Respect human dignity” is a common imperative in ethics, yet this imperative is filled with ambiguity. On the one hand, we say that strong paternalism violates the dignity of the patient. On the other hand, we say that nothing we do can ever deprive another person of their dignity. Can we have it both ways? We can if we follow Gilbert Meilaender’s core distinction between human dignity and personal dignity. Loss of control undermines human dignity, but it does not deprive one of personal dignity.
Meilaender, a professor of Christian ethics at Valparaiso University, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and a fellow at the Hastings Center, addresses the lack of clarity with which the notion of dignity is used in ethics, especially bioethics. This short book expands his programmatic essay, “Human Dignity: Ex-ploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision,” which appeared in the President’s Council’s 2008 volume, Human Dignity and Bioethics.
While Neither Beast Nor God is not a work in bioethics, it was certainly inspired by bioethical debates, and in it Meilaender draws out a few implications for that field. Nor is this a work of theological ethics, though the anthropology is thoroughly Christian. Meilaender is convinced that we cannot properly understand what it means to be human apart from our relation to God. This book is a good example of religious thinking informing public debates on bioethical issues that deeply depend on some understanding of what it means to be human.
Meilaender’s governing anthropological metaphor is of the human being as an “in-between” creature: not quite a beast; not quite a god (hence the book’s title). We are a union of body (that ties us to beasts) and spirit (that makes us like a god). To flourish as a human species and to manifest human dignity, we need to live within our limits. We should not seek to live in disembodied ways more suited to gods (as some reproductive technologies want to do), nor should we treat our bodies as if they were open to manipulation and not integrally involved with our spirit (as an excessive use of medications to treat every bodily problem wants to do). Overall, Meilaender advocates honoring the embodied character of our life and living within its limitations. As a result, he is critical of procreating without bodily union and of hastening death when life diminishes.
The core contribution of this book, however, is the distinction Meilaender draws between human dignity and personal dignity. He contends that we cannot understand appeals to dignity unless we are willing to consider that respecting dignity might mean more than not harming a person or glibly acknowledging their autonomy.
Human dignity has to do with the capacities and limits characteristic of our species. Thinking in terms of human dignity gives rise to comparing one another’s capacities so that we regard some people as having more dignity than others. Those with less developed capacities (the mentally challenged) or diminished capacities (Alzheimer’s patients) lack human dignity and so may be thought to be worth less than others.
Personal dignity, by contrast, protects against the dangers of making comparisons. It declares that each person is of equal worth, whatever his or her powers and limits may be. Personal dignity is fundamental to human dignity. It upholds equal regard for everyone as persons of worth apart from taking into account our human capacities. But personal dignity is not as obvious to us as are the shared capacities of human dignity. Since personal dignity is a theological assertion for Meilaender, we need the religious perspective of the covenantal relation with God in order to see it. Relying on the religious grounding for personal dignity and its priority seems to doom its reception in the public forum.
Nonetheless, Meilaender argues that equal dignity is a conviction so basic that it often goes undefended and that religious believers should not be ill at ease in the public square when declaring its priority. He argues equal dignity is a universal truth that will ultimately assert its claim on us even if we are obscuring it for now by some of our practices and policies.
This compact volume is a challenging read. It should be of interest to anyone who wants to follow ethical debates—those within the discussion of health care reform, for example—with a more refined vision of what it means to be human. Meilaender’s significant contribution in clarifying dignity can add to these debates. He keeps the two forms of dignity in a dialectic relation rather than have them stand side by side. To promote health care reform, we will need to work out the relation between two forms of ethics. The ethics of equality values human beings in the light of our common humanity. The ethics of quality values life when it has the capacity for satisfying experiences.
In Meilaender’s terms, human dignity allows us to talk both about what we need to flourish as human beings and about the value of each person regardless of our capacities. The dialectical relation of human and personal dignity does not require that we do whatever we can to enhance capacities so that we stay alive as long as we can. While we should not aim at the death of any person, respecting dignity makes our central concern how we live, not how long.