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Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person

BY Gilbert Meilaender

Encounter, 180 pages, $21.95

SOME MONTHS AGO, the ethics committee on which I sit at the Empire State Stem Cell Board took up a discussion of what “respect for the human embryo” might mean in the current context of embryo-destructive stem-cell research. At one point in our exchange, I asked my colleagues whether there is anything the committee would agree should never be done with human embryos. One colleague conceded he would not want them served in an upscale restaurant as a kind of caviar; another, that she would not want them used for cleaning floors or for powering cars. As to the prospect of using them to develop cures for disease, however, none of my colleagues would object.

As futile as such discussions might seem to those of us attempting to uphold the sanctity of human life in the arena of public policy, they are not entirely fruitless. That discussion in particular forced everyone in the room to confront unwieldy questions: When should “respect” for incipient human life begin? In what degree and to what extremes? And just what is it about the human embryo that demands any respect at all?

Thus it should come as no surprise that Gilbert Meilaender began his new work Neither Beast nor God while he was grappling with these issues as he served for seven and a half years on George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics. Giving structure to the entire work is Meilaender’s insistence on a twofold manner of speaking about dignity. “The longer I puzzled over it,” he observes in his preface, “the more I began to think that we need to distinguish especially two different senses [of the concept of dignity]”what I here call human dignity and personal dignity.”

Human dignity, he explains, “has to do with the powers and the limits characteristic of our species”a species marked by the integrated functioning of body and spirit.” Personal dignity , by contrast, “has to do not with species-specific powers and limits, but with the individual person, whose dignity calls for our respect whatever his or her powers or limits may be.”

Meilaender believes this distinction is well illustrated by two apparently contrasting assessments of human worth made by two remarkable thinkers”Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II. St. Thomas suggests that a man committing a heinous crime such as murder can “lose” his dignity. John Paul II, apparently by contrast, in discussing capital punishment in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae , claims that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity.”

Are the two really at odds? Meilaender thinks not. Rather, he believes they are employing distinct concepts of dignity: Thomas Aquinas is referring to human dignity and John Paul, to personal dignity. The former can be lost; the latter”no matter how much a human person degrades him or herself by personal immorality”can never be lost, based as it is on the person’s existential individuality.

Other interpretations of what St. Thomas meant are possible. In speaking of the kind of dignity one can “lose,” he may have meant not the dignity of nature (what Meilaender calls human dignity) but what the Thomistic tradition calls “the dignity of virtue.”

On this interpretation, when a man lives like a beast, betraying his rationality, he loses the dignity of virtue; he does not, however, relinquish the dignity of his nature.

After two introductory chapters, Meilaender undertakes an exploration of human dignity and of our peculiarly embodied yet spiritual human nature: our in-betweenness . “Human beings,” he writes, “are strange, ‘in-between’ sorts of creatures”lower than the gods, higher than the beasts.” Human existence is therefore “lived ‘in between,’ and to honor human dignity is to honor precisely the in-betweenness that marks our condition.”

Meilaender places great emphasis on the human imperative of honoring our peculiar in-between state, lest we end up thinking ourselves only spirit or only body or succumb to an utterly dualistic understanding of human nature. Dualism”in which humans are understood as self-contained egos that use bodies in service of the self”continues to be the philosophical and existential sickness of our age, and Meilaender develops his essay in conscious dialectic with this philosophical and cultural malady.

At one point, Meilaender observes that our peculiar state of being embodied souls is not served well by the analogy of a horse and rider, since such an image suggests the dualism of two separate entities. Instead, he curiously suggests, our situation is better served by the image of a centaur. “The centaur is a real union,” he writes, “of man and animal”as the human person is a union of body and spirit.” Does a centaur really pass the duality-vs.-dualism test? I prefer Aristotle’s much stronger image: that soul and matter form the unity of the human composite “as the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.”

Meilaender considers it imperative to recover a profound sense of gratitude for human nature based on awe and wonder: Neither beasts nor gods, human beings dwell in the in-between, and it is good that we do. Thinking his way through the topic, Meilaender examines the dramatic shift in our cultural understanding of what it means to bring another human being into existence: the shift in which “procreation” (as a fundamental end of human nature) somehow became “reproduction” (the effect of autonomous choice).

His reflections on the meaning of childhood and human relationships serve as the vehicle for a robust attack on the reduction of human dignity to mere autonomy. Meilaender concludes with a timely reflection on aging and death, stages of life that he correctly emphasizes are “integral” to human dignity, not least because they remind us “that fulfillment is to be found elsewhere”; they point us toward a transcendent flourishing to be pursued and enjoyed as an endless unfolding and ever greater fullness in eternity.

Death, as the existentially inescapable affront to our unique singularity of being, leads Meilaender, in the second part of his book, to take up that other dimension of the human person: personal dignity. Human dignity invites the possibility of comparison. It gives us a meaningful way to speak about how some humans have a greater dignity than others precisely because they flourish to a greater degree than others do. It also helps us articulate several senses in which dignity can be lost or diminished.

But “against the dangers of such comparison,” writes Meilaender, “the notion of personal dignity provides protection.” In our own era, the notion of personal dignity helps protect vulnerable human beings whose expression of human excellences has been impaired. “We can deal safely with these puzzles,” the author affirms, “only when we put personal dignity first.”

The reality, nature, and foundation of personal dignity, Meilaender cogently suggests, will likely remain opaque if we fail to realize that our grasp of personal dignity is not accessible through rational consideration alone. Rather, we must also engage the heart in this process: It is our willingness to affirm the unique richness of each human individual that sets the stage for recognizing the personal dignity of others.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.