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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 LAwler

Diana Schaub

In his very fine essay, Gilbert Meilaender argues that Christianity has transformed the Greek emphasis on comparative dignity by bringing it into contact with egalitarian dignity. Christianity, he says, marks "a great rupture in Western culture." He further argues that this Christian egalitarianism is the inspiration behind the American assertion of man's equality in the Declaration of Independence. He suggests that one needs belief in the fatherhood of God for the brotherhood of men to be seen as self-evident. He worries that, with the decline in religious belief-and the unwillingness to acknowledge the connection between religion and politics-we are increasingly in a situation where our commitment to equal human dignity is ungrounded and, hence, unsustainable.

Meilaender wants us back on firm ground and, in particular, he argues that there are two places where differences in excellence or dignity must not matter: the first is at "the threshold of death, when the continuance of life itself is at stake," and the other is "the opportunity to live within human society and participate in its common life."

While Meilaender makes plain his discomfort with the aristocratic ancient Greek take on dignity (even calling it "a temptation" that ought to be resisted), there were moments in which he seemed more of a Hellenizer than he admits. Perhaps the distance between Meilaender and Kass is not as great as either believes.

Let me cite a couple of instances. Early in the paper, Meilaender presents us with a character from a Galsworthy novel. He offers old Betty Purdy as an individual who confounds our aristocratic presumptions about greatness and dignity. The passage he cites does indeed show the falsity of status and wealth as markers of human dignity, but it does not at all argue for equal human dignity. The greatness of this little old lady came from the moral virtues she displayed in the midst of the ordinariness of her life. Her greatness depended on her comparative excellence, not her equal human dignity. We are told of the meagerness of her material existence and her limited range of action, "but her back had been straight, her ways straight, her eyes quiet and her manners gentle." I take it we are to admire her fortitude and her probity and her kindness. Those are not qualities equally possessed. If the woman had instead lived in Buckingham Palace with the world as her stage, real greatness would still have depended on her moral virtues. That is one of the points made by the wonderful movie The Queen , starring Helen Mirren.1 Of the queen also it could be said that "her back had been straight, her ways straight, her eyes quiet and her manners gentle."

I suppose one might argue that the disposition to see moral excellence in humble places owes something to Christianity. However, one can find even in Homer admiration not only for the fierce-hearted, but also the patient-hearted.

It is particularly over the status of the patient that Professors Meilaender and Kass conflict. Meilaender quotes Kass as saying "being a patient rather than an agent is, humanly speaking, undignified." Meilaender dissents and counters that "human dignity lies in acknowledging the way in which aging and dying very often involve becoming more and more a patient (and needing to learn patience) and less and less an agent." However, what Meilaender describes- namely, "acknowledging" aging and "learning" patience-are the actions of an agent in the face of suffering. Patience is a virtue, and a difficult one for most of us. A human being displaying patience suffers in a way very different from an animal, despite the fact that an animal might seem just as stoic and uncomplaining. A patient sufferer displays a dignity and excellence that a passive and uncomprehending animal does not.i

Although Meilaender reiterates that he finds "something offensive" about the aristocratic view of human dignity, it seems to me that he himself regularly recurs to a version of it and that he can't help but do so. After all, in Christianity, the message to respect basic humanity came from the fullest and purest humanity. The bearer of the message was not just a godly man, but God become man. We are to imitate His perfection. Christian virtues may be different from classical virtues, but the standard is if anything higher.

Meilaender appeals to Lincoln for evidence of what he calls "the problem we have with an inegalitarian concept of dignity." I too accept Lincoln as an authority. However, I don't find Lincoln at all offended by the aristocratic view. In fact, Lincoln always starts his explications of the meaning of the Declaration by acknowledging the fact of human inequality. Men are not equal in all sorts of features and capacities, and Lincoln lists many of them. For Lincoln, admitting the existence of various politically and socially significant inequalities should not in any way imperil the real truth of the Declaration, namely that men are equal in their natural rights to life and liberty. Lincoln speaks of equal rights, not equal dignity. I suspect that we may have gone awry when we confounded the language of dignity with that of equality. Dignity was not a word either the Founders or Lincoln employed much, and when they did it was in a frankly meritocratic sense.

