The President's Council on Bioethics click here to skip navigation

 

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 5: Theories of Human Dignity

Chapter 16: The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity

Patrick Lee and Robert P. George

Some people hold that all human beings have a special type of dignity that is the basis for (1) the obligation all of us have not to kill them, (2) the obligation to take their well-being into account when we act, and (3) even the obligation to treat them as we would have them treat us. Indeed, those who hold that all human beings possess a special type of dignity almost always also hold that human beings are equal in fundamental dignity. They maintain that there is no class of human beings to which other human beings should be subordinated when considering their interests or their well-being, and when devising laws and social policies.

Other thinkers deny that all human beings have a special type of dignity. They maintain that only some human beings, because of their possession of certain characteristics in addition to their humanity (for example, an immediately exercisable capacity for self-consciousness, or for rational deliberation), have full moral worth. In this paper we defend the first of these two positions. We argue that all human beings, regardless of age, size, stage of development, or immediately exercisable capacities, have equal fundamental dignity.

Let us begin by offering a few preliminary thoughts on the general concept of dignity . Dignity is not a distinct property or quality, like a body's color, or an organ's function. Although there are different types of dignity, in each case the word refers to a property or properties-different ones in different circumstances-that cause one to excel , and thus elicit or merit respect from others. Our focus will be on the dignity of a person or personal dignity. The dignity of a person is that whereby a person excels other beings, especially other animals, and merits respect or consideration from other persons. We will argue that what distinguishes human beings from other animals, what makes human beings persons rather than things , is their rational nature. Human beings are rational creatures by virtue of possessing natural capacities for conceptual thought, deliberation, and free choice, that is, the natural capacity to shape their own lives.

These basic, natural capacities to reason and make free choices are possessed by every human being, even those who cannot immediately exercise them. One's existence as a person thus derives from the kind of substantial entity one is, a human being-and this is the ground for dignity in the most important sense. Because personhood is based on the kind of being one is-a substantial entity whose nature is a rational nature-one cannot lose one's fundamental personal dignity as long as one exists as a human being.

There are other senses of the word "dignity." First, there is a type of dignity that varies in degree, which is the manifestation or actualization of those capacities that distinguish humans from other animals. Thus, slipping on a banana peel (being reduced for a moment to a passive object), or losing one's independence and privacy (especially as regards our basic bodily functions), detract from our dignity in this sense. However, while this dignity seems to be compromised in certain situations, it is never completely lost. Moreover, this dignity, which varies in degree, is distinct from the more basic dignity that derives from simply being a person.

Second, it is important also to distinguish one's sense of dignity. Something may harm one's sense of dignity without damaging or compromising one's real dignity. People who become dependent on others often feel a certain loss of dignity. Yet their personal dignity, and even their manifestation of that dignity, may not have been harmed at all. Often one's sense of dignity can be at variance with one's real dignity. Those who are sick, and who bear their suffering in a courageous or holy manner, often inspire others even though they themselves may feel a loss of dignity.

Third, a person may be treated in a way at odds with his or her personal dignity. Human beings may be enslaved, they may be killed unjustly, raped, scorned, coerced, or wrongly imprisoned. Such treatment is undignified, yet it too, like a person's low sense of dignity, does not diminish a victim's personal dignity; the slave or the murder victim are wronged precisely because they are treated in a way at odds with their genuine personal dignity.

In truth, all human beings have real dignity simply because they are persons-entities with a natural capacity for thought and free choice. All human beings have this capacity, so all human beings are persons. Each human being therefore deserves to be treated by all other human beings with respect and consideration. It is precisely this truth that is at stake in the debates about killing human embryos, fetuses, and severely retarded, demented, or debilitated human beings, and in many other debates in bioethics.

To explain the basis of human dignity, and how human beings inherently possess dignity, we will first explain more precisely the problem of the basis of human dignity; then we will examine proposals that deny that every human being has an intrinsic dignity that grounds full moral worth; then we will present and defend our position; finally, we will show how the feature (nature) that grounds full moral worth is possessed by human beings in all developmental stages, including the embryonic, fetal, and infant stages, and in all conditions, including severely cognitively impaired conditions (sometimes called "marginal cases").

The Problem of Moral Status

The general problem regarding the ground of moral status can be expressed as follows. It seems that it is morally permissible to use some living things, to consume them, or to experiment on them for our own benefit (without their consent, or perhaps when they are unable to give or withhold consent), but that it is not morally permissible to treat other beings in this way. The question is: where do we draw the line between those two sorts of beings? By what criterion do we draw that line? Or perhaps there just is no such line, and we should always seek to preserve all beings, of whatever sort.

But we must eat, we must use some entities for food and shelter, and in doing so we inevitably destroy them. When we eat we convert entities of one nature into another and thus destroy them. Moreover, no one claims that we should not try to eradicate harmful bacteria (which are forms of life). That is, we should kill harmful bacteria in order to protect ourselves and our children. And it seems clear that we must harvest wheat and rice for food, and trees for shelter. So, plainly it is permissible to kill and use some living things. Given that it is not morally permissible to kill just any type of being, it follows that a line must be drawn, a line between those entities it is morally permissible to use, consume, and destroy, and those it is not permissible to use, consume, and destroy. How can the line be drawn in a non-arbitrary way?

Various criteria for where the line should be drawn have been proposed: sentience, consciousness, self-awareness, rationality, or being a moral agent (the last two come to the same thing). We will argue that the criterion is: having a rational nature, that is, having the natural capacity to reason and make free choices, a capacity it ordinarily takes months, or even years, to actualize, and which various impediments might prevent from being brought to full actualization, at least in this life. Thus, every human being has full moral worth or dignity, for every human being possesses such a rational nature.

