Human Dignity and Biomedicine

Arguably, one of the best extended contemporary discussions of human dignity and its implications for biomedicine was commissioned under President George W. Bush and convened by his President’s Council on Bioethics. The council’s two reports, Being Human (2003), and Human Dignity and Bioethics (2008), are the results of more than a few public meetings, thousands of pages of expert testimony, and the work of two physician-scholar-chairmen, Leon Kass, MD, and Edmund Pellegrino, MD. The work of the council provoked bioethicist Ruth Macklin to brand human dignity a “useless concept.” Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker even assailed the notion of dignity as “stupidity.”

Nevertheless, both the term and the idea for which it stands continue to possess significant currency not only in the popular imagination but especially in medicine and law. In fact, Roberto Andorno, Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Institute of Biomedical Ethics of the University of Zurich, maintains that the notion of human dignity is so ubiquitous in intergovernmental documents in biomedicine that “It is therefore not exaggerated to characterize it as the ‘overarching principle’ of international biolaw” (“Human dignity and human rights as a common ground for a global bioethics,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 34 (2009): 223-240).

How does one account for this discrepancy? Can human dignity be at once both profound and indecipherable? Can it be both ubiquitous and useless? What happens if we expunge human dignity to the dustbin of incoherence, as Macklin and Pinker would have it? The implications of these questions for biomedicine, human rights, and public policy are difficult to overestimate.

Will our posthuman progeny one day see human dignity as a quaint historical artifact of our speciesist predilections? Perhaps. But removing human dignity from the table only seems to move the question of human rights to the foreground. Whence human rights if not from human dignity?  The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 affirms that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .” If human rights are merely a result of a social contract, humanity as we know it will survive only so long as the contract remains unaltered. In light of the history that gave new birth to this tradition—namely, the Nazi eugenics movement and the violations of human dignity that resulted from it—forfeiting the idea of inherent human dignity would seem potentially disastrous.

Alternatively, if human dignity turns out to be just a placeholder for rational autonomy, then another precarious state of affairs may follow. What of those at the margins? Patients in a persistent vegetative state, those with end-stage Alzheimer’s, unborn children, and others would lack dignity and therefore human rights. But this seems counter-intuitive. Why should one’s ability to exercise free and rational choice be the ground of human dignity?  As Patrick Lee and Robert George have argued recently, “[T]he criterion for full moral worth is having a nature that entails the capacity (whether existing in root form or developed to the point at which it is immediately exercisable) for conceptual thought and free choice—not the development of that natural basic capacity to some degree or another.” Most of us would be able to say without any cognitive dissonance that the rape of a severely retarded person is a violation of his or her dignity as a human being, quite apart from his or her ability to exercise rational, autonomous choice. How can this be so unless membership in the human species, not the exercise of rational and volitional abilities, is the ground of our notion of human dignity?

Human dignity is so robustly enshrined in international biolaw and policy, it seems unlikely that its appeal will fade away anytime soon. Instead, we should take the current controversy as an opportunity to reinvigorate its meaning.

We must understand human dignity, therefore, as a first principle. That seems to be one of the significant ways we use the term in both ordinary language and in international policy. This, of course, does not resolve every difficulty. We may certainly ask questions of human dignity. What sort of thing is it? Why should we believe in it? What would follow if we did?  What would follow if we did not?  But beginning with it as a properly basic notion rooted in our species membership and as the ground of human rights goes a long way toward an operational definition that helps us make meaningful decisions about how we treat one another and what obligations we owe to whom. Whether one is an atheist, Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist, there seems to be a very important overlapping consensus that what we share as a species should be the basis for solidarity, justice, humanitarianism, and moral medicine.

Of Gods and Men

Though my own Baptist faith is not given to masses and monasteries, I loved Of Gods and Men, the story of French monks who ministered and died in the Algerian mountains. I think particularly of the scene where the old exhausted doctor, facing almost certain death at the hand of Islamic terrorists, pauses to press the side of his face against the bare chest of Christ in a painting of His Passion. Luc, the doctor, is seeing as many as 150 Muslim patients a day, including terrorists from the very band which will take his life, and he has decided to stay in harm’s way.

