. . . is a new article written by our own Peter Lawler lucidly summarizing the reflections on dignity issued in a recent report by the President’s Council on Bioethics. The very notion of dignity is philosophically suspect today partly because it’s associated with an apparently anti-modern, anti- freedom, and anti-technoprogress Christian worldview, or because it can’t be empirically substantiated by modern science, or because it’s a radically indeterminate concept, or because it’s premised upon a denial of our autonomy as individual beings. Still, even some of staunchest defenders of science (like Daniel Dennet) seem to realize that some conception of dignity is at least a pragmatic necessity, and echoing Rorty, a philosophical fiction we must necessarily accept. This is another way of saying, as Nietzsche once did, that science is generous with the HOW but thrifty with the WHY—-what it teaches is insufficient to either describe or inspire expressions of ordinary human dignity, let alone greatness. Moreover, Peter argues that science, for all its transformational goals, really does think it gives us an account of the WHAT and not just the WHY—it aspires to make our lives easier and to tell us what kinds of beings we are. The problem of human dignity, at least in this respect, is that it only makes sense if we’re not merely a WHAT but a WHO and so the impersonal reductionism of science can’t possibly capture what it means to be a human being, or what makes human beings dignified.
The modern threat to dignity, paradoxically, is its obesessive preoccupation with the aggrandizement of the individual—-our worth is tied to our autonomous productivity and liberation from restraints. The two dominant modern interpretations of dignity—Kantian and Hobbessian- are only supeficially opposed since both presuppose a radical distinction between nature and freedom—-the only way to freely choose to express our unique dignity is to choose against nature. Problematically, in these hyper-meritocratic and hyper-productive times this is not even good for free choice itself since it’s increasingly difficult to choose against enhancing our “personal marketability”—-the collective intoxication with unrestricted choice actually narrows the options available to us.
Peter doesn’t outrightly tell us what human dignity is but he does contend that a “defense of liberty in our time might well depend on knowing who we really are and why we are dignified human beings”. This doesn’t entail a wholesale rejection of science but more specifically the “soulless scientism” (as Kass calls it) that fails to distinguish between man and beast, meaning that it can’t account for even the most rudimentary pre-theoretical obeservations. In contradistinction to modern science, both the classical and the Christian views, while different in many ways, reject identifying dignity with autonomy and so both provide a pre-modern point of reference to improve upon our modern missteps. Most importantly, neither suffers from the perverse amalgam of misanthropy and narcissism that underwrites much of modern individualism—that our dignity springs from contradictory impulses to ceaselessly transform ourselves into something different and remake the whole of the natural world in our image.