Apr 17, 2007

is dignity relative?

Leon Kass:
In order to justify ongoing [human cloning] research, these intellectuals and others like them today are willing to shed not only traditional religious views but any view of human distinctiveness and special dignity, their own included. They fail to see that the scientific view of man they celebrate does more than insult our vanity. It undermines our self-conception as free, thoughtful, and responsible beings, worthy of respect because we alone among the animals have minds and hearts that aim far higher than the mere perpetuation of our genes. It undermines, as well, the beliefs that sustain our mores, practices, and institutions–including the practice of science. The problem lies not so much with the scientific findings themselves as with the shallow philosophy that recognizes no other truths but these and, and with the arrogant pronouncements of the bio-prophets.
Why does a proper respect for human dignity require “human exceptionalism,” and a bizarrely relative view of dignity? If we were to discover other creatures of similar intelligence in the universe, would that somehow invalidate the scientific enterprise because it would knock us off our anthropocentric perch? This is a grand non sequitur.
Wesley J. Smith:
You don’t believe there is a hierarchy of moral worth? You don’t think humans have moral duties no other species in the known universe has? You don’t think human beings are exceptional? Then why are we required, as we should be, to save endangered species but seals and elephants aren’t? Ah, it is because only we understand or care about the concept. Why? Because we are exceptional.

The self loathing of many is amazing to me. Thanks for writing, Jim.
Smith leaps to the assumption that I don't find humans exceptional, recapitulating the same non sequitur. I actually agree that, as far as we know, humans are unique in their moral and reasoning ability--whether in degree or in kind, I'm not certain. Call this "soft exceptionalism."

This doesn't require me to place humans at the top of a "moral hierarchy," though--at least not without a lot of explanation, which Smith presumes rather than provides. The moral pyramid might look more like a ziggurat.

Even if we assume that a true moral pyramid exists, we are not committed to "moral exceptionalism"-for even in the theistic view Kass espouses, humans are not greatest among rational and moral creatures. I wonder if Smith thinks the Biblical poet disparages human dignity when he writes, "For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour." Lower than another created being, yet still full of "glory and honour." Dignity, at least to David, isn't relative.

Again, my complaint isn't with the concept of human dignity, and even with that of human exceptionalism. For all we know, humans have unique moral duties. But raising someone else's stature doesn't require tearing down our own. Moral worth isn't zero-sum.

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