Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme. By Robert Spaemann. Translated by Guido de Graaf and James Mumford. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. 94 pp. Paper, $15.00.
Love & the Dignity of Human Life: On Nature and Natural Law. By Robert Spaemann, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012. 69 pp. Paper, $12.00.
Robert Spaemann is considered to be one of Germany’s foremost Catholic philosophers, known for his work in Christian ethics, and increasingly known among American evangelicals for his defense of human dignity against practices such as abortion and euthanasia. The two works under review are short collections of articles and lectures dealing especially with the importance and foundations of human dignity. In Essays on Anthropology, Spaemann treats the topics of human nature, human dignity, and evolution(ism). In Love & Dignity, he again addresses human nature and dignity, explores the problem of defining death as “brain death,” and reflects upon the nature of love. Here I would like to concentrate on his defense of human dignity.
Spaemann disputes the tendency of modern secular ethicists to think of human dignity as an empirically verifiable quality. Such ethicists do not believe in human dignity as such. Rather, they hold to the importance of the dignity of persons. A person, they say, is defined as a being that can exercise certain mental functions, such as being self-aware, able to reason, or have a desire to live.
Whether or not a particular human is also a person depends on observing their behavior, or by testing for brain activity. Unfortunately, not all humans have higher mental functions, either because they do not yet have a brain (e.g., embryos), or because their brains are not sufficiently developed for self-consciousness (e.g., fetuses), or because their brains have become too damaged to support consciousness (e.g., coma patients). Humans with an active mental life are persons. Humans without a mental life are not. Only human persons have dignity and a right to life. Human who are not also persons can be killed with impunity, by being aborted or euthanized.
Spaemann disagrees with this line of reasoning. He notes how it defeats the purpose of having human rights at all:
Human rights depend on the fact that no one is authorized to define the circle of those who are entitled to them and those who aren’t. Hence these rights, though rooted in our personhood, must nevertheless be granted to each being born of woman, and this from the first moment of his purely natural existence, it being unnecessary to superimpose additional qualitative criteria (Essays, 22).
Spaemann does not believe that dignity is a property that can be empirically verified. Still less should it be equated with civil or human rights as such. Rather, he takes human dignity to be the transcendental ground for all of our rights and duties (Love, 27), containing within itself the basis for all natural rights (Essays, 51).
What is the source of human dignity? Spaemann believes it arises with freedom. This is the capacity for assuming moral responsibility for our actions. Unlike plants and animals, humans are free to engage in intentional actions. We can propose or reject plans, purposes, and desires. We can choose to engage in actions that cause things to happen, in accordance with our desired ends. And in doing that, we assume that we are ends in ourselves, something to be valued for our own sake.
In deliberating how best to act, a person can transcend their immediate desires and relativize them, seeing these in light of the desires and purposes of others. We can then choose to pursue these ends, even to the point of self-sacrifice (Essays, 59).
If someone can assume responsibility for their actions in this way, Spaemann considers them to be a subject, someone who ought not be treated or used as a mere object. Someone who is free in this sense, is an end in himself absolutely (Essays, 56).
Spaemann also suggests how this freedom points towards the religious and theological nature of dignity. Human nature is “anticipatory,” striving to become that which is presently beyond it. Spaemann describes this form of self-transcendence as “ecstatic” (Essays, 16).
But what are we striving towards? Interpreted theologically, Spaemann says that human nature strives for the divine likeness, and participation in what is eternal (Essays, 16). Hence, Spaemann believes that dignity is a fundamentally religious concept (Essays, 57). Atheism, unable to account for the Absolute, “deprives human dignity of its foundation,” and so prevents secular society from reflecting “on good reasons to protect human life” (Essays, 72).
But what about human beings living at the so-called margins of life? Not every human being can engage in the self-transcending actions that Spaemann describes. Do they also possess dignity? Spaemann answers in the affirmative, saying that all living human beings possess a measure of dignity, even if they cannot immediately exercise their capacity for assuming responsibility. No matter how young, sick, or damaged a human being is, he cannot lose the potential for self-transcending moral dispositions and concrete actions. That potential belongs to human nature as such (Essays, 61). Hence, all humans possess dignity by virtue of their nature.
Spaemann offers the further, but weaker argument that the ‘I,’ the personality that arises out of our human nature, does not start “at a datable moment within the human timeline” (Essays, 62). There is no point at which one can say the ‘person’ began here, so it is better to say that every being born of a woman has the aptitude for freedom, and therefore deserves a minimal level of respect.
Now these arguments, even though not fully fleshed out, may be agreeable to those of us who support a culture of life. But they will not convince secular ethicists. Many secularists are only too happy to bite the bullet and deny the notion of human rights altogether. They prefer to speak of personal rights. More often than not, they also endorse rights for animals. And they are actively trying to deny rights to embryos, fetuses, and the comatose. So when Spaemann warns that criteriological approaches to human rights defeats the purpose of human rights, many secular ethicists would agree, and say that is precisely what they would like to achieve. And while they may admit that we cannot pinpoint the beginning of personhood, criteriological tests can still serve to give a useful and scientific approximation of whether something is a person, which is better than evaluations based on shaky metaphysical claims.
I suspect that Spaemann has been gaining attention, not because his work is especially groundbreaking or convincing, but because, being a German professor, he provides an academically respectable reference for evangelical Christians to cite in defense of their view. If you are interested in Christian ethics, you should become familiar with Spaemann. He addresses subjects other than human dignity, and while you may not come away convinced by his arguments, you will most likely learn something from them. Either of these short works would be a good place to start familiarizing yourself with Spaemann’s work. I prefer his Essays, which are more polished than the lectures compiled in Love & the Dignity of Human Life.
S. C. Lazar
Director of Publications
Grace Evangelical Society