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  • Evolution, Human Dignity, and Crafting Public Policy

    by W. Ross Blackburn


    “A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.”Charles Darwin

    In “The Bioethics Threat to Universal Human Rights” (Human Life Review, Winter/Spring 2011) Wesley Smith paints a sobering picture of where our modern world appears to be headed, as human beings increasingly are legally exploited for the “benefit” of others.1 Unwanted infants are killed. Death is redefined so that the organs of the living can be legally removed, to be given to others. Children are conceived to be aborted, providing organs for adults in need of transplants. There is nothing fanciful about this picture, for behind each “vision” are bioethicists crafting arguments for these very practices—arguments that Smith contends will, if unchecked, undermine the basic principle of universal human rights. How we argue against them is therefore of paramount importance.

    How do we argue that human beings are exceptional, and that all human life is worth protecting? For Smith, the argument is best engaged in secular terms, for two related reasons: “human exceptionalism does not require belief in a transcendent God” and to argue on religious terms “surrenders the field to human unexceptionalists.” The chief burden of Smith’s essay is that human exceptionalism not only can be, but ought to be, demonstrated from a secular perspective.

    The following is a response, written principally for Christians, to Smith’s contention that effective public argument should be secular. I write as one who has a deep appreciation for Smith’s serious, persistent, and tough-minded work for many years in defense of the life of the vulnerable. But here I think he is wrong, and furthermore that his position actually works against the ends he is pursuing. In the end, a secular argument cannot do the heavy lifting that will be required to (re)establish that human beings are exceptional, that we do have inherent dignity and intrinsic worth, and that therefore human life should be honored and protected.

    Human Exceptionalism, Morality, and Secular Thought

    Smith’s central concern in his article is to ground human exceptionalism in secular terms. He justifies human exceptionalism chiefly in moral terms, giving examples of what makes us moral, mentioning rationality, creativity, abstract thinking, moral agency, and accountability. These characteristics, he argues, “arise from our natures and are possessed by all of us unless interfered with by immaturity, illness, or disability”2 (emphasis original). He goes on to argue that “because our essential human natures do not change if we are injured or too young to fully express them, none of us should be denied equality.”

    While Smith is surely right to plead for human equality, notice how he couches his argument. Having defined human exceptionalism by a list of characteristics, he then argues for human exceptionalism even when those characteristics are (for reasons of “immaturity, illness, or disability”) absent. Here Smith comes close to arguing in terms that he rightly rejects in others. Condemning “a distorted concept of personhood, in which that status is not viewed as intrinsic, but rather, must be earned by possessing minimal capacities, such as being self aware or able to value one’s own life,” Smith goes on to distinguish human beings from others based on the moral characteristics mentioned above. As Smith well knows, it is precisely when these characteristics are “interfered with by immaturity, illness, or disability” that many contemporary bioethicists deny human exceptionalism. But if Smith locates human dignity in moral capacity and character, how does he argue that humans are exceptional in the absence of those capacities that make us moral?

    Smith answers this question in two ways: He asserts that our moral nature is intrinsic and also that we are members of the human moral community. Smith argues that a moral nature underlies its various expressions and sets humans apart. There is no reason to take issue in principle with either Smith’s assertion that our human nature is intrinsic or his logic that this nature remains even if some of its expressions are absent. It is difficult, however, to see why this should ultimately matter. A squirrel, a flower, and a chimpanzee all have natures that are intrinsic to them, even under circumstances that do not allow the characteristics of each to come forth fully. This raises the question of why human exceptionalism is more important than floral exceptionalism, or the exceptionalism of a squirrel, a question to which we will return later.

