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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 4: The Source and Meaning of Human Dignity

Chapter 15: The Irreducibly Religious Character of Human Dignity

David Gelernter

Human dignity has often been mentioned in recent controversies over bioethics. Some find the concept indispensable-most notably the President's Council itself. Others, such as Ruth Macklin, argue that it is either useless, because it simply means "autonomy," or dangerous, because it introduces religious ideas by stealth into the deliberations of a liberal democratic society, where (allegedly) they don't belong. Most defenders of the Council have responded that dignity is neither reducible to autonomy nor a Trojan horse for religion.

I'll argue that "human dignity" doesn't matter much in itself- but the hunt for its definition surely does, a great deal. It's a strange sort of hunt. We know how the term is used by thinkers on both sides of a large range of bioethical questions; they might disagree violently over conclusions, yet they often seem to agree (at least in general terms) on the meaning of "human dignity." Nonetheless, definitions are scarce. We need to guess what the implied meaning really is. The answer will be revealing. Modern academics seem to rely on a definition that, at its core, is irreducibly religious. But they don't like speaking about religion. The resulting discussion has the bizarre tone of a conversation where the adults don't want the children to catch on to the real topic. (But the kids usually do anyway.) I'll argue here that Macklin is right to see the religious underpinnings of "dignity," but that she (and the Council's defenders who want to keep dignity and religion separate) are wrong to think that religious ideas are bad for a liberal democracy. Modern scholarship suggests that without religious ideas, there would be no such thing as liberal democracy.1 But leaving history aside, it seems to me that we can't even protect autonomy, much less avoid such horrors as human cloning, without the support of religion.

A pattern in modern thought: thinkers repeatedly find themselves wanting the effects of religion without the cause. In former generations, philosophy tried and repeatedly failed to achieve "religion within the limits of reason." It has long since quit that game and gone home. To most modern thinkers (me included), the game seems unwinnable and pointless. Yet modern philosophers still find themselves wanting what they can't have: religious effects without religious causes. Unfortunately, there's no free lunch, and it's no good trying to conjure one up by deep thinking.

One way to approach bioethical problems is to think of a foreground and a background, and "human dignity" as the bridge leading from one to the other. The foreground is the problem itself: designer babies, human cloning, the death of Terry Schiavo. (Obviously the foreground can vary greatly in specificity.) The background is your ethical system. Most bioethical discussion takes for granted that you approach such questions like a typical academic philosopher, armed with a strictly secular "ethics of human rights." The "ethics of human duty" is an alternative that is usually (though not always) associated with Judeo-Christian religion-and unthinkingly dismissed. In fact the "ethics of human duty" is rarely considered, rarely discussed, rarely even present in our bioethical debates.

In this informal essay I'll approach "human dignity" by way of the background problems of secular versus religious morality, and of a "morality of rights" versus a "morality of duties," and I'll discuss a few foreground cases. Of course there is no "religious morality" in the abstract, so I'll discuss parts of traditional Jewish morality-and try to explain what makes it, in certain cases, more humane and kindlier than the modern secular variety.

Finally I'll argue that erecting the vast intellectual structure of the modern age on the ethics of human rights-"they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," not "unalienable duties"-was a tragic mistake. Obviously the mistake can't be undone; in itself there's no point discussing it. But bioethicists can choose any assumptions they like. They can choose an ethics of human duty for their own use; and if they do, they will be choosing wisely. (Unconventionally, but wisely.)

Secular vs. Religious Morality

First, what right do I have introducing religion-quotations from the Talmud no less-into the clean, rational, sterile domain of western philosophy?

Let's start by considering what secular ethics has to say nowadays. Obviously there is no single answer. But here is one example, for concreteness. Modern ethics points us towards "an increased sensitivity" to various things-"to the environment, to sexual difference, to gender, to people different from ourselves in a whole variety of ways.." Modern ethics suggests that we must be "careful, and mature, and imaginative, and fair, and nice, and lucky."2

I am quoting from the last page of the last chapter of a respected recent introduction to ethics by Simon Blackburn, whose suggestions sound like a parody of left-wing thinking. They ask for nothing noble, uplifting or even difficult. They do not call on us to be generous or just, decent, good, honest, kind, gracious, merciful or loving. One thinks of a famous proclamation by the prophet Micah: "Man, it has been told you what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God" ( Micah 6:8). Justice, mercy, humility-tall orders, yet man is capable of filling them. We all know men and women (at least a few) who have done it. These are no pie-in-the-sky demands.

