrity of the natural world-or the rule of nature's God-came to an end with the mysterious emergence of the free and self-conscious individual.5

For the modern individualist, the truth remains that our dignified pretensions still point in the direction of a personal God, but, for him, only a blind sucker relies upon such an imaginary projection. For Locke, it makes some sense to speak of a Creator as the source of the visible universe and of our mysterious liberty. But it's foolish to think of oneself as a creature or as fundamentally dependent on a providential God who guarantees us eternal life. Locke's Creator is not personal or present-tense enough really to do anything for particular individuals.

Our dignity, from this individual view, comes from facing up to the truth about how un-provided-for our condition as individuals is. My existence is radically contingent and mortal. But I have the resources to improve upon my condition, to act intelligently and responsibly on my own behalf. The dignity of the individual flows from his authentic self-consciousness, from what sets him apart from his natural, political, and familial environment. All the other animals act unconsciously to perpetuate their species. To the extent that we are dignified in our difference from them, we don't. The other particular animals aren't conscious of their temporary, utterly vulnerable, and irreplaceable existences. They're utterly replaceable because they don't know they're irreplaceable. I know others will come along a lot like me, but they won't be me. The evidence of my dignity is in my acting in response to my self-consciousness, my thought about myself. It's in my truthful and resolute efforts to continue to be me.

I feel indignation toward anyone who denies the truth about my self-consciousness and my freedom, my being. I feel especially righteous indignation toward those who would morally criticize or constrain me by imagining me to be other than I really am. That's because I'm convinced of the fundamental rightness of my free and responsible efforts to sustain my individual existence-my existence as a self-conscious, free, and body-dependent being-as long as possible.6 I'm indignant enough freely to endanger my life to secure my freedom. I know enough to know that free beings can't pursue even wimp ends with consistently wimp means. So I know I may be stuck with displaying my dignity by risking my life on behalf of my right to life.

Sometimes indignantly insisting on my rights to life and liberty can seem undignified: I might say I have the right to sell my allegedly surplus kidney for the right price, because my body is my property, to be used as I think best. But surely it is undignified to regard my body-part of me-as merely part of my net worth of dollars. And surely a man or woman with a strong sense of personal worth-and so with a strong desire to display the nobler virtues of courage and generosity-would always want to do more than merely secure his or her biological existence. The individual responds that I'm going to be courageous or generous on my own terms; such risky virtue is not to be required of me. And an obsession with the needlessly risky virtues is for losers who don't understand themselves. Dead people have no real dignity or significance at all.

The real evidence, the individual notices, is on the side of identifying dignity with the protection of rights. Leon Kass reminds us that "liberal polities, founded on this doctrine of equal natural rights, do vastly less violence to human dignity than do their illiberal (and often moralistic and perfection-seeking) antagonists."7 The 20th century's monstrous offenses against human dignity-so monstrous that they can't be described as mere violations of rights8-came from those who denied the real existence of individuals and their rights. Particular human beings were ideologically reduced to fodder for their race, class, or nation, for murderous and insane visions of humanity's non-individualistic future. Every attempt to restore civil theology in the modern world-from the Rousseau-inspired dimensions of the French Revolution onward-morphed into insane frenzies of unprecedented cruelty aiming to eradicate the alienation that inevitably accompanies our freedom. In a post-Christian context, we can't really defend personal dignity by neglecting individual rights.

Dignity vs. Nature

A sensible understanding of "inalienable rights" might be the protections given to or required by self-conscious mortals, to beings stuck in between the other animals and God. But the modern individual characteristically doesn't rest content with locating his dignity in his acceptance of the intractable limitations of his embodiment. The modern individual-the modern self-aims to be autonomous, to use the mind as an instrument of liberation from or transcendence of dependence on material or natural necessity. From this view, modern individualism is not that different from the 20th century's historical or ideological projects to radically transform the human condition. The difference is that the individual never loses his focus on his own freedom, his rights; communism, fascism, and so forth were all diversions from what we really know, impossible efforts to transfer my truthful sense of my individual significance to some impersonal or ideological cause. The Europeans regard those efforts as the last and worst vestiges of civil theology. That's why they've apparently decided to abandon both religious and political life on behalf of a humanitarian concern for individual dignity.9

