Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Where does Human Dignity Come From??

Dr. Daniel Daly
This is a continuation of reflections on Dr. Daniel Daly's IBPCA lectures. He spoke about the source of human dignity.

As a high school volunteer in my local children's hospital, I remember standing in front of a plaque emblazoned with the patients' bill of rights. It began with:
______ Medical Center affirms each patient's right to receive care delivered in a considerate, respectful, dignified and comforting manner.
Why? I wondered, as I stood there in my candy-striper polo. Why dignity? Where does dignity come from? Where do documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights base their claims on dignity?

That was the beginning of a many-year period of frustration with secularized healthcare that insisted on human dignity. I was glad, of course, that they maintained human dignity. However, I could not discover a source of that dignity, consistent with an agnostic or pluralistic worldview.

And, in fact, it is not to be found. Dignity without God is a relic of a post-Christian society. (A good relic, but an inconsistency.) Dr. Daniel Daly discussed the source of human dignity very lucidly. We are made in the image of God (“imago Dei”): we have intellects, imaging his omniscience; we are social, imaging his Trinity; we have free wills, imaging his will; we have inherent value, imaging his essential goodness. Because we image God, men have transcendent value which cannot be taken away. Moreover, we are all equally valuable, because we all share equally in human nature.

This value is different in kind from the value of the rest of enmattered creation. Non-rational animals, plants, and non-living creatures have intrinsic value--that is, they are good in themselves and should be loved as creatures of God and means to him. Men have this, and more. Men are persons. What is a person?

Dr. Daly defined "person" as "an embodied soul." A few observations about this definition:
  • By this definition, neither the Persons of the Trinity nor angels are persons.
  • If "soul" be taken strictly ("anima") this actually defines all animals (including humans).
  • If "soul" be taken in the more colloquial, human-only sense, this actually defines "rational animal."
  • Any other rational life (i.e. aliens) can be persons under this definition. (Which is fine.)
  • This definition does not make clear that "person" is one thing.
I prefer Boethius' definition: a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. St. Thomas agrees that this is the best definition of the word. This definition is more powerful and more precise. Using it:
  • The Persons of the Trinity are persons.
  • Angels are persons.
  • Aliens are persons. (If intelligent aliens are found, by the way, they would be "rational animals" and hence human, unless we wish to add another adjective to the definition of "man" which has stood for four millennia.)
  • This definition makes very clear that a "person" is a united whole; however, the philosophy that this definition belongs to also makes clear that all substances are united wholes. (Unity is not unique to persons; this makes sense: one kangaroo is one thing.)
  • This definition implies the "imago Dei" by the words "rational nature."
The key question on most minds when people start to talk about "person" is, "when is an embryo a person?" It surprised me to learn from Dr. Daly that the Church actually doesn’t teach that personhood begins at conception.

However, She does teach that the embryo could be a person. Because of this, however, abortion and other practices which kill fetuses are never permissible because
  1. Murder may never be risked
  2. Matter awaiting a soul of transcendent value is valuable in itself! At the least, it should be treated as other living things are (like kangaroos and trees).
In the final analysis, documents like the Universal Declaration and the hospital's bill of patient rights say so much good. They insist on inherent dignity, reason, and (in the Universal Declaration, at least) conscience! I posit that this is because they are not entirely secular—they are deeply, culturally imprinted with the norms of Christianity. While I'm glad they still uphold human dignity, I expect that the logical gap between pluralism and human dignity will gradually slip shut.

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