Thursday, 17 August 2017

Human Dignity

by Jim Beauregard

So far, no one has advanced definition of human dignity that has been universally accepted. It is a concept that has existed since the ancient world, and while the content of the concept has changed over the centuries, it has been looked to again and again in defence of human rights and as an aspect of understanding who persons are.
Human dignity is concept that is reached frequently in the domain of bioethics, and here the concept is contentious as well. Much of the criticism of the concept of dignity in contemporary bioethics traces its root to a brief 2003 piece by Ruth Macklin in the British Medical Journal titled “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that respect would be a better term, including respect for persons and for individual autonomy. The debate continues.
This blog opens a personalistic dialogue between myself and Simon Smith on the concept of dignity and what place it might have and personal was thinking. As such, the concept touches on many areas including the nature of persons, medical ethics, public policy, international relations, war, etc. As will become evident in this conversation, Simon and I come from different personalist backgrounds, he from the traditions of British personalism, particularly the work of Austin Farrar, and I from the European tradition of personalism, looking to the work of philosophers such as Juan Manuel Burgos, Emmanuel Mounier and Karol Wojtyla.  Each of the philosophers I’ve mentioned bring something unique to discussions about human dignity.

We’ll see what happens.

To begin with, I would pose a question – can dignity be defined? This is related to the question, “Can persons be defined?”  Many personalists of my acquaintance would argue that persons can be not defined, but rather described, as there is an aspect of their nature that is open-ended. To create a definition is to close the circle, to say, “This and nothing but this.” Human possibility stubbornly resists such limitations.  This is captured in the title of Robert Spaemann’s book, Persons: The Difference Between Someone and Something.  The personalist turn is a turn from thing to person, a turn from “what” to “who”.
The 20th century raised questions of human dignity more acutely than perhaps it had ever been raised before. It was a century of two World Wars, a century of genocide, beginning in Armenia during World War I. After the Second World War, the United Nations was founded and one of their early documents was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Notably, the personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain had a role in the formation of that document. The common denominator in the numerous documents that have been produced over the course of the 20th Century is that dignity is assumed but not defined. One might say, it is recognized and included in these documents while concerns about definitional description are left to a later date. This is a test really, I think, of personalist attention, particularly in light of the world that appears to be listing towards the right wing politics of exclusion, a phenomenon which of essence argues that some people count more than others.
What, then, is the state of human dignity today? I will close out this post with reference to David H. Calhoun’s useful chapter, “Human Exceptionalism and the Imago Dei” in Human Dignity in Bioethics: From Worldviews to the Public Square (Stephen Dilley and Nathan J. Palpant, Eds.  New York: Routledge, 2013).  He examines the concept of human dignity over the past 150 years and suggests that there are six traditions touching on human dignity that have emerged since the time of Kant: Adapters, Debunkers, Saboteurs, Caretakers and Restorers. 

Adapters: John Stuart Mill and William James are included in this category, who used the language of dignity in their work. James referred to dignity in The Varieties of Religious Experience, contrasting various religious traditions, some life-giving and some more constrictive.

Debunkers: under this heading Calhoun places those who have attacked the concept of dignity directly, asserting that the concept is incoherent, too broad to be useful etc. Also, included in this category would be Freud and B. F. Skinner, who thought dignity an unscientific notion, not operationalizable (more on this later).

Saboteurs: in bed with the debunkers of the saboteurs who indirectly supplant concepts of dignity through a re-visioning of anthropology. Darwin’s work would be an example of this, or perhaps more specifically, the use that has been made of it. Operating in John Macmurray’s Fields of the mechanical and the organic, human dignity can have no foundation. Darwin’s work called into question the very concept of human distinctiveness, and with it, the concept of dignity.

Cautionary prophets:  this group emerged as a reaction to the Saboteurs and also in response to the general breakdown of trust in social institutions during the 20th century, particularly in the wake of the First World War. It includes, but is not exhausted by, the existentialist tradition, growing from the work of Heidegger and Sartre.  Heidegger played an important role in discussion of dignity by raising the issue in the context of technology.

Caretakers: the long tradition of dignity expressed in religious tradition and in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant did not meet its demise in the modern world, though it has come under heavy criticism. This group includes some famous individuals, some of them operating consciously out of personals tradition: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope John Paul II (Wojtyła). 

Restorers: Calhoun sites this group is those who have acted on the concept of human dignity, rather than working in a more academic setting to define and describe it. These individuals work in the context of international relations, law, bioethics and direct patient care, and the vision is embodied in such documents as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Declaration, the Belmont Report and others.

Simon and I will be having a back-and-forth about this topic in the months ahead – you too are invited to join the conversation.

