In the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the Review, Wesley Smith, in his article “The Bioethics Threat to Universal Human Rights,” proposed that in arguing for human exceptionalism one ought to utilize secular terms, because “human dignity can be well defended from secular bases.” To base the defense on religious terms, Smith said, gives the non-religious an excuse to dismiss the arguments entirely. The Rev. W. Ross Blackburn disagrees; he wrote us last fall to see if we would be willing to publish his reply.
His thoughtful article, “Arguing for Human Dignity in Bioethics & Public Policy: A Reply to Wesley J. Smith,” was published in our Winter 2012 issue. Blackburn stated that his response was “written principally for Christians”:
I write as one who has a deep appreciation for Smith’s serious, persistent, and tough-minded work for many years in defense of 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.
We spoke to Smith about Blackburn’s article, and the idea of a symposium was born. As you will see, while all of the nine contributors to “Truth-Telling in the Public Square” agree on the inviolability of human life, each comes at the question of how best to argue for it in the public square from their own unique, and engaging, angle. Some come down on the side of the secular, some the sacred, and some think each argument makes sense . . . to a point. Some question whether one can persuade through argument at all.
We are honored to begin with His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who sets the tone by stressing the importance of what we are doing, not merely “preparing for a debating contest” but considering a question which “goes to the very essence of what it means to be human and how we are to live with one another.” “We are not mere creatures of reason or appetite or interest,” writes His Eminence. “Science alone cannot speak the full truth about human nature. We are necessarily spiritual beings, concerned about transcendent values.”
In the eight additional commentaries that follow, the reader follows the twists and turns of a fascinating discussion which reflects the richness of our Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Contributors look to, for example, ancient Greece (Hippocrates, Euclid), the Talmud, the Gospel and papal encyclicals, to natural law, and to American history and the abolitionist movement. Remarkably, you may come away agreeing with both Blackburn and Smith. Smith, who has re-joined the discussion with “The Struggle for Human Equality Must Be Waged on All Fronts,” says that the threats to human life are too dangerous and imminent to leave a secular appeal out of the equation. “The current cultural emergency requires that we engage the anti-humanists at every possible turn, and try to help all understand—whatever their political philosophy or religious belief—the urgency and righteousness of the cause.” I would agree; on the other hand (and I would say this is true especially for those “hard cases” the utilitarians often raise), how far can our arguments go without referring to God as the Author of Life, who allows suffering, with its awful mystery? How can we truly live as human beings without the sense of “fear at the mystery of human life,” as David Klinghoffer writes, something primal, even pre-religion that may be dismissed as superstition but may instead be “preserved memories of wisdom?” How can we stop the culture from “playing God” if we don’t say His name?
Finally, as David Mills writes, it may come down not just to how we argue, but who we are as we participate: “If we want to argue for human dignity in the public square by appealing to the God who gives us that dignity, we have to make the appeal plausible and attractive by living godly—which is to say sacrificial—lives, lives that show others what human dignity looks like.”
And we have to be willing, as Cardinal Dolan writes, to reach out with “reason, faith, love and empathy. That is also the way to build a truly human society.”