While membership in the species Homo sapiens is sufficient for full moral worth, it is not in any direct sense the criterion for moral worth. If we discovered extra-terrestrial beings of a rational nature, or if we found that some other terrestrial species did have a rational nature, then we would owe such beings full moral respect. Still, all members of the human species do have full moral worth, because all of them do have a rational nature and are moral agents, though many of them are not able immediately to exercise those basic capacities. One could also say that the criterion for full moral worth is being a person , since a person is a rational and morally responsible subject.i

The other suggestions listed above, we believe, are not tenable as criteria for full moral worth, and, worse yet, often have the practical effect of leading to the denial that human beings have full moral worth, rather than simply adding other beings to the set of beings deserving full moral respect.1 Hence it is vital to explain how "being a person"-that is, being a distinct substance with the basic natural capacities for conceptual thought and free choice-is the ground for the possession of basic rights.

The Capacity for Enjoyment or Suffering as a Criterion

Animal welfarists argue that the criterion for moral worth is simply the ability to experience enjoyment and suffering. Peter Singer, for example, quotes Jeremy Bentham: "The question is not, Can they reason ? nor Can they talk ? but, Can they suffer?"2 Singer then presents the following argument for this position:

The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all , a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way.. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is, however, not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests-at an absolute minimum, an interest in not suffering.3

In short, Singer's argument is: All and only beings that have interests have moral status; but all and only beings that can (now) experience suffering or enjoyment have interests; therefore, all and only beings that can (now) experience suffering or enjoyment have moral status.

The major difficulties with Singer's position all follow from the fact that his proposed criterion for moral status involves the possession of an accidental attribute that varies in degree. Both the capacity for suffering and the possession of interests are properties that different beings have in different degrees, and the interests themselves are possessed in varying degrees. As we shall show, this feature of Singer's theory leads to untenable conclusions.

Although Singer has made famous the slogan, "All animals are equal," this theory actually leads to denying that all animals, including all humans, have equal moral worth or basic rights. Singer means that "all animals are equal" in the sense that all animals are due "equal consideration." Where the interests of two animals are similar in quality and magnitude, then those interests should be counted as equal when deciding what to do, both as individuals and in social policies and actions. However, as Singer himself points out, on this view, some animals can perform actions that others cannot, and thus have interests that those others do not. So the moral status of all animals is not, in fact, equal. One would not be required to extend the right to vote-or to education in reading and arithmetic-to pigs, since they are unable to perform such actions. This point leads to several problems when we attempt to compare interests. According to this view, it is the interests that matter, not the kind of being that is affected by one's actions. So, on this view, it would logically follow that if a human child had a toothache and a juvenile rat had a slightly more severe toothache, then we would be morally required to devote our resources to alleviating the rat's toothache rather than the human's.

Moreover, a human newborn infant who will die shortly (and so does not appear to have long-term future interests) or a severely cognitively impaired human will be due less consideration than a more mature horse or pig, on the ground that the mature horse or pig will have richer and more developed interests. Since the horse and the pig have higher cognitive and emotional capacities (in the sense of immediately or nearly immediately exercisable capacities) than the newborn infant (that will die shortly) and the severely cognitively impaired human, and since it is the interests that directly count morally, not the beings that have those interests, the interests of the horse and the pig should (on this account) be preferred to the interests of the newborn or the severely cognitively impaired human.4

On the other hand, when we note the differences between types of interests, then Singer's position actually implies an indirect moral elitism. It is true that according to this position no individual animal is greater than another solely on the ground of its species (that is, according to its substantial nature). Still, one animal will be due more consideration-indirectly-if it has capacities for higher or more complex mental functions. As Singer puts it: "Within these limits we could still hold that, for instance, it is worse to kill a normal adult human, with a capacity for self-awareness, and the ability to plan for the future and have meaningful relations with others, than it is to kill a mouse, which presumably does not share all of these characteristics.."5 But this difference between degrees of capacity for suffering and enjoyment will also apply to individuals within each species. And so, on this view, while a human will normally have a greater capacity for suffering and enjoyment than other animals, and so will have a higher moral status (indirectly), so too, more intelligent and sophisticated human individuals will have a greater capacity for suffering and enjoyment than less intelligent and less sophisticated human individuals, and so the former will have a higher moral status than the latter. As Richard Arneson expressed this point, "For after all it is just as true that a creative genius has richer and more complex interests than those of an ordinary average Joe as it is true that a human has richer and more complex interests than a baboon."6

These difficulties are all due to the selection of a criterion of moral worth that varies in degree. If the moral status-conferring attribute varies in degree-whether it be the capacity for enjoyment or suffering, or another attribute that comes in different degrees-it will follow that some humans will possess that attribute to a lesser extent than some nonhuman animals, and so inevitably some interests of some nonhuman animals will trump the interests of some humans. Also, it will follow that some humans will possess the attribute in question to a higher degree than other humans, with the result that not all humans will be equal in fundamental moral worth, i.e., dignity . True, some philosophers bite the bullet on these results. But in our judgment this is too high a price to pay. A sound view of worth and dignity will not entail such difficulties.

On such a view, the criterion for moral worth must be the possession of a property that does not itself vary in degree-it must, that is, be the possession of a nature . Being of moral worth must be grounded in an entity's existence as a substance of a certain sort (we discuss what sort in more detail below) rather than in the possession of a set of accidental or variable properties.

This view explains why our moral concern is for persons, rather than for their properties. After all, when dealing with other persons it is clear that the locus of value is the persons themselves. Persons are not mere vehicles for what is intrinsically valuable: one's child, one's neighbor, or even a stranger, are not valuable only because of the valuable attributes they possess. If persons were valuable as mere vehicles for something else-some other quality that is regarded as what is really of value-then it would follow that the basic moral rule would be simply to maximize those valuable attributes. It would not be morally wrong to kill a child, no matter what age, if doing so enabled one to have two children in the future, and thus to bring it about that there were two vehicles for intrinsic value rather than one.

