Defining Dignity:
Worldviews and the Fate of Bioethics

General Bioethics — By on July 14, 2005 at 11:48 pm

[Note: Commitments at the CBHD bioethics conference prevent me from being able to write any original posts tonight. So in honor of the conference I ‘



  • Ed

    “the worth of life is whatever we decide it shall be”
    As opposed to whatever some other entity decides it shall be… Big whoop.
    Any word on the Forum? Am I the only one unable to access it?

  • Mike O

    With eyes wide and full of dollar signs the biotech industry charges full speed ahead for the payoff attached to curing something.
    How about a pool on when the first pandemic comes out of this?

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    A good statement of the issue but when does human life begin? Certainly sperm & eggs are life, they are human life in the sense that they come from a human beign yet no one considers spermacidic jelly to be a tool of mass murder? Killing a cancerous tumor is ok even though it is killing living cells (from the above I assume that all life…even single cells are to be accorded some measure of dignity).
    Obvious thesists draw lines just as much as materialists do. It’s a stretch, IMO, to pretend their lines do not have an arbitrary nature to them at times.

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    All life is intrinsically valuable because it is valued by our Creator. Dignity is not something that is earned, it is merely recognized.
    Joe, if I said to you something is valuable, and you asked why, and I told you, “Because I said so!”, then I have not given you much of an answer.
    Life is valuable, humans have dignity, but not because God says so.
    Pretend for a moment that God did not exist. Would you really be forced to conclude that life has no value, and people have no dignity? Why would you?
    And if life has no value without God’s say-so, and if humans have no dignity without God’s say-so, then how does God’s saying it suddenly make it so?
    I know it may be difficult for you to pretend that God does not exist. Let me explain in more detail what I mean by that: everything about the world is exactly the way you believe it to be, with one exception — the being you call God does not exist. Everything else, you, me, the internet, the U.S.A., the laws of nature, the heartburn you had the other night, is exactly as you know it. Just pretend that God, or any other supernatural force, is not responsible for any of it, and never has been.
    If you can imagine such a thing, then think about the value of life and the dignity of humanity. In this strange world without God, is murder O.K.? Do people no longer have justification for moral outrage against murderers, rapists, sadists, swindlers, and other criminals?
    Here’s another way to think about it: If someone said to you, “O.K., life is valuable and humans have dignity because God said so — but is that the only reason?”, would you be at a loss to give him other reasons?
    To my mind, good is good, and evil is evil. If God himself told me that evil is good or good is evil, I would state my disagreement and argue my case. I can evaluate the merits of euthanasia, stem-cell research, war, murder, or anything else without looking in my file cabinet for the latest memo from God. I don’t need to look in the Bible to know that adultery is wrong; and if the Bible told me to stone adulterers, I wouldn’t believe it for a second. I don’t need to study the Koran to figure out the merits of Islamist jihad or suicide bombing or honor killings.
    Of course, I’m very aware that my analysis of any particular moral situation may be mistaken. I’m also aware that a mistaken analysis could have seriously bad consequences.
    But an analysis based on what someone believes God wants is also prone at times to be mistaken. There is no avoiding the messy business of ethical analysis, whether it’s based on a theological morality or not.
    Of course it’s easier to demand a consensus, and to indoctrinate people, when people belong to a church or to some community of faith, I do not dismiss that. But morality is morality, and when push comes to shove, ethical dilemmas are resolved by individual consciences anyway — dogmas cannot anticipate every circumstance.
    I emphasize that I do not wish to dismiss or belittle anyone’s beliefs. I pose my questions to Joe in the same spirit that he writes his post, in the interest of pushing the metaphysical assumptions we are making into the spotlight. To see how (or if) those metaphysical assumptions fit together into a coherent set of ideals.
    I apologize if my way of expressing my questions or explaining myself offends anyone. But it seems to me the best way of engaging Joe’s points is to be candid and direct, and to have a vigorous exchange of ideas. If anyone thinks that is inappropriate, please let me know.

  • http://www.choicemaker.net/ James Fletcher Baxter

    “Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament, cannot invent criteria greater than himself, the humanist lacks a predictive capability. Without instinct or transcendent criteria, humanism cannot evaluate options with
    foresight and vision for progression and survival. Lacking foresight, man is blind to potential consequence and is unwittingly committed to mediocrity, collectivism, averages, and regression – and worse. Humanism is an unworthy worship.”
    - from The Human Paradigm

