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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 1: Dignity and Modern Science

Commentary on Churchland

Gilbert Meilaender

Human Dignity from a Neurophilosophical Perspective" is about many things, but the concept of "human dignity" does not seem to be one of them. No reader of this essay could possibly come away from it with a clearer notion of what we might mean by dignity. It is, of course, true, as Churchland notes, that dignity is not a precise concept and that it is sometimes a matter of dispute. But that is no excuse for failing to help us think better about it. This is the paper's fundamental flaw, but there are a few others worth noting here.

The paper breathes a spirit of condescension entirely at odds with its rhetoric. Seldom will one find attitudes of "unwavering moral certitude" rejected with such certitude, or "humility" endorsed in language so permeated by its opposite. Indeed, the paper is a reminder that the "calmly tolerant person," while certain of his or her own rectitude and good will, can be extraordinarily intolerant. The bad effect of this on moral argument is that such a "calmly tolerant person" tends to confuse assertion with argument. Those of us who are not fully persuaded by Churchland's paper may at least take some comfort in the fact (stated in her concluding sentence) that "feeling certain is itself inconclusive evidence for truth."

Churchland's account of the origins of morality relies upon the importance of social cooperation, which each of us requires if we are to survive. (In passing, lest we confuse causes with reasons, we should note that this is less an account of the origins of morality than an explanation of its point.) And surely this is part of the point of morality. Yet, one of the oldest puzzles about morality is that what my group needs to survive and flourish may be my own willingness to suffer or die. "Men need virtues as bees need stings," Peter Geach once wrote. "An individual bee may perish by stinging, all the same bees need stings: an individual man may perish by being brave or just, all the same men need courage and justice."1 The best Churchland can do to make place for this truth is to note that altruistic behavior in the past might (via a complicated scenario that is purely speculative) have spread throughout the population.

However we account for such sacrificial behavior, Churchland's depiction of a neurobiological foundation for morality cannot explain our experience of intentional action. A person is not simply a place where certain psychological states occur. A person is present in his actions without disappearing entirely into them-present in but also distanced from them. Activities of the brain do surely provide, as Churchland puts it, "a biological substratum" for the mind's thoughts and intentions, but those mental activities in turn interact with and shape the brain. Our thoughts are both located in the brain and distanced from it-which is why we are capable of what Thomas Nagel has called "the view from nowhere."

If we think of morality in Churchland's way, moral education- "stories about the glory of courage and the humiliation of cowardice.; songs about kindness rewarded and sharing blessed"-is not initiating the young into a set of obligations that unfold the meaning of human flourishing. It is, instead, simply training them in behaviors that "solidify social values." There is all the difference in the world between indoctrinating the young in a set of norms we find useful and initiating the young into a set of norms that bind us also, even when we wish they did not. "We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful," was C. S. Lewis's description of what moral education becomes on a view such as she espouses.2

Churchland's discussion of embryonic stem cell research is so lacking in nuance as to be embarrassing. She takes the distinction between therapeutic and reproductive embryo research to be obvious and in no need of clarification or argument. She evidently thinks (though she puts forward this view only while donning the robes of the prophet peering into a distant future) that bettering the human condition-and, more particularly, our own condition or that of others dear to us-is the only consideration that really matters in moral evaluation. She seems to think the analogy of fertilized apple seed to embryo as apple tree is to person an illuminating one, even though her discussion does not tell us how or when one becomes a person-without which information we could scarcely know what even to think about the analogy.

But when these and other flaws are set to the side, we are still left with the fact that this paper sheds no light on what we mean by human dignity-and, hence, no light on how it might be endangered or protected. Churchland speaks of "threats" to human dignity, but she eschews the first task of an author: to help her readers understand why people have cared about her subject.

They have cared in some considerable measure because they have thought that there might be ways of failing to recognize or demeaning the dignity of persons that did not necessarily involve harming them and that might even, in certain respects, benefit them. Nothing she says helps us think better about whether human dignity is in any way undermined when (say) parents attempt to determine the sex of their child, when those without diagnosed illness medicate themselves in order to feel "better than well," when we attempt to enhance performance (of various sorts) by means of drugs, when someone is tortured. These are all instances in which we may have recourse to the language of dignity in order to express moral concern or condemnation; yet, nothing Churchland says helps us in any way to understand or evaluate such language.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that she is utterly tone deaf to the sorts of reasons Roman Catholics might have for rejecting contraception, or the reasons Catholics and others might have for thinking in vitro fertilization a violation of human dignity, or for worrying about cutting up dead bodies in order to seek knowledge or living bodies in order to get organs for transplant. I see no evidence that she could even begin to explain why, from their perspective, these people view such practices as violations of human dignity. And unless and until one is capable of that, the most dignified thing to do would be to remain silent.



1. Peter T. Geach, The Virtues: The Stanton Lectures, 1973-74 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 17.

2. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), chapter 1: "Men Without Chests."

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