But the modern self is even more than a humanitarian or a humanist; he's the very opposite of a materialist in his own case. My mind is free to transform my body. The modern self identifies itself with the mind (I think, therefore I am) liberating itself through technology and enlightened education from the undignified drudgery of material necessity and from the tyranny of the unconscious. The mind frees the self from both material and moral repression for self-determination.10 Our struggle for the rational control that would secure our dignity really does point in the direction of transhumanism.ii We aim to use technology and biotechnology to overcome our human limitations as embodied beings. We aim at the self-overcoming of time, infirmity, death, and all the cruel indignities nature randomly piles upon us. Our dignity, from this view, depends on the orders we're really capable of giving to ourselves, meaning to our natures. Our dignity is in our awareness that what we're given by nature is worthless unless we bring it under our conscious control. So the individual doesn't really aim to secure himself as a biological being, because he's fully aware that he's more or other than a biological being. His biological dependence has already been lessened by his freedom, and he recognizes no limits to how much his mind might take command over his body and bodies. Nature has been and will be increasingly shaped and limited by his free action on behalf of his individual being. Impersonal natural evolution is being supplanted by personal or conscious and volitional evolution.

Dignity vs. Anxious Contingency

The trouble, of course, is that, for the foreseeable future, the pursuit of transcendence of our biological being is bound to fail every particular human individual in the end. The individual now makes only quite ambiguous and finally radically unsatisfactory progress toward indefinitely continuing to be. So our best efforts do little to free us from the anxious sense of contingency that comes with self-consciousness-the undignified perception that we're meaningless accidents that exist for a moment between two abysses. The more secure our efforts make us, it may be, the more anxious or disoriented we feel. The more we push back the necessity of death, the more accidental death becomes. And so the more not being an accident governs our lives. If, despite our best efforts, all we succeed in doing is making our lives more accidental or pitiful, it's hard to say that our technological successes have made our individual existences more secure or dignified. 11

That's why Hobbes says that people become particularly restless and troublesome-unreasonable and dignity-obsessed-in times of peace. Freed somewhat from their rather dignified struggle against natural necessity, they can't avoid reflection on the inevitability of their long-run failure. No matter what I do, I won't be important or dignified for long, because I won't be around for long, or at least long enough. As long as death remains as an accidental possibility and an eventual certainty, my dignity defined as autonomy remains constantly in question. Modern individuals, as Tocqueville explains, are restlessly time- and death-haunted in the midst of prosperity, unable really to enjoy what seem to be the most fortunate circumstances in the history of their species. Just below the surface of our proud pragmatism lurks, as Solzhenitsyn writes, "the howl of existentialism." For the modern individual, "the thought of death becomes unbearable. It is the extinction of the entire universe at a stroke."12

Today, American restlessness doesn't usually display itself as dangerous political ambition, as Hobbes feared.13 Our self-understanding is too individualistic for us easily to connect dignity with political recognition. Instead, we find evidence of our restless pursuit of dignity in a workaholic security-consciousness among sophisticated Americans. They're laid-back or relativistic on the traditional moral issues, partly to avoid the moralism that deprives other individuals of the dignity of determining their own lives. But they are also increasingly health- and safety-conscious, and it's there that their paranoid, puritanical, and prohibitionist sides now show themselves.

Our drive to secure ourselves has, for example, caused us to be extremely moralistic about safe sex. Whatever you prefer to do is dignified as long as it's responsible, and being responsible means methodically disconnecting your sexual behavior from birth and death, from babies and fatal diseases. It's easy to imagine a complete separation of sex and procreation in the name of security, in the name of minimizing all the risk factors associated with having unprotected sex. But of course that separation will deprive our sexual behavior of the shared hopes, fears, and responsibilities that made it seem dignified in itself and the main antidote to individualistic self-obsession. The domination of eros by security-consciousness may be good for the individual's effort to continue to be, but of course he'll be more anxious than ever. Safe sex is dignified in the sense that it's a responsible choice impossible for the naturally determined animals, but it might be undignified in the sense that it's ridiculous to be that bourgeois about eros, to work too hard to prefer security over distinctively human enjoyment. Sex-like God-used to be a way we could get our minds off ourselves.14