Modern ethics falls short of human capacities. It asks too little. It's too small for the human soul. We ought to send it back and demand something roomier. (Speaking of roomy, what does the medieval Christian art of the Gothic cathedral tell us about man's capacities? "Be great! Be worthy of the sublime grandeur and beauty of this place that man and God built together. Be humble: there are regions of this building beyond your grasp, and-all the more so-regions of this cosmos." The architecture is more articulate than modern ethics without speaking one word.)

I will show you, as an alternative, a few fragments of a religious viewpoint. Of course a philosopher might say, " I am using my brain; you're merely consulting some arbitrary authority." But philosophers and their reasoning power are (for me) an arbitrary authority. Few modern philosophers still believe that reason alone can reveal universal moral truth. They merely try their best, knowing that some will disagree and that, in the foreseeable future, virtually everyone might. Suppose one person relies on a consensus of academic philosophers and another on the ethical traditions of his religious or national community, based ultimately on the communal scriptures. Both are appealing to external authority. Both are relying on a consensus of learned and intelligent people-a consensus that is bound to change. (Christian and Jewish theologians, for example, do not see the world or interpret Scripture today as they did a century or ten centuries ago.)

Arguably the person who follows his own reasoning is making the best methodological choice. My reasoning tells me that anyone who believes in absolute, compulsory standards of behavior for the whole world believes, ipso facto, in God. And it seems to me that nearly everyone does believe in such absolute, compulsory standards. If you were to see someone who is about to commit murder, you would compel him (if you could) to submit to your view of murder even if he had an elaborately-reasoned defense of the contrary position. (He might be a Nazi, a euthanasia enthusiast, or the like. And he might, for that matter, be better at arguing than you.)

By compelling a person to submit to your standards whether he agrees or not-by proclaiming (in other words) the existence of absolute moral standards that are compulsory for everyone-you proclaim, implicitly, your belief in God. And not just any God; you have proclaimed your belief in the God of your standards. For most western peoples, that means the God of Judaism and Christianity.

This seems like a simple, obvious argument and is, but we don't hear it often because-after all-it is not an argument that God exists; it's merely an argument that you think He does. It's an argument, in other words, that all believers in absolute moral standards believe in God too, ipso facto.

As Abraham Lincoln said of the Bible: "But for it we could not know right from wrong."3

I've asserted that anyone who believes in absolute, compulsory standards of behavior for all the world must believe in God. Again, I'm not proposing a proof that God exists, which seems to me impossible given the nature of the proposition. I'm only asserting that most people in modern society believe that He does-probably a large majority, including many who call themselves agnostics or atheists.

Here's my argument. Let's suppose you are a "reasonable person"; being reasonable, you have "inner promptings" that provide you with moral guidance. They tell you, for example, not to commit murder. Accordingly you don't. Even if you somehow found yourself in a position where you could murder in cold blood a person you had every right to hate, in such a way that no one would ever find out-you still wouldn't do it.

So far there's no need to mention God. There might be all sorts of purely rational or psychological grounds for this inner prompting.

But now suppose you come upon someone else who is about to commit murder. (For concreteness, suppose the potential murderer has pinned the intended victim underfoot and is about to smash in his head with a sledgehammer.) Presumably you would see it as your duty to compel the would-be murderer to desist. Whether you actually do anything would probably depend on the presence or absence of onlookers, the tools at hand, and your own bravery. But you'd want to stop the murder, whether or not you are able to put this desire into effect.

Now, what gives you the right to compel another person to obey your own personal inner promptings?

You might answer that "my inner promptings tell me not only that I personally must not murder but that I must compel all other potential murderers to desist." But remember: you're a reasonable person. As such, you can't deny that the potential murderer has his own inner promptings, which might tell him that murder (or at least this particular murder) is good or even mandatory. If you insist that your own behavior must be governed by your own inner promptings, why shouldn't this other person's behavior be governed by his own inner promptings?

