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By Reason Alone E-mail
2012 Spring
Written by Greg Pfundstein   

None should deny that the terrible threats to human dignity that Wesley Smith describes are very real and should concern all people of good will; in addition, it is clear that W. Ross Blackburn makes strong and valid criticisms of the particular argument that Smith offers. But setting aside the particulars of that controversy, it would be valuable if an argument could be made for the dignity of the human person that did not depend on faith in divine revelation for its premises.


Blackburn writes in his essay, “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. . . . 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.” Blackburn agrees that straightforward argument from premises held by faith may no longer be persuasive in public discourse. But he rejects the idea that we must begin on “secular ground,” that is, from premises which are admitted by those with whom we are arguing for the dignity of the human person. What Blackburn proposes, instead, is that we either make arguments that are rhetorical, in the form of questions, directed at the premises of our interlocutors, or simply state the truth and make arguments from a religious perspective. His argument is essentially that stating the truth will be most effective, because God is faithful and will make the witness of the faithful efficacious.

It must be noted at the outset that the question of what is most effective in public discourse is primarily a practical question, which can be determined by the same arts which shape modern political discourse: polling, focus groups, actual outcomes of contests of ideas. As a practical matter, we can find out what is most persuasive to individuals in our culture.

The question at the core of the discussion is not one about what is most effective, but about what is possible. Specifically, Smith thinks that we can argue for the dignity of the human person from premises based in reason alone (and it is his opinion that this will be the most effective argument in public discourse), and Blackburn thinks that we cannot argue for the dignity of the human person without accepting premises from divine revelation (and it is his opinion that this will be the most effective argument). But is it possible to argue from premises not derived from divine revelation that every human person has inviolable human dignity? The premises of such an argument may not be what Blackburn describes as “secular ground” and may therefore not be accepted by those with whom we are arguing for the dignity of the human person; but is it possible to make a persuasive argument from true premises which concludes that human beings have dignity that should not be violated?  

Before proposing an answer to that question and presenting an argument, it is important to clarify a point made by Blackburn in his essay. He says, “[W]e should make it clear that everyone reasons from faith, from presuppositions that cannot be proven but are held nonetheless.” In fact, not all presuppositions are created equal.
Perhaps a helpful example is Euclid’s Elements, a treatise comprised of thirteen books, each of which builds upon the previous one. Most begin with definitions, and the first book also begins with five postulates and five common notions. In classical Aristotelian logic, a definition is described as a proposition which gives the genus of a thing and its difference. That is, what kind of thing is it, and what distinguishes it from other things of that kind. A line, for instance, is, in Euclidean geometry, a breadthless length, an abstraction of a single dimension. Other modern systems of geometric analysis propose other definitions of the line, but in so doing they describe a different reality or a different abstraction from reality for analysis. A proper definition is one which accurately describes a kind of being in a non-accidental way that distinguishes it from other similar things.

Postulates or axioms are premises which can neither be proven nor disproven. Take, for instance, Euclid’s first postulate: “To draw a straight line from any point to any point.” If one were to assert that it is not possible to do so, one would be denying, essentially, that space is extended in three dimensions. It would be unreasonable to do so.

The common notions are premises which are self-evident, which is to say that to understand the terms is to see the truth of the premise. For instance, Euclid’s fifth common notion is, “The whole is greater than the part.” If you know what whole means and you know what part means, you know that the whole is greater than the part. No premise of this sort requires faith in any strong sense. Such principles appeal to reason.

Now, there are many philosophical questions that would need to be addressed in order to bring the question of human dignity to a satisfactory conclusion, so perhaps at this point it would be helpful to note that no party to this debate denies that human persons have dignity and rights which are not to be violated. The controversy revolves precisely around this question: What is a human person? Is an embryo or a fetus a human person? Is an individual incapacitated by age or injury a human person? For our purposes, the question of how we ought to treat human persons can be left to thinkers of greater capacity. For the purpose of making an argument from premises not derived from divine revelation, the questions that must be answered are, first, what is the definition of a human person, and, second, what axiom or common notion is relevant to the question of whether certain individuals are human persons and therefore possess dignity that cannot be violated.

