Friday, December 18, 2009

human embryos as caviar: the dignity of the human person?

From Thomas Berg's review in First Things of Gilbert Meilaender's book, Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person...

A wonderful opening anecdote/illustration/question from a dialogue on an ethics committee:

I asked my colleagues whether there is anything the committee would agree should never be done with human embryos. One colleague conceded he would not want them served in an upscale restaurant as a kind of caviar; another, that she would not want them used for cleaning floors or for powering cars. As to the prospect of using them to develop cures for disease, however, none of my colleagues would object.

As futile as such discussions might seem to those of us attempting to uphold the sanctity of human life in the arena of public policy, they are not entirely fruitless. That discussion in particular forced everyone in the room to confront unwieldy questions: When should “respect” for incipient human life begin? In what degree and to what extremes? And just what is it about the human embryo that demands any respect at all?...

Giving structure to the entire work is Meilaender’s insistence on a twofold manner of speaking about dignity...."human dignity" and "personal dignity".

Human dignity, he explains, “has to do with the powers and the limits characteristic of our species—a species marked by the integrated functioning of body and spirit.” Personal dignity, by contrast, “has to do not with species-specific powers and limits, but with the individual person, whose dignity calls for our respect whatever his or her powers or limits may be.”...

On this interpretation, when a man lives like a beast, betraying his rationality, he loses the dignity of virtue; he does not, however, relinquish the dignity of his nature....


At December 18, 2009 at 10:29 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

If something is human, it is by definition a person. How can a human not be a person?

Stage of development, form/function, ability of self-expression, particular location, do not make or break personhood in that sense.
So, shouldn't human dignity (the dignity one would confer on a human) be the same as personal dignity (the dignity one would give to a person)?

At December 21, 2009 at 5:26 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I was most interested in the questions about what's appropriate to do with human embryos-- for those who do not want to afford them full protection.

On your question, he's trying to tease out a difference between human and personal dignity.

One other half-paragraph that might help:

"The former can be lost; the latter—no matter how much a human person degrades him or herself by personal immorality—can never be lost, based as it is on the person’s existential individuality."

If I understand what he's trying to say, this seems like a cousin of the idea of respect for an office as opposed to respect for the person in that office.

At December 21, 2009 at 10:52 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

I really did like this post and thanks for sharing, Eric.
It's a clever and logical line of reasoning. Very interesting that some wouldn't want embryos used as fuel/food/disinfectant but are not bothered that they would be used for medical experimentation.
We seems to instinctively know they are human and deserve some measure of respect, but because we do not know them as "persons", we are not as bothered if "research" is done on them in the name of science. This is not a consistent position however, for reasons I mentioned above.

I didn't quite understand the last part but it makes more sense now. Appreciate the response.


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