Human Dignity

Civil Dialogue Between a Darwin Evolutionist and Natural Law Theorist

On Blogging Heads TV, Robert Wright discusses how we reason about the human good with Robert P. George of Princeton University, a leading scholar of modern natural law theory (with whom readers are no doubt familiar).

Subjects discussed:

  • Chapter 1: Natural law vs. utilitarianism (12:01)
  • Chapter 2: Why exactly is friendship good? (14:03)
  • Chapter 3: Euthanasia and human dignity (7:22)
  • Chapter 4: Natural law and conservativism (5:02)
  • Chapter 5: What can be done in the name of the greater good? (12:28)
  • Chapter 6: Just war theory (6:17)

Robert Wright is the author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and The Evolution of God.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law and Clash Of Orthodoxies: Law Religion & Morality In Crisis.

I’ve watched a few episodes of ‘BloggingHeads’ — video debates between leading bloggers/authors — but this was the first with Dr. George, who is very adept at getting right to the point and crystallizing the respective positions of each side. Likewise this may serve as a good introduction to viewers who aren’t generally accustomed to analyzing moral situations from a (Catholic) natural law perspective.

Social Contract and Morality

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):

This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

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Difference and Equality

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I’ve been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, “Individualism: True and False” comes an interesting thought:

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, “a new form of servitude.”
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered “conservative” in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not “truly conservative” as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek’s point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to “find their own level”, believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal — in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.

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