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Battle over meaning of human dignity underlies euthanasia debate

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — A battle over the meaning of human dignity underlies the euthanasia debate, American philosopher and author Peter Kreeft told a conference organized by Catholic doctors June 4.

This battle is more significant than that of the Second World War in the 20th century, or the battle between radical Islam and western civilization in the 21st, Kreeft told a public lecture organized by the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies.

The war over human dignity involves two opposing absolutes, two opposing “goods,” he said, and will not be solved until the end of time.

On one side is the growing popular view that human dignity is relative, subjective and something one can lose, say for example if a wave washes away one’s bathing suit, or if one “farts at a dinner party,” Kreeft said. The other side holds the view each person has intrinsic, objective value, and is an end and not a means.

Kreeft dubbed one side of the debate “modernism” and the other “traditionalism.” Though he noted some legal regimes do not treat all human beings as persons for the sake of the law, “all human beings are persons,” and to deny that leads to “totalitarianism.”

“You are a person because you are a human being, not because the state says you are,” he said.

Under the traditional view, a human being has dignity that no one, not even the person himself, can abrogate, he said. Even if the person declares he has no human value and wants his organs to be harvested, that human dignity is not given him by the state, by the culture, or by society and cannot be taken away from him.

One of the most popular modernist philosophies in North America is utilitarianism, he said. Utilitarianism promotes the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

That means you can have 50 cannibals happy because they eat the 51st, he said. Values are relative; human beings do not have any objective value. “You create your own reality.”

In a collective form, modernism holds that science and society create your value, Kreeft said.

Modernists and traditionalists are also in conflict regarding their view of law and of nature, he said. Traditionalists hold a belief in natural law, a law that is “discerned by reason rather than invented by the will,” he said. “If the value of a human being is dependent on us, dependent on our will, it becomes negotiable.”

The modernist sees law “as a construction like a skyscraper,” he said. Instead of being discerned or discovered by reason, positive law is “willed or created by human beings.”

Because so many people no longer live on farms, close to nature, and their lives are so shaped by technology and personal will, the whole notion that things have natures, and that acts can be natural or unnatural is being lost, he said.

A western society, which Kreeft called Apostate-Christendom, is the first major culture in the world to depart from a natural law basis for morality. Until now, “all societies have believed in some kind of intrinsic moral law,” he said.  

No such society has ever survived, he said. The decay and destruction may be controlled for a time, but eventually the society will fall, as did the Roman Empire. Or the society can repent of its direction and find renewal, as did ancient Israel.

“The decline of religion has always been a decline of morality,” he said.

A rule of law, based on natural law, has always been a “wall to resist the irresistible force of passion,” he said. It is also a bulwark against the demands of the will, “that tries to conform objective reality to itself.”

It is important for justice and love to recognize equal human dignity for all as an essential virtue, Kreeft said.

The rejection of God and moral absolutes is also the rejection of conscience, he said.  

Kreeft said as a Christian he believes the law of God is written in man’s heart, even if he does not believe in God. “You can’t commit a conscience-ectomy.”

However, he noted Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel Brave New World, depicts a society where “conscience is quite dead.”

“I hope Huxley’s wrong,” he said.

Kreeft said a basic principle underlying human dignity is the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would be treated. “No one wants to be treated as a thing, to be used as an object,” he said.

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