Since you are a reasonable person, your only rational conclusion is that each person has a right to obey his own inner promptings- insofar as they don't collide with anyone else's. But when they do collide with someone else's, you have no basis for asserting that your inner promptings are right and the other person's are wrong (leaving the law aside, which is irrelevant for our purposes). In other words: when a collision exists, you no longer have any rational basis for obeying your own inner promptings. It's reasonable for you to refrain personally from committing murder. It is unreasonable for you to compel others to do the same.

But let's leave reason aside and return to reality. In fact you would compel that would-be murderer to stop, if you could. (And you'd do so even if you found yourself in a lawless totalitarian state where there was-in effect-no law against murder.) But what gives you the right to compel that would-be murderer to stop? To compel another person to obey your inner promptings instead of his own? What gives you the authority to carry out this act of compulsion? Not reason. The answer must lie elsewhere, in some authority beyond reason.

We know two things about this authority. First, it must hold sway over (or set bounds to the behavior of) every human being on earth-because your wish to halt that murder had nothing to do with the murderer's identity. Second, the authority must outlaw murder and any other crimes or sins concerning which you believe yourself empowered to act.

In short: unless you are proclaiming yourself supreme ruler of mankind, you must believe in God. And not just any God. Most modern, ethically-minded people will find their "inner promptings" more or less in agreement with the Ten Commandments and the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19:

Thou shalt leave [the gleanings of your fields] for the poor and the stranger..Ye shall not steal, neither shall ye deal falsely, nor lie to one another.. The wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning. Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind.. In righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor. Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.. Thou shalt not take vengeance.. But thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. ( Leviticus 19:9-19).

In other words: your belief that you have the duty and authority to stop a murderer before he starts suggests that you believe, implicitly, in the God of Israel.

Dignity and Humanity

So-what does bioethics mean by "human dignity"? We all know that dignity has two related meanings. It's a property we notice in some people more than in others, having to do with gravity, seriousness, unflappability, wisdom and (formerly) rank or position. It's also a property all human beings are said to possess, by virtue of which they are to be treated decently no matter what. The second property is the one we are discussing here.

Adam Schulman gives us a valuable starting point when he defines human dignity as "our essential and inviolable humanity."

Granted, "humanity" in the sense of humane-ness is easy to understand, and only humans have it. But the definition is problematic. (In discussing these problems, my goal is not to take pot-shots at Schulman's definition; it was intended as a starting point for discussion, and is serving exactly that purpose.)

If human dignity is the quality of humanity or humane-ness (as in the Yiddish "he's a mensch "-which means "man" in German too, but not in this sense), why should we preserve it if scientists can cook up something better? Why should the question of human dignity even arise when the topic is human cloning? Why should human dignity be "inalienable," given that "our essential humanity" is not inviolable-given that human beings sometimes act with inhuman cruelty?

Humanity or humane-ness is good-but many genetic engineers believe that they will be able to produce "better" humans eventually, better in all sorts of ways: smarter, stronger, tougher, better-looking, healthier. So isn't it possible that they will be able to cook up more humane humans too? Shouldn't we let them try?

Some bioethicists say, by all means. But others rely on "human dignity" to fend off the engineers who want to reshape human nature like children fooling with Play-Doh.

Not only might engineers be able to roll humans out of their labs who are more humane than we; they might be able to produce qualities that are more important-that trump our humane-ness. A genetically-engineered masterpiece with less humanity than I but twice the IQ might solve problems that I can merely commiserate over. (On similar lines, surgeons are renowned for their abrasiveness; but if you need an operation, you'll almost certainly choose a talented, obnoxious surgeon over a sweeter but less-talented specimen.)

Defining human dignity as "our essential humanity" has other problems too. Some bioethicists (perhaps most?) approve enthusiastically of human cloning. But some attack the idea and call it offensive to human dignity. Yet if human dignity means "our essential humanity," cloning a human being produces more of the stuff, more "essential humanity." At least so it would seem. No doubt a contrary argument is possible, but it's certainly not obvious why human cloning should raise the issue of human dignity at all.