    Smith further seeks to ground individual human exceptionalism by arguing that our moral natures are rooted in human community. Here Smith quotes philosopher Carl Cohen:

    It is not individual persons who qualify (or are disqualified) from the possession of rights because of the presence or absence in them of some special capacity, thus resulting in the award of rights to some, but not to others. Rights are universally human; they arise in the human moral world, in a moral sphere. In the human world moral judgments are pervasive; it is the fact that all humans including infants and the senile are members of that moral community—not the fact that as individuals they have or do not have certain special capacities, or merits—that makes humans bearers of rights.3

    Yes, but why? To be sure, I agree with Cohen’s point that we are members of a moral community, but fail to understand how it would compel a secular bioethicist who did not already agree with him. The crucial question goes unanswered: Why should specific individuals be considered members of the moral human community if they lack capacities that define that community? It is not enough simply to assert that all are part of the human community if they don’t have certain characteristics that make them human. As we will see below, history is rife with people who made the opposite argument—that some were sub-human due to a lack of certain characteristics—and who would not be convinced by a simple assertion that they are wrong.

    Furthermore, why must Smith’s criteria for morality—including rationality, creativity, abstract thinking, moral agency, and accountability—be moral? What makes a creative being more important than one who is not? Is a being that thinks abstractly more valuable than a being that thinks concretely? On what grounds? Why would abstract thinking be intrinsically any more moral or important than the ability to fly? Arctic penguins go to astonishing lengths (literally) in treacherous conditions, some even giving their own lives, to ensure that their young survive—why are they not accorded moral status? Unless we can answer such questions, we are left with our own preferences. In secular discourse, the concept of morality can be no more fixed than a wax nose that can be manipulated and shaped by the one defining it. While one might not like the answer “thus saith the Lord,” it is hard to think that it is any less compelling than “because I say so.”

    This raises an all-important point. How is Smith’s secular argument different from a religious argument? In the end, Smith argues that all human beings are exceptional. Why? Well, because we are. To simply say that our natures are intrinsic does not answer why we are special. To say that we are moral does not answer why we are particularly important. In the end, Smith’s argument is rooted in an a priori presupposition, indeed a metaphysical presupposition, which not all share and which cannot be proven. My point here is not that Smith is wrong, but only that he argues religiously. Metaphysics, by definition, deals with first principles, unproven presuppositions upon which an argument or a worldview is built. Logically speaking, God is a metaphysical presupposition. So is not-God. And, I would argue, so is the exceptionalism of mankind. Calling a perspective “secular” does not make it irreligious, it only alerts us that the metaphysical presupposition of the perspective excludes God.

    Morality is always rooted in a vision of the greater good. If a certain act serves that greater good well, it is moral. If it does not, that act is immoral. The difficulty in our culture is that there is no consensus on what that greater good is, and therefore no consensus on the specific content and contours of morality. Whether one’s vision of that good is labeled religious or secular, in either case the true believer takes his vision of the good and seeks, to use a modern term, to impose it on others.

    Evolution and Morality

    This leads to a second difficulty in Smith’s line of thinking. Not only is a secular perspective as faith-based as a religious perspective, but a secular perspective cannot account for the morality that Smith argues makes human beings exceptional. For Smith, it matters not how we arrived at our moral status, only that we did arrive: “We, and only we, in the known physical universe, are hard-wired—whether through creation, intelligent design, or random evolution—to be moral beings.”

    Smith gives three options that account for how we became moral beings: creation, intelligent design, or random evolution. How the moral nature of humanity derives from creation is clear—God, as a moral being, created mankind in his image. Intelligent design, as a scientific enterprise that does not claim to be able to identify the designer, nevertheless implicitly accounts for the moral nature of humanity in that man’s moral nature is part of the design, and therefore part of the designer’s purpose. Whatever differences may exist between one’s understanding of creation and intelligent design, neither has difficulty accounting for morality. How the moral nature of mankind can come from a random evolutionary process is another matter.

    Scientific Difficulties of Moral Evolution

    The difficulties random evolution has in accounting for morality are scientific, philosophical, and historical. To begin with, it has been notoriously difficult for evolutionary theory, as a scientific enterprise, to account for the moral character of humanity. Darwin, of course, sought to do so, citing our moral impulses as evidence of the benefit to a species of working together and looking out for one another. Yet, Darwin seems to have puzzled over how this worked, since the moral impulse to preserve the life of the weak actually worked to weaken the human race:

    We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man itself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.4

    Yet, in the very next paragraph, Darwin asserts that “if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”5 The conflict is apparent, for Darwin concedes that the moral impulse which allowed humanity to survive, and thereby to evolve to our present state, is the same impulse that will lead to our degeneration. The conflict inherent in accounting for morality from an evolutionary perspective is apparent.