The contrast with Islam could not be sharper; as the film title suggests, a man’s apprehension of God determines his behavior, and Luc’s sacrificial, loving behavior is grounded in devotion to the One who surrendered His life to unjust men that unjust men might be saved.

Of course, Muslim terrorists also give up their lives for their convictions, whether detonating explosive body-packs in a Bali nightclub or flying jets into New York skyscrapers, but there is no comparison. They shred the innocent of other faiths for the advancement of their cause, while Luc and his colleagues allow themselves to be shredded for the sake of innocents of another faith in hope that those people will be drawn to Jesus.

If Islam allowed religious paintings beyond geometric, calligraphic, and vegetarian arabesque, against what sort of painting would a member of Al-Jamaa Islamiya rest his face before resuming his jihadic ministry? A portrait of Mohammed, who himself took part in dozens of armed raids? Who gathered wives and goods as he established military hegemony in the region, and whose sword-wielding followers had pushed a thousand miles east and west within a hundred years of his death?

Though the screenwriters have inserted a few lines suggesting that the current troubles are due to perversions of Islam and to the colonial plundering of the French, neither conceit will stand. For ordinary Islam kills culture as surely as militant Islam kills Algerian monks. It’s no accident that the pills Luc dispensed and the van the terrorists used to kidnap the doomed monks were made in Europe; that the road-building equipment of the Croatian workers they murdered was made in Illinois by Caterpillar; that the old “Huey” helicopters, “jeeps,” and cargo trucks the Algerian army used, in vain, to protect the monks were manufactured in various American locales; and that Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, and Belgians were able to colonize animist and Muslim Africa, and not vice versa. Whatever one may say about the callousness and injustice of these European ventures, they were made possible by the backwardness of the colonized cultures, a product of their dismal religions.

When the monks were weighing whether or not to leave, one told his Muslim neighbors that he and his companions were like birds on a branch, wondering if they should fly away. A woman, corrected him, explaining that the monks were the branch and the villagers were the birds.

Of course, this reminds me of the opening verses of John 15, where Jesus says He is the true vine in which His disciples abide as branches. And we see throughout history that the fruit bearing comes not only in the form of evangelism but also as cultural awakening – in both repentance and antibiotics; in the restoration of marriages and the manufacture of ambulances; in the preaching of the Word and the defense of religious liberty; in the promise of heaven and the spread of literacy; in vibrant churches and a decent social order. The gospel touches everything.

How Would You Like to Die?

The institution where I now teach had the fortunate opportunity to have Gilbert Meilaender on our campus recently. Meilaender is the Duesenberg Chair of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002-2009. He was also a doctoral student under the inimitable Paul Ramsey, whose legacy in medical ethics many readers will surely know. Meilaender is at once both sage and winsome, brilliant and humble. His talks corresponded with a forthcoming book project: Facing the Dying of the Light: Perspectives on Aging and Dying.

Meilaender opened his series of lectures by reflecting on the perennial question, “How would you like to die?” Most today, he suggested, would answer with one word: suddenly! Generally speaking, we want to live as long as we can, at the peak of our powers, and then fall off a cliff, as he put it. Doubtless he is right about contemporary attitudes toward death. If we have to go, let it be quickly and painlessly.

I heard Professor Meilaender against the backdrop of the new documentary of the life of the inventor-scientist Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man. Kurzweil believes that by the year 2045, computer speed and capacity will match the speed and capacity of the human brain. He calls that convergence “The Singularity”. When that happens, he argues, a new species will emerge and immortality will be achievable through the merging of man and machine.