And surely human dignity defined this way is not "inalienable." People can and do lose their "essential humanity." If Hitler had appeared at the Nuremberg trials, surely he'd have had no human dignity to stand on. He had ground out every trace of humanity he ever possessed as you grind out a cigarette underfoot. The same questions arose (on a vastly smaller scale) in the case of Saddam Hussein. Yet bioethicists like to treat "human dignity" as an attribute that all humans possess unless and until it's taken away by force.

Dignity and Sanctity

Here is a different way to define human dignity. We begin by looking up the word "sacred" in (for example) the Oxford English Dictionary . The definitions rest on "set apart" in many forms-"set apart for or dedicated to some religious purpose"; "regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence"; "secured by religious sentiment, reverence, sense of justice, or the like, against violation, infringement, or encroachment."4

It seems to me that "human dignity" as bioethics understands it is actually a sanitized version of "human sanctity"-one that has been purified of all traces of religion. In bioethics, human dignity means (implicitly) that all human beings are "set apart or dedicated to some (higher) purpose," "regarded with or entitled to respect," "secured by sense of justice, or the like, against violation, infringement, or encroachment," to read the OED 's definitions with religion left out. Human dignity means that humans are set apart.

Violation, infringement, or encroachment -designer babies infringe or encroach on the human species even if they turn out to be more humane (or otherwise better) than we; human beings are and must remain set apart and are not to be tinkered with as we have always tinkered with other species. It's arguable that when a life is dominated by pain and suffering, the sick or hurt person's human dignity has been violated, infringed, or encroached on . (And when that happens, perhaps he is entitled to end his life.) And in many other cases, "set apart, not to be encroached on" seems like the essence of human dignity.

Yet we sacrifice something when we switch from "human sanctity" to "human dignity." Deleting religion has a cost -a truth the modern academic doesn't want to acknowledge. Human sanctity carries a built-in explanation of its existence. Humans are set apart because, no matter what they make of themselves, God made them in His own image. Human dignity implies no such explanation. (Unless, perhaps, you accept the Kantian idea that human beings are intrinsically set apart by their ability to conjure up the entire moral universe merely by reasoning. But nowadays almost nobody does.)

Saddam Hussein might have retained "human sanctity" because he was created in God's image. But why should he have retained "human dignity" when he has done his best to wipe out any and all differences between himself and the lower animals?

When we switch from sanctity to dignity, we switch from a world in which the unique set-apartness of man is grounded in our ideas (or perceptions) of God to a world in which the unique set-apartness of man isn't grounded in anything, is indeed merely asserted . And the fact that human dignity amounts to a mere bald assertion leaves some bioethicists so uncomfortable that they would rather not define the term at all. Furthermore, "man's unique set-apartness" sounds like a religious idea, even if God never comes up. In sum, many bioethicists would rather go on using the term while forgetting the definition- why rent a car when you can borrow one?-all the while assuring us that man is merely one species among many and hence entitled to nothing special.

I've claimed that human sanctity is grounded in the idea of God's having created man in His image, and I've referred to this as a "religious" argument. But I don't really mean it-don't mean religion in a general sense; I mean Biblical religion. (I include Islam insofar as it acknowledges the Bible's truth and has in principle many close connections to Judaism.) Indeed, man's being created in the image of God is the basic, defining characteristic of Biblical as opposed to other religions; everything else flows from this seminal assertion in Genesis . This becomes clear when we compare the revolutionary assertion in Genesis to the pagan view it replaced. Pagans believed that the gods were made in man's image. (Of course I don't want to call the great religions of the east "pagan"; but from certain angles they resemble pagan more than Biblical religion, and particularly in this respect.) What was the meaning and force of Judaism's startling assertion that man had been made in God's image instead of vice versa? If man is made in God's image, man's goal must be not to accept his animal nature but to transcend it; not to "blend into" nature or "become one with" nature or with the universe but to raise himself above nature; not to be himself but to be better than himself. Hence he must struggle toward goodness and sanctity. He can never reach that goal, not entirely, any more than he can become the deity he (in some sense) resembles, any more than Moses (in the most powerful metaphor in the Bible) was able to reach the Promised Land. But he must try.