On the contrary, we are aware that persons themselves-the substantial entities they are-are intrinsically valuable. But if that is so, then it would make sense that what distinguishes those entities that have full moral status (inherent dignity) from those that do not should be the type of substantial entity they are, rather than any accidental attributes they possess. True, it is not self-contradictory to hold that the person himself is valuable, but only in virtue of some accidental attributes he or she possesses. Still, it is more natural, and more theoretically economical, to suppose that what has full moral status, and that in virtue of which he or she has full moral status, are one and the same.

Moreover, this position more closely tracks the characteristics we find in genuine care or love. Our genuine love for a person remains, or should remain, for as long as that person continues to exist, and is not dependent on his or her possessing further attributes. That is, it seems to be the nature of care or love that it be unconditional, that we continue to desire the well-being or fulfillment of one we love for as long as he or she exists. Of course, this still leaves open the question whether continuing to live is always part of a person's well-being or fulfillment; we do maintain that a person's life always is in itself a good, but that is a distinct question from the one being considered just now.

We shall argue below that being a substance with a rational nature is the criterion for moral worth. But the point now is that, whatever the specific criterion is, it involves existing as a type of substance-being a certain type of thing-rather than possessing a set of accidental or variable properties. In consequence, every substance of that sort will have full moral worth, and any substance of that sort will have a higher and different type of moral worth than entities that are not of that type.7

Moreover, the argument for sentience, or the ability to experience suffering and enjoyment, as the basic criterion of moral status, supposes that only such beings have interests. However, although rocks do not seem to have interests, the same cannot be said about plants. It is not true that only beings with feelings or some level of consciousness can be reasonably considered to have interests. It is clear that living beings are fulfilled by certain conditions and damaged by others. As Paul Taylor, who defends a biocentrist view (according to which all living beings have moral worth), explains,

We can think of the good of an individual nonhuman organism as consisting in the full development of its biological powers. Its good is realized to the extent that it is strong and healthy.8

One can then say that what promotes the organism's survival and flourishing is in its interest and what diminishes its chances of survival or flourishing is against its interests . Further, while it may be initially plausible to think that all animals have rights because they have interests, it is considerably less plausible to think that all living beings (which include wheat, corn, and rice, not to mention weeds and bacteria) have rights. But the interest argument would lead to that position.

Finally, the arguments advanced by Singer and Taylor do not actually attempt to establish that nonhuman animals and other living things have moral rights in the full sense of the term. We think it is true of every living being, in some way, that we should not wantonly destroy or damage it.ii With sentient beings, whether their life goes well or badly for them will significantly include their pleasure, comfort, or lack of suffering. And so their flourishing includes pleasure and lack of pain (though it also includes other things such as their life and their activities). Yet it does not follow from these points that they have full basic and inherent dignity (moral worth) or rights.9 There simply is no conceptual connection between pleasure and pain (enjoyment and suffering) on the one hand, and full moral worth (including genuine rights), on the other hand.10

However, almost no one actually argues that these beings have basic dignity or full moral rights. Rather, biocentrists argue that all living things merit some consideration, but also hold that human beings are due more consideration (though not, apparently, different in kind).11 In effect, instead of actually holding that all living beings (in the case of biocentrists) or all animals (in the case of animal welfarists) have rights , they have simply denied the existence of rights in the full sense of the term.iii Instead, they hold only that all living beings (or animals or higher mammals) deserve some varying degree of respect or consideration. We agree with this point, but we also maintain that every human being is a subject of rights, that is, every human being should be treated according to the golden rule, and it is absolutely wrong intentionally to kill any innocent human being or intentionally to deprive any innocent human being of any basic, intrinsic good.iv In other words, we grant that we should take account of the flourishing of living beings, and the pleasures and pains of nonhuman animals. But we are not morally related to them in the same way that we are related to other beings who, like ourselves, have a rational nature-beings whom (out of fairness) we should treat as we would have them treat us.

But one might argue for animal rights starting from our natural empathy or affection for them (though most people's natural empathy or affection, notably, does not extend to all animals, for example, to spiders or snakes). If one identifies what is to be protected and pursued with what can be felt, that is, enjoyed or suffered in some way, then one might conclude that every entity that can have pleasure or pain deserves (equal?) consideration. If the only intrinsic good were what can be enjoyed, and the only intrinsic bad were suffering, then it would not be incoherent to hold that sentience is the criterion of moral standing, that is, that every entity with sentience has (some degree of) moral standing. In other words, it seems that one can present an argument for animal rights that begins from natural feelings of empathy only by way of a hedonistic theory of value. We can think of no other arguments that begin from that natural empathy with, or affection for, other animals.

But hedonism as a general theory of value is mistaken. The good is not exhausted by the experiential-the key tenet of hedonism. Real understanding of the way things are, for example, is pleasurable because it is fulfilling or perfective of us, not vice versa. The same is true of life, health, or skillful performance (one enjoys running a good race because it is a genuine accomplishment, a skillful performance, rather than vice versa). So, as Plato and Aristotle pointed out, hedonism places the cart before the horse.

