|Talk of human rights is but a charade, if it is only for the "chosen" of the human family.|
A Model for Teaching the Philosophy
of the Pro-Life Movement
by Robert J. Spitzer, Ph.D.
This article was originally published in LIFE AND LEARNING VIII: Proceedings of the 1998 University Faculty for Life Conference. Ed. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J., Washington, D.C.: UFL, 1999.
The Center for Life Principles reprinted this article with permission. Users have permission to print and use this article for personal or educational purposes (1) as long as no information whatsoever is altered in any way; (2) as long as proper credit is given to the copyright holder (University Faculty for Life - see above), the author (Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D) and the Center for Life Principles; and (3) as long as the reprint is not sold for profit. Booklets of this article are available from the Center for Life Principles for $5.00 each. Please call (425) 641-9865
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I. Defining the Human Person
II. The Way of the Heart - The Four Levels of Happiness
III. Ten Categories of Cultural Discourse
IV. Application of the Above Principles to the Life Issues
A. Application to the Abortion Issue
B. Application to the Euthanasia Issue
The Life Principles Program is a project devoted to explaining the underlying philosophy of the pro-life movement to a secular culture. We have found that its uniquely rational and commonly accessible approach has had a powerful and overwhelmingly successful effect on the positive education of pro-life issues to the Washington State public. Our program is more than just a written curriculum. We have developed a complete video series, audio tapes, various pamphlets, an informational web site, and other media formats.
This paper offers a basic outline of the conclusions of the Life Principles philosophy. This occurs through five steps. The first step consists in formulating a definition of "person" which is grounded in objective evidence. This definition limits the possibility of merely subjective or even whimsical definitions of "person." The importance of this task cannot be underestimated, for "person" grounds our implementation of rights theory, legal theory and social theory, which in its turn affects the culture and the way in which we perceive ourselves.
The second step is concerned with providing the psychological freedom to embrace and act upon the objective definition of "person." It is one thing to understand an objective definition of "person," but quite another to want to make it the pinnacle of our cultural practice. Life Principles provides the reasons of the heart by examining four levels of happiness and purpose in life.
These four levels of happiness (purpose in life) are four levels of the heart’s operation. They control the way one looks at oneself, quality of life, even one’s view of love, suffering, ethics and freedom. Step three of the Life Principles Program endeavors to show how one’s dominant view of happiness influences these categories of cultural discourse.
Step four of the Life Principles Program shows how our interpretation of these categories of cultural discourse influence our view of rights and the common good. This will reveal the foundations of our legal and political principles which we would contend are in need of significant re-assessment.
Step five shows how the previous four steps impact the abortion and euthanasia issues. After examining the individual and cultural harms arising out of these issues, Life Principles shows ways in which we can begin to heal the culture.
I. Defining the Human Person
An incomplete definition of "person" can adversely affect individual persons and the culture. Such an incomplete notion of "person" can lead to bias or prejudice, or even worse, to the negation of "person" in particular individuals or even whole groups. The cultural consequences of this range from confusion and depression, to inequality, and even violence. It is therefore imperative that we move beyond merely nominal definitions of "person."
Definitions begin with a subjective component, a labeling, so that we might know the datum (the given) which is signified by a particular word. In this case, we look to the data signified by the word "person," and we see that it refers, evidently, to a being of human origin. Of course, this is an abstract generalization from a wide range of experiences. This generalization begins at childhood with associations made between the word "person" and the child’s experience of particular phenomena. If we are speaking to children and we want to teach them what the word "person" means, we try to impart this range of appearances to them in the hopes that they can abstract a general category into which these different appearances can fit. "Look, Johnny, there’s a person, a man. There’s another person, a baby. And another person, a woman." After a while, Johnny gets the point and begins to see that "person" signifies a wide range of appearances that have a human origin. The gender, the race, the stage of development is not of particular consequence to "person," but having a human mother and father is. At this point, the child has formed a nominal definition. He knows what the human community generally means by "person." It is, at this point, still a subjective definition. This is suitable for the child, but rather insubstantial for courts, legislatures, and those having the power to create prejudice or even proscribe rights.
Before we begin the three-fold process of achieving an objective definition, the reader would be well reminded that what we are accomplishing here is a process of discovery, not decision. We are trying to get to the nature of something, a nature which exists in its own right without help of any other human being’s intellect or defining power. A real definition is oriented towards discovering what it is, how it is, and what it was meant to be. It is not deciding these things.