This seems like a lot of religious doctrine to swallow. Surely such things could only be germane to devout Jews and Christians (and perhaps to Muslims). But when and if we accept (explicitly or otherwise) the Ten Commandments and the Holiness Code as the basis of our ethics, this is the God and the story we implicitly accept.

"Human sanctity" has other properties that make it useful in bioethics-at least to some bioethicists. The hardest bioethical problems often involve the creation of human life: for example, abortion, cloning, designer babies, and other related topics. Some thinkers are unwilling to cede control over the creation of human beings to science and technology. Can they convincingly explain why not, if "human dignity" is all they have to work with? Isn't it fundamentally a religious impulse (specifically a Judeo-Christian impulse) that drives many of them? Whatever good thing is at the root of "human dignity," scientists can make it better or provide more-at least they can try!-unless your vision of "human dignity" has no utilitarian handle to grab hold of at all. Unless you mean that the essence of human-ness must not be tampered with, no matter what. And isn't that a Judeo-Christian idea?

Rights vs. Duties

But I've claimed that the "background" and "foreground" ultimately determine the role played by "human dignity." Let me explain.

"Background" means our basic approach to ethics; but here we find two competing alternatives: the antique religious "ethics of duty" versus the "ethics of rights" that has been assumed by most thinkers for centuries. Philosophers like to argue that these two worldviews are complementary. In fact they are contradictory. Each yields an all-inclusive blueprint for society, with no room for further contributions.

Granted, it's convenient to speak of one's "duty" to help the poor and one's "right" of self-defense. No contradiction there. But think it over and you will see that, by laying out everyone's duties explicitly, you lay out everyone's rights implicitly and vice versa. You have a right to self-defense-or, to put it differently, a duty to use no violence except (among other cases) in self-defense. Both formulas reach the same destination by different routes. By means of an "ethics of duty," you shape society as a sculptor carves stone; with an "ethics of rights," you shape it as a sculptor models clay. Two different, contradictory techniques.

The ethics of duty originated in Judeo-Christianity, the ethics of rights in Roman jurisprudence. The Hebrew tradition knows about rights-but only in the context of covenants, where two parties each acquire rights and responsibilities simultaneously.

A right ordinarily "confers an advantageous position," to put it formally; having a right means that your will is favored over someone else's. Rights-morality centers on what is coming to you. Duty-morality centers on what is required of you.

The Declaration of Independence says that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.."

It could also have said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Duties, that among these are safeguarding Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to make sure of these duties, Governments are instituted among Men.."

What's the difference? Jefferson's version is famous for eloquence, and only a lunatic would suggest that it ought to have been written differently. But this is a thought-experiment, not a proposed rewrite.

Jefferson's is easier to understand-though of course we are considerably more familiar with it.

But when we speak of rights, we tend to speak of the individuals immediately concerned on the one hand, and the vast vague public on the other. To achieve, on the other hand, the effect of granting a right by using the mechanism of duty, it's natural to impose specific duties on the whole public-you have a right to life and liberty versus a duty to safeguard life and liberty. In the first case, we award a right without saying how we will deliver it; "the government will take care of things" is a bad idea to propose to the citizenry, and over the generations (although mainly in the 20th century) we have seen the United States government grow bigger and more powerful, and its citizens more passive, while "rights" have proliferated. There are many causes. But the morality of rights must be one.

In the second version, we have imposed a specific duty on every citizen. (You have a duty to safeguard your fellow citizen's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.) Even the dutiful citizen will have a hard time carrying out these duties without the government's doing most of the work. But at least the government and the citizen pull in the same direction. Instead of one being the passive recipient and the other an all-powerful Fairy Godmother, the citizen and his government share the same duties. (Some have argued that police duties must be forbidden to the public-but that's a different question.)

Does the public actually care about any duties except mandatory legal ones? Surely it doesn't care about "philosophical duties"? But "Uncle Sam wants you for the United States Army" was a highly successful recruiting poster. When vague desiderata are translated into concrete duties-"only you can prevent forest fires"-the public takes note.

