Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Abolition of Man (Again)

Book Review: Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen (Doubleday, 2008)

One of C.S. Lewis' most important books is the slender but prophetic The Abolition of Man. It is a book which should be required reading for all Christians. Briefly stated, Lewis' argument is something like this: Once the notion of human nature has been abandoned and once moral absolutes have been dissolved by skepticism, far from resulting in a new era of "progress" and "liberation" what will happen is that human life will be open to total manipulation by those who claim to act "for the good of the human race" and who have power. Human life will come to mean whatever government (those in power) determines it to be. Lewis was not worried about mere scientific progress; he was worried about scientific progress that operated beyond moral constraints. And his worry was based on actual experience: Lewis wrote the book at the end of the World War II, a war caused by a political regime which had a demonic plan to "improve the human race" and to do so "scientifically".
The flow of historical events has only proven the truth of Lewis' thesis. In our morally unbalanced culture, we invest great effort in preserving the environment and saving endangered species (worthy ends, to be sure) and yet the practice of taking human life at both its beginning and at its end is becoming commonly accepted.
This is the issue which Robert George (professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University) and Christopher Tollefsen (professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina) address in their book. While all that they say has great relevance to the issue of abortion, their focus is on the next great moral issue regarding the dignity of human life: the destruction of human embryos to harvest stem cells.
As George and Tollefsen know all too well, those who raise moral questions about the harvesting of embryonic stem cells for the purpose of research are more than likely to be called "unscientific" and "motivated by religious dogma". Embryo makes the case that neither of these charges has the slightest foundation. What they present is a biological and philosophical argument for the fact that human embryos are human beings and should therefore be accorded the dignity and respect that we accord to all people.
To my mind, the most significant chapter in this book is the one entitled "Moral Philosophy and the Early Human Being". Under the influence of naturalism, the dominant form of moral reasoning in our time is some form of consequentialism, the philosophical position which holds that we do not make moral judgments on the basis of whether an act is inherently good or bad but we make judgments on the basis of the consequences of acts. For consquentialism, the moral theory of secular rationalism, one can not claim that taking human life is always wrong and one will define human life not in terms of the possession of a human nature but in terms of the possession of certain qualities (self-consciousness, for example) or in terms of common recognition (society attributes the status of human being to certain persons). The standard argument for the destruction of human embryos to harvest stem cells is that this is justifiable because (1) the embryos are not human persons and (2) because enormous good will result from the research this makes possible. This book vigorously disputes both of these claims. Because consequentialism has no capacity to recognize human nature, it can always justify the termination of the lives of some people for the attainment of some "greater good". The question is that of how this good is determined. The dignity and worth proper to human persons is overlooked (and one may say even suppressed) so as to justify using human embryos as mere biological material. Consequentialism can have a morally blinding effect, leading us to terminate human life for the sake of some promised "scientific breakthrough" which is probably much further off than those who receive huge research grants would like to admit. It is more than suspicious that those who hold the human embryo to be only potentially human are very interested in using embryos as biological material and those who hold that human fetuses are only potentially persons are very interested in promoting "reproductive choice".
The argument of this book, while complex, is not difficult to trace in outline. It proceeds in three steps: (1) Human embryos are human beings in that what come into being at fertilization is a human life genetically distinct from both parents and capable of self-guided growth and maturation. Human beings are temporal creatures and so come into being over time but it is undeniable that the embryo and the fully mature adult human are the same kind of life. (2) Human beings are psychophysical unities; we are not minds or a consciousness trapped in or remotely attached to a body. It can not be argued that embryos are simply "masses of cells" because not only are they fully integrated individuals but also because they contain in root all the capacities that the later adult will possess: "As humans, they [embryos] are members of a natural kind, the human species, whose embryonic, fetal, and infant members, if not prevented by some extrinsic cause, develop in due course and by intrinsic self-direction the immediately exercisable capacities for characteristically human functions...But because the life of an organism is a life in time, those properties are rooted in capacities of the organism that must develop through time--no tiger or human being springs into being fully formed...The persons that we are, are not entities separated from our animal bodies; we are neither independent minds, spirits, nor brains. Rather [we] are...persons, have always been persons, and will cease being persons only when we cease to be, by dying" (pp. 79-81). (3) Since all embryos are persons, they are all the subjects of human rights and have an inherent moral value which can not be compromised.
The attempt to deny moral dignity to embryos and fetuses is not the result of some "scientific" analysis but is the result of an inadequate moral philosophy which has become so ingrained in secular thinking that it now appears to many people to be simply "the way things are".
Ultimately, as George and Tollefsen make clear, this moral question raises questions of political philosophy. If we have a state which is unwilling to protect the most vulnerable of people and is willing to sacrifice them to the desires of those with power, what kind of state do we live in? If we abandon the concept of human nature, possessed by all human beings from conception until death, we surrender ourselves to those whose will it is to mold and shape us into something "better" (for our own good, of course) and whose only guideline is what furthers the success of their program. The results are exactly what Lewis said they would be: the abolition of man. The authors of this book never cite Lewis's though it is clear that they operate in the same intellectual tradition.


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