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MODERN AND AMERICAN DIGNITY: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future

MODERN AND AMERICAN DIGNITY: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future

by Peter Augustine Lawler

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ISI Books
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1st Edition
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6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Modern and American Dignity

Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future
By Peter Augustine Lawler


Copyright © 2010 Peter Augustine Lawler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-935191-89-6

Chapter One

Modern and American Dignity

Modern society—or at least its more sophisticated parts—is distinguished by its concern for individual dignity. Individuals demand to exist for themselves. They refuse to be reduced to useful and expendable means for ends that are not their own. Increasingly, modern government is based on the dignified principle that the individual can't be understood to exist for a community, a country, an ideology, a God, or even a family. We think it undignified to believe that earthly or real human beings exist for heavenly or imaginary ones, as we think religions once led us to believe. We also think it undignified to regard today's individuals as existing for human beings of the future, as did the millenarian ideologies that disappeared with the twentieth century. Protecting my dignity, from this view, means protecting what the moral fanatics are all too ready to sacrifice—my particular life, my particular being, myself. My purpose here is to explore some of the modern dimensions of the dignified "I," and so to show how indispensable, wonderful, and strange the idea of personal dignity is for us Americans. One reason for this exploration is to show how technology and biotechnology are both reflections of and challenges to our proper understanding of our ineradicable human dignity.

The Christian Understanding of Human Freedom

Our understanding of the dignity of the individual or the person, I think, originates with Christianity, particularly with St. Augustine. We find it in Augustine's criticism of the civil and natural theologies—the respectable theologies—of the Greeks and the Romans for misunderstanding who the human being is. Civil theology—the gods of the city or political community—is based on the premise that human beings are essentially citizens or part of a city. But that's not true. Human longings point beyond one's own country and can't be satisfied by any kind of political dedication or success. It's finally undignified or untruthful for a Roman to identify himself or his fate with Rome. Augustine didn't deny there was a certain nobility or dignity of citizens who subordinated their selfish interests for their country's common good. But even or especially the best Romans were looking in the wrong place for genuine personal security and significance or immortality. They were looking in the wrong place for personal meaning, or transcendence, or perfection.

The polytheism of civil theology was also undignified insofar as it was an offense against the human mind. It required that educated men degrade themselves by feigning belief in unbelievable gods and by engaging in a futile effort to fend off moral deterioration as their country became more sophisticated. Such efforts were also degrading to others. These efforts opposed the particular human being's efforts to free himself from what are finally selfish communal illusions. Civil theology, by defining us as citizens and nothing more, hides from us the dignity that all human beings share in common.

Sophisticated Greeks and Romans, Augustine adds, rejected the gods of their country for nature's God, the God of the philosophers. But that growth in theological sophistication in the direction of impersonal monotheism was only ambiguous progress. All reasonable theology is monotheistic; the orderly universe and essentially equal human beings must be governed by a single God. But Augustine still saw two problems with nature's God. First, he is too distant or too impersonal to provide any real support for the moral duties of particular human beings; dignified personal action or personal existence can't be based on a God that is finally not a "who" but a "what." Second, natural theology is based on the premise that the human being is a part of nature and nothing more. It can't account for the realities of human freedom and dignity.

The God of the philosophers is meant as a replacement for civil theology and becomes a competitor to Biblical theology. The philosopher orients himself toward the truth about God by liberating his mind from all the moral, political, and religious illusions that allow human beings to experience themselves confidently as at home in the world as whole persons. He frees himself from the illusions that give most people some sense of dignity or significance. The philosopher discovers that the human mind is at home in the world, and so God must be the perfection of our intellectual capacity to comprehend all that exists.

We grasp our true dignity—the dignity of our minds—only by seeing that the mind necessarily depends on a body that exists for a moment nowhere in particular and is gone. So my being at home as a mind depends on my radical homelessness or insignificance as a whole, embodied being. Any being that genuinely appears to us as eternal—such as a star—couldn't possibly know anything at all. Only a being who is absolutely mortal—or, better, absolutely contingent as a living being—could know both the truth about the stars and the truth about the insignificance of himself. Nature's God can establish the dignity of human minds, but only at the expense of denying the dignity of all human lives to the extent that they aren't genuinely governed by thought.