Of course we could say that "granting an individual some right implies imposing on the whole public or its representatives a corresponding duty." True. But the idea that the public will draw a conclusion just because the inference is logically possible is one of the great absurdities of academic philosophy. The public has other things to do than sift through known propositions looking for inferences to draw.

The Foreground of Human Dignity

I've now discussed two of the "background" questions pertaining to human dignity-secular versus religious morality, and a "morality of rights" versus a "morality of duties"; on to a few cases.

First, some passages from the Bible and the Talmud that deal with treatment of the sick, the weak, the unprotected-the sort of problem bioethics frequently deals with. Then some modern problems suggested by bioethics directly.

In Judaism as in Christianity, the basis for all assertions regarding the proper treatment of our fellow men are the verses in which man is said to be created in the image of God. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" ( Genesis 1:26, cf. 5:1-3 and 9:5-7). Judaism is a system of duties imposed on the Jewish people. Many deal with the treatment of fellow human beings. To give some idea of the character of these duties, I cite the Talmud and other classic rabbinic writings-which play roughly the same role in Judaism as the New Testament does in Christianity. (You can no more understand Judaism without the Talmud than you can Christianity without the New Testament. In fact the Talmud emerged from roughly the same community during roughly the same period as the New Testament.) Practicing Jews don't consult the Talmud to learn their duties; they consult their rabbis or more recent legal writings that are ultimately based on the Talmud. But that is a detail. It's enough to say that observant Jews, although they are only a small minority of all Jews (who are a small enough minority themselves, God knows), are rigorous in keeping the commandments; and the Talmud provides a detailed guide to how these commandments are to be obeyed.

A Talmudic passage: "As to him who has nothing but refuses to take [charity], let him first be asked to give a pledge and let him then be asked to take, so that his mind will be cheered" ( Ketuvot 67b).

At first, the passage seems strongly in keeping with "inalienable rights" and human dignity. Everyone has a right to sustenance, delivered in a way that doesn't compromise his self-respect. The rabbinic tradition is obsessed with giving charity and with giving it in the right way: "He who gives charity in secret [anonymously] is greater than Moses" ( Baba Basra 9b). In a famous passage, Maimonides lists eight degrees of charity, where the greatest consists of giving someone a job, setting him up in business, or otherwise making him self-supporting.

But the charity-case in this passage has refused to take charity. He'd rather starve than be a public burden.

How could the Talmud's instructions be re-phrased in the language of rights? "The poor have a right to refuse charity, and then to be approached by someone who suggests that what is actually charity should be treated as a loan against collateral"? A strange-sounding right. We can fine-tune a duty more accurately and with greater subtlety than a right -because we are addressing those who will actively deliver, not those who will passively receive. (I can tell you how to throw a curve ball but not how to have one thrown at you.)

And notice that to approach a situation in terms of rights drains away all ethical content. "You have a right to be supported if you can't support yourself; you have a right to be supported in such-and-such a way." No good deeds or ethical achievements are contemplated.

(The Talmud's instructions are based-arguably-on something like "human dignity"-but is human dignity a strong enough idea to justify this sort of aggressive help? When you give charity tactfully, you show respect for human dignity. When you help a man who has refused charity, it's arguable that your motivation is human sanctity .)

Human beings rise (or sink) to the occasion.

Again: we can fine-tune a duty more accurately and with greater subtlety than a right, because we are addressing those who will actively deliver, not those who will passively receive. Another Talmudic passage: "Rav Yonah said: It is not written, Happy is he who gives to the poor, but Happy is he who considers the poor ( Psalms 41:1)-that is, he who ponders how to fulfill the command to help the poor" ( Talmud Yerushalmi ).5 This instruction tells would-be charity-givers to think . It says, in effect, "We can and will give you detailed instructions, but you must apply them thoughtfully, not by rote." In the language of rights we would have to say, "You are entitled to have someone think about how to help you"-another implausible-sounding right, impossible to enforce.