Moreover, in the passage Meilaender cites it is worth noting that Lincoln illustrates the equality of rights by saying that human beings are equal in their right to eat "the bread that.[their] own hands have earned." Even this equal right hinges on earning. Labor is the title to property, and men will labor unequally. Lincoln does not here tell us what those who are unable to labor are entitled to. I don't mean to suggest that Lincoln would have denied sustenance to the young or the elderly or the sick. Lincoln was attacking the injustice of slave labor, and his arguments were marshaled accordingly. I have no doubt that Lincoln would defend the right to life as vigorously as he defended the right to liberty. We have evidence of his capacious humanity in the closing lines of the Second Inaugural when he calls on Americans "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."

The example of Lincoln leads me to think that we have a model for how to combine and celebrate both the respects in which human beings are equal and the respects in which they are unequal. One need not imperil the other. Indeed, the life of Lincoln-a superior man who devoted and sacrificed his life to the teaching of equality- reminds us that we can't have one without the other. We shouldn't lose sight of the success of the American Founders, among whom I include Lincoln, in combining the egalitarian and the inegalitarian. They didn't seem to struggle with it as we do. They were a happy amalgam: Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian Lockeans. Whether this synthesis coheres in theory or not, perhaps we need to take it more seriously as a basis for sound policy guidance

Meilaender asserts that there are two places where judgments of individual worth should not be given any scope: at the threshold of death and participation in human society. Meilaender seems to say these are absolutes. He quotes Kierkegaard approvingly: "If you save a person's life in the dark, thinking that it is a friend-but it was the neighbor-this is no mistake." I can imagine scenarios in which it might have been a very big mistake: what if your neighbor also happened to be your enemy and you happened to have been on a nighttime reconnaissance mission? Kierkegaard's statement is radically apolitical; it abstracts entirely from the distinction between friend and foe. Does the political fact that some neighbors are friends and allies while others are deadly and inveterate foes require that individuals in authority be entrusted with the power of life and death over other individuals? Or are the claims of "the neighbor" indeed absolute? If human judgments have no place at the threshold of death does that require not only opposition to the death penalty but thoroughgoing pacifism as well?

This question points back to the striking contrast between St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II with which Meilaender begins his essay and which is worth repeating. For Aquinas, a murderer "loses his human dignity," "lapses into the subjection of the beasts," and presumably can be treated accordingly, in order to defend the life and dignity of other men and society in general. For Pope John Paul II, the human dignity of the murderer remains intact. Although I'm no expert on the evolution of Vatican teaching, I suspect that the embrace of the apolitical language of inherent and immutable dignity is connected to the Church's newfound ambivalence about capital punishment. While the Catholic Church has not officially denied the theoretical legitimacy of capital punishment or overturned its just war doctrine, the trend is toward non-judgmentalism and the unilateral disarmament of the decent.

I have similar reservations about the assertion that all human beings "must have the opportunity to live within human society and participate in its common life." Does this mean that we are not allowed to deprive others of liberty and social interaction through imprisonment, including solitary confinement? If incarceration is permitted, then we are making judgments about an individual's viciousness and exclusion from society.

In both these cases, it seems to me that the language of equal rights is preferable to the language of equal dignity. Rights are inalienable, but they also imply reciprocity and responsibility. Those who violate the rights of others have rendered some of their own rights forfeit. A rights-based approach protects the innocent and weak, about whom Meilaender and all of us are concerned, but does not require us to abandon human judgments about virtue and vice.

