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Can We Defend the Dignity of Human Life in Secular, Even Scientific Terms?

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I wanted to share with you my contribution to a symposium in Human Life Review, responding to a question posed initially in an essay that our colleague Wesley J. Smith wrote, likewise in HLR. Can the unique dignity of human life -- the idea of human exceptionalism -- be adequately defended in secular, even scientific terms, without reference to religious teaching? Wesley thinks so and I agree, though we frame our views in different ways.

From my essay ("Preserved Memories of Wisdom"), which puts the question in the context of end-in-life issues my family faced when my father was dying:

A pre-religious intuition recognizes there is something awesome, worthy of holding in dread -- fearful, in the sense that William Blake had in mind when he described the tiger's "fearful symmetry" -- about a human life, even if the person whose life it is can't speak for himself. We don't dare hasten its end, even if the patient were to tell us he prefers that, or make use of it for our own purposes.

Fear at the mystery of a human life may be just the right word for what I am trying to invoke. There need not be any shame in speaking in praise of a universally accessible fear, nor embarrassment at the possibility of encouraging a dread superstition. We may feel more comfortable calling up prudential reasons and practical wisdom to do battle for us in public debates. But what people dismiss as superstitions are sometimes just the preserved memories of wisdom.

It's not religion I am appealing to. However my own faith offers the confirmation that before revelation comes in, healthy instincts instruct us. Jewish tradition distinguishes those of God's commandments that we know only by revelation from those that long preceded the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai. The group of moral precepts known to the children of Noah, that is to all of humanity before there was ever a Jewish people, fall into seven categories. They are called the Noachide covenant.

The Talmud's tractate Sanhedrin shows how they can be derived, with their many details, from certain verses in Genesis. Judaism's opposition to hastening the death of even a very ill and moribund person, like its opposition to abortion, comes from there. Unlike the covenant with the Jews at Sinai, this universal Noachide covenant was never the subject of an explicit revelation. Yet somehow its principles are known, around the world, without the need of a theophany.

The fearfulness that attends the taking of a man's life is such that it is known not only to men but even to animals. The Talmud records a teaching from a second-century sage:

Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said: A day-old infant, alive, requires no protection from a weasel or from rats. But Og, king of Bashan, dead, must be protected from a weasel or from rats, for Noah and his children were told, "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth" (Genesis 9:2) -- as long as a man is alive, the fear of him is laid upon creatures; once he is dead, such fear ceases. (Shabbat 151b)
Even a weasel, even a rat, instinctively senses the awful potency of a human life, including a helpless one, and holds it in dread. However once a human being dies, including a once-mighty specimen like the monstrous King Og, who slept on a bed nine cubits long or about 13.5 feet (Deuteronomy 3:11), the fear has fled. The same is not true of living or dead animals. They enjoy no aura of sanctity.

Without religion, without philosophical instruction, weasels and rats both recognize human exceptionalism. Compared to these common pests, why are we so much less sensitive to the aura cast by human life? You can attribute that, probably, to the numbing mental habits that come with a culture of materialism. Recovering our sensitivity is probably less a matter of hearing political arguments or absorbing religious teaching than it is of unlearning materialist dogmas.

That happens, among other ways, when we carefully observe the hints of purpose and design in the world, subtle evidence in life, down to the tiniest machinery in the cell and the enigma of the genome, that gesture to some source of immaterial agency and intention operating behind the fa´┐Żade of existence. That's a different thing from a religious belief or intuition, though not irrelevant to it.

I hope you'll read the rest there.

Photo credit: bitzcelt/Flickr.