There are endless Talmudic instructions (based on Biblical verses) that enjoin care for and kindness to the sick, young, old, unprotected. But these are all subsumed in a general instruction that is even more important: one must perform "acts of loving-kindness." "Shim'on the Just used to say, The universe stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of loving-kindness" ( Mishnah Avos ). "Rav Elazar said: Giving charity is greater than all sacrifice.. But acts of loving-kindness are greater than giving charity" ( Sukkah 49b). Such duties cannot possibly be rephrased in rights-language. ("You are entitled to live in a world in which some people are duty-bound to perform acts of loving-kindness"?)

In all these cases, rights-based language is opaque and passive and sometimes impossible.

Let's consider some modern cases. Terry Schiavo's death was a tragic watershed that will be discussed for years. (Briefly, Mrs. Schiavo was either comatose or mostly but not entirely comatose, depending on whom you believe; she was unable to feed herself; although her parents pleaded for her life, legal authorities ordered that she be starved to death.) I will consider just one aspect of the case: certain elected officials tried to intervene on behalf of Mrs. Schiavo's parents. But polls suggested that the public regarded the case as none of its business and wanted politicians to butt out.

Ordinarily, refusing to feed someone who can't feed herself is murder. And virtually all ethical systems require us to help the weak and the sick, not starve them. There was plenty to argue about in this case; it's conceivable (at least remotely) that Mrs. Schiavo actually left instructions that her life should be ended if she were comatose, and it's certainly conceivable that she was comatose; and there are many other debatable points. One thing that is not debatable is that the public should have been part of the debate. When murder enters the picture, the public is automatically involved. Murder is a crime against the public. Why on earth would the public have regarded this case as none of its business?

Perhaps because of the warped viewpoint yielded by rights-lan-guage and rights-morality? If we speak only of rights , we have a case in which a woman's right to live is in question, along with her right to human dignity, and a husband's versus a parent's right to speak for someone who can't speak for herself. Where is the public in all this? The public's only role is the usual vague one of ensuring (in some unspecified way) that all rights be enforced. I am not speaking here of laws or absolutes that are hard-wired into the ethics of rights versus duties. I am discussing tendencies. When we speak of rights, we tend to speak of the individuals immediately concerned on the one hand and the vast vague public on the other.

But if we translate rights-language to duty-language, "you have a right to life" becomes "you have a duty to safeguard life." Instead of "you have the right as a husband to speak for your incapacitated wife," we get "you have a duty to listen to a husband if his wife is incapacitated."

How should the Terry Schiavo case have been decided? We notice first that "human dignity" doesn't help. But common sense might have. Suspected criminals must be guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Was Mrs. Schiavo wholly comatose and unresponsive, beyond a reasonable doubt ? Was it more consistent with human dignity to kill her than to continue helping her to live, beyond a reasonable doubt ? Was the public's duty to safeguard life overridden by other factors in this case, beyond a reasonable doubt ? These are simple questions-but if anyone discussed them, I missed it.

There's a more specific issue too, suggested by duty-morality versus rights-morality. In the Judeo-Christian view, if you have a right to live, you also have a duty to live. Except in terribly abnormal circumstances (which are recognized in Jewish law), it is unlawful in Judaism to take your own life or to instruct anyone else to take it. But what good is it to stay alive if you are comatose, suffering; blind? Could Milton possibly have been right when he told us, in On his blindness , that "they also serve who only stand and wait?" Could Shakespeare have been right when, in one of the most extraordinary passages in Lear , Gloucester's loving son says to him (after Gloucester has been cruelly abused, tormented and blinded), "Thy life's a miracle !"?

To remain alive and serve God and man the best you can when you really want life to be over is profoundly inspiring-to man and (probably) to God. But what about a Terry Schiavo, evidently unable to do anything ? She was indeed able to do something-maybe only one thing, but maybe the most important. She was able to inspire love. And when the topic is love, we need all the education we can get. "The Torah for its own sake is a law of love" ( Sukkah 49b). (When the Talmud insists that one must grapple with Torah for its own sake , it foreshadows Kant's insistence that duty done for its own sake equals human freedom. In Judaism you achieve sanctity-in Kant freedom-by doing your duty simply to do it .)