    A good example of the scientific difficulty can be seen in the work of Harvard scientist and professor Steven Pinker.6 In a piece explicitly addressing how natural selection can account for altruism, Pinker writes,

    The body is the ultimate barrier to empathy. Your toothache simply does not hurt me the way it hurts you. But genes are not imprisoned in bodies; the same gene lives in the bodies of many family members at once. The dispersed copies of a gene call to one another by endowing bodies with emotions. Love, compassion, and empathy are invisible fibers that connect genes in different bodies. They are the closest we will ever come to feeling someone else’s toothache. When a parent wishes she could take the place of a child about to undergo surgery, it is not the species or the group or her body that wants her to have that most unselfish emotion; it is her selfish genes.7

    Perhaps the inability to see in these words (or in his larger article) a crisp, understandable, and scientifically compelling description of moral evolution is my problem alone. Nevertheless, several questions arise. How would a particular gene “know” to safeguard the wellbeing of that same gene elsewhere? Would not a man endowed with an altruistic gene seek the welfare of all, rather than particularly those who carry that same gene? If so, how does that help the survival of that specific altruistic gene? While it is readily granted that a particular gene is passed to others, genes are imprisoned in bodies, and can only survive if the organism itself, with its myriad of genes within and environmental challenges without, survives long enough to reproduce.8 That Pinker is compelled to describe the necessarily unintentional (evolutionary moral development) in language that is explicitly intentional (genes “calling” out to one another) is not only curious, but telling.9 Furthermore, Pinker later credits evolution with the improvement of morality in our modern era. Never mind that the twentieth century was arguably the most brutal century in history, the fact that Pinker credits evolution with quite significant and noticeable improvement over a few short centuries is indeed strange to evolutionary thought, which normally insists upon millions of years for large-scale evolutionary change, not a number of generations that can be counted on two hands.

    What would be scientifically compelling would be the discovery of a gene that makes us moral. Science has discovered much about genes, including genes that have very specific functions in any given organism. In fact, we know so much about genes and their specific functions that we can genetically modify plant, animal, and human genes, and reengineer them for specific, precise purposes. Despite the vast amount scientists have learned about genes, to my knowledge a gene that makes one moral, if it exists, is still unidentified. In the absence of this kind of hard, direct scientific evidence, Pinker’s defense of the evolutionary basis for morality sounds more like an article of faith than the sober assessment of evidence that demonstrates that evolution accounts for our moral nature.

    Theoretical Difficulties of Moral Evolution

    Another problem with asserting that our moral character can be explained in evolutionary terms is theoretical, for evolution can account for neither human exceptionalism nor morality. How can human beings be exceptional according to evolutionary theory that insists that humans are not exceptional, but rather one stage in a process that does not have us in mind? All manner of questions arise. When did humans become exceptional? At what point did the moral nature of human beings become recognizably moral? Will the beings that humans evolve into at some distant point be exceptional as well? On what basis? What if their “morality” looks different than ours? Might we deem it immoral? If the process by which morality evolved was a process that is, by definition, amoral, then why do we attach such importance to morality anyway?

    The problem, however, gets worse. How does one define morality? According to the story of Darwinian evolution, the process by which we evolved was a process where the strong survive and the weaker pass away. The very process by which we came into our moral nature is a deeply immoral process, at least by many standards of morality. If we arrived at our moral nature precisely because the strong survived (again, through an undirected, unintended process which must by definition be amoral), how can “morality” be anything else than the ability and/or will to survive? Smith decries bioethicist Jacob Appel’s hope to create a market where women could be paid to conceive children who would subsequently be aborted to supply organs for transplant patients as a chilling example of where bioethics is leading us. Yet, from an evolutionary perspective, how is this immoral? Are we not who we are precisely because some have found a way to survive, even at the expense of others? Even if altruism could be established as a product of human evolution, morality moves in the realm of ought. It is one thing for evolution to describe human beings as they are, it is quite another to suggest that evolution prescribes how humans should be.

