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Posted September 30, 2009

Book: Neither Beast Nor God The Dignity of the Human Person
Author: Gilbert Meilaender
Encounter Books, New York. 2009. Pp. 122

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Appeals to “human dignity” are at the core of many of the most contentious social and political issues of our time. But these appeals suggest different and at times even contradictory ways of understanding the term. Is dignity something we all share and therefore the reason we all ought to be treated as equals? Or is dignity what distinguishes some greater and more admirable human beings from the rest? What notion of human dignity should inform our private judgments and our public life?

In Neither Beast Nor God, Gilbert Meilaender elaborates the philosophical, social, theological, and political implications of the question of dignity, and suggests a path through the thicket. A noted theologian and a prominent voice in America’s bioethics debates, Meilaender traces the ways in which notions of dignity shape societies, families, and individual lives. He incisively cuts through some of the common confusions that cloud our thinking on key moral questions. The dignity of humanity and the dignity of the person, he argues, are distinct but deeply connected — and only by grasping them both can we find our way to a meaningful understanding of the human condition.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Death as Friend

“It’s not immoral to want to be immortal.” That was the title given to an MSNBC commentary by bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who was entering into an ongoing discussion about the wisdom of research intended to delay aging and extend the lifespan. The issue — which has to do with extending not the average but the maximum lifespan — is, of course, too complex to be dealt with in a slogan. Caplan himself notes that there is no foreseeable future of ours in which immorality would be a genuine possibility. Hence, he says, “the debate is about living a lot longer than we now do, not living forever.” ture though that almost surely is, it misses another truth; the human desires know few limits. Trying to decide whether living “a lot longer” would be good for us is a fruitless undertaking unless our reflections are grounded in some deeper understanding of what sort of creature the human being is.

As our way into such reflection, we can examine an essay that itself goes much deeper than slogans: Leon Kass’s “L’Chaim and its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” The “core question,” Kass articulates as follows: “is it really true that longer life for individuals is an unqualified good?” I’m not sure this is the best way to put the central concern. “Is it really true that dying is an unqualified evil for us?” comes closer to the way I would want to put it. Perhaps there is little difference between the two formulations, though I will try to suggest that there is.

Movement toward death is built into organic life and, apart from divine intervention, will inevitably occur. Even if our bodies do not break down — if, that is, no disease overcomes us — they will, sooner or later, wear down, losing their capacity to carry on those exchanges with the surrounding world that are the secret of life. They do, of course, often break down before they wear down. Disease, disaster, and evildoing add misery to inevitability and sometimes make death seem welcome. But even apart from such miseries, organisms die, and we may therefore ask what we should make of it.

Kass tends to think of it as a blessing, and he offers a range of reasons why one might think that. All of them turn on some way in which the limit of death is needed for life to be sweet and meaningful. Thus, he wonders whether life would be serious, would really seem to matter, if we knew it had no limits — if we did not need, as the psalmist says to learn “to number our days.” Or again, our appreciation of much that is beautiful may depend on a sense that it is transitory and impermanent. Still more, virtue requires at least a readiness to sacrifice even one’s life in pursuit and defense of what is good, and this would be impossible were we invulnerable.

There is something to each of these reasons, though none of them fully persuades me. To see why, we can think through a fourth reason Kass offers to see death as a blessing: Our ability to remain interested and engaged in life depends upon our knowledge that it will end. Could we, for example, sustain indefinitely our interest in sports, in children, in vocational achievements? Of course, the miseries of life brought upon us by disease, disaster, and evildoing are likely to mar our enjoyment of life’s pleasures and activities, but, if we bracket that sad fact, it is less clear that there is reason to become satiated with the good things of life. To be sure, as we wear down, the range of goods we are capable of enjoying becomes more restricted, but that is not the same as losing the will to take an interest where we can. “I once heard,” Daniel Callahan writes, “someone’s elderly grandfather described as a man of great energy and activity who, as he aged, had to live, because of illness and aging, within a smaller and smaller physical radius. Yet, even as that radius narrowed, first to the yard he could not leave, then to the house he could not leave, then to the room he could not leave, and finally to the bed he could not leave, he adapted to each smaller world, making of it with good cheer whatever was possible.” That is an example of human dignity from which we all might learn.

Table of Contents:

1. Speaking of Dignity

2. Being human

3. Birth and breeding

4. Childhood

5. Loyalities

6. Death

7. Confusion

8. Equal persons