Leon Kass: Defender of Human Dignity

Are humans sufficiently unique among living things to deserve the distinction and special standing called human dignity? If so, what is the foundation for defining and defending this status? What gives human life its inherent vested interest and vaunted value? 

University of Chicago professor and bioethicist Leon R. Kass explored these questions in an address entitled Defending Human Dignity, on February 5, 2007, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. 

Today, human dignity is of paramount importance especially in matters bioethical,” said Kass. “As we become more and more immersed in a world of biotechnology, we increasingly sense that we neglect human dignity at our peril, especially in light of gathering powers to intervene in human bodies and minds in ways that will affect our very humanity, likely threatening things that everyone, whatever their view of human dignity, holds dear. Truth to tell, it is beneath our human dignity to be indifferent to it.” 

Having served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005, Kass offers an insider’s perspective on the perils of indifference associated with this issue. His presentation was intended as a contribution to a comprehensive concept of human dignity, which he believes is currently lacking in bioethical discussions. 

Recalling the origin of modern biomedical ethics, Kass describes the development of the discussion of human dignity in terms of protection from abuse in medicine and research. “A concern for human dignity hovers over all of modern biomedical ethics owing to the world’s horror at the Nazi atrocities,” Kass points out, “atrocities in which German scientists and German doctors were deeply implicated. They more than lent a hand with eugenic sterilization, barbaric human experimentation, and mass extermination of the ‘unfit’—all undertaken, mind you, in order to produce ‘a more perfect human.’ The rise to prominence of the idea of ‘human dignity’ in post-World-War-II Europe, expressed in the laws of many nations and especially in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, was surely intended to ensure that no human beings should ever again be so abused, degraded and dehumanized—and, of course, annihilated.”

In an age of biotechnological revolution, this traditional concern with protection from abuse by overbearing outsiders is insufficient to address potentially powerful changes to one’s persona brought about by individual preference and choice. In essence, it would appear that no one is being abused when individuals choose to alter the workings of their own bodies and minds. 

Should we conclude that the concept of human dignity is too private and personal to define? Should we purposely leave it vague and completely dependent on voluntary choice and volition? Does the power to exercise personal volition virtually eliminate violation of human dignity? Or is there more to dignified personhood than simply the freedom to choose? 

Foreseeable biotechnical innovations are expected to dramatically increase the capacity to alter one’s mind and body. Kass wonders what standard will guide us in making wise choices. 

We cannot evaluate any proposed enhancements or alterations of our humanity unless we have some idea of human dignity, some notion of what is estimable and worthy and excellent about being human. In order to know whether change is progress rather than degradation, we need a standard of the undegraded and the admirable. We need to understand the nature and dignity of human flourishing in order to recognize both the true promise of self-improvement and the hazards of self-degradation.” 

Kass declared the need to defend human dignity on two mutually dependent fronts: the dignity of human being and the dignity of being human. Man’s mere existence makes it possible for him to aspire to higher functioning. Conversely the flourishing of a human being requires active human vitality—an enlivened human body. Man’s capacity to think, analyze, decide, befriend and love is dependent on having metabolism, circulation, digestion and respiration. It is also in the recognition of this vulnerability that man strives to flourish. 

One image for this relation of dependence is that between ceiling and floor: no floor, no ceiling,” explains Kass. “But the architectural comparison is misleading, for it suggests independent and separate “structures” piled one atop the other, whereas the living relation between the high and low is—no surprise—organic and integral: the human being, in every stage of life and degree of health, is a psychophysical unity, with all its powers and all aspects of its activity grown-together and interconnected.”

As a consequence,” he continues, “just as the higher human powers and activities depend upon the lower for their existence, so the lower depend on the higher for their standing; they gain their worth or dignity mainly by virtue of being integrated with the higher—because the nature of the being is human. What I have been calling the basic dignity of human being—sometimes expressed as the ‘sanctity of human life,’ or the ‘respect owed to human life’ as such – in fact depends on the higher dignity of being human.” 

Kass illustrated this mutual dependence by asking the audience to consider the prohibition of murder in Genesis 9 where, “a paradigmatic law against murder is explicitly promulgated for all humankind united, well before there are Jews or Christians or Muslims.” 

Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). 

The threat of capital punishment as a deterrent is only one important aspect of this idea, according to Kass. In addition, he says, “the measure of the punishment is instructive. By equating a life for a life—no more than a life for a life, and the life only of the murderer, not also, for example, of his wife and children—the threatened punishment implicitly teaches the equal worth of each human life. Such equality can be grounded only in the equal humanity of each human being. Against our own native self-preference and against our tendency to overvalue what is our own, blood-for-blood conveys the message of universality and equality.” 

But murder is to be avoided not only to avoid the punishment. That may be a motive, which speaks to our fears; but there is also a reason, which speaks to our minds and our loftier sentiments. The fundamental reason that makes murder wrong—and that even justifies punishing it homicidally!—is man’s divine like status. Any man’s very being requires that we respect his life. Human life is to be respected more than animal life—Why?—because man is more than an animal; man is said to be god-like.” 

To be sure, not all men live dignified lives; nonetheless, all possess the potential by virtue of being created in God’s image. The distinction and special standing assigned to human life called human dignity has its basis in man’s connection to the divine. Professor Kass concludes: 

In sum, the human being has special dignity because he shares in the godlike powers of reason, freedom, judgment, and moral concern, and as a result, lives a life freighted with moral self-consciousness above the plane of a merely animal existence. Speech and freedom are used, among other things, to promulgate moral rules and to pass moral judgments, first among which is that homicide is to be punished in kind because it violates the dignity of such a moral being. We reach a crucial conclusion: the inviolability of human life rests absolutely on the higher dignity—the god-like-ness—of human beings.”