    Historical Difficulties of Moral Evolution

    The final problem of an evolutionary account for morality is historical.  Enough time has passed for us to be able to assess, at least in part, the impact of evolutionary thought on morality from a historical perspective. Perhaps the most notable example in recent American history is the debt that the eugenics movement owed to Darwinian thought. As John West has recently demonstrated, the eugenics movement, which led to the widespread practices of forced sterilization and abortion on demand, was largely promoted by scientists influenced by Darwinian evolution, who supported programs designed to discourage the reproduction of the unfit so that the human race would grow increasingly strong and able. West quotes Harvard biologist Edward East:

    Nature eliminates the unfit and preserves the fit . . . Her fool-killing devices were highly efficient in the olden days before civilization came to thwart her. It is man, not Nature, who has caused all the trouble. He has put his whole soul to saving the unfit, and has timidly failed to do the other half of his duty by preventing them from perpetuating their traits.10

    Notice how East’s line of thinking conforms to the process of natural selection. Further, and more important, notice how his understanding of natural selection informs his moral vision, as natural selection lays upon man the moral duty to prevent the unfit from having children. Traditional morality is turned upside down: A society seeking to protect the vulnerable causes trouble if it fails to carry out its corresponding duty to deprive those very people of the ability to bear children. This kind of thinking led to over 60,000 forced sterilizations in the United States in the 20th century.

    Further along this road is Nazi Germany. While Smith is wise to insist elsewhere that we be careful about how we link some contemporary bioethical thought to Hitler, it is nonetheless well established that Hitler was deeply influenced by Darwinian thought. For example, consider Hitler’s words from Mein Kampf. Disparaging “the sheer craze to ‘save’ feeble and even diseased creatures at any cost,” Hitler writes that “vengeance will follow sooner or later” and the will of Nature will prevail:

    A stronger race will oust that which has grown weak; for the vital urge, in its ultimate form, will burst asunder all the absurd chains of this so-called humane consideration for the individual and will replace it with the humanity of Nature, which wipes out what is weak in order to give place to the strong.11

    For Hitler, several factors converged: an understanding of human struggle that saw the conflict between species as conflict between races, a belief in the superiority of the so-called Aryan race and the attendant commitment to its preservation and promotion, and a thoroughgoing anti-Semitism. But notice the similarities between Hitler’s words and Darwin’s own. Describing how he believed evolutionary “gaps” widened over time, Darwin predicted that:

    At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.12

    For Darwin, one race exterminating another was part of the evolutionary process. The inherent racism apparent in such a position (Darwin here asserts the racial inferiority of the “negro” and the aboriginal Australian) clears the way for an evolutionary justification of the extermination of one race by another. To be clear, this does not mean that Darwinism inevitably leads to death camps, or that Darwin personally encouraged any such oppression of one race by another. Nevertheless, Darwin describes this process as inevitable, even natural. It is therefore very appropriate and historically responsible to acknowledge the influence of Darwinian ideas upon a Nazi ideology that led to the mass extermination of a people.

    We can look at the historical impact of evolutionary thought from another direction. If, for the sake of argument, we dismiss any connections between eugenics, Hitler, and Darwinian social thought, we can still ask the following: Has any humanitarian movement been explicitly grounded in evolution? Here it is instructive to return to Pinker. In making his case for the evolution of human morality, Pinker lays down the following challenge:

    Any understanding of human morality has to explain the moral progress that has taken place over the millennia. Customs that were common throughout history and prehistory—slavery, punishment by mutilation, execution by torture, genocide for convenience, endless blood feuds, the summary killing of strangers, rape as the spoils of war, infanticide as a form of birth control, and the legal ownership of women—have vanished from large parts of the world.13