Tocqueville feared that modern individuals would end up becoming so apathetic and withdrawn that they would surrender the details of their lives-their own futures-to a meddlesome, schoolmarmish administrative state.15 But that undignified surrender of personal concern just hasn't happened. Individuals experience themselves as in many ways more on their own than ever, which is why we still increasingly connect individual dignity with personal responsibility or self-ownership. Sophisticated individuals are more aware than ever that they exist contingently in hostile environments, although their lives are in some ways more secure and certainly longer than ever. Some dignity remains in their resolute efforts to be more than accidents, and their desire not to be replaceable has intensified. That's why more of them than ever decide that it's undignified even to produce replacements-children.


Arguably, the modern goal is not the achievement of real security for one's being, which is impossible, but freedom from the anxiety that accompanies our true perception of the individual's contingency. If that were so, then we should consent to anyone or anything that would deprive us of our self-consciousness. Maybe that's why there's some evidence that natural theology is making yet another comeback as a way of connecting our dignity-even our divinity-to being at home in our natural environment. The most radically modern natural theology, as Tocqueville explains, is pantheism. 16 According to the pantheist, there are two pieces of good news. First, everything is divine. Second, our individuality-what separates each of us from the other animals and our conception of God-is an illusion. Pantheism is the true theological expression of modern natural science, of, say, sociobiology. There is, our scientists say, no evidence that one species is really qualitatively distinct from another; our species has received one scientific demotion after another until nothing of our proud individuality is left. So why shouldn't we say that our struggle against nature is a senseless illusion and surrender ourselves to the natural whole that we can call god?

Certainly pantheism is at the heart of most attempts to establish a post-Christian religion in our country in our time-those of the New Agers, the neo-Gnostics, the Western Buddhists, and so forth. Tocqueville regarded pantheism as such a seductive, radically egalitarian lullaby he attempted to rally all true defenders of the true dignity of human individuality against it. The brilliant French social critic Chantal Delsol adds that the pervasiveness of pantheistic speculation today is evidence that our idea of human dignity "is now hanging by a thread."17

But it seems to me that the self-help in the form of self-surrender offered by pantheism is just incredible to us. I receive no solace from the fact that the matter that makes up my body continues to exist after my death as part of a tree-even a sacred tree. And it is really very, very little consolation for me to know that the genes I spread live on. I know I'm not my genes, and I also know that, even if I were, nature would soon enough disperse me into insignificance. Maybe that's why the more people become aware, through sociobiological enlightenment, that their true purpose on earth is gene-spreading, the less they end up doing it. It's surely part of our dignity that we're incapable of not resisting pantheism's seduction, incapable of not really knowing that natural theology can't account for the existence of individuals or particular persons. All of our efforts to find a post-Christian way of reinstituting a credible natural or civil theology seem doomed to fail, despite the efforts of some great philosophers and despite our human longing-one, thank God, among many-to regress to infancy or subhumanity.

Dignity vs. Mood Control

If pantheism and other similar forms of linguistic therapy don't work, there's still the biotechnological promise to relieve us of the burden of our self-conscious freedom. Psychopharmacological mood control might free us from our anxiety and make us feel happy and safe, and it might even release reliably the serotonin that can produce feelings of dignified self-esteem without having to do anything great. Contrary to Hobbes, we might want to say that the chemical surrender of the dignified, truthful assertion of personal sovereignty is what's required to live well. Certainly the objection that we'd no longer be living in the truth is at least very questionable. If our moods are nothing more than the result of chemical reactions, as our scientists say, then who's to say which reaction is truer than another? Why shouldn't we call true whatever makes us most comfortable? Our ability reliably to produce such a mood for ourselves might be the decisive evidence for our real ability to free ourselves from our miserable natural condition.