We begin with inquiring into a thing’s activities and powers for this moves us from the realm of appearances to the realm of nature. Appearances do not get at the nature of things; activities and powers do. We would not want to say that Joe is not a person because, as an adult, he has only achieved a height of four feet. Unusual as this might be, Joe may well display human activities or the information necessary to produce these activities. He may, therefore, have distinctive powers or activities, but an irregular appearance. Again, one would not want to ground Joe’s personhood in how much he weighs, or the color of his skin, his eyes or his hair.
What are the distinctive powers of a human person? Here it will suffice to elucidate some of the powers that belong to beings of human origin. We can, of course, see powers which human beings have in common with other animals. We have various biological desires. We engage in metabolic activity, we grow, procreate, and avoid painful stimuli. We are conscious of things outside of us. We are capable of feeling pain. We experience pleasure when certain desires are fulfilled, and we have a capacity for self-movement which is grounded in desire. For example, our desire for sustenance (indicated by hunger) can cause self-motion when we spot a delectable fruit on the tree.
Human beings also have powers going beyond those of even the most highly developed, sentient, conscious beings. We do not want to engage here in a debate about whether higher vertebrates truly experience love or merely a high form of affection. We also wish to avoid the question of whether higher vertebrates are self-conscious or merely conscious. This would go far beyond the scope of this paper and accomplish little with respect to the definitional problem at hand. Hence, we restrict ourselves to what most philosophers would consider to be a reasonable belief: that humans alone seem to be preoccupied with the infinite, the unconditional, and the perfect.
Of course, we cannot say for certain that an eagle is not thinking about the infinite or about unconditional truth, love or beauty. If the eagle is, it certainly does not display frustrations about not having achieved the perfect, despair about not comprehending unconditional love, anger about not creating a perfect utopia, or frustration with the mathematical paradoxes of infinity. They do not seem to cut off their ears when their aesthetic senses cannot be perfectly produced on canvases. Their awareness of the sublime beauty of music seems rather to be an oblivion. They simply do not display behaviors indicating a concern for God or the Infinite itself, for ultimate explanation, or indeed, for the complete set of correct answers to the complete set of questions. It is therefore reasonable to believe that human beings are the unique possessors of these powers among the vertebrate species on this earth.
One is reminded of Bernard Lonergan’s cryptic remark that when non-human animals run out of biological opportunities and dangers (food, shelter, reproduction, avoidance of pain and predators, and even affection) they fall asleep. When humans run out of biological opportunities and dangers, they ask questions, questions about their identity, their destiny, their ideals, about optimal love, unconditional truth, perfect social orders, optimal goodness, perfect beauty, and even the Infinite itself, the Sublime itself, the Mystical, the Creator, that is, about God. It is not simply the ability to ask questions, it is the ability to ask questions about what is ultimate, unconditional, perfect, infinite, absolute and eternal with respect to love, goodness, truth, beauty and being. This is what humans seem to uniquely do by comparison with the other members of the animal kingdom. It is reasonable to believe that these powers are unique to beings of human origin. They therefore constitute part of the objective definition of "person."
It should also be noted that the above activities are linked to the goals, ideals, and perfection of the human species. They represent the full perfection of human power. Aristotle called this the "to ti en einai" (the "what it was meant to be"). He called this the best definition of a species. For Aristotle, if one wanted to discover the nature of a thing, one had to uncover not only unique powers or activities but also those unique powers which represented the being in its most perfected state. This constitutes the second step in discovering the objective definition of a thing (i.e. the perfection of its power).
Philosophers and scientists have for years noticed that things come to their perfection by a sort of intrinsic guiding force. Today we would attribute this to genetics for living beings. Acorns seem to possess an intrinsic guiding force towards becoming an oak tree just as human beings seem to possess an intrinsic guiding force to becoming a pursuer of unconditional, perfect, and even infinite love, truth, goodness, beauty and being.
