Missing Persons

If you judged solely by what people say, you’d think that we live in a world where everyone believes in respecting the dignity, rights, and conscience of every human person. But if you look at what people do, you might get a different impression. Albert Camus was already onto this game a half century ago when he pointed out the smug self-congratulation when these terms – “all the modern mouthwashes” – are used in public.

Respect for human dignity, rights, and conscience is a good thing, of course, if we know what we’re talking about. Most of the time, we don’t. Pro-abortion leaders use those very words to justify killing babies in the womb. The murderous ideologies of modern times slaughtered millions under the cloak of liberating humanity. Even our young and inexperienced president talks about respect – while almost in the same breath dismissing large swaths of the American people as driven by irrational fears.

The truth is that our culture is badly confused about human persons. Many scientists have for some time denied the old view of what really distinguishes human beings: that we have the ability to know the truth and the freedom to choose right and wrong. It’s odd that modern science – which has given us so much knowledge about the world and useful technologies in medicine and other fields – should deny our ability to know and will. But no small segment of modern scientists regard the human capacity for knowing not, as in the past, as a kind of miracle, something of a different order than everything else we observe in the universe. For them, human knowledge is merely a kind of higher evolutionary reaction to stimuli. Indeed, if you look at the statements of some neuroscientists, they have started to call it a “folk view” that we know things and can act freely. For them, it’s determinism all the way down. We dummies – the non-neuroscientists – just don’t know it yet.

We’ve heard a lot lately about how people are resisting “facts and science.” But maybe that’s a healthy reaction. There’s a reason why Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and “mad scientists” started to appear in literature when modern science got going. Knowledge is power. And we want to know how it’s going to be used before we decide whether it’s good or bad. Call it a “folk view” if you will, but we were once told that science is “value-free.” How it is supposed to give rise to moral choice and pursuit of ends? For that, we need a different faculty, one that can only be understood through a richer view of human persons.

Human nature is not something to take lightly (for a brilliant treatment, look at Fr. Robert Sokolowski’s The Phenomenology of the Human Person). But even in the most cursory view, we either believe persons are free moral agents – at least sometimes – on the old “folk” model, or we are entering into a strange territory in which we are not only personally dehumanized but our whole society takes a dangerous turn. Science can, for example, tell us that a certain dosage of hormones will prevent ovulation. It can say nothing whatever about the morality of contraception. A few kilos of plutonium driven together will reliably produce a nuclear explosion. But physics is utterly speechless about nuclear strategy.

What would we be without community?

I once asked Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson about the sources of human behavior, specifically where liberty came in – we were at a dinner at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and images of American liberty were all around us. He replied: “Don’t misunderstand me. Genes determine only about 40 percent. The rest is a complex algorithm of genes and environment.”

“Complex algorithm,” I answered, “I don’t think Jefferson would have written the Declaration of Independence to defend a complex algorithm.”  Jefferson was the most religiously eccentric – perhaps the most irreligious – of the Founders. But he wisely wrote in Notes on Virginia: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”

We are, of course, partly shaped by innate characteristics and our environment. But any view of the person that stops there puts us on the road to philosophical incoherence and political tyranny. Real persons are moral entities who require cultivation of those uncanny properties: freedom and responsibility. For that, we need not only individual capacities, but proper communities that understand human nature. Freud famously explored how families distort us, but what would anyone become without the nurture and formation that takes place in families? Or churches? Or schools? How would anyone even learn how to speak without being in a community with other persons?

There are times, of course, when we must not respect persons and must resist social conformity. But it’s one of the modern disasters that we do not also recognize the indispensable role of communities of all kinds – political, social, the Church as well – when they are working properly, in helping to form us in the first place. Knowing when and how to respect proper authorities – in politics, science, religion – is no small part of being a human person.

It just may be that one of the reasons we talk so much now about respecting human dignity is that we’ve lost the organic view of how persons and communities are reciprocal entities that help sustain a moral and spiritual world. Instead of facing the hard labor of understanding and repairing the breakdown, we want the scientists to relieve us of responsibility. When that fails, as it must, we invoke “dignity and respect” in ever more heated terms, out of desperation, because we sense that we are in danger and don’t really know what we’re talking about anymore.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.