Human Dignity

As if doffing the black robes of judges and donning the mantles of secular pontiffs, three justices of the United States Supreme Court on June 29, 1992, delivered themselves of this profession of faith: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
These words come from the plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, holding that the virtually unlimited access to abortion declared to be a constitutionally protected right in 1973 in Roe v. Wade should remain undisturbed. In the absence of a majority opinion, the plurality opinion, signed by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter, carried special weight.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey was a bitter disappointment for the pro-life movement, which had hoped for the overturning of Roe v. Wade or at least for a serious scaling-back of the circumstances of legal abortion. That disappointment has moved pro-lifers for the last 16 years to mock the plurality opinion’s “mystery of life” passage, and, in all truth, its gross pomposity really does make it an easy target. But mockery by itself is not an adequate response to the opinion’s outrageousness. The implications of the mystery of life according to Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter are too serious for that.
For one thing, Justice Kennedy continues to cite the opinion with authorial pride, as he did in his majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down laws criminalizing sodomy and, along the way, made the legalization of same-sex marriage more likely. Even more significant, this judicial affirmation at the highest level of a fundamental capacity of individuals to define their own “concept . . . of meaning” was no isolated aberration by three Supreme Court justices feeling more than ordinarily full of themselves. Rather, in modern times it is a fundamental tenet of secularist faith. Instead of being laughed at, it must be taken altogether seriously.  
A snarling polemic published last May in The New Republic by Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor and author of popular science books, makes it clear why that’s so.
In an article “densely clotted with passion and threaded with irrational hatreds” (the words are those of Paul G. Griffiths of the Duke University divinity school, writing in First Things) and titled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” Pinker viciously assailed a 555-page report on human dignity by the President’s Council on Bioethics and its authors. Human dignity, he asserted, is a “slippery and ambiguous” concept used by theological conservatives to oppose things like research on human embryos and cloning. He seemed particularly incensed by the fact that several contributors to the human dignity report teach at church-related — in fact, Catholic — schools, as if it were offensive for such people even to enter the bioethical debate. Instead of human dignity, he declared, the appropriate grounding of respect for human rights is autonomy.
For present purposes, it’s this sweeping claim on behalf of autonomy that needs considering. The emphasis on autonomy is congruent with the secularization process as it is described in Charles Taylor’s magisterial study A Secular Age (published in 2007 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). According to Taylor, emeritus professor of philosophy at McGill University and winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize, secularization in the modern era has led to what he quaintly calls the “buffered self” — to people who, prevented by secularized culture from turning to transcendence to help them find meaning in life, are obliged to be rule and measure unto themselves. Taylor writes:
For the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind. My ultimate purposes are those which arise within me, crucial meanings of things are those defined in my responses to them.
Of which one can only say: Shades of O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, and the mystery of life!
Taylor doesn’t claim that what he describes is an altogether good state of affairs, nor does he argue that in the long run it’s really workable. He finds numerous cracks in the buffered shell of modern man. Yet simply as a matter of fact, the phenomenon he speaks of is everywhere visible today. Buffered selves — or at least some working approximation of such — are omnipresent realities of our secular age, cherished by Supreme Court justices and many others.
In an ultimate sense, however, buffering doesn’t work. For one thing, there are countless cases in which it is obviously absurd to speak of people as radically autonomous. How autonomous are a three-year-old child, a 90-year-old woman in a nursing home, a man and woman deeply in love? Radical autonomy is a secularist myth. Human dignity supplies a vastly sounder basis for respecting others. Yes, Pinker is right — the idea of human needs clarification. And autonomy doesn’t?
Note the case of the man and woman in love. Love is of fundamental importance to the matters at stake here. In his new book Man and Values, laying out a “personalist anthropology,” Msgr. Cormac Burke makes that point:
In the individualistic view, other people, like the rest of the surrounding world, are simply raw material to be instrumentalized for a person’s own self-centered development. But is the totally self-sufficient person capable of true human fulfillment or real happiness?. . . It would seem not, at least if we accept that there can be no genuine happiness without love.
Autonomy as an ideal only makes sense in a world without love. And how many people would care to live in a world like that?
This isn’t to say autonomy — freedom — isn’t important. But it is important precisely as the handmaid of human dignity. In the end, freedom in the service of dignity empowers us to be in touch with a pre-existing order of reality that guides our choices and actions. The “heart of liberty” isn’t the freedom to “define” reality for oneself, as Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter imagine; it’s the freedom to seek and embrace reality as it is. This is the true basis of human dignity and human rights. Citing the plurality opinion on Casey, Monsignor Burke, himself a former judge of the Roman Rota, writes:
Man is a free subject, capable of fulfillment. He is free, but he is neither self-sufficient nor autonomous — in the sense of being a law to himself, totally independent of other laws. The fundamental parameters — the possibilities and limits of his being or his becoming — are a given reality.
All this has much contemporary relevance. Individualistic autonomy is the basis of “choice” as the rationale for abortion, same-sex marriage, and much else. But the dirty little secret of the secularist elitists who press it upon us is that many ordinary people are too dumb, too lazy, or just too fearful to grasp autonomy for themselves. That makes it incumbent upon the elitists — the enlightened ones, the supermen — to act out the ethical dualism that Nietzsche spoke of as “master morality” and “slave morality,” with politics, courts, academia, and the media as the instruments of their will.
There’s an older, simpler, and more honest way of expressing all this. Milton puts it in Satan’s mouth: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Fallen human beings reason very much like fallen angels: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” We are self-creating projects, plastic in our own hands. Unless, of course — and unbeknownst to us — plastic in the hands of our secularist betters.

Russell Shaw’s 19th book is Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2008).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

    Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

    Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

    Email subscribe inline (#4)

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...