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

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

Part 3: Dignity and Modern Culture

Commentary on Meilaender and Dennett

Peter Augustine Lawler

These comments began as a comparison I gave at the February 2007 meeting of the President's Council of the essays in the volume by Gilbert Meilaender and Daniel Dennett. My aim is to highlight some obvious differences and unexpected similarities between their two egalitarian views of dignity. I distinguish both of them from the more complex or ambivalent view of the relationship between dignity and equality given by Leon Kass, and I comment on Diana Schaub's provocative suggestion that Americans should distinguish clearly between equal rights and unequal dignity. My overall intention is to call attention to the significance of this volume: In this technological and biotechnological age we have more reason than ever to be concerned about human dignity, but we're stuck with some pretty basic disagreements over what dignity is.

From one view, Meilaender's and Dennett's essays defend two extreme and incompatible positions. Dennett prides himself on being a rather extreme or dogmatic atheist. And Meilaender, at least in his defense of the equal dignity of us all, is a rather extreme theist-that is, an Augustinian. In both cases we're reminded that extremism in defense of dignity is surely no vice, and we can add that both men, for the most part, lack the self-righteousness that often accompanies extreme defenses of dignity. Each man portrays himself, with good reason, as a nice-guy extremist.

And their extreme positions are far from completely incompatible. Meilaender and Dennett agree, for example, that dignity is not a useless concept. They also agree that dignity has to be saved from the inhuman reductionism of modern science, or at least from pervasive misunderstandings of what modern science actually teaches. They even seem to agree that our understanding of dignity-or at least the inherited understanding of dignity that has distinguished and ennobled our tradition-is Christian.

Meilaender claims that we are right to believe in the dignity of each unique and irreplaceable human person and the only sensible explanation for our faith in that observed phenomenon is the Christian one; we were all given infinite significance by a personal Creator. Our belief in the equal dignity of all human beings is an indispensable part of our Christian inheritance. And our attempts to find a foundation for that belief without Christianity become increasingly shrill as they become more obviously futile.

Dennett agrees, with scientific condescension, that all our claims for the reality of human dignity have been Christian. He adds that all the Christian claims about the soul or some immaterial dimension of personal existence have been refuted by modern science. For Dennett, the belief in the soul or in dignity has the same status as belief in mermaids. It's no more silly to believe in some half-woman/half-fish that nobody has ever really seen than it is to believe in a half-soul/ half-body that nobody has ever really seen. Everything that we do, we now know, has a material explanation. In the spirit of Dennett's analysis, we might add two observations: Not so long ago, very smart and astute people believed in souls, while mermaid-believers have always been rather silly. And in the near future, biotechnology might allow us to combine the materials of a woman and a fish to create something like a mermaid. But we never will be able to create a soul, to free ourselves from our essentially material being.

Dennett does claim to see with his own eyes-and this is very important-that our need to believe in equal, personal dignity is real. It is an observable characteristic of the type of being human beings alone are. We are the social animals who conceive of projects to live good, purposeful lives, although there is no scientific foundation for human conceptions of either virtue or purpose. So we can't get by without believing in some useful illusions-such as free will, love, and dignity. And we can't help but adhere to those beliefs in the face of what we really know about our accidental, evolutionary, and wholly material existences.

Dennett's ingenious solution to the problem of the incompatibility between scientific truth and dignified belief is to say, quite candidly, that we're hardwired to believe. And our allegiance to our belief in equal human dignity can be supported by the good life it makes possible for us. That our belief makes possible our flourishing can be enough to sustain it; we can stop obsessing about whether it's actually true by just accepting the fact that it's not. All we need to know is that when we do believe we're better off as social animals.

So the big difference between Dennett and Meilaender is not over utility, but truth. For Meilaender, each of us is a unique and irreplaceable being, hence not merely species fodder. And he would deny, of course, that it's either possible or useful to stop caring about whether our dignified beliefs are actually true. Our belief in our dignity corresponds to the mystery we can actually observe about members of our species-human persons-alone.

That mystery has nothing to do with the separate existence of the soul from the body. For Meilaender, almost nothing is more deceptive than thinking of ourselves as somehow detached from our bodies, as "souls" or "spirits" or "autonomous agents" somehow looking down on our bodies from some undisclosed location. He agrees with Dennett that we can't separate ourselves from our embodiment, and so, from his view, Dennett presents at best a crude and fundamentally misleading caricature of what Christians actually believe.

For Meilaender, the mystery of human life is that we are the only beings, as far as we know, who are given the dignified responsibility of living well or badly with what we really know and who we really love, who are conscious of both our limitations and our purposes, of our biological mortality and our transcendence. Our awareness of this mystery in no way depends on knowledge of a separable soul, knowledge we simply don't have. But we also know, when we don't divert ourselves from ourselves, that we have no fully adequate scientific explanation for the mystery of being and human being. And it makes perfectly good sense that our dignified experience of a mysterious but nonetheless real personal responsibility was given to us by a personal, loving God Who eludes our comprehension and control.