    There are two problems with Pinker’s assertion. First, it is far from clear that mankind has made any moral progress whatsoever. Pinker’s claimed indications of moral evolution in fact suggest that he is unaware of the devastating moral tragedy of the 20th century (which includes every crime he mentions above). In any event they do little to convince anyone with even a cursory knowledge of what is happening in the world that things are much better. Second, Pinker fails to give evidence for his assertion that evolution accounts for moral progress in specific instances. For instance, Pinker says slavery has been eradicated in large parts of the world. True enough, and we indeed should be profoundly thankful that African slavery in America no longer exists as it once did. However, I know no historian who argues that abolition is a sign of evolutionary progress. Most historians point not to natural selection, but to people like William Wilberforce, the English Member of Parliament who relentlessly fought for the abolition of the African slave trade, or Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped hundreds of fellow American slaves to escape. Both of these, laboring at great personal cost, were explicitly and powerfully motivated by their Christian faith. In the end, Pinker’s assertion that evolution accounts for moral progress is simply that, an assertion. And his challenge of accounting for moral progress in specific instances (e.g., the African slave trade) is easily met.

    Along these lines, Smith’s insistence that we must argue from a secular standpoint in matters of public policy fails to appreciate how public policy has been radically impacted by those with sturdy religious (usually Christian) commitments. Smith of course is aware of this, for he credits the beginnings of the modern bioethics movement to Christians: “The most prominent leaders of these efforts were inspirited by a robust Christian faith and a strong adherence to the sanctity/equality of human life.” This has also been true in other areas that deal with human exceptionalism. To return to slavery and its denial of human exceptionalism, the abolitionists had no difficulty whatsoever in appealing to God as the creator of all men, who were made in his image. The civil rights movement was likewise largely animated by Christian thought.

    Arguing for Human Dignity in Public Discourse

    It is certainly true that American society does not have the same generally uniform Christian worldview that it did 150 years ago, or even 50 years ago. We are indeed far more secular as a country than we were during the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement. As Smith suggests, to fail to recognize this shift in public thinking would be foolish. It does not follow, however, that recognizing the secularization of thought means that one must argue on secular ground to be most effective in public discourse. How then can Christians defend human dignity in the public arena without tying one hand behind their back? What might public argument look like in an increasingly secular culture? I want to make two suggestions.

    First, we can ask questions. We might begin by asking questions of ourselves. For too many of us, our cultural instincts suggest that we must defend our Christian position (hence the popular term “defend the faith”). The underlying idea, real if often unarticulated, is that we live in a world of reasonable secular discourse, and therefore we hope that Christian thought can be viewed as reasonable as well. Yet on what grounds do we assume that secular reasoning is any more reasonable than Christian thought? Is an understanding of the world based on God less reasonable than an understanding of the world based upon not-God, or atheism? The assumption that Christian presuppositions must be defended has the unfortunate effect of placing the burden of proof on the Christian, a burden that Christians often too readily accept. And, as we all know, it is difficult to fight from one’s heels. Instead of acquiescing to the implicitly held notion that Christian ideas are based on faith, while secular ideas are based on rationality, we should make it clear that everyone reasons from faith, from presuppositions which cannot be proven but are held nonetheless. Such questions counter the defensive posture that many Christians reflexively take when confronted by rules of secular argument, and free us to think more clearly, creatively, and boldly.

    We might also ask questions of those who deny human dignity, questions that we likewise should be prepared to answer ourselves: “What is your view of the good to which we should direct ourselves? From where do you get this vision of the good? Should public policy seek to realize this vision? In so arguing, aren’t you seeking to impose your system of beliefs upon others? On what grounds?” Such questions can push a secularist to acknowledge and articulate the presuppositions that inform his vision of the good, moving the argument into a realm where ideas can be exchanged and debated and fought for without being pigeonholed and then dismissed as “religious.” After all, we should not privilege an idea because it is secular, but rather because it is compelling.