Monday, 7 August 2017

My Emerging Interest in Emergence

by Jon Fennell

Like much of my thinking and nearly all of my writing in recent years, my ruminations on emergence grow out of repeated encounters with Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi. For readers of a certain sort, the final chapter and closing sections of this book, which offer a dramatic chronicle of emergence (of life as well as of the universe generally), are extremely moving. For those who have been repeatedly disappointed by various reputed sources of meaning, Polanyi’s emergent account, founded on his unique epistemology and supported by his confessedly circular account of justification, is a much appreciated oasis in a vast and often baneful wasteland.
In 2012 I wrote a Polanyi-informed review (published in 2013) of Thomas Nagel’s strikingly honest Mind and Cosmos. During this enterprise it became clear that emergence was at the heart of Nagel’s atheistic account of a meaningful universe. But, while emergence is centrally important to both Polanyi and Nagel, Polanyi’s account is richer and more complex (though not for that reason necessarily more accurate). A comparative analysis of their underlying conceptions of emergence would have been quite fruitful in identifying their differing presuppositions. Alas, the review was already substantially beyond the allowable length for the journal in which I aimed for it to appear. So, rather than pursue the discussion, I simply noted its importance and implied that I might return to it at a later time.
As Polanyi and kindred authorities invite us to do, in the months that followed I remained open to new ideas and possibilities, allowing them freely to incubate when they arose. One such episode began when in late 2013 I read an essay by David Bentley Hart in First Things, titled ‘Emergence and Formation’. What most struck me in Hart’s article was his forthright rejection of the logic of emergence. Persistently piqued by Hart’s position, a new inquiry began to take shape. In the disarray that typically accompanies such preliminary reflection, one thing was beyond question: Polanyi was to be the vehicle by which I would move ahead.
For Hart, emergence is the ‘idea that in nature there are composite realities whose peculiar properties and capacities emerge from the interaction of their elements, even though those properties and capacities do not reside as such in those elements themselves’. He states that one such instance of (alleged) emergence is water: both hydrogen and oxygen are combustible, but water, formed by the conjunction of the two elements, is well known for its use in extinguishing fire. Hart argues that it is manifestly false to say that water is not reducible to its constituent elements. To say so is to ‘confus[e] irreducibility with identity…water’s resistance to combustion is not identical with any property resident in either hydrogen or oxygen molecules, but it is most definitely reducible to those special molecular properties that, in a particular combination, cause hydrogen and oxygen to negate one another’s combustible propensities’. He concludes, ‘At the purely material level, whatever is emergent is also reducible to that from which it emerges; otherwise, “emergence” is merely the name of some kind of magical transition between intrinsic disparate realities’.
I should quickly add that Hart is by no means a materialist, and his full position includes a critical role, as a formal cause, for the soul. Equally interesting is that Polanyi was a world-class chemist. But he is a chemist who enthusiastically embraces emergence, even, in the non-sentient domain. Take, for example, a clock. Insofar as it keeps time, the clock (which manifestly is composed of atoms, molecules, minerals, etc.) is, in light of what it does, fundamentally and ontologically different from the elements of which it is constructed. The clock, says Polanyi, is an instance of a lower level (here, a level well described by physics and chemistry) being seized by a higher level (the ‘operational principle’ measuring and telling time) and turned to its purpose. Polanyi invites us to recognize similar relations, in a hierarchical scale, between chemistry and biology, biology and physiology, physiology and (a healthy) body, the body and the intellect, and the intellect and moral and spiritual excellence. Polanyi’s emergentist account may be a corrective to the accounts offered by Nagel and Hart. It is, in any event, a comprehensive picture, given that Polanyi, consistent with evolutionary theory, but in vehement opposition to the claims of natural selection, explains in terms of emergence not only the appearance of life but also the wholly implausible but altogether remarkable existence of truth, beauty, and the good. In Polanyi’s grand drama, we find ourselves in a universe that is unfolding according to intrinsic ordering principles that, under suitable circumstances, are capable of actualizing a potential that was there from the beginning.
In coming to terms with and then writing on Polanyi’s emergentist philosophy, I soon realized that there already exists a literature on this subject. There is, moreover, a vast literature on emergence that preceded and extends beyond Polanyi. There is a reason for this. The human mind, in pursuit of the truth, is rationally led to consider emergentism. One suspects there is no other way to explain the world in which we live.

Jon M. Fennell is professor emeritus and formerly Dean of Social Sciences at Hillsdale College. Author of numerous studies on Michael Polanyi, he has also published widely on the philosophical dimensions of politics and education through essays on figures ranging from Rousseau, Dewey, and Rorty to Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, and C. S. Lewis.