As to Meilaender's claim that our nation's founding doctrine is grounded in Christianity, it is true that the Declaration refers to men as "created" equal and endowed by their "Creator" with certain inalienable rights. It is also true that Jefferson shared Meilaender's worry that, once religious belief falters, the commitment to equality will be hard to sustain. Here's how Jefferson put it:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?2

Having granted that much, I would point out that the Declaration refers to the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God." I suspect that Nature's God is not quite the same as the Biblical God. Meilaender says that the truth of human equality is a "theological assertion," but how strong a theology is required? In other writings, Jefferson argued that it is not religion, but rather reason and science that will reveal the truth of the Declaration. In a letter written just days before his death, Jefferson said that

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of men. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.3

As we know, even if equal rights are self-evident, they are not self-establishing. The paradox of rights is that you have to hazard your life and liberty in order to secure your right to life and liberty. The vindication of the essential dignity of humanity depends upon the actions of individuals who do amazing things like "mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." As Frederick Douglass never tired of telling his enslaved brothers:

Hereditary bondmen, know ye not,
Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.4

This was a heartening message for both blacks and women, who had the wherewithal to strike the blow and secure the dignified treatment to which they were by nature entitled.

It may not be such a cheering message for the young or the drastically impaired-although perhaps the answer that Locke gives about the young is sufficient. He says: " Children , I confess are not born in this full state of Equality , though they are born to it."5 Consequently, our handling of them must always be aware of their directedness towards rational liberty. Children are rights-bearers too. Accordingly, the power of parents and guardians is limited; Locke insists it does not extend to life and death. Immature human beings (embryos included) have, by nature, the same bodily immunity as adults. There is a fundamental human right not to have one's body captured or controlled by others for their ends and purposes.

In the case of the weak and immature, respect for this basic right to life will continue to depend on the deference of the strong. In his speeches, Lincoln deployed his relentless logic to get those who had the upper hand to realize the momentary and fragile character of their strength. He stressed that the only guarantee of one's own rights lies in the recognition of the rights of others. "As I would not be a slave , so I would not be a master ."6 And again, "In giving freedom to the slave , we assure freedom to the free -honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve."7 This is a version of neighbor love and brotherhood that is reasonable and republican in character. It doesn't deny the fatherhood of God, but it doesn't draw attention to it either.

At the risk of impiety, I will suggest that brothers can get along pretty well when the father, whether human or divine, remains in the background. After all, the first story of brothers in the Bible is a story of fratricide in response to God's favoring the gift of one brother over the other. I'm not so certain that it helps our sense of human equality to view matters under the aspect of eternity. As I read the Bible, some of us will be eternally damned and others saved. We are not equidistant from God, either here on earth or later. I'm quite certain that Professor Meilaender is "nearer my God to thee" than I am, but I think that we can still be equal citizens, mutually acknowledging our individual rights and brotherly responsibilities.


Though one might legitimately doubt the adequacy of rights language-particularly in light of the corruption of that language and its contemporary links to notions of radical autonomy-it nonetheless seems to me still the best way to approach the bioethical issues that arise at both the beginning of life and the end of life. When life is at its simplest, it is the right to life that should guide our reflections. I am not arguing for a return exclusively to rights language, since I agree that it does not reach to all bioethics questions, particularly those that involve the highest human possibilities. So, for instance, in the Beyond Therapy report, the Council rightly (and profoundly) spoke about human flourishing-in other words, not just about the right to the pursuit of happiness, but about the nature of happiness itself. It investigated the character of mature and meaningful human action and how certain biotech developments might impair, cheapen, or debase such activities. The report was a defense of human dignity and, as such, a demonstration or enactment of dignity. But, even here, the language of dignity is inseparable from the language of rights. We ask the question "what is happiness?" so that the answer might guide our pursuit of it and so that we might better understand how to secure the right to the pursuit of it.

