Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dignity and Worth of the Person, Pt. 2

Paul Adams

Gilbert Meilaender has an insightful little book on human and personal dignity (Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. New York: New Atlantis/Encounter Books, 2009). He argues that we need to distinguish two radically different senses of dignity. One is "human dignity," which refers to the dignity we share as members of a species that has the potential for various kinds of excellence or human flourishing. In achievement of this potential, we vary and are in this sense unequal. We flourish to different degrees as human beings depending on health, disabilities, aptitudes, circumstances, effort, and so forth.

But there is a second sense of dignity, that of the human person, which affirms our radical equality as unique individuals. This personal dignity recognizes that all human beings are of equal value and no individual or group is less worthy or deserving of being treated with dignity--whether sick or well, disabled or physically or mentally able, janitor or scientist, peasant or president, close to birth or death, and so forth. It is the intrinsic dignity of all human persons that informs the U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights of 1948--in part a recoil from the opposite view and its consequences under Nazism and the eugenics movement for whom some lives are more worth living than others.

Jacques Maritain, according to the author, was astonished that people of radically different ideologies and cultures could nevertheless agree on a list of such rights. "Yes," they said, "we agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why." In social work there is also agreement on the "dignity and worth of the human person" as a core social work value. The value is implicit in social work's commitment to those who are valued less highly according to the first definition of human dignity--the poor, oppressed, vulnerable, disabled, frail, those who are less able to flourish as individuals or in society.

But why do we hold this view of intrinsic human worth and dignity inherent in every person regardless of their state of life and health, achievement and social status? Meilaender suggests that this view derives from and is probably incoherent without the Jewish and Christian understanding of human beings as equally distant from (or close to) God. Inherent in this view too is a rejection of the dualism that sees humans as selves or gods that happen to inhabit bodies or as beasts who are reducible to their physical dimension. We are neither beast nor god.

In this way, the book challenges us to think more deeply and respectfully of our Jewish and Christian heritage, so easily dismissed by those in the academy who think they have risen above it. It reminds us--although this is not its explicit point--of the horrors wrought in the last century by atheist and anti-Jewish, anti-Christian regimes that rejected the notion of the intrinsic dignity of the person.

It is important to realize that Meilaender's (along with the UN Declaration's and Pope John Paul II's) understanding of the person and the equal intrinsic personal dignity of all is just the opposite of the view that speaks of personhood as something some have and others do not. The point of that view, of course, is to deprive some human beings of the dignity of persons. "It is used to deny rather than affirm our fundamental equality." It is that view, which Meilaender contests, that opens the door to euthanasia, assisted suicide, eugenics, racial genocide, and abortion, all of which treat some individuals and lives as of lower value and dignity than others.

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