14 Mar

The Meaning of Human Dignity

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/14/08

In his 1985 book, Toward a More Natural Science, Leon Kass observed: "Liberal democracy, founded on a doctrine of human freedom and dignity, has as its most respected body of thought a teaching that has no room for freedom and dignity." Kass was referring to the fact that a materialistic science, science detached from any metaphysical or religious definitions of human nature or purpose, had achieved an exalted place in Western societies. Kass went on to make the irony of our dilemma even more pointed: "Liberal democracy has reached a point--thanks in no small part to the success of the arts and sciences to which it is wedded--where it can no longer defend intellectually its founding principles. Likewise also the Enlightenment: It has brought forth a science that can initiate human life in the laboratory but is without embarrassment incompetent to say what it means either by life or by the distinctively human, and, therefore, whose teachings about man cannot even begin to support its own premise that enlightenment enriches life."

During his tenure as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, Kass was unflinching in his insistence that laws and regulations that had bioethical ramifications ought to be based on first principles about the meaning of the human. Under Kass's successor on the Council, Edmund D. Pellegrino, that concern seems to be continuing. This month, a new publication was released by the Council entitled Human Dignity and Bioethics an anthology of essays commissioned by the Council which examine the meaning and significance of the concept of human dignity. There are a variety of viewpoints represented, Daniel C. Dennett, a committed materialist, has an essay in the volume, as do Gilbert Meilaender, Robert George, Peter Augustine Lawler, Leon Kass, Richard John Neuhaus, and Robert P. Kraynak (all former guests on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal).

The print copies of this anthology are no doubt in short supply, but a pdf version is available from the Council's website for download. If you are unfamiliar with the Council's earlier work, a number of the earlier reports are also online. I doubt that any American government organization has ever published as much theologically inspired reflection as may be found in the Reports: your tax dollars at work in a remarkable way.

Posted by Ken Myers on 3/15/08