Our desires are not purely arbitrary: we are capable of desiring certain things while other things leave us unmoved, uninterested. So, prior to being desired, the object desired must have something about it that makes it fitting , or suitable , to being desired. What makes it fitting to us is that it would fulfill or perfect us in some way or other. Thus, what makes a thing good cannot consist in its being enjoyed, or in its satisfying desires or preferences. Rather, desires and preferences are rational only if they are in line with what is genuinely good, that is, genuinely fulfilling.v So, hedonism is mistaken. It cannot then provide support for the view that sentience (or the capacity for suffering and enjoyment) is the criterion of full moral worth. While it is wrong to damage or kill a plant wantonly, still it can be morally right to do so for a good reason. Similarly, it is wrong wantonly to damage or kill a non-rational animal, but it can be morally right to do so for a good reason.vi

The Difference in Kind Between Human Beings and Other Animals

Human beings are fundamentally different in kind from other animals, not just genetically but in having a rational nature (that is, a nature characterized by basic natural capacities for conceptual thought, deliberation and free choice). Human beings perform acts of understanding , or conceptual thought, and such acts are fundamentally different kinds of acts than acts of sensing, perceiving, or imaging. An act of understanding is the grasping of, or awareness of, a nature shared in common by many things. In Aristotle's memorable phrase, to understand is not just to know water (by sensing or perceiving this water), but to know what it is to be water. 12 By our senses and perceptual abilities we know the individual qualities and quantities modifying our sense organs-this color or this shape, for example. But by understanding (conceptual thought) we apprehend a nature held in common by many entities-not this or that instance of water, but what it is to be water. By contrast, the object of the sensory powers, including imagination, is always an individual, a this at a particular place and a particular time, a characteristic, such as this red, this shape, this tone, an object that is thoroughly conditioned by space and time.

The contrast is evident upon examination of language. Proper names refer to individuals or groups of individuals that can be designated in a determinate time and place. Thus "Winston Churchill" is a name that refers to a determinate individual, whereas the nouns "human," "horse," "atom," and "organism" are common names. Common names do not designate determinate individuals or determinate groups of individuals (such as "those five people in the corner"). Rather, they designate classes . Thus, if we say, "Organisms are composed of cells," the word "organisms" designates the whole class of organisms, a class that extends indefinitely into the past and indefinitely into the future. All syntactical languages distinguish between proper names and common names.

But a class is not an arbitrary collection of individuals. It is a collection of individuals that have something in common. There is always some feature (or set of features), some intelligible nature or accidental attribute, that is the criterion of membership for the class. Thus, the class of organisms includes all, and only those, beings that have the nature of living bodily substance . And so, to understand the class as such, and not just be able to pick out individuals belonging to that class, one must understand the nature held in common. And to understand the class as a class (as we clearly do in reasoning) one must mentally apprehend the nature or features (or set of features) held in common by the members of the class and compare this to those individual members. Thus, to understand a proposition such as, "All organisms require nutrition for survival," one must understand a nature or universal content designated by the term "organisms": the term designates the nature or feature that entities must have in them in order to belong to that class.

Human beings quite obviously are aware of classes as classes. That is, they do more than assign individuals to a class based on a perceived similarity; they are aware of pluralities as holding natures or properties in common.13 For example, one can perceive, without a concept, the similarity between two square shapes or two triangular shapes, something that other animals do as well as human beings. But human beings also grasp the criterion, the universal property or nature, by which the similars are grouped together.14

There are several considerations tending to confirm this fact. First, many universal judgments require an understanding of the nature of the things belonging to a class. If I understand, for example, that every organism is mortal, because every composite living thing is mortal, this is possible only if I mentally compare the nature, organism , with the nature, composite living thing , and see that the former entails the latter. That is, my judgment that every composite living thing can be decomposed and thus die, is based on my insight into the nature of a composite living thing. I have understood that the one nature, subject to death , is entailed by the other nature, composite living being , and from that knowledge I then advert to the thought of the individuals that possess those natures. In other words, I judge that individual composite living beings must be included within the class of individuals that are subject to death, but I judge that only in virtue of my seeing that the nature, being subject to death, is necessitated by the nature, composite living being. This point is also evident from the fact that I judge that a composite living being is necessarily capable of dying.vii By the senses, one can grasp only an individual datum. Only by a distinct capacity, an intellect, only by apprehending the nature of a thing, can one grasp that a thing is necessarily thus or so.viii

The capacity for conceptual thought in human beings radically distinguishes them from other animals known to us. This capacity is at the root of most of the other distinguishing features of human beings. Thus, syntactical language, art, architecture, variety in social groupings and in other customs,15 burying the dead, making tools, religion, fear of death (and elaborate defense mechanisms to ease living with that fear), wearing clothes, true courting of the opposite sex,16 free choice and morality-all of these, and more, stem from the ability to reason and understand. Conceptual thought makes all of these specific acts possible by enabling human beings to escape fundamental limitations of two sorts. First, because of the capacity for conceptual thought, human beings' actions and consciousness are not restricted to the spatio-temporal present. Their awareness and their concern go beyond what can be perceived or imagined as connected immediately with the present.17 Second, because of the capacity for conceptual thought, human beings can reflect back upon themselves and their place in reality, that is, they can attain an objective view, and they can attempt to be objective in their assessments and choices. Other animals give no evidence at all of being able to do either of these things; on the contrary, they seem thoroughly tied to the here and now, and unable to take an objective view of things as they are in themselves, or to attempt to do so.18

The capacity for conceptual thought is a capacity that human beings have in virtue of the kind of entity they are. That is, from the time they come to be, they are developing themselves toward the mature stage at which they will (unless prevented from doing so by disability or circumstances) perform such acts. Moreover, they are struc-tured-genetically, and in the non-material aspect of themselves-in such a way that they are oriented toward maturing to this stage.ix So, every human being, including human infants and unborn human beings, has this basic natural capacity for conceptual thought.x