Understanding ourselves as wholly natural beings means surrendering any sense of real personal dignity to impersonal natural necessity, to a God who is a principle, not a person. But according to Augustine, human beings are more than merely natural beings. They long to be seen, in their particular, distinctive, infinitely significant freedom, by a personal God who knows them as they truly are. Natural theology can't account for equally free, unique, indispensable, and irreplaceable beings under God, or for human persons who can distinguish themselves not only from the other animals and God but from each other.

Natural theology also can't account for, much less point to the satisfaction of, the longing of each particular human being really to be. Each human being longs to be and is an exception to the general, necessitarian laws that account for the rest of creation. Each of us has the freedom and dignity that comes with personal transcendence: The laws of nature can't account for our free will, for either our sinfulness or our virtue, for our love of particular persons (including the personal God), for the misery of our personal contingency and mortality without a personal, loving God, for our capacity to sense, even without revelation, that we were made for eternal life through our ineradicable alienation in this world, or for our literal transcendence of our biological existence as whole persons through God's grace.

The Dignity of the Individual

The Augustinian criticism of both natural and civil theology on behalf of the particular person's dignity retains its force in the post-Christian climate of modern thought. The individual's claim for transcendent and dignified freedom actually intensifies as faith in the Biblical God recedes. What we once faithfully trusted God to do for us, we now have to do for ourselves. Our claim is also more insistent because it can now be based in our manly pride; my infinite significance no longer depends on my feigning humble self-surrender to an omnipotent God who cares for me in particular.

The human individual described by John Locke and the other liberal philosophers regards himself as free, unique, and irreplaceable. I'm so full of dignity or inestimable worth that the whole world should center on what's best for me. The individual has the right to use his freedom to transform his natural condition, to act against the nature that's indifferent or hostile to his particular existence. And he has the right to oppose freely every effort of other human beings—even, or especially, priests and kings—to risk or even deploy his life for purposes other than his individual ones. His dignity isn't given to him by God or nature; it is found in his freedom, in his singular capability to exercise rights.

We can call rights natural insofar as we acknowledge that we didn't make ourselves capable of making ourselves free. Freedom from nature is a quality mysteriously possessed by members of our species alone, and that mystery deepens, of course, when we doubt that the Bible can even begin to explain it. But that means, paradoxically, that our singular natural quality is our free or transcendent ability to transform nature to give to ourselves what nature did not give us. There is, in fact, no life according to nature that is worthy of my particular freedom and dignity. From the individual view, the natural life that the undignified species are stuck with living is nasty, brutish, and short, not to mention nontranscendent or un-free.

There was an attempt to revive natural theology or "Nature's God" in the modern world, but it was disabled from the beginning by a basic contradiction: the modern view of nature, like the one of the Greeks and Romans, is of an impersonal principle that governs all that exists. But the view that we're completely or eternally governed by fixed principles of eternal natural necessity can't capture the existence of the free individual—the being who has the right to use his reason and his will to free himself from his natural limitations.

"Nature's God" returns us to the ancient thought that the world is the home of the human mind, and the Americans today who most firmly believe in such a God might be the physicists who believe that their minds have cracked the cosmic code. But can the mind really grasp as a whole a world in which the individual is distinguished in his self-consciousness and his freedom from everything else? The physicist may be able to comprehend the mind or the body of the physicist, but not the whole human person who, among other things, engages in physical inquiry. That's one reason why the more characteristically modern view is that the mind is for transforming nature to make the individual genuinely at home or secure. Insofar as Nature's God is taken seriously, it mostly undermines the individual's sense of his irreplaceable and unique dignity. If, as Tom Wolfe explains, the dignity of the individual (which we can see with our own eyes) is taken seriously, then we can't help but conclude that the integrity of the natural world—or the rule of Nature's God—came to an end with the mysterious emergence of the free and self-conscious individual.

For the modern individualist, the truth remains that our dignified pretensions still point in the direction of a personal God, but only a blind sucker relies upon such an imaginary projection. For Locke, it makes some sense to speak of a Creator as the source of the visible universe and our mysterious liberty. But it's foolish to think of oneself as a creature or fundamentally dependent on a providential God who guarantees us eternal life. Locke's Creator is not personal or present-tense enough to do anything for particular individuals.

