From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Bioethics & Dignity by Les Sillars

Bioethics & Dignity

A Q&A with Gilbert Meilaender

In June of 2009 the Obama White House announced that the services of the President’s Council on Bioethics would no longer be needed. President George W. Bush had established the council to promote public discussion of bioethical issues in the wake of the controversy over his 2001 policy limiting federal funding for stem-cell research to existing cell lines. The Obama administration apparently wanted an advisory body that was a little more “practical.” A White House spokesman said, according to the New York Times, that the problem with the old council was that it “favored discussion over developing a shared consensus.” In other words, it favored thinking through issues instead of pushing agendas.

In late November 2009, Obama signed an executive order creating a new council, called the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. He named Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, to serve as its chair and James W. Wagner, president of Emory University, as vice-chair.

Valparaiso University theology professor Gilbert Meilaender was a member of the original council from 2002 until it was disbanded last summer. In August, he released a brief but insightful new book, Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person (New Atlantis, 2009), that should give pause to the members of the new council.

Meilaender begins by making a distinction between human dignity and personal dignity. The former recognizes that we are a little lower than the angels but something more than beasts; thus, to embrace our human dignity is to recognize how a human being is a unity of body and spirit, with characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

Personal dignity recognizes the equal value of each individual; every person, simply by “virtue of his humanity, is one whose dignity calls for our respect.” Personal dignity is grounded in the theological assertion that we have all received life—equally—as a gift from God.

Our greatest temptation, Meilaender suggests, is to imagine that our limitations undermine our dignity. We sometimes think that we become god-like by mastering our bodies, by abolishing illness and, perhaps one day, death itself. But we need to ask, Meilaender writes, “whether being human means nothing more than the freedom to shape and reshape ourselves, or whether it also means honoring the embodied character of our life and affirming some of its limits.”

The stakes, both financial and ethical, for how we understand human dignity are huge, and the public debate over health care reform has brought the tensions to the surface. What, exactly, do we as a society owe people who are sick? If we (whether as individuals, a private association, or the government) are obligated to provide a certain level of care, shouldn’t “we” have a say in end-of-life decisions? If health care resources are limited, whose dignity gets preference? Is dying always an unqualified evil?

Ultimately, writes Meilaender, we must affirm both human dignity and personal dignity. But it’s not going to be easy. In the Q&A below, he discusses some of the concerns.

Les Sillars (LS): What role did the President’s Council on Bioethics play in shaping public debate, and what do you expect on bioethics from the new council under the Obama administration? What stance is it likely to take on the protection of human dignity?

Gilbert Meilaender (GM): The President’s Council on Bioethics was the object of public attention in large part because it took up—and was charged to take up—a few controversial issues (having to do with the moral status of human embryos, stem-cell research, and cloning). But I think its more important service was that it reclaimed public debate for the public. The issues it discussed and wrote about are not matters for researchers and bioethicists alone to debate and decide. Indeed, I incline to think that decisions about them should be made by elected officials, whom we can hold accountable. And despite all the criticism he received from some quarters, President Bush clearly seemed to realize that.

As to what we should expect from a new bioethics council formed by the Obama administration, I’m willing to wait and see. Nothing I’ve seen and heard thus far has made me very hopeful. Certainly President Obama’s few public comments (e.g., in connection with stem-cell research) have not risen to the level of moral seriousness that marked President Bush’s position.

LS: What are the biggest threats in our society to a genuine and accurate vision of human dignity?

GM: I’m not sure there is an answer to this question. There are, in general, two sorts of dangers. On the one hand, personal dignity is threatened whenever the lives of some people are deemed not worth preserving (the “culture of death” problem). On the other hand, human dignity is threatened when new forms of technological mastery undermine the limits that should shape a characteristically human way of life. Which of these is the greater danger may vary from time to time and place to place.

If I had to rank them, I’d probably say the first is the greater threat, because it points to something that is always wrong. The second is more complicated and ambiguous, for we would hardly want to say that every technological reshaping of human life is wrong. Indeed, sometimes such mastery is an exercise of the freedom that properly characterizes human life at its best.

LS: How might the discussion over reforming health care change if society had a good understanding of the difference between personal dignity and human dignity?

GM: The concept of human dignity points to those features of our life that are characteristically human and distinguish us. If we take them seriously, we will understand that we must at some point experience decline and loss of those characteristic powers. That is simply part of being human, and we need to come to terms with it. Nevertheless, this same concept can quite easily invite us to make judgments of comparative worth about the lives of human beings, and such judgments violate our equal personal dignity.

Hence, in my view, the concept of human dignity is really only safe in a society with a firm belief in the equal dignity of human persons. Concerns have been expressed about rationing care, depriving people (especially those with diminished capacities) of needed care, and even of encouraging people to die. These are all serious and legitimate concerns, and their presence suggests an uncertainty about our continued commitment to equal personal dignity.

LS: You make the point that our society is committed to a notion of equal dignity, yet secularists/materialists have no grounds for affirming this common dignity because it is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. You mention that it is possible to affirm this common dignity apart from faith—but is it possible for a society to maintain a long-term commitment to universal dignity apart from faith?

GM: I don’t know the answer to this question, though it may be that we’re going to find out. I do think Jews and Christians have reasons to give in support of our commitment to equal personal dignity. It would be good for our society if others also turn out to have reasons persuasive to themselves and others, but I’m not confident that will happen.

LS: Do you worry (or believe) that our society is weakening in its commitment to dignity? What will be the effects if it does?

GM: I think it’s undeniable that some in our society have come to think that the class of persons is smaller than the class of human beings—and that persons are only those human beings with certain kinds of cognitive capacities intact. This happened first in discussions of abortion, but it has since trickled down into discussions of end-of-life treatment.

LS: Why are human relationships (like family) so crucial to any coherent understanding of dignity? What happens to society if we ignore relationships in our pursuit of preserving dignity?

GM: Human beings are organisms. They are living bodies. Our relation to the world begins therefore with a particular location and particular connections. Relations to kin and loyalty to those with whom we share a common civic life are, therefore, part of what is characteristically human. If we fail to think through the meaning of these obligations and commitments—or think of ourselves simply as citizens of the world—we undermine important aspects of our human dignity.

Les Sillars teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College and is writing Radha Manickam's story, Intended for Evil, to be published by Baker Books next year.

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