But Hobbes would respond: The surrender of sovereignty is misguided. It would be unreasonable for me to trust anyone with unaccountable control over me. My moods, after all, are part of my capacity for self-defense, and surely I shouldn't turn them over to some expert.18 It's bad for both my dignity and my security not to insist that I'm a free being with rights and so not an animal to be controlled through the introduction of alien chemicals into my body. Those who would compassionately assume control over others to alleviate their cruel suffering always exempt themselves from their prescribed treatment. Their compassion is always a mask for my self-destruction. Certainly the goal of every tyrant is to free subjects, allegedly for their own good, of their longing to be free. As Walker Percy reminds us, surely our right to our moods is a very fundamental one; even Hobbes takes his bearings from the moods individuals as individuals really have on their own.19

These concerns are worth expressing. But it's still true that the worry that our individuals can or will employ psychopharmacology to embrace happiness over worry is overblown. The truth is that free individuals want both security and self-consciousness and can't imagine themselves surrendering one aspect of themselves for the other. They certainly don't want to be deprived of the truthful awareness that allows them genuinely to be. When we think of the promise of mood control, we really believe that we can be self-conscious without being anxious. We certainly don't want to surrender our individual freedom or our personal productivity. We don't want to be so zoned out by technology-produced virtual experiences that we would lose interest in the real technology that can protect us from terrorists, asteroids, diseases, and so forth. We also want to remain alienated or moody enough to enjoy music and art, without, of course, being so moved that we try to lose ourselves in non-therapeutic drugs or even that we are habitually late for work. We want to appreciate Johnny Cash without having to suffer through actually being Johnny Cash.

If we really took mood control seriously, we would start to recover the truth that we're both more or less than free individuals, that it's as individuals that we pursue happiness, but it's as friends, lovers, family members, creatures, neighbors, and so forth that we actually are happy. If we took it seriously, we'd start to see that it's because we too readily understand ourselves as free individuals and nothing more that life seems so hard. Only such individuals could be miserable enough to think even our natural moods need to be redesigned in order to be bearable. The other animals are typically content with the moods nature has given them. Lurking behind the effort to design or engineer moods is the really bad mood. And, thank God, the perpetuation of that bad mood will be needed to fuel our pursuit of artificially good ones. We individuals just can't surrender the self that generates "the self."20

From Moral Autonomy to Existentialism

Maybe our worst mood remains directed against nature as we understand it. Certainly if the evolutionists or sociobiologists or the modern scientists in general are right, there's no natural room for individual dignity. The Darwinian view is that particular animals have significance only as members of species; their behavior is oriented, by nature, toward species preservation. The future of the species doesn't depend upon my indispensable contribution; its fate is contingent on the average behavior of large numbers of anonymous people.21 The very existence of any particular species is a meaningless accident, and my particular existence as a random member of one species among many is infinitely more accidental.

Our most extreme or whiny moral individualists-the existentialists-may say that their personal struggle for meaning in a world governed by chance and necessity is absurd, but they don't really quite believe it. For them, the dramatic personal assertion of dignity or purpose, absurd as it is in theory, produces beautiful deeds and is what makes life worth living. But for the evolutionist (including the evolutionary neuroscientist), such dramatic displays are, at this point in the development of science, somewhat inexplicable perversities that will eventually be shown to be nothing more than mechanisms for species survival. What we now think of as absurd-what we now call the behavior of the dignified human individual or person-we will eventually understand not to be absurd at all. There is, we have to admit, something Socratic (or natural-theological) about evolutionism's and neuroscience's denial of individual pretensions about one's own soul or dignified personal identity, even in their denial of "the self " that distinguishes you from me, and us from all the other animals.22

But sophisticated people today, even sophisticated scientists, rarely talk as if evolutionism is completely true, as if particular human beings are best understood as species fodder. They speak of human dignity, and they identify dignity with autonomy. They don't understand autonomy, of course, as the literal conquest of nature or of the limitations of our embodiment. Otherwise, nobody around right now would have dignity at all.