Human beings also have the basic natural capacity or potentiality to deliberate among options and make free choices, choices that are not determined by the events that preceded them, but are determined by the person making the choice in the very act of choosing. That is, for some choices, the antecedent events are not sufficient to bring it about that these choices be made in this way rather than another way. In such choices, a person could have chosen the other option, or not chosen at all, under the very same conditions. If a choice is free, then, given everything that happened to the person up to the point just prior to his choice-including everything in his environment, everything in his heredity, everything in his understanding and in his character-it was still possible for him to choose the other option, or not to choose at all. Expressed positively: he himself in the very act of choosing determines the content of his willing. Human beings are ultimate authors of their own acts of will and partial authors (together with nature and nurture) of their own character.19

How, then, does a person finally choose one course of action rather than another? The person by his own act of choosing directs his will toward this option rather than that one, and in such a way that he could, in those very same circumstances, have chosen otherwise.20

A good case can be made to support the position that human beings do make free choices.21 First, objectively, when someone deliberates about which possible action to perform, each option (very often, in any case) has in it what it takes to be a possible object of choice. When persons deliberate, and find some distinctive good in different, incompatible, possible actions, they are free, for: (a) they have the capacity to understand the distinct types of good or fulfillment found (directly or indirectly) in the different possible courses of action, and (b) they are capable of willing whatever they understand to be good (fulfilling) in some way or other.22 That is, each alternative offers a distinct type of good or benefit, and it is up to the person deliberating which type of good he will choose.

For example, suppose a student chooses to go to law school rather than to medical school. When he deliberates, both options have a distinctive sort of goodness or attractiveness. Each offers some benefit the other one does not offer. So, since each alternative has some intelligible value in it (some goodness that is understood), then each alternative can be willed. And, second, while each is good to a certain extent, neither alternative (at least in many situations) is good, or better, in every respect . Here the role of conceptual thought, or intellect, becomes clear. The person deliberating is able to see, that is, to understand , that each alternative is good, but that none is best absolutely speaking, that is, according to every consideration, or in every respect. And so, neither the content of the option nor the strength of one or another desire, determines the choice. Hence there are acts of will in which one directs one's will toward this or that option without one's choosing being determined by antecedent events or causes. Human persons, then, are fundamentally distinct from other animals in that they have a nature entailing the potentialities for conceptual thought and free choice.

Having a Rational Nature, or Being a Person, Is the Criterion for Full Moral Worth

Neither sentience nor life itself entails that those who possess them must be respected as ends in themselves or as creatures having full moral worth. Rather, having a rational nature is the ground of full moral worth.

The basis of this point can be explained, at least in part, in the following way. When one chooses an action, one chooses it for a reason, that is, for the sake of some good one thinks this action will help to realize. That good may itself be a way of realizing some further good, and that good a means to another, and so on. But the chain of instrumental goods cannot be infinite. So, there must be some ultimate reasons for one's choices, some goods that one recognizes as reasons for choosing that need no further support, that are not mere means to some further good.

Such ultimate reasons for choice are not arbitrarily selected. Intrinsic goods-that is, human goods that as basic aspects of human well-being and fulfillment provide more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choices and actions-are not just whatever we happen to desire, perhaps different objects for different people.xi Rather, the intellectual apprehension that a condition or activity is really fulfilling or perfective (of me and/or of others like me) is at the same time the apprehension that this condition or activity is a fitting object of pursuit, that is, that it would be worth pursuing.xii These fundamental human goods are the actualizations of our basic potentialities, the conditions to which we are naturally oriented and which objectively fulfill us, the various aspects of our fulfillment as human persons.23 They include such fulfillments as human life and health, speculative knowledge or understanding, aesthetic experience, friendship or personal community, and harmony among the different aspects of the self.xiii

The conditions or activities understood to be fulfilling and worth pursuing are not individual or particularized objects. I do not apprehend merely that my life or knowledge is intrinsically good and to be pursued. I apprehend that life and knowledge, whether instantiated in me or in others, is good and worth pursuing. For example, seeing an infant drowning in a shallow pool of water, I apprehend, without an inference, that a good worth preserving is in danger and so I reach out to save the child. The feature, fulfilling for me or for someone like me, is the feature in a condition or activity that makes it an ultimate reason for action. The question is: In what respect must someone be like me for his or her fulfillment to be correctly viewed as worth pursuing for its own sake in the same way that my good is worth pursuing?

The answer is not immediately obvious to spontaneous, or first-order, practical reasoning, or to first-order moral reasoning. That is, the question of the extension of the fundamental goods genuinely worthy of pursuit and respect needs moral reflection to be answered. By such reflection, we can see that the relevant likeness (to me) is that others too rationally shape their lives, or have the potentiality of doing so. Other likenesses-age, gender, race, appearance, place of origin, etc.-are not relevant to making an entity's fulfillment fundamentally worth pursuing and respecting. But being a rational agent is relevant to this issue, for it is an object's being worthy of rational pursuit that I apprehend and that makes it an ultimate reason for action, and an intrinsic good.24 So, I ought primarily to pursue and respect not just life in general, for example, but the life of rational agents-a rational agent being one who either immediately or potentially (with a radical potentiality, as part of his or her nature) shapes his or her own life.25

Moreover, I understand that the basic goods are not just good for me as an individual, but for me acting in communion-rational cooperation and real friendship-with others. Indeed, communion with others, which includes mutual understanding and self-giving, is itself an irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment-a basic good. But I can act in communion-real communion-only with beings with a rational nature. So, the basic goods are not just goods for me, but goods for me and all those with whom it is possible (in principle, at least) rationally to cooperate. All of the basic goods should be pursued and respected, not just as they are instantiable in me, but as they are instantiable in any being with a rational nature.