Consider two of the horrors of human cloning and "designer babies." Any technology gets better; children of parents who order up the smartest possible babies in year n will easily be outclassed by younger children whose parents do the same ten years later (while probably paying a lot less for much spiffier models). Designer children will grow obsolete, just like PCs. (Bill McKibben discusses this possibility in Enough.6 )

Here's an even more horrifying possibility. I've heard and read several times (on cable TV and in ordinary newspapers) this justification for human cloning: consider parents whose child has contracted a fatal disease or been killed in an accident. Those parents could use tissue from the doomed or dead child to clone an exact duplicate- which would make the loss of the original less hard to bear.

But imagine the thoughts of the doomed original. "I'm sick and dying, but my parents have no need to grieve too much. Do they even need to grieve at all? Before long I'll be replaced by an exact duplicate, and life will carry on exactly as before, for everyone except me ."

"Someone else will wear my clothes, sit at my place, speak my lines and impersonate me; he will make people believe I am still alive. Everyone will enjoy the performance-but I won't."

Thanks to modern technology, my death won't matter . And the thought that your own beloved child could die and you are then solaced by a genetic duplicate is deeply obscene. (Yet it's possible that some parents would buy it.)

These cases are (again) beyond the realm of rights. If we say "you have a right to a death that matters," doesn't this right apply to unloved children too?-maybe orphans, maybe children of parents who don't care? And what about unloved adults? Or the elderly who have no children or living spouse or relatives? The right in itself is good; who could disapprove? But it is also ridiculous, because even if we grant it there is no conceivable way to enforce it, to deliver on this promise.

Once again, duty-morality seems more appropriate than rights-morality. And even though we are attempting to prevent crimes against human dignity, it's more accurate to say that our goal is to prevent crimes against human sanctity . We are dealing with the creation of human life. We are ordering man not to take this business out of God's hands-or out of nature's, if you prefer. (But why shouldn't he take it out of "nature's" hands? The reason not to take it out of God's is that "human sanctity" means "created in God's image"-not in some image cooked up by human engineers.)

In short, secularized, sanitized ideas are too weak for the task at hand. "Human sanctity" is a stronger idea than "human dignity." An ethics based on universal, permanent rights is weaker, more opaque, and more passive than an ethics based on universal duties.

I myself believe that "dignity" in the end is a religious idea, and that we can't be rational and moral animals unless we acknowledge the God of Israel. But the ethics of duty is another matter. Although it barely exists on philosophy's agenda, there are reasons to believe that the ethics of duty is intrinsically superior to the ethics of rights-more precise and more expressive-regardless of your views on religion. (In fact, we might trace the actual decline of religion not to Darwin and modern science but to the rise of rights-talk versus the old duties-talk, which preceded Darwin by more than a century. Most people don't want duties but welcome rights. If duties are imposed on them, they demand to know-reasonably enough-on whose authority; and the only plausible answer comes down to "on God's authority." But if someone awards you a right, why ask questions?)

In any event, modern life is secularized, and that can't be undone. But Americans are not secularized. Many are Christian (some actively Christian); a few are actively Jewish.

Bioethics touches every life. This field can't possibly be allowed to develop in the secular ghetto where modern intellectuals lives. Bioethics needs Judeo-Christian ideas: must understand human sanctity and not just dignity, must understand the world of duties and not only of rights. Even atheists might gain from a broader, more tolerant, more multi-cultural approach to the hard questions of the human spirit.



1. See Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco, California: Encounter, 2002); Jonathan Jacobs,"Return to the Sources: Political Hebraism and the Making of Modern Politics," Hebraic Political Studies, volume 1, number 3 (Spring 2006), pp. 328-342; Fania Oz-Salzberger, "The Political Thought of John Locke and the Significance of Political Hebraism," Hebraic Political Studies , volume 1, number 5 (Fall 2006), pp. 568-592.

2. Simon Blackburn, Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3. Abraham Lincoln, "Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible," September 7, 1864 in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953), volume 7, p. 543.

4. Oxford English Dictionary , 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

5. Cited in A Rabbinic Anthology , ed. Claude J. G. Montefiore and Herbert M. J. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1960).

6. Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York: Holt, 2003).


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