    For instance, we might ask Peter Singer, who has advocated for infanticide in certain circumstances because infants lack certain capacities, these questions: “If we allow a mother to kill her child at 3 months, can we kill him at 3 years? How about at 13 years? What problems will be solved and what positive good will be promoted if we embrace such killing?” We might ask Jacob Appel, whose vision of the future includes exploiting the organs of the vulnerable for the sake of the healthy, “What is your vision of a just society? Can this vision be realized in a world where some human beings are used for the benefit of others? In the end, how will it be decided who is used, and who benefits? The desires of the powerful? Majority vote? Those who can afford it?” Bioethicists should have answers to these questions, and the answers will be telling. And even if answers are not forthcoming, well-placed questions go a long way toward exposing such positions for what they really are. When we don’t ask pointed and specific questions, proposals like Appel’s can actually be spun to sound generous. After all, how can any caring person object to doing whatever we can to save sick people in need of liver transplants?

    Second, and most important, we speak truth. I realize that such a statement violates both the canon of post-modern thought that sees truth claims as a power grab and the secular mindset that acknowledges truth only in the material. And of course not everyone will accept the truth. Truth is polarizing. People fall to one side or the other. But that may not be a bad thing. One of the problems with the pro-life movement today is that too many of us are caught in the middle. How else can we explain that roughly 50 percent of Americans in recent polls declare themselves to be pro-life, and yet we don’t see 50 percent of our country in a principled and intentional effort to ensure that life is legally protected? Could it be because Christians have not been sufficiently clear that mankind is made in the image of God, that loving God means loving His image (our neighbor—particularly the vulnerable). Would some of these be moved by the reflection that God will not forever tolerate the shedding of innocent blood, or the Christian community’s silence/lukewarm disapproval that is complicit in such bloodshed?

    St. Paul provides a good example of presenting truth while engaging a non-Christian culture in Acts 17:15-34. Finding himself in Athens, a city full of philosophers and ideas, Paul went to both the synagogue and the marketplace to reason with the Athenian people—both Jewish and non-Jewish. The manner in which Paul argued is instructive, particularly as he engaged the Athenian philosophers. He referred to their own cultural and religious forms, citing their altar to an unknown god, and quoting their own poetry to make his case that God desires them to know Him. Paul did not reject everything in the thought of the Athenian philosophers. Actually, he showed a great deal of respect as he engaged their philosophy. But he engaged it critically, proclaiming what they did not know—that God created the heavens and the earth, and was calling for repentance; that God had appointed a man who will judge the world, a man whom God raised from the dead. As we might expect, Paul was mocked by some when he proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection. But look at the wider response: Although some mocked him, some wanted to hear more, and some believed (17:32-34). Paul accomplished this by perceptively engaging the culture to which he spoke, while not surrendering to their way of thinking. He offered something better.

    A final argument: If Christians argue in a manner that suggests that God is irrelevant or optional, we tacitly participate in and contribute to the very atmosphere that has led to the increasing denial of human exceptionalism in our world. Coming from the Soviet Union’s massive denial of human exceptionalism, Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned that the denial of God and the attendant rise of materialism would lead to the destruction of freedom in the West.14 Solzhenitsyn had experienced firsthand the fulfillment of Dostoevsky’s prophetic warning that, in the absence of God and any future life, “nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted.” This is exactly where we are now. And we will not reverse the drift of our culture by continuing to travel the road that has led us here.

    Thankfully, truth has a rich history of overcoming. But the truth that overcomes is not simply presented in argument. It is spoken in grace, and embodied in love. In the end, if we love God, we will love His image, and that includes our neighbor, even the neighbor who denies human dignity. This is what made the public argument of Martin Luther King so powerful. Insisting that the civil rights movement not return like for like, but that the oppressed love their oppressors, King explicitly sought to ground the movement in the vision of the Bible. Echoing John the Baptist, King called America to a vision of the greater good, a greater hope:

