Unless We All Matter

Original Article

If you want to accurately predict what could soon go wrong in society, just read the professional journals. Case in point: A bioethicist named Alasdair Cochrane, a deep thinker at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights in the UK, argued recently in Bioethics that we should discard our (already tenuous) embrace of intrinsic human dignity as the foundational basis for establishing medical ethics and enacting health care public policies.

Eschewing human exceptionalism and the sanctity of human life would have huge ramifications, and in urging what he calls an “undignified bioethics,” Cochrane does not shy away from describing the stakes:

…the possession of dignity by humans signifies that they [all people] have an inherent moral worth. In other words, because human beings possess dignity we cannot do what we like to them, but instead have direct moral obligations towards them. Indeed, this understanding of dignity is also usually considered to serve as the grounding for human rights. As Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

Cochrane hits the nail: Simply stated, if all humans do not have intrinsic equal moral value, the philosophical bases of the U.S. Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”) and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, are rendered impotent, and universal human rights becomes impossible to sustain. Beyond that, if we deny intrinsic human dignity, we open the door to using human beings as objects and mere natural resources, as Cochrane details:

[I]f all individual human beings possess dignity, then they should not be viewed simply as resources that we can treat however we please. To take an example then, it may be that we could achieve rapid and significant progress in medical science if we were to conduct wide-ranging medical experiments on groups of human beings. However, because human beings have dignity, so it is argued, this means that they possess a particular quality that grounds certain moral obligations and rights.

Alas, that crucial protection matters not to Cochrane. In place of intrinsic human dignity, he urges that we judge each individual’s moral worth based on their individual characteristics and capacities. He writes:

If all human beings possess dignity–this extraordinary moral worth–we need some explanation of what it is about the species Homo sapiens that makes them so deserving. When we start looking at particular characteristics that might ground dignity – language-use, moral action, sociality, sentience, self-consciousness, and so on – we soon see that none of these qualities are in fact possessed by each and every human. We are therefore left wondering why all human beings actually do possess dignity.

But this is all wrong. Human capacities of the kind (and others) mentioned by Cochrane are unique to the humanspecies, that is, they are uniquely part of our natures: That some have not developed, or have lost, them, is quite irrelevant to their full membership in the moral community, otherwise our value is merely transitory, meaning nobody would ultimately be safe. More specifically, judging moral worth individual by individual would resurrect the pernicious thinking behind eugenics and social Darwinism, full force. Indeed, accepting the concept of human undignity is the master key that opens the door to tyranny.

Interestingly Cochrane admits that Christian religion and its concept of the soul could justify human exceptionalism. But like most among the intelligentsia, he finds no place for faith in the discussion because Christian views are “controversial.” And it is true: When pagan Rome permitted unwanted babies to be exposed on hills, it was Christians who controversially gathered them up and lovingly raised them as their own. Today, Christians—just as controversially—continue to follow their Lord’s admonition to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, for example, by standing in the breach to protect the unborn from abortion and being used in scientific experiments, and the aged, and cognitively disabled from euthanasia and denial of food and fluids.

But unconditional love impedes the future that the new bioethics project envisions. Human bodies are the new frontier, our very parts a potential gold field in the development miracle medical products. If we are going to use some human beings as mere natural resources—or in another context, “save the planet” from global warming and overpopulation—there is no place for intrinsic human dignity. Cochrane writes:

Obviously, given controversies over abortion, stem cell research, genetic interventions, animal experimentation, euthanasia and so on, bioethics does need to engage in debates over which entities possess moral worth and why. But these are best conducted by using the notion of ‘moral status’ and arguing over the characteristics that warrant possession of it. Simply stipulating that all and only human beings possess this inherent moral worth because they have dignity is arbitrary and unhelpful.

These are matters about which we can no longer debate, an activity requiring a common frame of reference. More to the point, human dignity is not a matter about which compromise can be achieved: Either it exists or it doesn’t.

All that can be done, then, is to hold up these diametrically conflicting world views to intense scrutiny—human exceptionalism versus human undignity—and inform the public of the benefits, burdens, and consequences that flow directly from each.

We can start with this truth: Unless we all matter no matter what, none of us will ultimately matter.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.