Our dignity, from this individual view, comes from facing up to the truth about how on our own we really are. Man's existence is radically contingent and mortal. But he has the resources to improve upon his condition, to act intelligently and responsibly on his own behalf. The dignity of the individual flows from his authentic self-consciousness, from what sets him apart from his natural, political, and familial environment. All the other animals act unconsciously to perpetuate their species. To the extent that we are dignified in our difference from them, we consciously act on behalf of free individuals. The other particular animals aren't conscious of their temporary, utterly vulnerable, and irreplaceable existences. They're utterly replaceable because they don't know they're irreplaceable. I know others will come along a lot like me, but they won't be me. The evidence of my dignity is my acting in response to my self-consciousness, my thought about myself. It's in my truthful and resolute efforts to continue to be me.

I feel indignation toward anyone who denies the truth about my self-consciousness and my freedom, my being. I feel especially righteous indignation toward those who would morally criticize or constrain me by imagining me to be other than who I really am. That's because I'm convinced of the fundamental rightness of my free and responsible efforts to sustain my individual existence—my existence as a self-conscious, free, and body-dependent being—as long as possible. I'm indignant enough to endanger my life freely in order to secure my freedom. I know enough to know that free beings can't pursue even cowardly ends with consistently cowardly means. So I know I may be stuck with displaying my dignity by risking my life on behalf of my right to life.

Sometimes indignantly insisting on my rights to life and liberty can seem undignified: I might say I have the right to sell my allegedly surplus kidney for the right price, because my body is my property, to be used as I think best. But surely it is undignified to regard my body—part of me—as merely part of my net worth of dollars. And surely a man or woman with a strong sense of personal worth—and so with a strong desire to display the nobler virtues of courage or generosity—would always want to do more than merely secure his or her biological existence. The individual responds that he's going to be courageous or generous on his own terms; such risky virtue is not to be required of him. And an obsession with the needlessly risky noble virtues is for losers who don't understand themselves. Dead people have no real dignity or significance at all.

The real evidence, the individual notices, is on the side of identifying dignity with the protection of rights. Leon Kass reminds us that "liberal polities, founded on this doctrine of equal natural rights, do vastly less violence to human dignity than do their illiberal (and often moralistic and perfection-seeking) antagonists." The twentieth century's monstrous offenses against human dignity—so monstrous that they can't be described as mere violations of rights—came from those who denied the real existence of individuals and their rights. Particular human beings were ideologically reduced to fodder for their race, class, or nation, for murderous and insane visions of humanity's non-individualistic future. Every attempt to restore civil theology in the modern world—from the Rousseau-inspired dimensions of the French Revolution onward—morphed into insane frenzies of unprecedented cruelty aiming to exterminate the alienation that inevitably accompanies our freedom. In a post-Christian context, we really can't defend personal dignity by neglecting individual rights.


A sensible understanding of "inalienable rights" might be the protections given to or required by self-conscious mortals, to beings stuck in between the other animals and God. But the modern individual characteristically isn't content with locating his dignity in his acceptance of the intractable limitations of his embodiment. The modern individual—the modern self—aims to be autonomous, to use the mind as an instrument of liberation from or transcendence of dependence on material or natural necessity. From this view, modern individualism is not that different from the twentieth century's historical or ideological projects to radically transform the human condition. The difference is that the individual never loses his focus on his own freedom, his rights; communism, fascism, and so forth were all diversions from what we really know, impossible efforts to transfer man's truthful sense of his individual significance to some impersonal or ideological cause. The Europeans regard those efforts as the last and worst vestiges of civil theology. That's why they've apparently decided to abandon both religious and political life on behalf of a humanitarian concern for individual dignity.

But the modern self is even more than a humanitarian or a humanist; he's the very opposite of a materialist in his own case. My mind is free to transform my body. The modern self identifies itself with the mind ("I think, therefore I am") liberating itself through technology and enlightened education from the undignified drudgery of material necessity and the tyranny of the unconscious. The mind frees the self from both material and moral repression for self-determination. Our struggle for the rational control that really would secure our dignity really does point in the direction of transhumanism. We aim to use technology and biotechnology to overcome our human limitations as embodied beings. We aim at the overcoming of time, infirmity, death, and all the cruel indignities nature randomly piles upon us. Our dignity, from this view, depends on the orders we're really capable of giving to ourselves, meaning to our natures. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Modern and American Dignity by Peter Augustine Lawler Copyright © 2010 by Peter Augustine Lawler. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Augustine Lawler, who served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, is the author of Homeless and at Home in America, Stuck with Virtue, Aliens in America, and several other books. He is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and the executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science. The 2007 recipient of the Richard Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters, he lives in Georgia.

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