Monday, April 27

Human Dignity

While thinking about the enhancement presentation over the last week, the question of human dignity has kept surfacing in my mind. It seems that this is one of the fundamental questions that we have to investigate if we are to begin exploring the human enhancement debate. I think I’m going to write my final paper on this topic and was curious to hear others perspectives on the issue. I guess the question is, “In what does human dignity rest?”

First of all, I guess we need to at least try and define the terms. If I had to define human dignity in layman’s terms, I guess I would describe it as a characteristic of each and every human individual which gives them intrinsic and not just utilitarian value. In other words, we all know intuitively that you can’t put a dollar value on someone’s life; human life and money aren’t on the same spectrum. I believe that’s what Kant was referring to when he said we must always treat humanity whether others or our self as an end and not merely a means. Human dignity may be hard to define, but I believe that we all intuitively believe that there is something about us that gives us intrinsic value. And even if we don’t admit to this, we all seem to live as if human life had intrinsic value.

So, from where does this value come? (You’ll have to forgive me my Kassian exploration, but I’m definitely open to hearing other points of view). Two options which I think are ruled out logically are our physical human body and the common values of society. I’ll try to explain my reasoning. If we root out human dignity in our physical body or in our DNA we have made a gross err. The problem with rooting dignity in the physical body is that anything physical can be removed. If our dignity was physically found in our “right arm”, by removing that appendage one could physically remove someone’s dignity. I know this sounds a little ridiculous but bear with me. What about rooting it in our neurons? We could then say that to be dignified is to have a certain mental capability. But again if one loses this through brain damage, do we say that they have physically lost their dignity? The same holds true for our DNA, it may be immensely harder to remove, but any attempt to say that it is our basis for a dignified life is to say that if an individual had their genetic makeup altered, they could in fact alter their human dignity. Any attempt to root human dignity in the physical, material body seems destined to fail because, anything physical can be removed from the person.

What about viewing human dignity not as something emanating from an individual but as something that is bestowed upon an individual from the outside culture? In other words, human life has dignity because we all agree as a society that it has dignity. At first this sounds like a very reasonable approach but it too has a fatal flaw. If the surrounding culture can give an individual human dignity then they can also take it away. In our current western society we sometimes forget this fact and say that a person is valuable because we all agree that they are valuable. But what happens when society no longer believes that? Is that not what has happened all through history. Slavery, denying women their rights, child prostitution, infanticide, racism, is not each of these a situation where society has decided that a certain group of individuals no longer has the dignity that the rest of society has? If we are going to denounce these practices as objectively wrong in any sense, we can’t turn back around and say that human dignity is bestowed on the individual by society. That is just nonsense.

So where does that leave us? I think this the direction that Kass was moving in his writings. This is why he argued for rooting human dignity in something immaterial yet still in the individual. I agree that it’s hard to define and by definition can’t be discovered by science which only concerns itself with the physical. But, in light of the other options is it really that farfetched? We can call it the “The natural human activity,” or “human flourishing,” or the “human soul,” but I think that a pretty strong argument can be made for rooting human dignity in something of this sort. I realize that a positive argument hasn’t been made here but the negative argument against the alternatives seems pretty strong.

I realize that there are a lot of assumptions made in this argument, but if we agree that human dignity is something that does exist, sooner or later we must begin defining and laying out its boundaries. Any thoughts? Like I said I’m open to criticism and am looking for feedback before writing my paper.

1 comment:

  1. I think I agree with a certain aspect of your conclusion that human dignity is related to something more abstract and intangible than merely our DNA or our culture. But I would prefer to think of it as "the human mind" rather than the "human soul" because it avoids some supernatural connotations, and I disagree that it is necessarily rooted in something immaterial. I'm inclined to think that the phenomena of sentience has a materialistic explanation and is probably linked to our DNA even if we don't have the required knowledge to fully explain it yet.

    There is actually an interesting article in the current issue of Scientific American titled "What makes us human?" which might have relevance to my point. The article points out that only 1% of our DNA separates us from Chimpanzees. By comparing our genomes we can identify particular sequences that have had significant impacts on our evolution. Recent research has identified that one of these sequences named HAR1 is linked to human brain development. Without it our cerebral cortex wouldn't have its distinct folds which add surface area and processing power. Other genes (ASPM, CDK5RAP2, CENPJ) have been linked to our brain size. Another gene named FOXP2 gives us an ability to make high-speed facial movements needed for producing human speech. Our DNA defines not only our form but our function. The article also makes a good point that our genomes are filled with garbage. There are some mutations that have severely detrimental or positive effects, but the majority of mutations have no noticeable effects what so ever. The conclusion one could draw from this is that we are defined by a subset of our DNA, and not necessarily our genetic base. Otherwise, the argument could be made that altering your genetic makeup (by contracting a retrovirus for instance) would alter your dignity.

    At some level maybe it isn't even the DNA that is important, but the mathematical abstraction of what the anatomy and physiology defined by the DNA provide. If you have an artificial heart your still considered human, if you have a prosthetic limb your still considered human, etc. If your completely artificial but have the same sensory modalities, and and information processing capabilities as a human, are you human, or are you just a frakking toaster? Any BSG fans out there? As children we learn different methods for calculating our nines times tables. Our brains probably don't go about calculating them in the exact same way, yet we all get the same result, and accept different methods as being equally valid. What I'm trying to say is that maybe it isn't the precise underlying hardware or algorithms that matter but the fact that we each have a "human mind" (soul, nature, whatever you want to call it), share common modalities (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell), and ways of interpreting the world.

    Maybe our intuition that all individuals have intrinsic value is simply a human construct based on the likeness we see in other individuals. We know what it is like to feel pain and can relate to the experience of others. Perhaps we are "programmed" by evolution to have a concept of human dignity so we can cooperate with one another and live in social groups. Lions, sharks, and alligators don't care about human dignity, they just want something good to eat. Part of human dignity I think is due to culture. The proponents are inclined to think that human authenticity is partially defined by our DNA and partially defined by out culture. Fukuyama frames it in terms of the nature versus nurture debate. I'm inclined to agree with the proponents on this one. Both influence how we think of human nature, and human dignity. In social settings part of what makes slavery or genocide possible is the propaganda and social elements surrounding it. Experiments like the Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment show we are very quick to take on social roles. Part of our human nature might tell us to empathize, but another part gets caught up in protecting ones in group and following social norms.

    Pollard, K. S. (May 2009). What Makes Us Human? Scientific American


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