An Indispensable Guide to Our Most Pressing Moral and Political Debates
The horrors of the twentieth century exposed the insufficiency of speaking of human rights. In intending to extinguish whole classes of human beings, the Nazis and Communists did something much worse than violating rights; they aimed to reduce us all to less than who we really are. As political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler shows in this illuminating book, rights are insecure without some deeper notion of human dignity.
The threats to human dignity remain potent today— the more so for being less obvious. Our anxious and aging society has embraced advances in science, technology, and especially biotechnology— abortion and embryonic stem-cell research to psychopharmacology, cosmetic surgery and neurology, genetic manipulation, and the detachment of sex from reproduction. But such technical advances can come at the expense of our natural and creaturely dignity, of what we display when we know who we are and what we’re supposed to do. Our lives will only become more miserably confused if we cannot speak confidently about human dignity.
In Modern and American Dignity, Lawler, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, reveals the intellectual and cultural trends that threaten our confidence in human dignity. The “modern” view of dignity, as he calls it, denies what’s good about who we are by nature, understanding human dignity to mean moral autonomy (freedom from nature) or productivity (asserting our mastery over nature by devising ingenious transformations). This new understanding of dignity stands at odds with the “American” view, which depends on the self-evidence of the truth that we are all created equally unique and irreplaceable. The American view, which is indebted to classical, Christian, and modern sources, understands that free persons are more than merely autonomous or productive beings—, for that matter, clever chimps. It sees what’s good in our personal freedom and our technical mastery over nature, but only in balance with the rest of what makes us whole persons— dignified performance of our “relational” duties as familial, political, and religious beings.
Modern and American Dignity explores these topics with wit and elegance. To make sense of contemporary political and moral debates, Lawler draws on a wide range of thinkers*#8212from Socrates to Solzhenitsyn, from Tocqueville to Chesterton, from John Courtney Murray to our philosopher-pope Benedict XVI. In revealing the full dimensions of these debates, he exposes the emptiness of glib pronouncements— as President Obama’s— our bioethical conflicts can be resolved by a consensus of scientific experts. As the experience of the Bush Bioethics Council demonstrated, there is no scientific consensus about who a human being is.
Lawler has provided an indispensable guide to today’s complex political, bioethical, and cultural debates.
Winner of “Author of the Year Award for Essay” from the Georgia Writers Association