The Magazine

The Human Factor

Understanding man's place in the ethical universe.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By DAWN EDEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Neither Beast Nor God

The Dignity of the Human Person

by Gilbert Meilaender

Encounter, 180 pp., $21.95

Last June, in perhaps his least surprising move since entering the White House, President Obama disbanded his predecessor's Council on Bioethics. Throughout his campaign, Obama had derided George W. Bush's ethical concerns as a "war on science." Once he delivered his Inaugural Address--with its promise to "restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality"--it was clear that President Bush's panel of experts were about as welcome as elbow patches on an Armani suit.

And so, when the order came down for the council's bioethicists to haul away their proverbial cardboard boxes, Gilbert Meilaender, who had served on the council since its inception, was prepared. He did the logical next thing, the academic equivalent of going to Walt Disney World: He wrote a book. In his preface to Neither Beast Nor God, Meilaender, a Lutheran who chairs the department of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, writes that the book "began to form itself" in his mind as he "puzzled over questions that arose" in the council. (Oddly, he doesn't mention that it is essentially a book-length expansion of his 2007 New Atlantis article "Human Dignity and Public Bioethics.") He wishes "to distinguish especially two different senses" with regard to appeals to dignity--"human dignity and personal dignity."

The concept of human dignity is simply a placeholder for what is thought to be characteristically human--and to be honored and upheld because it is human. The concept of personal dignity is needed to make clear that, however different we may be in the degree to which we possess some of the characteristically human capacities, we are equal persons whose comparative "worth" cannot and ought not be assessed.

The choice of subject matter, while certainly relevant to contemporary concerns, is not exactly cutting-edge: Questions of human versus personal dignity are older than Plato's beard. Thomas Aquinas was particularly taken with them, providing compelling answers in exacting detail. But Meilaender's muse is Augustine; he prefers leisurely meditatio to systematic quaestio, relishing the opportunity to reflect upon some of the mysteries of being human.

Although his book is not, strictly speaking, a work of apologetics, Meilaender seems almost apologetic for allowing his faith to enter the discussion. Both at the beginning and end, he admits harboring "doubt" over whether personal dignity may be rightly comprehended on purely rational grounds. His self-consciousness is understandable, given the current philosophical atmosphere: On the one side is liberal academia's much noted hostility towards theism; on the other are natural-law philosophers such as his council colleague Robert P. George, who has argued that John Rawls was essentially correct in asserting that, in philosophical debates about public policy, "appeals to religious authority .  .  . are legitimate only where they are offered to buttress and motivate people to act on positions that are defensible without such appeals."

In that light, Meilaender's openness about his theism seems daring, and not a little quixotic. Confessing his faith gives him the freedom to begin his meditation by asserting that man is not merely a material creature, but a composite of mind, body, and spirit. He quotes Augustine: God "created man's nature as a kind of mean between angels and beasts." On that foundation, he builds a natural-law argument of humans as living in a state of "needy freedom," depending upon matter and metabolism for functional independence, each individual bearing a "centered identity" and purpose. In trying to parse out ancient philosophical concepts without adhering consistently to a familiar system like that of Aristotle or Aquinas,
Meilaender is, to some degree, reinventing the wheel. But the truths he relates are timeless and deserve to be recalled to mind in an age when utilitarianism holds sway at the highest levels of political power.

The difficulty arises when the author attempts to reconcile his purposeful view of the human person with his opinions on issues that came before the president's council, such as human cloning, biotechnology, and caring for the ill. His confidence in human purpose and teleology strains under self-imposed pressure to prove (by way of arguments that would be acceptable to a George or Rawls disciple) that controversies should be resolved in a manner that respects both human and personal dignity.

For example, in his only direct mention of abortion, he states that

even bracketing entirely more general arguments about abortion[,] the ready acceptance of abortion of "defective" fetuses .  .  . violates the human dignity we share. It sets aside the fundamental bond of parents and children, inserting choice in the place of love and acceptance, and teaching us thereby that we must justify our continued existence, especially when we constitute a burden to others.

All true, and certainly miles away from any kind of philosophizing we may expect from a White House bioethicist between now and 2013. But the point Meilaender is making--that abortion creates a culture of wantedness, where children's lives are valuable not intrinsically but only relatively, according to whether their parents want them--is universally valid. It need not be qualified by the implication that it applies more so to eugenic abortions. Every abortion "sets aside the fundamental bond of parents and children, inserting choice in the place of love and acceptance." Every abortion teaches us "that we must justify our continued existence, especially when we constitute a burden to others." For what is an "unwanted" child but a human life considered to be "a burden to others"?

I don't know why Meilaender fails to make this logical leap. Perhaps, sensitive to accusations that pro-lifers wish to impose upon others their religiously based belief in fetal personhood, he wishes to isolate his criticism of abortion in an area where there may be common ground. But if that is the case, such timidity is unwarranted, for the core of his argument is not that abortion violates the human dignity of the unborn. It is that abortion violates the human dignity of born children, by denying or relativizing their intrinsic value. This is a point that can be argued effectively purely through reason, and it is essential if we, as a society, are to accomplish what Meilaender rightly deems "our moral task .  .  . to seek to recognize the person who is there."

Abortion is not the only pressing human-dignity issue given relatively short shrift in this book that has human dignity as its subject; the death penalty likewise merits little more than a passing mention. Having covered both topics at length in other writings, Meilaender here opts to avoid black-and-white issues in favor of ones that enable him to distinguish between shades of gray. He casts an especially critical eye upon efforts to make man "more or less than human"--whether by creating perfect "designer babies," medicating away children's natural restlessness, or extending the maximum lifespan. Each of these modern obsessions reflects a need for us to "kindle or rekindle in ourselves a sense of wonder at our humanity, situated so precariously at the juncture of nature and spirit, body and soul."

We ought not lose the capacity for gratitude. It is good that there should be creatures such as we are. Unless and until we can say that, we are condemned to an endless attempt to be something else--whether that something else seems to be "less" or "more."

Here, he has hit upon something vital, something that provides an answer to his wistful recognition that rational argument alone is insufficient to persuade others of the dignity of every human being. Arguments based upon natural phenomena can never capture the essence of a human being whose origin and fulfillment is supernatural. Meilaender knows this; indeed, he writes, "what an analysis of organic life taken alone does not enable us to see or say, a faith that seeks understanding may affirm." But he stops just short of the next step for the believer: The limits of rational argument are cause not for frustration but for the very gratitude Meilaender upholds. They force us into recognition of the needy aspect of our "needy freedom," without which we would never find our ultimate fulfillment.

In one sense, George and Rawls are not so far off: Those upholding Judeo-Christian values in a democratic society will always be required to explain God's reasons in light of man's reasons. But man's reasons are subject to alteration, just as his spirit is subject to conversion. In the age of Obama, more than ever, the power of the human-dignity advocate to change laws depends upon the efforts of the religious believer to change hearts.

Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.