In addition, by reflection we see that it would be inconsistent to respect my fulfillment, or my fulfillment plus that of others whom I just happen to like, and not respect the fulfillment of other, immediately or potentially, rational agents. For, entailed by rational pursuit of my good (and of the good of others I happen to like) is a demand on my part that others respect my good (and the good of those I like). That is, in pursuing my fulfillment I am led to appeal to the reason and freedom of others to respect that pursuit, and my real fulfillment. But in doing so, consistency, that is, reasonableness, demands that I also respect the rational pursuits and real fulfillment of other rational agents-that is, any entity that, immediately or potentially (that is, by self-directed development of innate or inherent natural capacities), rationally directs his or her own actions. In other words, the thought of the Golden Rule, basic fairness, occurs early on in moral reflection. One can hope that the weather, and other natural forces, including any non-rational agent, will not harm one. But one has a moral claim or right (one spontaneously makes a moral demand ) that other mature rational agents respect one's reasonable pursuits and real fulfillment. Consistency, then, demands that one respect reasonable pursuits and real fulfillment of others as well. Thus, having a rational nature, or, being a person, as traditionally defined (a distinct subject or substance with a rational nature) is the criterion for full moral worth.

Marginal Cases

On this position every human being, of whatever age, size, or degree of development, has inherent and equal fundamental dignity and basic rights. If one holds, on the contrary, that full moral worth or dignity is based on some accidental attribute, then, since the attributes that could be considered to ground basic moral worth (developed consciousness, etc.) vary in degree, one will be led to the conclusion that moral worth also varies in degrees.

It might be objected against this argument, that the basic natural capacity for rationality also comes in degrees, and so this position (that full moral worth is based on the possession of the basic natural capacity for rationality), if correct, would also lead to the denial of personal equality.26 However, the criterion for full moral worth is having a nature that entails the capacity (whether existing in root form or developed to the point at which it is immediately exercisable) for conceptual thought and free choice-not the development of that natural basic capacity to some degree or other (and to what degree would necessarily be an arbitrary matter). The criterion for full moral worth and possession of basic rights is not having a capacity for conscious thought and choice, but being a certain kind of thing, that is, having a specific type of substantial nature. Thus, possession of full moral worth follows upon being a certain type of entity or substance, namely, a substance with a rational nature, despite the fact that some persons (substances with a rational nature) have a greater intelligence, or are morally superior (exercise their power for free choice in an ethically more excellent way) than others. Since basic rights are grounded in being a certain type of substance, it follows that having such a substantial nature qualifies one as having full moral worth, basic rights, and equal personal dignity.

An analogy may clarify our point. Certain properties follow upon being an animal, and so are possessed by every animal, even though in other respects not all animals are equal. For example, every animal has some parts that move other parts, and every animal is subject to death (mortal). Since various animals are equally animals-and since being an animal is a type of substance rather than an accidental attribute-then every animal will equally have those properties, even though (for example) not every animal equally possesses the property of being able to blend in well with the wooded background. Similarly, possession of full moral worth follows upon being a person (a distinct substance with a rational nature) even though persons are unequal in many respects (intellectually, morally, etc.).

These points have real and specific implications for the great controversial issues in contemporary ethics and politics. Since human beings are intrinsically valuable as subjects of rights at all times that they exist-that is, they do not come to be at one point, and acquire moral worth or value as a subject of rights only at some later time-it follows that human embryos and fetuses are subjects of rights, deserving full moral respect from individuals and from the political community. It also follows that a human being remains a person, and a being with intrinsic dignity and a subject of rights, for as long as he or she lives: there are no subpersonal human beings. Embryo-destructive research, abortion, and euthanasia involve killing innocent human beings in violation of their moral right to life and to the protection of the laws.

In sum, human beings constitute a special sort of animal. They differ in kind from other animals because they have a rational nature, a nature characterized by having the basic, natural capacities (possessed by each and every human being from the point at which he or she comes to be) for conceptual thought and deliberation and free choice. In virtue of having such a nature, all human beings are persons; and all persons possess the real dignity that is deserving of full moral respect. Thus, every human being deserves full moral respect.

_______________________

FootNOTES

i. Boethius's definition of person, especially as interpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas, is still valid: "An individual substance (that is, a unique substance) of a rational nature." So, neither a nature held in common by many, nor a part is a person. But every whole human being performing its own actions, including actions such as growth toward the mature stage of a human, is a person. See Boethius, De Duobus Naturis, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae , Pt. I, q. 29, a. 1.

ii. Could this be true of every being, living or not? It is hard to see what the good or fulfillment of a non-living being is, since on that level it is hard to know just what are the basic, substantial entities as opposed to aggregates of entities. Thus, when we breathe we convert oxygen and carbon molecules into carbon dioxide molecules-have we destroyed the oxygen in that process or have we only rearranged the atoms in their constitution? It is hard to say.

iii. Peter Singer acknowledges that he is "not convinced that the notion of a moral right is a helpful or meaningful one, except when it is used as a shorthand way of referring to more fundamental considerations."

iv. We are simply abstracting from the issue of capital punishment in this essay.

v. Thus, the pleasures of the sadist or child molester are in themselves bad; it is false to say that such pleasures are bad only because of the harm or pain involved in their total contexts. It is false to say: "It was bad for him to cause so much pain, but at least he enjoyed it." Pleasure is secondary, an aspect of a larger situation or condition (such as health, physical, and emotional); what is central is what is really fulfilling. Pleasure is not a good like understanding or health, which are goods or perfections by themselves-that is, are good in themselves even if in a context that is overall bad or if accompanied by many bads. Rather, pleasure is good (desirable, worthwhile, perfective) if and only if attached to a fulfilling or perfective activity or condition. Pleasure is a good: a fulfilling activity or condition is better with it than without it. But pleasure is unlike full-fledged goods in that it is not a genuine good apart from some other, fulfilling activity or condition. It is a good if and only if attached to another condition or activity that is already good.

