Saturday, May 23, 2009

HUMAN DIGNITY: Near Memorial Day

“CRITERION” is a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Leon Kass, M.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the John U. Neff Committee on Social Thought and the College. This blog will be comments on his lecture titled “Defending Human Dignity: What It Is and Why It Matters” which was delivered in 2008 as the Nuveen Lecture. All these entities with person’s names are endowed by those persons. A longer version of this essay appears in “Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics” and online at

It’s hard to think of a more timely issue than drawing up guidelines for behavior in this era of genome fiddling, torture, unmanned bombers killing civilians, parents who kill their own children, sex so pervasive that it’s become boring, and Dick Cheney’s twisted mouth. Kass mentions slavery, sweatshops, segregation as American issues in the past, and incest, bestiality, cannibalism, prostitution, drug-addiction, and self-mutilation as issues we face when upholding human dignity against acts of self-degradation. What makes us individuals, more than animals, more than meat machines, and yet far from being gods and angels? I’m going to quote a lot because he is so eloquent.

“No life is to be deemed worthier than another, and under no circumstances should we look upon a fellow human being as if he had a “life unworthy of life” and deserved to be made dead.” He’s talking about medical research and biotechnology. “At stake are the kind of human being and the sort of society we will be creating in the coming age.” I’m working my way through the HBO series “John Adams” where the founding fathers of the USA are addressing the same questions. Excellent timing!

Kass makes a distinction between the basic dignity of human being and the full dignity of being flourishingly HUMAN. Thus he points out that preventing abortion is inconsistent with the second requirement which would mean providing care, protection, guidance, nourishment, education -- all the things that come AFTER birth. How many babies are aborted because of the inability to believe they will have a full and flourishing life? What do the pro-life people do for the child AFTER it is born?

He asks “WHICH intrinsic excellences or elevations are at the heart of human dignity and give their bearers special standing?” What is it we want our babies to achieve in the best of all possible worlds? He considers Achilles’ courage, Socrates wisdom, Kant’s respect and finds them all wanting. Then he suggests the human dignity of ordinary people, like my neighbors next door where Rose is quietly dying without complaint while Wayne tends her himself as much as he can with one arm and a big heart. Kass lists hope (Rose looks forward to seeing her dead son again), wonder (through the slider doors we watch Spring unfold in the high country), trust (she knows Wayne is there), love (oh, yes), sympathy (cards, flowers, phone calls), thankfulness (they never fail to thank the hospice people or any other visitors), awe (they believe in God) and reverence (we offered prayer together).

There is a claim that any human being has dignity. “Those who advance [this claim] seek to prevent the display of contempt, and especially contempt with legal consequences, toward those who do not measure up. . . the foreigner and the enemy, the misfit and the deviant, the demented and the disabled as less human or less worthy than oneself.” In latter years a recurring American sin has returned: contempt for the poor and a scramble to secure guarantees of prosperity. Now we know what the consequences are and may be in the future.

I had not paid much attention to the end of the Declaration of Independence, which Kass lifts up, saying, “having equal natural rights is neutral with respect to dignity; exercising them in the face of their denial carries the dignity of self-assertion; defending with one’s life and honor the rights of a whole people is high dignity indeed.” He adds “if there is dignity to be found in the vicinity of suffering, it consists either in the purpose for which suffering is borne or in the manner in which it is endured. Not everyone has the requisite virtue or strength of soul, and it therefore cannot be the basis of the equal dignity of human being.” (I must say that Rose is a hero in this regard.)

He continues: “the elevated moral status of the human species must again turn on something else: the special capacities and powers that are ours and ours alone among the creatures.” He includes “thought, image making, freedom and moral choice, a sense of beauty, love and friendship, song and dance, family and civic life, the moral life, and the impulse to worship.” But these are generalities: “FULL dignity will depend on realizing those possibilities.”

Being a doctor, he asserts “the flourishing of human possibility, in all its admirable forms depends absolutely on active human vitality, that is, on the mere existence and well working of the enlivened human body.” This is where Cinematheque is located: in the flourishing of possibility, first, through the best possible maintainance of human bodies in the face of HIV and second, through “thought, image making, freedom and moral choice, a sense of beauty, love and friendship, song and dance.” Kass asserts “the downward pull of bodily necessity and fate makes possible the dignified journey of a truly human life.” One cannot dance without gravity.

Then Kass goes to Eros, the discussion in Plato’s Symposium. He speaks of our predicament between the “self-regarding concern for our own personal permanence and satisfaction” and “self-forgetting aspiration for something that transcends our own finite existence, and for the sake of which we spend and even give our lives.” He suggests that “the fruits of ‘erotic giving-birth’ are not only human children but also the arts and crafts, song and story, noble deeds and customs, fine character, wisdom, and a reaching for the eternal and divine.”

Its root is in the humble daily duty of community. On a warm spring day full of dandelions, Ruth was carried out to the ambulance by Valier EMT’s, firemen, and nurses who had never known her as a person, knew only that it was needed. They did it generously and graciously, with care for Wayne and even for the little dog, Angel.

1 comment:

Vagabonde said...

I think that this speech should be studied in high schools here; it would help young adults become better persons. This is such a rich country and still, there are so many neglected individuals here. The middle class feels good going to Church, but then, they don’t want to know how many homeless there are in their own town.