    I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

    Much of what Smith writes is right, and we do well to heed his warning. Bioethics is not a hermetically sealed discipline. Universal human rights really are at stake. Knowing that ideas have consequences, Smith rightly calls for believers in human exceptionalism to argue as effectively as possible. But we cannot be effective by sidelining truth. God need not always be on our lips. The church argues well when she proclaims that man is exceptional because we are made in the image of God, and therefore to be protected. She also argues well when she proclaims that in Christ Jesus there is forgiveness for the sinner, for there are many who deny human exceptionalism, not because they have a well thought-out worldview, but because they feel guilty about their involvement in taking the life of another, and seek to conceal from themselves the seriousness of what they’ve done. The word of grace that the secular world can never speak may well open minds that would otherwise remain closed. The church’s effectiveness—her power—lies in her faithfulness to the truth. And this battle needs power. Is it an overstatement to believe, with Solzhenitsyn, that “one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world”? The impulse to argue in a secular fashion is understandable. Effectiveness is important. But for Christians to argue on secular terms as if God is irrelevant drains the church of her authority, and will ultimately render her ineffective. In the end, universal human rights proceed from God, and therefore are God’s concern. Protecting the vulnerable cannot be done effectively without reference to Him.



    1.  Wesley J. Smith, “The Bioethics Threat to Universal Human Rights,” The Human Life Review 37:1, 2 (Winter/Spring 2011): 63-72.
    2.  Ibid., 68, emphasis original.
    3.  Ibid.
    4.  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (London: J. Murray, 1871), 168.
    5.  Ibid.
    6.  Thanks to Justin Arnold, friend and graduate student in Biology at Appalachian State University, for his insightful comments concerning Pinker’s thought.
    7.  Steven Pinker, “Evolution and Ethics” in Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement, ed. John Brockman (New York: Vintage Books, 2006): 146.
    8.  The priority of the gene in natural selection is challenged among evolutionary biologists. See, e.g., Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), 89-92, where Gould critiques Richard Dawkins’ contention (to which Pinker is indebted) that the unit for selection is not the individual, but the gene.
    9.  Gould, The Panda’s Thumb, 90, defends the language of intent as metaphorical shorthand.
    10. Edward M. East, Heredity and Human Affairs (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 311, quoted in John West, Darwin Day in America (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 129.
    11. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Chapter IV (Gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.txt).
    12. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871 edition, J. Murray, London), Part I, Chapter VI, p. 201. Schaaffhausen citation omitted.
    13. Pinker, “Evolution and Ethics,” 148.
    14. See Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address.

    This article originally appeared in Human Life Review


    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Vishal Mehra

      A very fine article.

      Ultimately the human dignity is grounded in Imageo Dei but I wonder perhaps a secular approach could use the ancient definition of Man as a Rational Animal in the sense of an Aristotelian categorical  and the concept of rationality as a higher class of exception.

      The phrase “Human moral community” can be concisely put as City in the terms of Aristotle. Perhaps this language would make infants by default members of “moral community”.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      In her seminal “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), Miss Anscombe argued that we can no longer “do” ethics.

      Without God, we cannot have a Law theory of ethics and such essentially legal concepts as
      obligation and duty become meaningless, retaining a merely emotive force.  Such language “ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally
      survives, and are only harmful without it.”

      The only real alternative, a Virtue theory of ethics, along Aristotelian lines, is currently
      doomed to failure –

      “In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology.  For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue.”  This part of the subject-matter of ethics, is however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is – a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis – and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced:  a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear.  For this we certainly need an account at least of what a human action is at all, and how its description as “doing such-and-such” is affected by its motive and by the intention or intentions in it; and for this an account of such concepts is required.”

      On the other hand, “if he is a Jew or Christian, he need not have any very distinct notion: the way it will profit him to abstain from injustice is something that he leaves it to God to determine, himself only saying, “It can’t do me any good to go against His law.”  (But, he also hopes for a great reward in a new life later on, e.g. at the coming of Messiah; but in this he is relying on special promises.)”

      The situation is no better now, than it was half a century ago. As Blondel insisted, we can “find only in the spirit of the gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity” and the sooner we, as Christians, insist on this, the better.

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