vi. It is worth noting that nonhuman animals themselves not only regularly engage in killing each other, but many of them (lions and tigers, for example) seem to depend for their whole mode of living (and so their flourishing), on hunting and killing other animals. If nonhuman animals really did have full moral rights, however, we would be morally required to stop them from killing each other. Indeed, we would be morally required to invest considerable resources-economic, military, even-in order to protect zebras and antelopes from lions, sheep and foxes from wolves, and so on.

vii. True, something extrinsic could preserve it from death, but it is the sort of thing that is, by its nature, subject to death. This is the basis for the major premise in the classic example of a syllogism: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.

viii. Another example will illustrate this point. When children arrive at the age at which they can study logic, they provide evidence of the ability to grasp a nature or property held in common by many. They obviously do something qualitatively distinct from perceiving a concrete similarity. For example, when studying elementary logic, the child (or young man or woman) grasps the common pattern found in the following arguments:

A. If it rains then the grass is wet.
The grass is not wet.
Therefore, it is not raining.

B. If I had known you were coming, I would have baked you a cake.
But I did not bake you a cake.
So, (you can see that) I did not know you were coming.

We understand the difference between this type of argument, a modus tollens argument, and one that is similar but invalid, namely, the fallacy of affirming the consequent (If A then B, B, therefore A). But, what is more, we understand why the fallacy of affirming the consequent is invalid-namely, some other cause (or antecedent) could be, or could have been, present to lead to that effect. A computer, a mechanical device, can be programmed to operate according to the modus tollens and to react differently to (give a different output for) words arranged in the pattern of the fallacy of affirming the consequent. But understanding the arguments (which humans do) and merely operating according to them because programmed to do so (the actions of computers) are entirely different types of actions. The first does, while the second does not, require the understanding or apprehending of a form or nature as distinct from its instances. (This is not to say that the nature exists separately from the individuals instantiating it, or as a universal, outside the mind. We hold that the nature exists in the mind as a universal but in the real as individuated.)

ix. The genetic (and epigenetic) structure orients them toward developing a complex brain that is suitable to be the substrate for conceptual thought; that is, it is capable of providing the kind of sense experience and organization of sense experience that is suitable for data for concepts. Since the object of conceptual thought is not restricted to a particular place and time, this is evidence that the power of conceptual thought is non-material. So, we hold that human beings have a nonmaterial aspect, the powers of conceptual thought and free choice.

x. It is not essential to the defense of human dignity to argue that only humans have this power of conceptual thought and (to be discussed in a moment) free choice. However, there is no evidence of such conceptual thought or free choice in other animals. It is sometimes argued that perhaps some nonhuman animals do have minds like humans do, only at a diminished level. Perhaps, it is speculated, it is only the complexity of the human brain, a difference only in degree, that distinguishes humans from other animals. Perhaps other primates are intelligent but they have lacked the opportunities to manifest their latent intelligence. But such speculation is misguided. While intelligence is not directly observable, it is unreasonable to think that an intelligence of the same type as human intelligence, no matter how diminished, would fail to manifest itself in at least some of its characteristic effects. If a group of beings possesses a power, and possesses that power over many years (even decades or centuries), it is implausible to think that such a power would not be actualized.

xi. The Humean notion of practical reason contends that practical reason begins with given ends that are not rationally motivated. However, this view cannot, in the end, make sense of the fact that we seem to make objective value judgments that are not contingent on, or merely relative to, what this or that group happens to desire-for example, the judgment that murder or torture is objectively morally wrong. Moreover, the Humean view fails to give an adequate account of how we come to desire certain objects for their own sake to begin with. A perfectionist account, on the contrary, one that identifies the intrinsic goods (the objects desired for their own sake) with objective perfections of the person, is able to give an account of these facts. For criticism of the Humean notion of practical reason, see: Joseph Boyle, "Reasons for Action: Evaluative Cognitions that Underlie Motivations," American Journal of Jurisprudence 46 (2001): 177-197; R. Jay Wallace, "How to Argue About Practical Reason," Mind 99 (1990): 355-387; Christine Korsgaard, "Skepticism about Practical Reason," in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); David Brink, "Moral Motivation," Ethics 107 (1997): 4-32; John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983), pp. 26-79; and Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 288-368.

xii. The idea is this: what is to be done is what is perfective. This seems trivial and perhaps is obvious, but it is the basis for objective, practical reasoning. The question, "What is to be done?", is equivalent to the question, "What is to be actualized?" But what is to be actualiz ed is what actualiz es , that is, what is objectively perfective. For human beings this is life, knowledge of truth, friendship, and so on.

xiii. Once one apprehends such conditions or activities as really fulfilling and worthy of pursuit, the moral norm arises when one has a choice between one option the choice of which is fully compatible with these apprehensions (or judgments) and another option that is not fully compatible with those judgments. The former type of choice is fully reasonable, and respectful of the goods and persons involved, whereas the latter type of choice is not fully reasonable and negates, in one way or another, the intrinsic goodness of one or more instances of the basic goods one has already apprehended as, and recognized to be, intrinsically good.

_______________________

EndNOTES

1. See Jenny Teichman, Social Ethics: A Student's Guide (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

2. Peter Singer, "All Animals are Equal," in Morality in Practice, 4th edition, ed. James P. Sterba (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1994), p. 478, quoting Jeremy Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation (1789), chapter 17.

3. Peter Singer, op. cit., p. 441.

4. Jeff McMahan, whose views are in other respects more complex than Singer's, still holds that only interests are of direct moral concern, and explicitly recognizes and accepts this logical consequence. See his The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the
Margin of Life
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 205-206.

5. Peter Singer, op. cit., p. 484, emphasis added.

6. Richard Arneson, "What, If Anything, Renders All Humans Morally Equal?" in Singer and his Critics , ed. Dale Jamieson (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999), pp. 103-127, at p. 105.