Our idea of autonomy comes from Kant: Human dignity comes from neither God nor from nature, but from our personal capability to transcend natural determination through our obedience to a rational, moral law we give to ourselves.23 We aren't contained, as Hobbes might be understood to say, by mere calculation about how to survive as biological beings in this time and place. We have the abstract and idealistic capability not to be defined by our bodily existences.24 We have the capability to act morally, or as something other than animals with instincts, and reason can show us that our true practical standard is not merely an arbitrary assertion against impersonal necessity. The capability for moral freedom is what gives each person a unique value. It makes that person priceless. Everything exists to be used-or bought and sold at some finite cost-except us.

The idea of moral autonomy finds strength in the thought that there's no support in what we know about nature-our natures-for our freedom and dignity. The Darwinian can say that evolution accounts for everything but the irreducible freedom from natural determination of the human person. But the Kantian draws the line at evolutionism, with its view that the person's perception of his dignity or autonomy or free, rational will is merely an illusion. We are, most fundamentally, what distinguishes us from nature. We may be chimps, but we're autonomous chimps, which means we're not really chimps at all. When I give way to natural inclination-and especially to the happiness that it might make possible-I'm not being what earns me respect. To the extent that we're natural beings, we have no dignity at all.

Kant's tough and precise distinction between subhuman natural inclination and genuine free and rational obedience to a law we make for ourselves compels us to prefer intentions to results or a freedom that we can't see with our own eyes. For the Kantian, it's unreasonable to demand evidence that any particular person is free. To connect dignity with the actual practice of moral virtue produces inequality or undermines the universality required for the rational apprehension of moral autonomy. Some people act more courageously than others, and others hardly ever do. But our dignity doesn't depend on what we actually do, but on who we are as free or moral beings. We have dignity as persons deserving of respect, and not as individuals exercising their rights.

Some of our most materialistic natural scientists tend to embrace human dignity as a sort of religious dogma. That doesn't mean that they believe in the Bible, but that they find nothing reasonable about the dignity they affirm. For them, human dignity is simply an inexplicable leftover from a cosmos they can otherwise scientifically explain. Our scientists tend to exempt themselves and others like themselves, usually without good reason, from their rational or scientific account of everything that exists. They are not so much rigorous, rationalist moralists as hopeless romantics when it comes to human beings, to themselves in particular, and so they've seen no reason not to go along with the existentialists in detaching autonomy from reason defined as either the technological or the moral overcoming of our natures.25


Autonomy has tended to become self-definition simply. No other animal can say who he or she is, and surely what we say transforms both who we are and what we do. Self-definition allows us to waffle on whether we really make ourselves-or merely imagine ourselves-as free and singularly dignified beings. And so it allows us to waffle on whether our natural science really has room for dignity, because it certainly can make room for the imaginative qualities of the beast with speech. Self-definition leaves open the possibility, associated with the freedom of the modern individual, that whatever we can imagine we can make real, while not denying the viewpoint of natural theology that we are all governed by impersonal necessity in the end.

Self-definition straddles the line between realism and pragmatism. We can call true or real whatever makes us feel comfortable, free, and dignified. But self-definers differ from pantheists because they know their imaginative freedom has its limits: We can't imagine the self to be anything other than an end in itself. I can't define myself merely as an indistinguishable part of a greater whole, a means for someone else's ends, or as a part of some future tree.iii

The Christian person or creature, the modern individual, and the Kantian person all experience themselves as unique and irreplaceable. The self-defined self must make himself that way. Because I have to make myself out of nothing without any guidance, I can be unique without being utterly contingent only if you accord me the respect I say I deserve. I can't really be so unique that I'm not recognizable by others in my infinite dignity. So I need you to recognize my dignified uniqueness. Self-definition requires a social dimension.

This view of dignity puts a greater burden on those who must acknowledge it than the Kantian one does. According to Kant, I must respect you or treat you as an end only as a person capable of obeying the autonomous moral law. But I don't have to and even can't respect anything you do that falls short of full obedience to that law. The Kantian must distinguish between moral and immoral intentions, and Kant himself was sometimes quite judgmental or morally severe. But now we believe we must respect the intention of whatever the self-defining person chooses, even if it's affirming as one's whole identity a natural inclination, such as being gay or straight.

