I differ with Robert George (and perhaps Patrick Lee) on some foundational issues in meta-ethics, and that is why, I think, they and I disagree in some respects about the dignity of, and respect due to, human bodies, whether dead or alive. Since my view is for some people the less familiar, I ought to explain it.
I am a virtue-theorist in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas, and so for me dignity is not a foundational concept in morals; it is entirely cashed out in terms of the final end for human beings. In my view, therefore, we treat a person with respect or in accordance with his dignity (I mean these two phrases about respect and dignity as synonyms) when we treat him as a being who, because of his nature, is ordered to the final end of seeing God. Thus, I would indeed say that various things have various degrees of dignity, and I would say this because different kinds of things have different ends, natural or otherwise. Popes and presidents, because of their respective offices, have a dignity that other people lack, and they are entitled to a certain signs of respect that other people are not, and the reason is that these offices are ordered to certain great ends.
This doesn’t mean that the persons who hold these offices, qua persons, have more human dignity, for, as I would prefer to put it, qua human beings, they are ordered to the same final end of human nature as everyone else. Nevertheless, generally speaking, it makes perfectly good sense to speak of degrees of dignity, for we do so against a background of differing ends. This is why, when I said that we should treat human bodies with respect, I added, "that is, in a manner compatible with the end to which, albeit as parts of wholes, they are naturally ordered."
Which brings me to George and Lee’s point that dead bodies are not parts of persons. This strikes me very much as did Claire McCusker’s statement that dead bodies are not bodies in any meaningful sense. In my view, George and Lee on the one hand, and McCusker on the other, are both insisting on a particular meaning of a key philosophical word ("part" for George and Lee, "body" for McCusker) that is perfectly intelligible and useful for certain philosophical purposes but is not the only such meaning the word may bear.
I appealed to common usage and the fact that we say Christ’s body was placed in the tomb against McCusker’s attempted restriction of the word body to living bodies. I shall also appeal to St. Thomas against George and Lee’s attempted restriction of the word part to a usage in which, if I understand correctly, a human being’s material remains are not part of him. "Understood in this way," St. Thomas says, "body will be an integral and material part of the animal, because in this way the soul will be beyond what is signified by the term body, and it will supervene on the body such that from these two, namely the soul and the body, the animal is constituted as from parts" ( De Ente et Essentia , cap. ii (my translation of which is here ).
There is a perfectly good sense in which, even dead, the body is a part¯the material part¯of the person. Indeed, it’s the part you get when you subtract the soul, which George and Lee, I think, admit is a part of the person. Since a whole less a proper part leaves a part, even the dead body must be a part of the person in some sense.
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