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Systematische Theologie: Ethik


McCrudden, Christopher [Ed.]


Understanding Human Dignity.


Oxford u. a.: Oxford University Press 2013. 743 S. = Proceedings of the British Academy, 192. Geb. £ 110,00. ISBN 978-0-19-726564-2.


Iben Damgaard

Since the middle of the 20th Century the concept of human dignity has played a both prominent and contested role in debates about political, legal, (bio)ethical, and theological issues, and in recent years there has also been almost an explosion in scholarly writings on various aspects of the problem of dignity. This collection of essays is an important contribution to the interdisciplinary inves­tigation of the meaning and implication of the idea of human dignity. The book’s 39 articles are organized in seven parts explor­i ng respectively: »Historical Perspectives«, »Dignity Critiques«, »Theological Perspectives«, »Philosophical Perspectives«, »Judicial Perspectives«, »Applications«, and »Ways Forward?«. Leading ques-tions throughout the book concern the relation between a secular and a religious understanding of dignity and the relation between human dignity and human rights. The articles generally demonstrate a high level of scholarship and most succeed well in showing the complexity in the idea of dignity. Hill’s concise defense of a Kantian approach to dignity is one out of many excellent examples of this.
The opening article by the editor McCrudden provides an illuminating introduction to current debates on dignity and a description of the aim of the book, which is not to seek a shared position but »a trans-disciplinary engagement, in which the aim of the dialogue between the different disciplines is to generate a process of transcending, transgressing, and transforming, rather than integrating, blending, or hybridizing« (58). This is indeed an aim worth striving for, and most of the essays engage fruitfully in such a dialogue. One might ask, perhaps, why non-western conceptions of human dignity as in Confucianism, Buddhism, and the Jewish and Islamic tradition are not included in that dialogue. Yet, even though this is much needed, the obvious advantage of limiting the scope to the Western framework is that it makes possible to pro-vide a deeper and more nuanced picture of the manifold and di-verse approaches to dignity already within the Western Tradition.
A more important objection that precisely the plurality within the Western tradition is not sufficiently demonstrated when it comes to the theological perspectives on dignity, which are almost exclusively Catholic. Archbishop Nichol points out in his preface that a major inspiration for the conference was Pope Benedict XVI’s speech on the need for an ongoing dialogue between secular rationality and the world of religious belief in the UK in 2010. The book demonstrates a variety of ways that Catholic perspectives on dig-nity combines a theological grounding of the human dignity in the biblical revelation (imago Dei etc.) with a more secular, philosophical grounding of dignity in human capacities (reason etc.) in continuation of the natural law tradition in Catholicism. The book, furthermore, provides a wealth of examples of contemporary debates on dignity, where The Catholic Church is a prominent voice in-vok­ing dignity as ground for restrictive regulation against for in-stance biotechnological interventions in matters of reproduction and death. One might ask, however, why the Catholic tradition of providing definite authoritative answers on dignity are not complemented with Protestant Lutheran perspectives on dignity em­phasizing the absolute freedom of each individual conscience in ethical dilemmas?
The only article, which claims to present the Protestant contribution to the dialogue on dignity, is David Gushee’s American conservative evangelical attempt to retrieve the original »›thick‹, par-ticularistic theological accounts of human worth« (287) in the biblical account of God’s declaration of the sacredness of human life, which is not fully conveyed in the modern »relatively thin secularization« of it. Gushee finds it »quite disastrous« that »Nietzsche and his enthusiasts« »reject not only the theological foundation of ›human dignity‹ in divine revelation, but the moral claims them-selves« This makes Gushee »raise the question of whether, in the end, the ethic of human dignity is secure apart from its original theological foundations« (288). Gushee contrasts these malaises of Nietzschean modernity with the virtues of the biblical ethos of the early church. It is, however, quite problematic that the Protestant contribution to dignity in this book is reduced to Gushee’s conservatism while the contemporary liberal Lutheran, European theo-logical tradition engaged in a productive dialogue with modern critique of religion is ignored.
In Beattie’s postmodern essay, Gushee is rightly criticized be­cause he »risks minimizing the failure of historical Christianity to make good on its claims of justice and equality« (265). Yet Beattie herself choose an oversimplification when stating that Catholic theology has tended towards Amor mundi, love of the world, where­as Protestant theology has tended towards Contemptus mundi, contempt for the world. It is tempting here to quote Hegel, who in The Philosophy of History emphasizes that the reformation meant »the recognition of the Secular as capable of being an embodiment of Truth«, further developed in Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self’s exploration of the Reformation’s affirmation of the ordinary life.
Another conservative theological approach to human dignity is presented by John Milbank, who from the perspective of radical orthodoxy argues that Catholicism at bottom is incompatible with modern liberal notions of rights and democracy and would be better off to abandon rights in favour of dignity, for rights and dignity stand for »the two most opposed political philosophies: the politics of the moderns and the politics of the ancients« (205). Not all the theological perspectives on dignity are conservative. Hollenbach reflects on the possibility of change in Catholic social ethics with the development of a more intercultural and interreligious prac-tical reasoning. Furthermore, Walsh develops an eschatological notion of dignity, which is a challenging and very interesting at­tempt to think the notion of dignity in relation to infinitude and transcendence through an interpretation of Christ at the Cross showing the dignity of that which has renounced all claims of dignity, dignity beyond dignity, which does not mean that it is only in the renunciation of dignity that dignity is realized or that dig-nity must not be safeguarded, because it cannot ultimately be lost: »Dignity may be eschatological, but it is not for that reason any the less real or any the less present. We encounter it in every person towards whom we are charged with protecting their inviolability« (256).
The notion of dignity is often invoked on both sides of controversial debates. It can be used for emancipatory purposes as well as moralistic and paternalistic goals. It is intensely discussed through-out the book whether this flexibility in meaning demonstrates that the concept is hopeless vague and excessively prone to manipula-tion or whether it demonstrates the complexity of moral argument, that no ethical principle by itself resolves practical dilemmas. The book provides many examples of invocation of dignity both pro and con, as for instance, both for and against assisted suicide and abortion ( Jones) and in relation to marriage, where Tollefsen and George defends the Catholic understanding of the dignity of the conjugal conception of marriage as »naturally ordered to procreation and the rearing of children« (503). Judge Cameron criticizes such an understanding of dignity in a conservative narrow conception of naturalness, which excludes and discredits those who do not conform. Cameron shows how the notion of dignity can be em-ployed as subversive tool in challenging illegitimate power and privileges, and how dignity in the jurisprudence in post-apartheid South Africa has been a liberating tool for combating discrimina-tion on the grounds of race or sexual orientation and thus for al-low­ing same sex marriages.
Understanding Human Dignity is a highly recommendable transdisciplinary book, which provides both a good overview and in depth analysis of contemporary debates about dignity. What makes it particularly valuable and enriching, is the constant dialogue be-tween theory and practice in mutually illuminating ways, where conceptual analyses of various ways of grounding and approaching dignity interact with analyses of a rich variety of concrete material from law cases or historical cases. As Sedmak notes, we need to look at concrete examples of how dignity are experienced as a problem in the ways we see and avoid seeing each other. Drawing on Margalit’s idea of »blindness to the human aspect« (560), Sedmak convincingly argues for approaching dignity through the analysis of the vulnerability and fragility of human existence, which raises the crucial question: »what does it mean to see someone else as someone and not something?« (562)