That means we have the duty to go further than mere indifference or non-judgmentalism. You don't accord me dignity by saying, "not that there's anything wrong with it," where "it" is whatever it is I'm doing. Your yawning, in fact, is undignified. You must respect what I do because I do it, even or especially because you wouldn't do it yourself. My dignity requires that you suspend your rational faculties and moral judgment. Otherwise, your intention might intrude upon my self-definition: I'm indignant when you employ your self-definition or life plan not to have a respectful view of mine. That indignation, of course, is merely an intensification of that felt by the individual Hobbes describes. You have to do more than merely allow me to exercise my rights for my autonomy to have its inescapably moral dimension.26

But the burden of autonomy defined as moral self-definition is even greater on the person who claims it. Tocqueville tells us that the characteristically modern and democratic view is that our dignity rests in our intellectual freedom. We must free our minds from the authority of parents, country, tradition, nature, God, and so forth. But that means that it's much more clear what a radically free or genuinely autonomous judgment is not than what one is. Be yourself and be unique, we're told. But the individual human mind is anxious, disoriented, and paralyzed if it has to work all by itself. The pretense of radical doubt-or pop Cartesianism-eventually leads the individual to lose confidence both in the soundness of his mind and in the personal foundation of his dignity. Modern scientific skepticism makes every particular being seem puny, impotent, and insignificant and ever more readily absorbed by forces beyond his control. Surely in a globalizing, democratizing, techno-driven world, the dignified contributions of particular individuals are harder to discern than ever.27

The solitude of radical freedom makes effective human thought and action impossible. That's why autonomy requires a social dimension; consciousness necessarily is knowing with others. And the genuine sharing of self-knowledge requires, Kant thought, a rational standard that we can genuinely have in common. But for the individual who looks up to no personal authority-even or especially the authority of reason as described by some moralistic philosopher-all that's left for orientation is impersonal public opinion and what the reigning experts are saying about what impersonal or objective scientific studies are showing.

The deepest question for dignity in our time is where the self-defining individual is supposed to get the point of view, the character or virtue, the genuinely inward life or conscience required to resist degrading social or scientistic conformity.28 The self-defining individual characteristically can't lose the self in "the self " that he consciously constructs to be pleasing to or to have status in the eyes of others. But that doesn't mean it's possible for the self to resist the imperatives of "the self " without the help of nature or God or a stable tradition that embodies natural and divine wisdom. We increasingly libertarian sophisticates are so obsessed with the threat that the tyrannical moralism of others poses to our moral autonomy that we've neglected the necessarily social, natural, and personal sources of the moral resolution of the dignified "I."

Even human rights, as Delsol concludes, can't "guarantee the dignity of each human being unless they are grounded in an understanding of man that ensures his [personal] uniqueness." Her view is that a dignified democracy-one composed "of unique persons endowed with free minds and wills" depends upon the "religious partner" of "a monotheism that preaches personal eternity, one in which each irreducible being survives in his irreducibility."29 The dignified person depends upon a personal eternity to survive intact in an increasingly impersonal environment.

But Delsol's conclusion is compromised, to say the least, by her modern view that there really is no personal God who grants each of us eternal life. Does human dignity really depend on each human person living beyond his biological existence? Or merely on the conscious utilitarian effort to restore a "personal theology" that does justice to human dignity in the way a natural or civil theology never could? How could that theology really survive, in our time, the modern, individualistic criticism that it leads to the undignified surrender of our real, earthly lives as particular individuals for an illusory, otherworldly one? From the radically modern view, there's nothing less dignified than the blind sacrifice of the one and only life that I will ever have.

