In Whose Image?

This small book, by a prominent Lutheran ethicist, contains two big ideas. The first is encapsulated in the title—the human being occupies a middle state between animal and divinity. Much traditional religious thought, Christian and Jewish, grows out of the humility and majesty of this finite creature, of whom Psalm 8 wondered that God should pay him such attention. The second theme is expressed by the subtitle—the author’s conviction that the concept of human dignity is essential to ethical reflection. This question arose in part from the author’s work with President Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

Late in the book, Meilaender confronts the accusation made by critics of the Council, that “dignity” is a “squishy” term that doesn’t mean very much in practice. He therefore builds the book on two primary meanings of “dignity,” while conceding that some ambiguity is unavoidable. “Human dignity is simply a placeholder for what is thought to be characteristically human—and to be honored and upheld because it is human.” Human dignity, in this sense, names the features of humanity that we honor. Some human beings possess this kind of dignity more than others. Personal dignity, by contrast, transcends these differences: it signifies a fundamental equality among persons. It defines the scope of humanity rather than its content.

We need this distinction because some may be ready to allow for many or all features of human dignity, while denying their pertinence to those who do not display these characteristics of humanity—such as a permanently demented person or a criminal. Yet Meilaender, like most traditionalists, ascribes personal dignity to them and therefore their persons must be honored. Even when my life is burdensome and no longer a value for me or a benefit to others, it still has value in me: “it demands respect, not comparative assessment.”

This radical idea of human equality ultimately derives from the Biblical conception of man. Meilaender’s formulation of it is also indebted to Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Whether it can survive without such underpinnings is debatable. One primary alternative Meilaender considers is Hobbesian, an alternative in which equality is grounded in the vulnerability that all human beings share. This leads to a morality almost exclusively concerned with the relief of suffering and the satisfaction of desires. Such a morality fails to recognize that which is genuinely honorable in humanity. The other alternative is Kantian, defined in terms of the human capacity for free choice. The great weakness of this type of theory is that it ignores the bodily dimensions of human existence: “No longer simply made in the image of God, they are now free spirits, almost godlike themselves.”

This brings us back to Meilaender’s positive concept of human nature, “neither beast nor God,” which takes up most of his pages. The “in-between” character of human existence includes the biological realities of life (here Meilaender draws on the seminal 20th-century philosopher of biology Hans Jonas): the impulse to self-preservation, procreation, and commitment to our species and family that distinguishes human beings from angels. Thus the central chapters are entitled: Birth and Breeding; Childhood; Loyalties; Death. Much of Meilaender’s argument is an affirmation of the human condition, with its biological and cultural horizons and limitations.

Take particular loyalties. Utilitarians like Peter Singer maintain that particular or local relations have little or no inherent moral value. In practice, they would agree that it is best for each individual to undertake special responsibility for his or her immediate surroundings but only as a matter of efficiency or necessity. However, in theory, even the individual attention required for child rearing could be accomplished by random assignment. For Meilaender, this kind of arbitrariness violates our sense of what it means to be a human being rather than a god.

Judaism and Christianity, of course, command universal solicitude and love. Meilaender’s chapter on loyalty explores the possible ways that particular loves are compatible with and even help to build bridges to the kind of indiscriminate love that recognizes all human beings as one’s neighbor, without compromising or diminishing the particularity of human existence.

One of Meilaender’s comments on abortion offers a good illustration of his approach:

[E]ven bracketing entirely more general arguments about abortion—the ready acceptance of abortion of “defective” fetuses (or, now, assisted reproduction procedures in which defective” embryos are selected against) violates the human dignity we share. It sets aside the fundamental bond of parents and children, inserting choice in the place of love and acceptance, and teaching us thereby that we must justify our continued existence, especially when we constitute a burden to others. That is inhumane in the most precise sense, for it drains moral significance from a relationship which deeply marks our human identity and which makes space in life for a love that need not be earned.

The fact that many traditional rabbinic authorities would permit abortion of severely deformed fetuses does not diminish the profundity of this insight. There is a world of difference between the tragic recognition that parents may be unable to bear a burden, on the one hand, and the belief that such a fetus may be deemed unwanted and thus disposable, on the other. Here the case-by-case legalism of the Halakha yields a more nuanced result than Meilaender’s, even if the theological orientations converge.

It is thus possible to endorse Meilaender’s overall mode of thought, while recognizing that the normative conclusions he draws from human realities are debatable. Because few of us agree completely about the values inherent in our “in between” state or about how to weigh these values against other pressures, those who insist on clear-cut conclusions will continue to dismiss dignity as a “squishy,” subjective concept. Meilaender recognizes that “discernment is needed” in assessing the implications of dignity in his first sense: one might self-interestedly want an additional daughter to provide care in one’s old age but not clone an existing daughter for the same purpose.

On a less divisive subject—what the fact of mortality contributes to the value of life, Meilaender cites the view that our ability to remain interested and engaged in life depends upon our knowledge that it will end: “Could we,” he asks, “sustain indefinitely our interest in sports, in children, in vocational achievements?” This seems open to question. Interest in sports often fades precisely because life is finite, we come to invest our interest in more important matters, and this seems exactly as it should be. If the passage of time gives our activities both urgency and poignancy, that is not necessarily because our life span is short, but more because the direction of time makes actions irreversible. If my children and I live forever, they would still be born only once. If an activity is valuable in itself, it remains valuable even if, like prayer, it is repeated untold times.

Our discussion so far has set the concept of dignity in the context of everyday ethical life. People can honor their humanity or violate it without, so to speak, changing the rules of the game. The familiar reality of the human condition, between the animal and the superhuman, sooner or later reasserts itself. However, the most disturbing sections of this book consider the threat of a “transhuman” society, where the very limits of the human condition are suspended. As Eric Cohen has written, influenced by Jonas and by Meilaender: “Science is power without wisdom about the uses of power.”

Towards the end of the book, Meilaender argues that the equality of personal dignity implies that dementia afflicting a great violinist is no more dehumanizing than dementia afflicting a woman who regularly empties the office trash. For if that were the case, “it would seem that the virtuoso and the janitor were never of equal dignity.” But for Meilaender, the violinist possesses no more dignity than the janitor, even if she has invested extraordinary effort in her training and made a greater contribution to human welfare. I don’t question Meilaender’s conclusion, but those not already in agreement are unlikely to get there without further argument. They must be brought to understand why, before their illness, the janitor and the violinist were indeed equal in the eyes of God. Yet this little book is nevertheless an honorable effort at theological ethics, helping us to recover the wisdom that science alone cannot provide.

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