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Humanize Human Rights Require Knowledge of the Human Heart

I’m excited to join the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Let me share my approach to the issues of human dignity, liberty, and equality and the moral duties that the Center exists to consider and advance.

I believe that when it comes to issues of human life we’re generally engaging conflicts that are neither unresolvable nor destined for stalemate. We’re debating issues that matter. We can lose sight of this due to the tendency to throw our hands into the air over the seemingly complex nature of many human life issues, content to “agree to disagree” because “it’s complicated.” For those determined to advance human dignity, liberty, and equality, settling for this false peace is, in fact, a surrender to (at best) a materialist philosophy that prizes autonomy over solidarity, or (at worst) a nihilist relativism that proposes that ultimate reality and truth are unknowable and therefore worthless.

We already see the poisoned fruits of accepting that false peace in the degradation of human rights. Human rights were once a shield for the protection of those most at risk to the whims of those with greater power, but as we lose our sense of human beings as possessors of inherent dignity and worth, we also lose a firm basis for universal human rights. As if experiencing a collective dementia, we look upon the face of the human person without recognizing the priceless good we see. And in our forgetfulness we lose our ethical bearings, too often falling for utopian promises for a future that never arrives.

When we survey the field, we observe this annihilation across the spectrum of human life: at the earliest and most physically vulnerable period when we most require hospitality and love, in the form of abortion; at the latest and most culturally vulnerable period when we most require solidarity and companionship, in the form of euthanasia and suicide; throughout adult life when we require encounter and friendship, through a “throwaway” culture of indifference; and across the spectrum of bioethical issues from eugenics to human trafficking, from attacks on patient and physician conscience rights to misanthropic environmentalism, from ethically indifferent forms of genetic engineering to stem cell research to cloning, and on it goes.

What are we to make of the claims of human rights, amidst all the raw human willfulness and power imbalances that so greatly warp our ability to recognize one another as equals?

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt,” writes Thomas Paine, “is like administering medicine to the dead…”

We’re all that man at certain points—that person in any given moment who is likelier to hold humanity in contempt than to properly recognize that to hang humanity is to hang oneself. We’re flirting with that philosophically in many ways—grimly illustrated by the fact that American prosperity has never been greater in absolute terms, yet neither has our suicide rate—but the evidence of our daily lives, our daily experience, confirms that we want as much of the good life as we can get.

At the risk of sometimes administering “medicine to the dead,” I think that what makes Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism so valuable is a fundamental concern with reintroducing—or, at least, re-emphasizing—those things which our ancestors knew—or, at least, grasped for—but which some of us rejected and others forgot. As a consequence, we deprive ourselves of a valuable inheritance. A recovery is possible, and it starts with this: the truth is knowable, ethics and morals of human life are inherent to all law that legitimately directs human action, and the good is achievable in our culture and in our lives. If we refuse these realities, then our pursuit of dialogue is a fool’s errand. There is no purpose to dialogue over issues that have no possibility of resolve.

All good law has, at its heart, a moral core, and good law can never be neutral with respect to the aims it seeks to encourage or proscribe. Human reason points us to the moral content at the heart of the sort of good law that makes a healthy culture possible.

“Laws without morals,” observed Ben Franklin, “are useless.” Franklin was as much summing up classical knowledge as he was reintroducing it to new generations, and the University of Pennsylvania adopted it as its motto for the same reason: “Leges sine moribus vanae.

The law is a teacher. Not every choice (and relatively few choices when it comes to bioethical issues, it turns out) can be made in a life-affirming way without a teleologically informed conscience or the encouragement of a law and policy regime that is concerned with a knowable set of moral and ethical goods.

What we most immediately need to recover is knowledge, first of our own hearts. I look forward to contributing to this important cause.

Tom Shakely

Research Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Tom Shakely is a Research Fellow with Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism where he focuses on human dignity, human rights, and law and policy. Tom has spoken on human rights issues at the United Nations, testified to the District of Columbia City Council on conscience rights, and advised on testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. House of Representatives.