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On Human Dignity

As Eric McDonald rightly points out, the notion of “human dignity” as formulated by religious authorities (and those who endorse and support the authority of religion) is in fact the very opposite. Religious conceptions of human dignity rob real humans of their dignity in the most profound way, by denying them the basic right at the heart of all other rights, self-determination — the right to decide for oneself what one feels and thinks about one’s own life and what one wants from it.

Don’t try to tell *me* what the worth or dignity of *my* life consists in.
Just. Don’t.

You haven’t the right. No one has that right but me.

Those who lay claim to that right — those who would limit my choices and options on the basis of *their* view of what makes *my* life worthwhile, and why (almost always on religious grounds, of course) — are not only profoundly mistaken, they are presumptuous beyond all tolerance. There is no quicker way to inspire — and to deserve — my rage and contempt.

There are, of course, rigorous philosophical arguments to be made on these matters: Eric cites Ronald Dworkin, whose philosophical and legal arguments about euthanasia and assisted suicide are superb. However, I don’t feel particularly philosophical about the subject today. Instead, I feel angry — enraged on behalf of all those who have suffered needlessly, all those whose dignity has been stripped from them in the name of God.

Of the many, many evils perpetrated in the name of God and “justified” by faith, denying people the right to live and die as they see fit is the one I take most personally. Today is just a few weeks shy of the twenty-seventh anniversary of my father’s death. His welcome end came only after a long, slow, incredibly painful, dignity-shredding dissolution of body and mind. I know exactly how bad it was, because for the last few months of his life I was his primary caretakerĀ  — when I wasn’t in school. I was 16 years old.

My father need not have died that way, but for the political stranglehold of religious authoritarians claiming to know the will of God who self-righteously force their conception of God’s will on the rest of us whenever they can. Their ignorance is complete, and their arrogance is boundless. They are the enemies of human freedom, the only basis for any sound conception of human dignity. They condemned my father to a slow, torturous death.

I will not forget that, nor forgive it.

  1. Jeremy Byrd
    2011/02/15 at 1:30 pm

    While I am not religious and I certainly cannot take issue with your anger, I don’t see why we should automatically defer to the individual when it comes to the quality of her own life. I’m thinking, for example, of those who are suffering from depression. Perhaps, we should say that the individual is the best judge of this unless we have evidence of some factor, like depression, which is known to get in the way of an accurate assessment.

  2. 2011/02/15 at 5:33 pm

    Eh. Like I said, I wasn’t feeling particularly philosophical when writing this particular rant. Even so, I don’t think it constitutes a call for AUTOMATIC deferment. I don’t think there’s any reason to disallow exceptions in advance of even considering them. But the individual is certainly the appropriate judge by default. Moreover, I still think it’s true that no one else has the right to make that judgment, any more than someone else has the right to decide whether or not you live or die; you may grant someone else that right, as with living wills. But stripping people of such a fundamental aspect of the right of self-determination is a step that, while sometimes necessary — we do declare people non compos mentis in various circumstances — ought to be exercised with the utmost caution and as many safeguards against misuse in place as practicable. A clinically depressed person’s judgment about their well-being and the worth of their life may be distorted, but if the condition that distorts their judgment is the very thing that makes that person’s life intolerable to them, and if medicine can offer no reliable cures or therapies (which in many cases it cannot), I’m not sure it’s possible to justify the claim that someone else has the right to demand of them, “Sorry, you’ll just have to suffer.” Such a person can and must decide whether the struggle is worth it for himself or herself, and ought to have our support and sympathy whatever they decide.

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