“When liberal democratic regimes go awry, it is often because a utilitarian ethic reduces the human person to a means rather than an end to which other things, including the systems and institutions of law, education, and the economy, are means.” – (Robert P. George, Conscience and Its Enemies)
Secularists often speak of personhood as an accidental quality when it is in fact an essential quality. An accidental quality would be the love of animals or dislike of pasta; the presence or absence of either of these traits are not essential to being human. Personhood is essential and intrinsic to our human nature.
The tendency in secular ethics to define personhood in terms of functions and capacities only serves to dehumanise the most vulnerable. Philosopher Mary Ann Warren defines personhood in terms of consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, the ability to communicate about many topics and self-awareness.
If you can do all those things then welcome to the family; if you cannot, do not expect moral recognition or legal protection.
“The category of personhood,” writes Gilbert Meilaender, “is used to distinguish some human beings from others, to deprive some of the dignity of persons. It is used to deny rather than to affirm our fundamental equality.”
It is no small coincidence that the common thread woven throughout the greatest atrocities in human history is the classification of specific groups of people as less than human; Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) was the Nazi categorisation.
Whether we are on the auction block as chattel, in the Russian Gulágs or in a Nazi concentration camp, the common thread is one of dehumanisation. In each instance the perpetrators stripped specific groups of their personhood and their inherent identity as divine image bearers. This is vital.
Human beings — irrespective of sex, race, age, size, stage of development or level of dependency — should not be abstracted from the fact that they are divine image bearers, or they will be treated as just that, abstract entities that can, without question, be used and discarded.
As repulsive as the views of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer may be to some, he should be at least be credited
for following naturalism’s logic to its bitter end. From that perspective, thank God for atheists like Singer.
He says “defective” babies may be killed for the pleasure of their parents, because babies do not feel much anyway and defective people do not contribute much pleasure to society. He also wonders why we should affirm the dignity of all human beings, “including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant” when “we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or
cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants”.
Singer is no eccentric oddball. He was heralded as “the most influential living philosopher” by The New Yorker and former Princeton president Harold T. Shapiro referred to him as “the most important ethicist alive”.
Professor Robert P. George offers this timely reminder: “A society that does not nurture respect for the human person — beginning with the child in the womb, and including the mentally and physically impaired and the frail elderly — will sooner or later come to regard human beings as mere cogs in the larger social wheel whose dignity and well-being may legitimately be sacrificed for the sake of the collectivity.”
The face of dehumanisation today does not take the form of the auction block or the concentration camps, it primarily comes in the form ideas; ideas of men like Singer.
— Adrian Sobers
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