Defining Dignity: Worldviews and the Fate of Bioethics

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Many of the most contentious and disputed issues of our day–abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research–are matters of bioethics. The lines are sharply drawn and each side presents their arguments. Much heat is produced by the debates but very little light is shed to help us illuminate our path.

Most of us tend to recognize–and reject–the opposition’s view because it is based on a “religious” or “secular” worldview. But while we acknowledge this fact, we rarely dig beneath the surface to see if our differences aren’t rooted in a more foundational presupposition.

We find religious people who support the right to abortion and secularists who want to ban therapeutic cloning research. Clearly, the easy labels don’t always apply. Acknowledging this fact will prompt us to look deeper; where we will discover that our fundamental disagreements on bioethical issues are often due to our profoundly different views on the nature of human dignity.

Dignity is defined as the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect. This definition is significant because it highlights the key differences between the two most dominant worldviews in our culture–a functionally atheistic materialism and the Judeo-Christian form of theism.

In the theistic view, human life has inherent dignity. A generous and loving Creator not only provides our biological existence but also retains this same gift for his own enjoyment. Human life, therefore, belongs not to us but to him. Our purpose–to glorify and love our Creator–is not contingent on any particular state of our biological development or degeneration. All human life is intrinsically valuable simply because it is valued by our Creator. Dignity is not quality that is earned, it is a value that is recognized.

In sharp contrast, the materialist narrative claims that human life only has a qualitative dignity. Humans are products of chance, created without purpose by an impersonal universe. Our existence is nothing but a fluke; our consciousness a cosmic accident. Since we have no personal Creator, the worth of a person is determined by fiat–the worth of life is whatever the majority of humanity decides it shall be. Dignity, in this view, is not inherent to all human life but based on the existence of certain qualifying criteria. The criteria for making this determination, though, are variable and open to dispute. Some recognize it as a certain time of human development such as after the first or second trimester (Roe v. Wade), after birth (abortion on demand advocates), or after age two (as argued by ethicist Peter Singer). Others base it on certain cognitive states such as consciousness and exclude those, such as the fetus and certain comatose patients, who do not fall in this category. Still others who hold this view base it on a loosely defined “quality of life.” Advocates of euthanasia, for example, believe that certain interest (i.e., the desire to avoid suffering) can take precedence over the dignity and worth of life.

One of the obvious problems with the qualitative view is that it allows other humans to define when life has dignity. Most materialists, particularly those in a liberal democracy, have no problem with this approach when they are able to draw the distinctions. A week-old human embryo can be excluded because it is “only a clump of cells.” Likewise, a two-month-old fetus is only a “potential” human being. Many materialists believe that all that is necessary to make these distinctions is the application of reason and empirical observation.

But the demarcation lines are often not as clear as the materialists would have us believe. For example, why do they consider it legitimate for a married couple to abort a child who is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome yet cringe at the idea of Nazi extermination of children afflicted by that same disease? Or what about cases where dignity is considered secondary to economic considerations? If it is acceptable to “selectively reduce” a set of twins in order, as one journalist wrote, avoid “shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise,” can it also be justified when Indian families abort female children in order to avoid paying a future dowry?

Even if agreements about who is worthy of dignity can be reached, the question of who determines the authority over life and death remains unanswered. For the theist, the answer is obvious. Since only God can give human life, he is the only one who can determine when life should be actively taken away. The authority to kill can only be delegated to the level of human government responsible for maintaining justice. While this power can be abused, it is understood that there are set parameters and conditions handed down by God for when such actions can be undertaken and that, ultimately, a moral accounting will be required.

The materialist, on the other hand, thinks that we are solely responsible for deciding the fate of human life. Society either consents to certain forms of killing based on agreements derived through the “social contract” or finds that such authority is wrested away and taken by force by either individuals or the state. Liberal democracies tend to prefer the former while authoritarian forms of government favor the latter. But neither approach can be judged to be “right” or “wrong.” They are simply “different.”

Eventually, either the theistic view will achieve a dominant level of acceptance or the materialist will win, slowly but assuredly, by default. Each path will lead to sharply different results. Recognizing the dignity of all life has lead to freedom, equality, and respect for all humanity. Basing dignity on qualitative factors, though, has led to genocide, slavery, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Which road we choose will determine the fate of bioethics. And the fate of bioethics will determine the fate of our future.