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    James,
    The fact that most people are perfectly capable of understanding and accepting what is taken to be divine revelation and moral instruction; the fact that the author of “The Human Paradigm” is capable of crafting and articulating such subtle moral and psychological insight; don’t these facts also point in the direction that men and women are capable of constructing, learning, and accepting a morality that has not been laid down by a divine lawgiver?
    Aren’t the facts of man’s predicament in society and in the world at large sufficient criteria (of sufficient magnitude and transcendence) for him to work out what the best rules and attitudes should be? Was creating the U.S. Constitution, for example, less demanding on our moral faculties than accepting the Ten Commandments from on high, or transmitting the Sermon on the Mount from generation to generation?
    Obviously the U.S. Constitution was a deeply flawed, human instrument, but the Pentateuch and the New Testament are not unerring and perfect either.
    Consider Sir Isaac Newton.
    He had the intellect and the perseverance to tease out the laws of God’s dynamics as revealed in nature. So if Sir Newton, devout Christian fundamentalist that he was, could formulate some of the most important laws of God’s creation without making use of the divine hypothesis of God’s existence, can’t people work together in a good faith effort at establishing a workable natural law of morality without making metaphysical assumptions about who the lawgiver should be?
    I’m not saying the divine hypothesis is not useful — perhaps it’s even necessary for some people to believe it before they can reach a civilized level of moral maturity. But if people could write the Bible, translate it into different languages, and disseminate and preach it, then why can’t people evaluate what’s in the Bible (or the Koran, or the Mormon tablets, or the sacred texts of Hinduism) and pick out what’s good, and throw out what’s bad? Specifically, why can’t they do that even if they don’t believe in God?
    Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament, cannot invent criteria greater than himself…
    Well, man is entirely capable of being hobbled in an ego-centric predicament even when he believes in and worships God. And as I said above, the material facts of society, the world, and the universe are transcendent criteria that are available to man’s moral imagination and judgement.

  • Ed

    Matthew,
    You neglected to mention that it’s ridiculous to adopt criteria BECAUSE they’re divine when they could very well be NOT divine…

  • http://halfpastjack.typepad.com/blog/ halfpastjack

    Man has the capacity to make morale decisions, but man also has the capacity to make immoral decisions. We cling to Christ not to make morale decisions, but because we recognize that our capacity to make immoral decision has separated us from Him.
    If God does not exist, then value would fall into a relative framework based on our capacity. If God does exist as our creator, His valuation trumps our relative framework.
    ________
    Biotechnology is an extremely tough subject, because it turns so many hypothetical questions into reality. We’re discussing the direction of technologies, but our children will grapple with their use. Would I prevent one of my children from receiving a medical “miracle” if I knew it came from embryonic stem cells? Hypothetically–no. Reality, I hope I do not have to make that decision.

  • Rob Smith

    Life is valuable, humans have dignity, but not because God says so.
    Pretend for a moment that God did not exist. Would you really be forced to conclude that life has no value, and people have no dignity? Why would you?
    The concept that human life has value above and beyond what we can produce is primarily a Judeo-Christian concept. In much of the world, most of Asia or Africa for example life has no intrinsic value, much less dignity. One of the problems we in the West have is that we assume that just because we place intrinsic value on human life that all others do, they don’t. In most of the world, throughout most of history life was only valuable as long as you could produce for the present rulers of whatever land you lived in. We can see examples of this in Red China, the Soviet Union (this culture still persists even after the fall), the Sudan, and much of the Middle East. The culture in those areas place very little value on human life.

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    Halfpastjack,
    If God does not exist, then value would fall into a relative framework based on our capacity. If God does exist as our creator, His valuation trumps our relative framework.
    If God exists, he does not communicate his will, he does not communicate his valuation, in a direct and forthright manner. So even if God exists, we are still dependent on a relative framework based on our capacity. But instead of using that relative framework to create an appropriate system of morality, we would be using that relative framework to interpret or to figure out what God’s valuation is likely to be. So it turns out to six of one, half dozen of another, whether God exists or not.
    Biotechnology is an extremely tough subject, because it turns so many hypothetical questions into reality. We’re discussing the direction of technologies, but our children will grapple with their use. Would I prevent one of my children from receiving a medical “miracle” if I knew it came from embryonic stem cells? Hypothetically–no. Reality, I hope I do not have to make that decision.
    Excellent point. I agree wholeheartedly with you.
    Rob Smith,
    In much of the world, most of Asia or Africa for example life has no intrinsic value, much less dignity.
    [...]
    We can see examples of this in Red China, the Soviet Union (this culture still persists even after the fall), the Sudan, and much of the Middle East. The culture in those areas place very little value on human life.
    You are overstating your case.
    Human life has value and is valued almost everywhere. You are confusing the ruthless nature of governments and/or ruling elites and/or rebel groups with the actual culture of the broader classes of people in these countries.
    Of course, the governments in these countries have an enormous influence over the culture, but there is always a strong tension, either overt or below the surface, between the degrading policies of a corrupt regime and the dignified aspirations of a subject people.
    The concept that human life has value above and beyond what we can produce is primarily a Judeo-Christian concept.
    Historically speaking there is a lot of truth in what you say.
    I am glad that many of the American founding fathers were rationalist deists or Christians who were steeped in the Judeo-Christian notions of individual worth and moral autonomy.
    That is why the efforts of some militant atheists and civil libertarians to purge our government of token religious symbolism is often so misguided: the Enlightenment principles of divided constitutional government based on a social compact had strong historical roots in Judeo-Christian traditions.
    Of course, it is no longer necessary to believe in God for someone to understand the merits of various Judeo-Christian values, and accept them as his own.

