Saturday, July 19, 2014

Intrinsic Dignity vs. Circumstantial Dignity

Experience tells us that circumstances may either dress a man up with nobility or with degradation. When Christ was scourged and crowned with thorns and then shown to the people, such an act was surely not dignifying but degrading. Nevertheless, we know that even in that circumstance, Christ's intrinsic dignity both as God and man perdured. In fact, reflection on such common experiences of public shame and embarrassment show us that it would be absurd to propose that a person's dignity could be annihilated by circumstances.

Intrinsic dignity is that which remains inherent to a person in spite of circumstances, perceptions, and actions. It is why rape is always wrong, even if as some people crudely suggest a victim was somehow "asking" for it or herself guilty for attracting potential rapists. Even if a woman was inviting such a gravely immoral action, the rape is still wrong because it violates the woman's dignity (among other reasons). It is also why many people argue against capital punishment; they say, "What example are we setting by killing a killer?" I'm not here to comment on the rigor of these arguments but am simply pointing out that they imply and appeal to a notion of intrinsic dignity.

Hence, it is clear that to take the life of someone, or for him to take his own life, would be wrong even if all the circumstances of his life were undignified—poverty, lack of hygiene, the absence of loved ones or any support, depression and other suffering, etc. No number of degraded circumstances could destroy the intrinsic dignity of an individual. These circumstances may make a person's life psychologically unbearable to endure, it may be granted, but the dignity remains.

When a person begs to "die with dignity," they usually, but not always, are pointing more properly to the notion of being perceived as dignified. In other cases, such a request points to that individual's self-perception of dignity: "do I see myself as dignified in these circumstances?" In either case, the person ignores intrinsic dignity. Of course, they have the freedom to do so, but they are ignoring it nonetheless.

What is the implication of intrinsic dignity? Does it mean that a person can take his own life? Most cases of euthanasia appeal to circumstantial dignity—the suffering, the dwindling resources, the age, etc. People who commit suicide often do so, if they leave a suicide note, out of circumstances and not an appeal to their intrinsic dignity.

Actually, intrinsic dignity suggests that despite circumstances a person should persevere in the struggle for self-actualization as a human. This would mean, as far as possible, the cultivation of virtue. Intrinsic dignity implies a firm rock amidst a violent ocean to which they ought to cling.

There is, finally, a striking conclusion from the notion of intrinsic dignity. A common and powerful argument for abortion is that a child should be killed before he or she should be made to suffer growing up in terrible circumstances, where a mother may resent the child for being a reminder of when she was raped, where a father is absent, where poverty and frequent abuse is the norm, where an education is practically impossible, etc. This argument presents abortion as an act of mercy to a child. But if we remember intrinsic dignity, then we can see its absurdity. Take a 5 year old who has already been growing up in such circumstances as described in this argument: should the mother/father/society/etc. be allowed to kill the child to prevent that child from suffering further abuse or neglect? What about a 2 year old? What about a 1 year old? What about a baby who has just been delivered? Should it be killed then? Clearly no one would kill a 5 year old because of such reasoning. But why should age be the only differentiating factor, and if it is, when is the child young enough, and why does that age justify the act?

If we would not kill another person because that would be a violation of their intrinsic dignity, which includes in it the right to live and to self-determination, why is the violation acceptable in the case of an infant still in the womb? The infant is biologically an individual despite its physical dependence on the mother, but even such physical dependence doesn't reduce the intrinsic dignity of an individual being; this is again circumstantial dignity which points to the physical dependence. Calling the embryo a "parasite" is again simply an argument referring to circumstantial dignity.

No, the responsible action is, as always, a respect of individuals and of what is properly theirs, which includes dignity and the right to life and self-determination even if an individual is not in the concrete capable of doing so (appeal to circumstantial dignity). The responsible act, then, is to accept the reality of suffering and moral evil AND respect the right of an infant to live despite the fact that it will grow up in the worst of circumstances.

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