Peter Lawler argues, both in his essay in this volume and, more extensively, in the Council session devoted to this volume,8 that the language of rights was insufficient to either describe or confront the horrors of fascism and communism (and that it may be similarly inadequate today to the extent that biotechnology could be perverted so as to "be at war with the very aspects of our nature that allow us to be dignified beings"). Lawler remarks that dissidents like Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and Pope John Paul II "were big on bringing back the word 'dignity' because the word 'rights' just wasn't enough." I'm not so sure. Perhaps they appealed to "dignity" because they didn't come from a rights-based tradition and weren't aware of its range and rhetorical power. Certainly, Churchill was eloquent in condemnation of modern totalitarianism and adamant in resistance without recourse to the word "dignity." In his "War Speech" in the House of Commons, Churchill explained the war against the "pestilence of Nazi tyranny" as "a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man."9 For Churchill, that "stature" (which might be construed as a synonym for dignity-of the "aristocratic" variety) is inseparable from the assertion and protection of individual rights. The human heights of a few are achieved on the firm ground of the rights of all. Similarly, in response to the Soviet menace in his "Iron Curtain" address, Churchill declared:

We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence. 10

Churchill, of course, was viewing these regimes from the outside. One might argue that those whom Lawler calls "the great dissident opponents" experienced a deeper truth, namely that Hitler and Stalin weren't just violating rights but "were at war against the being capable of experiencing dignity." If so, the ideologues were notably unsuccessful, since they brought some, at least, of their victims not to the depths of dehumanization but to the depths of wisdom and humane insight. The American experience, also, offers examples of individuals who felt the full effects of soul-destroying tyranny and yet emerged fortified in spirit. Frederick Douglass is one of the great dissidents. Like the Founders and Lincoln, Douglass very rarely employed the word "dignity." I suspect that Frederick Douglass would have had the language to denounce fascism and communism just as he had the language to denounce the slaveocracy, with nary a mention of dignity. As Lawler also notes, these monstrous offenses-which "can't be described as mere violations of rights"-were perpetrated by ideologists who denied the existence of individual rights. Violations of rights are never "mere." It may be that the surest route to attain and sustain human dignity is through the defense of human rights. While Douglass didn't speak of dignity, his every action displayed and demonstrated it.

Our contemporary tendency to bandy the word about is an ominous sign that we no longer agree about its content. Because we no longer share what Meilaender calls a "vision of what it means to be human," perhaps we are obliged to be more explicit than in the past about the conditions and limits of human dignity. As Meilaender details so well in the final section of his paper, the Council has done valuable work in articulating an anthropological vision (as opposed to a transhumanist vision), in its discussions both of characteristically human procreation and of superior human performance (athletic and other). I don't know whether an anthropology is necessary to being human, but if a science of man can help either to keep us men or make us good men I'm all for it.



i. In fairness, however, to the other animals, I would just note that Homer ascribes virtues to them as well. Penelope is not the only paragon of patience in the Odyssey . When Odysseus finds his great-hearted dog Argos on a dung heap, covered in ticks, awaiting his return, he sheds tears for his faithful companion. (See Homer, Odyssey 17.300 ff .) Though Penelope too suffers from an infestation of the human equivalent of dog ticks (the suitors), her wit is a resource that Argos does not have. Perhaps that is why Odysseus is able to suppress his tears for the long-suffering Penelope.



1. The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, Miramax Films, Pathé Productions, and Granada, 2006.

2. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia , Query XVIII, "Manners," in The Portable Thomas Jefferson , ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Viking Penguin, 1975), p. 215.

3. Thomas Jefferson, "To Roger C. Weightman," June 24, 1826, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson , p. 585.

4. See, for example, Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Penguin, 2003 [1855]), chapter 17, "The Last Flogging." Douglass is quoting Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), Canto 2, Stanza 76.

5. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government , in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter VI, "Of Paternal Power," paragraph 55, p. 304.

6. Abraham Lincoln, "My Idea of Democracy," in The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln , ed. Richard N. Current (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 327.

7. Abraham Lincoln, "Second Annual Message to Congress, 1862" in The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln , p. 234.

8. See the transcript of the Council's discussion on Friday, February 6, 2007, online at

9. Winston S. Churchill, "War Speech," September 3, 1939, House of Commons, in Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963 , ed. Robert Rhodes James (New York: Chelsea House, 1974) vol. 6; available online at www.

10. Winston S. Churchill, "Sinews of Peace," March 5, 1946, Fulton, Missouri, in Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963 , vol. 7; available online at

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