Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More Christmas Book Recommendations

My book recommendation for the year (still in time for Christmas shopping, if not for the super-saver discount for shipping by Christmas) is Gilbert Meilaender's Neither Beast Nor God:  The Dignity of the Human Person.  It's a truly elegant book, offering an explanation for much of the confusion evident in the ways we use that elusive phrase "human dignity." He explains that we sometimes mean human dignity (dealing with the powers and the limits characteristic of the human species) and we sometimes mean  personal dignity (dealing with “the individual person, whose dignity calls for our respect whatever his or her powers and limits may be”).  Only by keeping our eye on BOTH of those meaning can we fully comprehend the richness of our unique in-between status, as something in between other animals and angels.

If you're too busy to read, you can watch the video of Meilaender's talk on this topic at UST's Murphy Institute's "Human Dignity" lecture series at the video link on the Murphy website.  In conjunction with this talk, we organized an excellent interdisciplinary faculty seminar with Professor Meilaender for law, philosophy and theology scholars from UST and some neighboring universities.  I thought one of his most interesting comments at that seminar was in response to some questions about whether a convincing (or even helpful) conception of human dignity is possible without any resort to a notion of a God.  He responded that, while he deeply respects the efforts of those engaged in the 'natural law' arguments in that direction, his personal perpective on this topic was something like this:  "Here's an account of human dignity that I think makes good sense and should be convincing to most; it relies on a notion of a God.  Those of you who do not believe in a God, show me your alternative account, and convince me that makes as much sense."

I think a good test for this approach might be to read Meilaender's book together with Michael Sandel's The Case Against Perfection:  Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering  .  It's also a short, elegant book offering an account of human dignity to apply to many of the same genetic engineering debates as Meilaender's book.  But Sandel tries to ground it in an account of what makes humans "special" that does not depend on a notion of God, but is instead based on a notion of our "giftedness."  While I like where his arguments lead him in the ethical debates he engages, I just don't think Sandel's account is as convincing as Meilaender's.   How can you have a notion of 'giftedness without some sense of the Giver?

Happy Birthday, Giver! (Merry Christmas, everyone!)

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Schiltz, Elizabeth | Permalink

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