You’ve heard me make the argument about human dignity without any appeal to religious authority or biblical revelation or theological premises. But the most vivid expression of that idea is that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Whether or not that’s literally true, I would still hold that human beings have a certain dignity that distinguishes them from other material objects that we know about. There may be other creatures in the universe that possess a rational nature, and I would say that if there are such beings, they too are of inherent and equal dignity and cannot be reduced to the status of mere means or property. In the end, this is really the only reason to oppose something like slavery, or to consider that domination and conquest are a bad thing. So people who oppose these evils have to embrace some notion of the special worth—we can use the word “dignity” or “sanctity”—of a human being. But that means there are some ways you can’t treat human beings. You can’t treat them as instruments, or just the way you treat cows and horses. That is true even when it comes to breeding, or to improving the quality of the race. Or treating them like products—this is what Leon Kass is so worried about. He’s worried about reducing human beings to the status of products of manufacture. And he’s absolutely right to be concerned about that. That is incompatible with our dignity as human beings.
Which leads me to think that the problem with eugenics is eugenics itself. It’s not just that the eugenics practiced by the Nazis was coercive. The idea predated the Nazis. The book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life) was not written by the Nazis. It was written by German progressives in the Weimar period, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, who were, respectively (as I recall), a jurist and a medical doctor. And they weren’t thugs like the Nazis; they were well-educated, well-intentioned, polite people—the kind of people that you’d be pleased to have dinner with. But I believe they embraced a very bad idea that was easily taken by the Nazis as a justification for the atrocities that they committed. So I would like to see eugenics itself, and not just the Nazi version of it, relegated to the ash-heap of history. Today we are seeing a revival in eugenics, this time under the cover of (and often in the name of) autonomy. People say, for example, that so long as it is parents who are choosing to abort a Down syndrome baby, or failing to treat a handicapped newborn, and it’s not the state mandating it, then it’s okay. That, I believe, represents the abandonment of something precious in our civilization and in our polity. And that’s the idea of the equality and dignity of all human beings. This treasure of our civilization is the idea that, in some fundamental sense, all of us are created equal.
Democratic Bioethics and Eugenics The Public Discourse April 15, 2011. Sherif Gergis’ discussion with Arthur Caplan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and unofficial “dean” of liberal bioethicists, and Robert P. George, professor at Princeton University and member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics.
Note [via Wikipedia]: “In June 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration informed members of the Council that their services were no longer needed. Through a spokeperson, Obama made clear that he intended to replace the committee with a body that “offers practical policy options” rather than philosophical guidance.