  • Rob Smith

    Human life has value and is valued almost everywhere. You are confusing the ruthless nature of governments and/or ruling elites and/or rebel groups with the actual culture of the broader classes of people in these countries.
    My arguement was not that these people did not value human life, but that they placed no intrinsic value on it. For example, a person has value if he is a member of the right tribe or capable of producing. He has no value simply because he is a member of the human race.

  • http://halfpastjack.typepad.com/blog/ halfpastjack

    Matthew:
    you wrote:
    If God exists, he does not communicate his will, he does not communicate his valuation, in a direct and forthright manner. So even if God exists, we are still dependent on a relative framework based on our capacity. But instead of using that relative framework to create an appropriate system of morality, we would be using that relative framework to interpret or to figure out what God’s valuation is likely to be. So it turns out to six of one, half dozen of another, whether God exists or not.
    Response:
    We should use our capacity to determine the existence of God and His will. Ambiguity is a result of our capacity to question, reject, disagree, believe, and create. A catch-22 of having the capacity. God granted us the capacity to reach a conclusion–that IS the hard part reaching a conclusion.
    I think God made His will and valuation direct and forthright–The bible and Jesus.
    Appreciate the discussion.
    HalfPastJack

  • http://www.thinkingchristian.net Tom Gilson

    Matthew,
    I appreciate your stated recognition that it’s hard to imagine a world just like this one but without God; but I’m not sure you’ve fully appreciated it. It’s almost as if you said, “Imagine a world just like ours–nothing whatsoever in it is different–except that nothing makes sense ethically.” That’s how central God is in the theistic view. Moreover, Joe has said that God is essential to any successful view of ethics. If he’s right, and I think he is, that makes your thought experiment impossible at the start.
    You said that in answer to many questions, God’s say-so is not enough to settle it. I’ll approach just one example:

    To my mind, good is good, and evil is evil. If God himself told me that evil is good or good is evil, I would state my disagreement and argue my case.

    In order to argue a case, you have need a standard of good and evil to which you can appeal. God, being eternal, the creator, the entire definer of reality, can appeal to himself. To the extent he has revealed himself to us, we can also appeal to God himself. To what will you refer for a standard against that? Your opinion of good and evil? Social standards? Personal taste? Bentham or Mills’s utility? Kant’s categorical imperative? Which of these carries as much weight as being the creator?
    The fact is, God does have standing to settle any question merely by speaking. It’s absurd to deny it; if you are willing to admit the possibility of a theistic God into an argument, you have to view such a God as having final authority.

    But an analysis based on what someone believes God wants is also prone at times to be mistaken. There is no avoiding the messy business of ethical analysis, whether it’s based on a theological morality or not.

    Any thinking theist would agree emphatically. There’s no escaping the hard work. Having a standard in God at least gives us reason to hope there’s an answer at the end of that hard work, though; without God as authority, you have only questions without end.

  • Terry

    Ton Gilson wrote:
    “It’s almost as if you said, “Imagine a world just like ours–nothing whatsoever in it is different–except that nothing makes sense ethically.”"
    Actually I think Mathew’s statement is convoluted than that — “Imagine a world where no imagination existed” seems a more accurate rephrasing to me.

  • Cheesehead

    Matthew wrote: “Of course, it is no longer necessary to believe in God for someone to understand the merits of various Judeo-Christian values, and accept them as his own.”
    Except that, in practice, this does not happen for any sustained period of time through any large population. Once the foundational truths (God is; He has communicated to man in propositional truths; these truths are revealed infallibly and inerrantly in Scripture; His greatest revelation to man occured in His own incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ), once these truths are rejected or dismissed as irrelevant, the framework of Judeo-Christian social construct will not long endure. It all becomes relative and no one can argue that their take on the intrinsic value of human beings is any better than anyone else’s because there is no authority to appeal to.
    Matthew, you seem to be arguing that your perceptions of “good” and “evil” are correct because there is an objective “good” and “evil” out there that need not have been enunciated by any Creator and exist all on their own. Could your objective “good” and “evil” really just be attributes of God (good defines God’s attributes, evil defines what He is not); just that you don’t recognize the personality attached to understanding good and evil?
    And to answer another of your questions, no, I cannot think of a way to support the proposition that human life has intrinsic value apart from a loving Creator. A world that exists by chance and inhabited by accidental and very temporary beings is one without intrinsic value. It is, to borrow from someone far, far wiser than me,”Vanity, vanity! All is vanity!” It’s really quite depressing to contemplate such a world, and I think that the relative rates of childbirth between traditional Christians (especially here in North America) and “post-Christian” moderns (especially in Europe, but also in the large urban centers of North America) show how much hopefulness people of each viewpoint feel about their own lives and those of their (potential) children.