The Magazine

The Human Factor

Understanding man's place in the ethical universe.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By DAWN EDEN
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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.