One thing is made crystal clear by the documentary: Ray Kurzweil hates death. Although I am not a psychologist, it seems obvious from comments Kurzweil makes that he was traumatized as a young person when his father, a professional musician, died suddenly. Kurzweil laments that he was not able to prevent his father’s death because our technology is not sufficiently developed—yet. So, Kurzweil has kept all of his father’s belongings in storage, including pictures, ledger books, musical scores, etc., in hopes of one day recapturing his father’s consciousness through artificial intelligence technologies. He even believes that some AI machine one day will be able to scour from his own brain memories of his father to add to the rich pastiche of his father’s life as it is recreated. Kurzweil believes he himself will live long enough to make a “copy” of himself so he can move one step closer to the so-called Singularity and a technologically achieved immortality.

Thus, if these two views are representative, we would prefer either to die suddenly or not at all. What struck me while Meilaender was speaking—and he said as much during his lectures—is that it was not always so. Historically, most people have seen death as unavoidable and sudden death as particularly lamentable. Although no one relished extended suffering, the terminal condition gave opportunity to make peace with others, with God, and perhaps with death itself. Death was not welcomed in most cases, but “dying well” did not mean merely dying as painlessly as possible. Rather, it meant dying with one’s accounts in order, as it were.

Perhaps these two scenarios—either sudden death or no death at all—both miss this important aspect of human experience. On the one hand, sudden death robs us of the opportunity to reconcile ourselves where necessary so that we come to the end of our days with some resolution in our lives. On the other hand, if current experience is any teacher, indefinitely extended lifespan would mean we would be tempted to persist unreconciled to those with whom we are at odds. In both cases, we might miss one of the most important aspects of being human. It’s at least worth thinking about, it seems to me.

The Gospel Coalition Panel: How to Teach Children and Youth the Gospel Story

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At The Gospel Coalition national conference in Chicago, IL, BibleMesh conducted three panel discussions.  Above is the final of the three, entitled “How to Teach Children and Youth the Gospel Story,” which was held at 12:30pm on Thursday, April 14 in Chicago. Greg Thornbury of BibleMesh led the discussion, which featured panelists Russell Moore, David Helm, and Kimberly Thornbury.

The discussion ranged from particular obstacles that pop up in teaching our children the gospel, how to teach parents to understand the Bible in order to teach their children, and helpful resources. Below are some of the resources mentioned:

The Gospel Coalition Panel: Getting to Know the Bible Personally as One Grand Narrative

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At The Gospel Coalition national conference in Chicago, IL, BibleMesh held three panel discussions and above is the second of the three, held on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 12:30pm. The discussion, entitled “Getting to Know the Bible Personally as One Grand Narrative,” was led by Michael McClenahan of BibleMesh.  We had three world-class expositors weigh in on the topic: Kent Hughes, David Jackman, and Ligon Duncan.

The discussion began on how each of the participants personally came to clear convictions about the story of the Bible being about the great salvation of Jesus Christ. It was an edifying discussion of God’s ordinary means of faithful preaching and Bible teaching in the life of the church. But then, recognizing that many Christians don’t recognize the Bible as one story about Christ and his gospel, the discussion turned to the weaknesses in evangelical spirituality that causes neglect of this issue. Other interesting points in the discussion were how a Christ-centered reading of the Scriptures nourishes our soul and how our moral life shapes our reading of the Old Testament.

Below are some of the resources mentioned:

Gospel Coalition Panel Discussion: What I have learned after years of preaching Christ in the Old Testament

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At The Gospel Coalition national conference, BibleMesh was able to conduct three panel discussions. This is the first of the three, entitled ““What I’ve Learned from Years of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament,” in which I (Owen Strachan) asked three veteran preachers, Alistair Begg, Mark Dever, and Philip Ryken, what they have learned after years of preaching Christ in the Old Testament.

The discussion began with how each person came to be convinced of a Christ-centered preaching model of the Old Testament. There we discussed how each pastor came to the personal conviction that Christ should preached from all of Scripture. Next, we covered more esoteric topics like how do preachers preserve the moral sense of Scripture without abandoning the gospel–or, the question that makes every young preacher’s knees knock–how do we preach Christ from the Song of Solomon?

Sprinkled throughout the discussion were resources mentioned by each of one of the contributors. Below are several of them: