Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Regarding the Foundations of Human Dignity

Roberta Green Ahmanson has a penetrating essay entitled The New Dignity: Gnostic, Elitist, Self-Destructive Will-to-Power over at Public Discourse.  Here a few selections from her important essay.

Planned Parenthood executives bargain to sell aborted body parts, Bruce Jenner strikes a pose across the cover of Vanity Fair, Justice Anthony Kennedy spews purple prose in Obergefell, and California Governor Jerry Brown signs a law allowing doctors to kill.
All in the name of dignity.
Underlying all of these events is a rapid and radical transformation in our culture’s understanding of what it means to be human, and, in particular, what it means to have dignity. Dignity apparently justifies abortion, transgenderism, the redefinition of marriage, and physician-assisted suicide.
But what exactly constitutes this New Dignity? The work of George Kateb, professor emeritus at Princeton, provides a clue. In a book titled Human Dignity, Kateb writes: “Since nature has no telos, the human species is at its greatest when it breaks out of nature.” Human dignity is grounded, according to Kateb, in our ability to defy nature—to go beyond natural limitations and thereby create ourselves anew. Kateb agrees with Sartre: the freedom to “become different through an upsurge of free creativity,” which “can never be conclusively defined or delimited,” is “the philosophical anthropology that underlies human dignity.” This is the meaning of human dignity in a world with no clear origin, no purposeful end, no intrinsic meaning, and nothing real beyond matter in motion.
The New Dignity demands new positive freedoms, freedoms to—to remake our gender, to marry someone without regard to sex or the procreative potential of the union, to choose our time to die and enlist the medical profession in ending our lives, to not only abort a child developing in the womb but also to harvest his or her body parts for commercial gain. It also calls for new negative freedom, freedoms from—from all unwanted pain or discomfort, from limitations on what I can do to or with my body, from language or ideas that offend me or that challenge decisions I have made.
Dignity is no longer so much about who or what we are; it is about what our unfettered will can do, and what it can forbid others to do.
Ahmanson points out the difference between this new conception of "dignity" and the concept as developed and nurtured in the Christian tradition.

In the modern era, this Western conception of dignity is exemplified by theIrish Constitution of 1937, in which dignity is clearly tethered to Christian roots. The Preamble begins, “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred” before making reference to “the dignity and freedom of the individual” that the constitution seeks to protect.
Similarly, the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, drafted in no small part under the influence of philosopher Jacques Maritain, opens with the words, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 1 asserts, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” We can see running through the Declaration the broad outlines of the older conception of human dignity: it is intrinsic to all human beings and inalienable; it is pre-political, or “already there,” so to speak, and can therefore only be recognized and acknowledged; it can neither be conferred nor taken away by the State.
That paradigm is now all but destroyed in the West. From the highest levels of the academy and the courts to popular culture and the mainstream media, dignity is no longer understood as an inherent inalienable quality with which we are “endowed by our Creator,” as in the Declaration of Independence. Instead, dignity is understood as our freedom to defy nature and create ourselves anew, free from discomfort and pain and unconstrained by the natural order.
After mentioning a number of recent books and court decisions invoking the word "dignity," Ahmanson notes:
A close reading of these volumes and of recent court decisions, such as those written by Justice Kennedy in LawrenceWindsor, and Obergefell, makes it clear that we have left any notion of human dignity based on the imago Dei far behind. “God,” according to Kateb, “is only another way of saying that we cannot dissolve certain perplexities.” For him and the other New Dignitarians, “We are left with no choice but to assume that human science is objective knowledge of nature”—which, it is implied, is the only knowledge we are capable of acquiring.
And so, this New Dignity is founded on nothing more than a self-creating will to power that is so thoroughgoing as to become, in the last analysis, self-destructive. Central to the New Dignity are the newly minted rights to refashion one’s body to suit one’s subjective preferences, to end the life of one’s offspring—not only those unborn, but infants as well, according to the Groningen protocol in the Netherlands—and, finally, to take one’s own life in the timing and manner of one’s own choosing. 
Toward the end of her essay Ahmanson writes:
The New Dignity is a Gnostic project, and Gnosticism was always an elitist enterprise. As it was in the Greek and Roman worlds, so now there are signs that this New Dignitarian playground will be open and available only to serve the desires and the projects of cultural and political elites. For those on the margins, it portends new forms of enslavement.