In the case of the definition of a complex reality like person, the articulation of a proper definition can require much discussion. But if we start with a definition which is deeply rooted in Western thought and tradition, we can begin to see clearly where the controversy over the definition of person lies.

Fifth-century Roman philosopher Boethius offered this definition: A person is an individual substance of a rational nature. Let’s examine the definition in parts. Individual: No party to the debate denies that a person is an individual. While many individuals are persons, they are not the same person. Each is unique. Rational nature: For simplicity’s sake, we can say that this part of the definition is describing the same reality described by modern definitions on both sides when they talk about activities or capacities for activities such as thinking, relating to others, being conscious, and the like. So while there is controversy here about which activities are most important or most essentially those of persons (and such controversies might be particularly relevant to the question of whether other animate beings are also persons, such as primates who are in some sense conscious), we all agree that a proper definition of person needs a term like this. Finally, according to Boethius, a person is a substance. What is substance?
In the philosophical tradition Boethius represents, substance is distinguished from accidents, which are incidental qualities which inhere in a subject, a substance. The substance literally “stands under” its accidents. There are individual beings which are substances, like me and you, and there are individual beings which are accidents, like my skin color and my relationships to other people and my current location. “In New York City” is a reality that can be said of me in answer to the question: Where? “Six feet” describes my particular vertical dimension. But there is no “where” and no size without a substance, except in abstraction.

More important to the discussion of the person is the fact that in Boethius’s thinking, actions are accidents. If a man starts running and then he stops and sits down, he is still the same man whether he is running or sitting. Even if he were to lose his legs and thereby lose the ability to run, he is one and the same man in terms of substance, even if he has changed in certain important accidental respects.

This definition of person as substance can be paired with an important axiom: Agere sequitur esse, acting follows being. This principle is fairly clear through example: You can’t be talking unless you are the kind of being that can talk. You can’t be photosynthesizing unless you are the kind of being that can photosynthesize. And you can’t be thinking unless you are the kind of being that can think. A person is not an individual substance who is talking; a person is an individual substance who is the kind of being who can talk. If a person is not talking at this moment, or not yet able to talk, or no longer able to talk, the person is still the kind of being which talks.

If a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, the kind of being that is capable of the sorts of activities all identify with personhood, and if acting follows being, it is irrelevant whether an individual person is currently exercising reason or even currently able to exercise reason. What is relevant from the perspective of human dignity and human rights is the fact that the individual substance in question is the kind of being that can exercise reason. Thus as soon as you have a unique individual substance of the kind which has human rights, that individual substance, that person, has human rights. Science tells us that at fertilization DNA from the mother and from the father join to make a completely new, distinct, and unique human being, an individual substance which is the kind of being that will exercise reason. Even if the individual has not yet actualized the potential for activities which we consider indicative of personhood, even if that person has stopped actualizing that potential, and even if that person will never fully actualize that potential because of disability, nevertheless, the kind of being we are embracing has a nature that, always or for the most part, imparts the ability to exercise the activities which all admit are evidence of personhood. Agere sequitur esse.

And this should make clear the crux of the disagreement with those who want to deny human rights to some persons: If a person were to cease to be a person when he loses the capacity for activities indicative of personhood, person would not be substance. From this perspective, a person is a particular sum of particular accidents. Indeed any being is just the sum of its current characteristics, activities, and abilities—its accidents. The kind of radical materialism which underlies such a conception of reality is left without any means of defending the human rights of any of us. Either we are all persons with dignity as long as we exist as substances, or none of us is.
Whether or not an argument along these lines will convince the committed materialist, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that such arguments do not rely on divine revelation.

Thomas Aquinas, in the first article of the first question of his Summa Theologiae, asks whether any doctrine beyond what is available through the philosophical disciplines is necessary. In his response he argues that while much can be known about God by reason alone, it was necessary for God to reveal himself because otherwise very few, only with great effort over much time, and with a great admixture of error, would be able to come to the knowledge of the truths about God which are available to us by reason. There is no question that to embrace the truth about the human person by faith is the easiest and surest route. But it is possible to establish it by reason alone.

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Greg Pfundstein is the executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation in New York.