God, Humanity, and Human Dignity

PHI-413V Topic 2 Overview

God, Humanity, and Human Dignity

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Introduction

Although there has recently been an explosion of scientific knowledge regarding Homo sapiens (i.e., human beings) such as the Human Genome Project (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2015) there is much more to what it means to be human than what science alone can tell us. The question about what it means to be a human person is fundamentally a philosophical and theological question that has been a topic of debate for millennia (“Personal Identity,” 2014). We will focus on two aspects of this question: (1) what kind of a thing is a human person? and (2) what (if anything) makes human beings valuable and worthy of dignity and respect? The Christian worldview claims that human beings are the kind of creature that is created by God and that is both a physical and spiritual being capable of relationship with God. In this view, human beings are intrinsicallyvaluable and worthy of dignity and respect because they are created in the “image of God.” This discussion will address different views of what a human person is and focus on the distinctives of the Christian view regarding the value of persons.

God
God

Moral Status

A term commonly used by ethicists in medical field to talk about a human person’s worth or value is moral status (see Beauchamp & Childress, 2013, pp. 62-94). Moral statusexplains which sorts of beings or entities are valuable and have rights to be treated in certain ways. You might begin by asking, “Why is it that my neighbor has a certain kind of value and a rock does not?” Any answer one gives will describe certain characteristics or capacities that differentiate the neighbor from a rock. These characteristics or capacities explain why the entity has the value it does. For example, we might say that my neighbor has moral status (i.e., value or worth) because he or she is a rational being, or because he or she has the capacityto feel pain and pleasure, etc. Thus, to talk about a being’s moral status is to talk about a being’s value, as well as why it has that value. The focus here is the moral status of human personsDoes moral status differ among persons?It will be clear below that according to the Christian worldview, moral status  does not  differ from person to person.

It is nevertheless common for people (including health care professionals) to think and act in ways that assign higher or lower moral status to human persons based on certain characteristics and capacities. The following five theories of moral status are different views regarding what makes human persons valuable. Each of these theories will pick a certain set of characteristics or capacities and claim that a human person is valuable (i.e., has moral status) only if he or she possesses the relevant characteristic or capacity. Consider carefully each of the following theories: (1) a theory based on human properties, (2) a theory based on cognitive properties, (3) a theory based on moral agency, (4) a theory based on sentience, and (5) a theory based on relationships.

It is nevertheless common for people (including health care professionals) to think and act in ways that assign higher or lower moral status to human persons based on certain characteristics and capacities. The following five theories of moral status are different views regarding what makes human persons valuable. Each of these theories will pick a certain set of characteristics or capacities and claim that a human person is valuable (i.e., has moral status) only if he or she possesses the relevant characteristic or capacity. Consider carefully each of the following theories: (1) a theory based on human properties, (2) a theory based on cognitive properties, (3) a theory based on moral agency, (4) a theory based on sentience, and (5) a theory based on relationships.

1.      The theory based on  human properties  holds that it is only and distinctively human properties that confer moral status upon a human being. It follows that all and only human beings, or Homo sapiens, have full moral status. Some of the characteristics that would endow a human being with moral status would include being conceived from human parents, or having a human genetic code. In this view, one only needs to be a human being to count as having full moral status.

2.      The theory based on  cognitive properties  holds that it is not any sort of biological criteria or species membership (such as the theory based on human properties) that endows a human being with moral status. Rather, it is cognitive properties that confer moral status upon a human being. In this context “cognition refers to processes or awareness such as perception, memory, understanding, and thinking…[and] does not assume that only humans have such properties, although the starting model for these properties is again the competent human adult” (Beauchamp & Childress, 2013, p. 69). Notice carefully this is claiming that if a human being does not have these properties, it follows that such a human being does not have moral status or value.

3.      The theory based on  moral agency  holds that “moral status derives from the capacity to act as a moral agent”; in this view a human being is considered a moral agent if they “are capable of making judgments about the rightness or wrongness of actions and has motives that can be judged morally” (Beauchamp & Childress, 2013, p. 72).

4.      The theory based on  sentience  holds that having sentience confers moral status on a being. Sentience in this context is “consciousness in the form of feeling, especially the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, as distinguished from consciousness as perception or thought.” (Beauchamp & Childress, 2013, p. 73). According to this theory the capacity of sentience is sufficient for moral status (i.e., the ability to feel pain and pleasure confer moral status to a human being).

5.      The theory based on  relationships  holds that relationships between human beings account for a human being’s moral status. In other words, a human being has moral status only if he or she has a relationship with others who value him or her. Usually these are relationships that establish roles and obligations such as a patient-physician relationship or a parent-child relationship. Of course, there are many types of relationships (family, genetic, legal, work, etc.), even ones in which one party in the relationship does not desire or value the other party. In such a case, a person who holds this theory may be forced to concede that a being’s moral status may change, depending on the other party.