7. This is our solution to what Richard Arneson calls "the Singer problem." See Richard Arneson, loc. cit.

8. Paul Taylor, "The Ethics of Respect for Nature," in Morality in Practice , 4th edition, ed. James P. Sterba (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1994), p. 488.

9. Cf. Louis G. Lombardi, "Inherent Worth, Respect, and Rights," Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 257-270.

10. David Oderberg, Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 101.

11. For example, Taylor, op. cit.

12. Aristotle, De Anima III.4.

13. See Joel Wallman, Aping Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), especially chapters 5 and 6.

14. Cf. Richard J. Connell, Logical Analysis: An Introduction to Systematic Learning (Edina, Minnesota: Bellwether Press, 1981), pp. 87-93; John Haldane, "The Source and Destination of Thought," in Referring to God: Jewish and Christian Philosophical and Theological Perspectives, ed. Paul Helm (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000); Mortimer Adler, Intellect: Mind Over Matter (New York: Macmillan, 1990); Russell Pannier and Thomas D. Sullivan, "The Mind-Marker," in Theos, Anthropos, Christos: A Compendium of Modern Philosophical Theology , ed. Roy Abraham Varghese (New York: Peter Lang, 2000); James F. Ross, "Immaterial Aspects of Thought," Journal of Philosophy 89 (1992): 136-150.

15. Mortimer Adler noted that, upon extended observation of other animals and of human beings, what would first strike one is the immense uniformity in mode of living among other animals, in contrast with the immense variety in modes of liv ing and customs among human beings. See Mortimer Adler, op. cit.

16. Cf. Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic (New York: The Free Press, 1986).

17. This point is developed in James B. Reichmann, Evolution, 'Animal Rights,' and the Environment (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), chapter 2; see also John Campbell, Past, Space, and Self: Representation and Mind (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994).

18. Lynne Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), chapter 3; John Campbell, Past, Space, and Self: Representation and Mind (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994).

19. Cf. Robert Kane, The Significance of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

20. Hence the position we are proposing is an incompatibilist view of free choice. Having alternate possibilities, that is, the ability to will otherwise, is essential to free choice and moral responsibility. It seems to us that the Frankfurt alleged counterexamples (proposed to disprove the principle of alternate possibilities) are not genuine counterexamples. In these alleged counterexamples there is a first agent who deliberates and decides, but there is a second, more powerful agent who in some way monitors the first agent and is ready and able to cause the first agent to do the act desired by the second agent if the first agent begins to will or perform otherwise than the desired outcome. It turns out, however (on the imagined scenario), that the first agent decides on his own to do the act that the second agent was ready to compel him to do. So, according to advocates of the Frankfurt examples, the first agent acted freely, was morally responsible, and yet could not have willed or acted otherwise. See Harry Frankfurt, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibilities," Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 829-839. For a recent defense of this approach, see John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza, Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The problem is that the monitoring device, however it is imagined, will be unable to alert the second agent that the first agent is about to, or has begun to, act otherwise than the second agent plans. The act of willing is not determinate prior to its occurrence and so cannot be known before it occurs. And once it has occurred, it is too late to prevent it. (This was the ground for Aquinas's position that not even God can know a future contingent precisely as future, that is, as it exists in its causes, but he can know it only as it is in act-yet, since God is not in time, what is future with respect to us is not future with respect to God. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae , Pt. I, q. 14, a. 13.) The second agent could prevent the physical, external action carrying out the choice, but the act of will is free and undetermined even if the external behavior executing the choice is prevented. Although his argument against the Frankfurt examples is not precisely the one presented here, an article that overlaps somewhat with this argument is: Paul A. Woodward, "Why Frankfurt Examples Beg the Question," Journal of Social Philosophy 33 (2002): 540-547.

21. A more extended argument can be found in Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976); see also Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); and Peter van Inwagen, "Free Will Remains a Mystery," in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will , ed. Robert Kane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 158-170.

22. The argument here is indebted to Thomas Aquinas. See, e.g., Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 10, aa. 1-2.

23. This claim is derived from Thomas Aquinas and has been developed by Thomists and Aristotelians of various types. It is not necessary here to assume one particular development of that view against others. We need only the point that the basic principles of practical reason come from an insight-which may be interpreted in various ways-that what is to be pursued, what is worth pursuing, is what is fulfilling or perfective of me and others like me. For more on this see: Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, "Practical Principles, Moral Truth and Ultimate Ends," American Journal of Jurisprudence 33 (1988): 99-151; John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), chapters 9-11; John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983); John Finnis, Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Timothy D. J. Chappell, Understanding Human Goods: A Theory of Ethics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998); David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000); Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action: A Theory of Practice (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992) and Mark C. Murphy, Natural Law and Practical Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

24. The argument presented here is similar to the approaches found in the following authors: Louis G. Lombardi, op. cit.; Michael Goldman, "A Transcendental Defense of Speciesism," Journal of Value Inquiry 35 (2001): 59-69; and William J. Zanardi, "Why Believe in the Intrinsic Dignity and Equality of Persons?" Southwest Philosophy Review 14 (1998): 151-168.

25. The position that the criterion for full moral worth cannot be an accidental attribute, but is the rational nature, that is, being a specific type of substance, is defended in Patrick Lee, "The Pro-Life Argument from Substantial Identity: A Defense," Bioethics 18 (2004): 249-263. See also Dean Stretton, "Essential Properties and the Right to Life: A Response to Lee," Bioethics (18) 2004: 264-282, and Patrick Lee, "Substantial Identity and the Right to Life: A Rejoinder to Dean Stretton," in Bioethics 21 (2007): 93-97. 26 Dean Stretton, op. cit.

 

Next Chapter Right Arrow


  - The President's Council on Bioethics -  
 
Home Site Map Disclaimers Privacy Notice Accessibility NBAC HHS