An American Conclusion

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.30 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.v

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.31

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."32 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.33

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.



i. The discussion of transcendence here is indebted to Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006). The present essay as a whole is an Augustinian reflection on manliness or a manly reflection on St. Augustine. What is it that causes human beings to claim the dignity of irreplaceable personal significance? Does that claim make any sense beyond human assertion?

ii. See the essay by Charles Rubin in this volume.

iii. I think of myself as presenting here in a simple way a somewhat confused and complicated line of thought found in the work of Richard Rorty, our most able "cultural philosopher" of recent years.

iv. See the essays by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George and by Gilbert Meilaender in this volume. It can be wondered whether Lee and George's secular "natural law" argument depends on the not self-evident proposition of our creation by a personal God. And surely a shortcoming of Meilaender's argument-at least in terms of formulating American public policy-is his inability or unwillingness to connect his Christian and egalitarian view of dignity to our secular understanding of rights.

v. The American view of dignity articulated here-one that aims to reconcile the doctrine of our Declaration of Independence with the true tradition of Christian realism-is indebted, above all, to G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (New York: Dodd and Mead, 1922). See also my Homeless and at Home in America (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine's Press, 2007), especially chapters 1-3.



1. See Chantal Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century, trans. Robin Dick (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2006), especially chapter 12.

2. The discussion of St. Augustine here is based on his City of God, especially books 5-8.

3. The account of the classical philosophic view offered here is defended by Thomas Pangle, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

4. See John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690). Support for my view of Locke here can be found in the work of Michael P. Zuckert: The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (Notre Dame,
Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996) and Launching Liberalism (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002).

5. Tom Wolfe, "The Human Beast," the 2006 Jefferson lecture, available online at

6. See Leon R. Kass, "The Right to Life and Human Dignity," in Enlightening Revolutions: Essays in Honor of Ralph Lerner, ed. Svetozar Minkov (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2006).

7. Ibid., p. 130.

8. See Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics , trans. Marc A. LePain (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006).

9. Ibid., chapters 5-7, 11.

10. See Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), p. 13.

11. See the Tocquevillian/Pascalian reflections on compassionate conservatism and biology in chapter 5 of my Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2005).

12. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Solzhenitsyn Reader, ed. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2006), p. 596.

13. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan , especially chapters 11 and 18.

14. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America , volume 2, part 1, chapter 5.

15. Ibid., volume 2, part 4, chapter 6.

16. Ibid., volume 2, part 1, chapter 7.

17.Delsol, op. cit., p. 194.

18. Hobbes, Leviathan, especially chapters 13 and 17.

19. See Walker Percy, op. cit., pp. 73-79.

20. Cf. my Stuck with Virtue, chapter 5, with the fate of Charlotte in the last chapter of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).

21. See Mansfield, Manliness, pp. 59-61, 220.

22. Cf. Tom Wolfe, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," in Hooking Up (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), with Mansfield, Manliness , pp. 220-224.

23. Everything I know about Kant and human dignity and more can be found in Susan M. Shell, "Kant and Human Dignity," in In Defense of Human Dignity: Essays for Our Times , ed. Robert P. Kraynak and Glenn Tinder (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), pp. 53-80; see also her essay in this volume.

24. See Mansfield, op. cit., pp. 59-61, 220.

25. See the work of Walker Percy here; an introduction is found in my Postmodernism Rightly Understood (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), chapters 3 and 4, as well as in chapters 5 and 10 of my Aliens in America (Wilmington,
Delaware: ISI Books, 2002). The best introduction to Percy's work for those with little patience for novels is his Lost in the Cosmos .

26. See Manent, op. cit., pp. 191-96.

27. See my "McWilliams and the Problem of Political Education," in Perspectives on Political Science 35 (Fall, 2006): 213-218. This issue of PPS is devoted to the work of Wilson Carey McWilliams, the most profound defender in our time of the connection between human dignity and egalitarian political community. And also see, of course, part 1 of volume 2 of Tocqueville's Democracy in America .

28. This question is what animates part 1 of volume 2 of Tocqueville's Democracy in America . See also my Stuck with Virtue , especially the introduction.

29. Delsol, op. cit., pp. 194-195.

30. See Robert P. Kraynak, "'Made in the Image of God': The Christian View of Human Dignity and Political Order," in In Defense of Human Dignity , pp. 81-118, as well as the essay by Kraynak in this volume.

31. Václav Havel, Open Letters (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), p. 263.

32. Leon R. Kass, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (San Francisco, California: Encounter Books, 2002), p. 248.

33. The claims in this paragraph are supported through the use of the work of Walker Percy in my Postmodernism Rightly Understood , chapters 3 and 4.

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