Each of the theories above about god have the following logical structure:

“Human being X has full moral status if and only if it exhibits property Y

X− the human being in question (i.e., embryo, fetus, 12-month baby)

Y− The property that confers moral status upon that entity (i.e., human properties, cognitive properties, moral agency, sentience, or a relationship in which someone else values X).

Notice carefully that different worldviews would apply these theories differently depending on how they would think about the nature of human persons. It may be that thinking about the value of human beings according to such theories is not compatible with a particular worldview. In fact, the only theory above that is compatible with the Christian worldview is the first theory based on human properties. According to the Christian worldview all a human being needs to have full moral status or value is to be human. However, there is much more to the Christian position as will be seen below.

The Nature of Humanity: Divine Image Bearers

One of the most powerful concepts of the Christian worldview is the truth revealed in Genesis 1:26-27 that humanity was created in the image of God (or imago Dei in Latin)–spirit beings like him. But you were created with both a spirit and a body, indicating that this is your natural state. This becomes even clearer as you learn in the New Testament that one day you will be resurrected to new glorified bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-53).

There is some diversity of opinion among Christians about what the Bible means by the “image of God,” but fundamentally it is what sets human beings apart from all other creatures and what endows human beings with intrinsic value and dignity. To have intrinsic value and dignity means that one’s value and dignity do not come from anything external or extrinsic. For example, money has value that is purely external or extrinsic because we value it, not for its own sake, but for the things it can get us. Furthermore, there is not something intrinsically valuable to green paper (in the United States) that gives it worth. By contrast, a human being’s value and dignity is inherent such that it is something everyone possess by the very nature of what it means to be human. Human beings have intrinsic value and dignity because they are the only creatures that are created in the image of God.

The image of God is equally present in all human beings regardless of one’s worldview or religion or whether or not one believes in God. Millard Erickson notes

there is no indication that the image is present in one person to a greater degree than in another. Superior natural endowments, such as high intelligence, are not evidence of the presence or degree of the image. [Furthermore], the image is not correlated with any variable…[but is] something in the very nature of humans, in the way in which they were made. It refers to something a human being is rather than something a human being has or does. (Erickson, 1998, pp. 557-558)

It follows then that any theory of moral status which equates a human being’s value with certain external characteristics, or any function a human being must do, is not compatible with a Christian view of human persons. In addition, the image of God provides a foundation for the genuine equality of all human beings regardless of race, color, creed, gender, etc. It should be noted that the well-known bioethical principle of “respect for persons” (National Commission, 1979) is well supported by the Christian worldview.

While the image of God is equally present in all, its full expression may be hampered by disease, disability, or even sin. The image of Godalso indicates that you also have remnants of God’s character within you, and when fully expressed may include the capability to love (even those who seem unlovable), the capability to create for purpose or simply for beauty, the ability to reason on a very high level, the ability to explore the universe, the capability to communicate with our Creator and to consciously worship him, the ability to sacrifice for others, the ability to be fair (a sense of justice), and an innate ability to sense right and wrong (a sense morality).

But Christians have been called to an even higher purpose–to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29)–that is, restored to the perfect image of God; a lifelong process sometimes called sanctification. The body of a Christian is referred to in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and as such, Christians are to purify themselves, being transformed by the renewing of their mind (Rom. 12:2).

Humanity was created to love as God loves, to worship and commune with him as he does with us, and to work as he works. Adam and Eve were commanded to be fruitful and multiply, and they were given dominion over all the earth (Gen. 1:28), which is a high order. They were placed in a beautiful garden to care for it and “work and keep it” (Gen. 2:15 NIV). Adam was even given the task of naming all the animals, thus becoming the first biologist, doing a work that continues to this day as new species are still being discovered. Thus, humanity from the beginning was engaged in good work and given responsibility and authority over other creatures, to care for them, and to expand God’s kingdom under his sovereign rule. Unfortunately, as will be seen in the next discussion, human beings are fallen image bearers.

Conclusion

While most people in our culture happen to believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of dignity and respect, it is important to stop and actually think about what this means. The question is whether or not one’s worldview provides an adequate explanation for these beliefs. Notice carefully how the Christian worldview addresses human dignity and value, and begin to ask yourself how your worldview would explain the value and worth of human beings.

References

Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. (2013). Principles of biomedical ethics (7th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Erickson, M. J. (1998). Christian theology (2nd Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1979). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. Retrieved from http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/belmont.html

National Human Genome Research Institute. (2015). All about the human genome project. Retrieved from http://www.genome.gov/10001772/

Personal identity. (2014). In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-personal/

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