For Dennett, nothing human or natural or material is mysterious. Everything can or will be comprehended by science and scientists. That's good because it means we can understand scientifically why we have attributed dignity to ourselves. Insofar as we believe our dignity is mysterious, we can't consciously and rationally employ it for the purpose of our social flourishing. So modern science, properly understood, can make our dignity more effective. Dennett, of course, has the merit of joining Meilaender in criticism of those who connect our dignity with our autonomy, with our freedom from natural limitations for laws or choices we impose on ourselves. For him, dignity also, in a way, has its roots in our truthfully confronting our natural limitations. Our fictional dignity properly understood depends on our awareness of our real material situation. We are tempted to tell Dennett that what he really means is that we have dignity as the beings who can consciously shape our lives around a fictional concept of dignity. He would respond: That's not really dignity, because, in truth, we're not really choosing freely but just facing up to necessity.

These two extremists also share an egalitarian view of dignity, and that separates them from members of the President's Council-such as Leon Kass and Diana Schaub-who tend to think that dignity is fundamentally aristocratic, a display of one's distinctive personal excellence. Meilaender and Dennett deny that my dignity is dependent on the excellence or virtue that I display in a particular social context. That's easy for Dennett to do: his view is that there's nothing I can do that would really make me dignified. Meilaender's view is that nothing that I can do can really make me undignified.

We can wonder, as Kass and Schaub do, how successful the two extremists are in disconnecting dignity from real human achievement in thought and action. Meilaender criticizes Kass for saying that because patients lack agency they lack the capacity to be dignified. To support his case, he gives the example of the dignified patient who acts with patience in light of the truth about his dependent human condition. He explains how patients can even be more truthful or more dignified than manly or magnanimous men who take pleasure in forgetting about the truth about their embodied, social, and natural dependence and limitations. The patient he describes doesn't disconnect dignity from gratitude and so is more dignified than those who engage in that self-deception.

Kass responds that Meilaender's dignified patient depends upon his capacity to engage in action and thought appropriate to his human situation. That patient is not really pure patient. He's partly a patient and partly not; a pure patient-someone, say, in the last stages of Alzheimer's-would be perfectly passive and so incapable of displaying dignified virtue. Dennett claims it's enough to say that we will have better lives if we regard pure patients as having equal dignity. But maybe the truth isn't self-evident. And Kass is never that clear about why we must accord pure patients dignity. Meilaender's faith gives him confidence enough that every human life has equally irreplaceable significance, and so he never has to engage in deliberation about the dignity of any particular human patient.

So far the evidence is that, not only do most Americans share Meilaender's faith, but the results are disastrous when we make public policy based on skepticism about its truth. The monstrous tyrannies of the 20th century were all based on the premise that some human beings exist for others-one race is expendable for another's benefit, or today's individuals can be sacrificed indiscriminately for the perfect society of the future. And surely we all agree that an undignified temptation of biotechnology is the engineering or manufacturing of human beings for the benefit of others-as, for example, sources of spare parts, or as material for medical research. The undoubted moral premise of our individualism is that no particular human being exists merely for others; so our law depends on the thought that each of us is a dignified end, not a dispensable means.

Dennett's utility argument actually points to the conclusion that our humane belief in dignity is useful only if we have faith, with Meilaender, that it's really true. An urgent question before us is to what extent that faith is reasonable apart from real belief in the personal God of the Bible. Another is to what extent Kass, Meilaender, and Dennett finally share the same answer to that question. Surely only Dennett is sanguine about the reasonableness of belief that is not really true.

Another point of agreement between Dennett and Meilaender worth emphasizing is that they both defend human dignity as a way of fending off human degradation. They both write to preserve the qualities that distinguish human beings from their assault by modern science and potentially by biotechnology. Even Dennett seems to write to preserve the real existence of beings capable of believing and acting in a dignified way from biotechnology that would, say, suppress those parts of the brain that make dignity indispensable.

Both of our extremists are open to the criticism that, when formulating public policy, Americans have always thought in terms of protecting rights, not dignity. Because we can speak so clearly and certainly of rights, why should we employ a term as murky-as controversial and as self-righteous-as dignity? There are actually good reasons to think of dignity as at least politically useless. When Leon Kass wrote of "Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity," it can be argued, he was imposing upon our country a needlessly innovative and contentious idea. According to Diana Schaub, our political community is sufficiently formed by our concern with equal rights, and dignity-which is necessarily unequal-should remain a private or personal goal.

Our need to speak of dignity, I think, comes from reflection on our experiences of the 20th and 21st centuries. What the ideology-driven, totalitarian regimes of the 20th century did to human beings was a lot worse than merely violating rights. The Nazis and the Communists were at war against the very existence of beings capable of experiencing the dignity of human individuality, of (as the dissidents Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II and Havel wrote) living responsibly in light of the truth. It's in the courageous and truthful thought and action of these dissidents that we find evidence of dignity that is trivialized by the view that they were merely exercising their rights. And in the 21st century, as Kass has shown, biotechnology could actually provide us with ways of changing our nature in undignified ways that would promise to maximize our comfort, security, and happiness. Our spirit of resistance to such changes in our nature surely will be insufficiently animated by the ambiguous phrase, "natural rights."

I have to add that it may show a lack of faith-or it may just be unrealistic-to believe that we are capable of making ourselves anything other than beings with dignity. Both totalitarian and biotechnological efforts to eradicate those aspects of our nature that make us dignified beings-that make us stuck with virtue to live well with what we can't help but know-are, as far as I can tell, doomed to fail.


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