Secular Humanists and Human Dignity

John ArmstrongEthics

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote an article that appeared in May in the magazine, The New Republic (TNR). I often disagree with TNR but I generally find it stimulating and provocative reading from a moderate to left-leaning perspective. It is one of those magazines that is not so far from reality that it can’t still be genuinely worth reading. The current August 27 issue, for example, has an excellent article on Darfur and how it was allowed to happen. Conservatives desperately need the realism of this kind of journalism to challenge their comfortable categories about news.

Anyway, Professor Pinker assailed the 555-page report by the President’s Council on Bioethics issued earlier this year. He called it "The Stupidity of Dignity." (Lest someone think only conservatives can come up with titles like this please note the pejorative nature of Pinker’s title.) Nr
Pinker called human dignity a "slippery and ambiguous" concept brought into play by theological conservatives. He writes that they do this because they want to oppose stem-cell research on human embryos and human cloning. Pinker was particularly offended that several members of the President’s Council served on the faculties of Catholic universities. And the chairman of the Council, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, is the former president of Georgetown University and himself a longtime medical ethicist.

Pinker’s polemics read like a rant. But he does make one fair point. Without Judeo-Christian ethics the meaning and basis for human dignity is hard to establish and getting harder by the day (cf. Psalms 8:5-7). The idea that human dignity is rooted in the creator-creature relationship is very old and clearly biblical. And the incarnation adds a unique aspect to this truth as well (Cf. Matthew 10:29-31).

Since secular humanists reject biblical authority they must seek a different foundation for their ethical arguments, a foundation like natural reason. Some can do it, with great difficulty. Others, like Pinker, have quit trying. Everyone needs to fear when the Pinkers of the world become the dominant voice and direction in human ethics.

This may seem far off, but while I was in California last week I listened to a great deal of National Public Radio (NPR). I heard an intriguing discussion with four people about the recent bombings of the homes of scientists at the University of California in Santa Cruz. These homes were targeted because these scientists are involved in laboratory research on animals (the animals being used were rats, mice and rabbits). The one person in the interview who represented the radical animal rights view argued that this attack was correct. He even suggested someday a human life will be taken to save animals. As I listened, I wondered to myself: "What makes us different from rats and mice if we are not made in the image of God?" Secular humanists like Steven Pinker will have a hard time answering that one with any kind of meaningful ethical response. So I admit it Dr. Pinker. My Christian faith does inform my ethics. In fact, it is the basis for my ethics.