It is one thing to attribute to genetics an acorn’s propensity to become an oak tree. It is quite another to attribute to genetics a human being’s propensity toward the unconditional, perfect and infinite. Can the desire for the unconditional be attributed to a genetic mechanism which is essentially conditioned by quite precise qualitative and quantitative parameters? Can a human being’s desire for the eternal and the infinite be explained by a mechanism which seems to have little "room" in it for the infinite and eternal? We will not attempt to answer these questions here. Suffice it to say that many thinkers believe that these uniquely human powers and desires arise out of more than a merely genetic guiding force. They seem to arise out of a guiding force that is free of strict qualitative and quantitative parameters, akin to what Aristotle would have termed a "soul." Whatever the case may be, human beings seem to have within them an intrinsic guiding force towards the unconditional, perfect, and even infinite which brings their powers to perfection. If this be a "soul" then human beings have a soul. If it is merely genetics, then it would be most interesting to probe and understand the genes for perfection, unconditionality, infinity and eternity.
Whether the guiding force be merely genetic, a soul, or both, the recognition of such an intrinsic guiding force constitutes the third step in discovering an objective definition. This third step then tries to describe real design, that is, real information within a thing about its perfection, its goal, its full actualization. It describes real information and a real power intrinsic to this information to guide a real being from a state of potentiality to a state of full actualization.
By combining the above three steps, we have the essentials of an objective definition of "person," namely, "a being possessing an intrinsic guiding force (whether this be merely genetic, a soul, or both) toward fulfillment through unconditional, perfect and even infinite truth, goodness, love, beauty and being."
This objective definition gives rise to a critical social principle about the interpretation of human "person." Inasmuch as any being should be treated with a dignity commensurate with its nature, persons should be treated with an unconditional dignity commensurate with their nature towards unconditional Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty and Being. Such a dignity acknowledges the intrinsic worth of a human being. This unconditional dignity is the ground of inalienable rights, which acknowledges a universal duty to protect and promote this unconditional dignity.
In view of the intrinsic, unconditional dignity of the human person, we cannot in any way risk taking it away, for this dignity does not belong to us. It is intrinsic to the person. Furthermore, the harm done would be unconditional and absolute. Hence, we cannot risk violating the Silver Rule (Do no harm), for a harm here would constitute the destruction of unconditional dignity. Perhaps the greatest harm done to persons in human history has been to assume that a being of human origin was not a person (not possessing an unconditional dignity). We can see this with respect to slavery in ancient and recent times, genocide, and totalitarian political persecutions of every kind.
The only way of preventing these kinds of egregious harms is to make a critical cultural assumption: that every being of human origin be considered a person. Doubt about personhood should never be considered a warrant for denying personhood. An error in this regard could lead to every form of genocide, slavery and political disenfranchisement based not on certain evidence, but on doubt. If we as a culture do not together make this critical assumption, we risk the possibility of compromising unconditional dignity, causing irreparable individual harm, and seriously undermining our culture.
The Silver Rule (the absolute ethical minimum for any culture) could be irreparably violated, and the notion of inalienable rights rendered impotent. Given the above consequences, we must restate the critical assumption in even bolder terms: when in doubt, err on the side of assuming and according personhood to every being of human origin, whether or not the activities of that being manifest the above transcendental qualities of personhood. Failure to do this will simply cause us to repeat the errors of history.
II. The Way of the Heart, the Four Levels of Happiness
We now proceed to the second step in the Life Principles Program: the way of the heart. It is not sufficient to make the above critical assumption from a purely mental point of view. We must care about it enough to defend it and promote it. We need not only the heart’s understanding, but also the heart’s conviction (the disposition of our wills).
The forthcoming discussion of happiness/desire goes by many names. Many philosophers link the four levels of happiness to four distinctive human powers or to four levels of purpose in life. Some psychologists have called them fulcrums of identity, dimensions of self-actualization or markers of growth. Some theologians have identified them with phases in the journey of the soul, or levels of spiritual life. Sociologists, anthropologists, historians and writers have likewise classified them under still different names. The different names simply reflect different perspectives on the same reality.
One can see these four levels of happiness in the works of such diverse thinkers as Plato and Kierkegaard, Aristotle and Jaspers, Augustine and Buber, Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow, and Thomas Aquinas and Lawrence Kohlberg. One may also see them in the scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Throughout the last 3,500 years, one can see them recur again and again in the cultures of North and South, East and West.
Common sense tells us that no sane person seeks unhappiness. Aside from masochism or significant depression, each of us chooses actions we hope will make us happy. Unfortunately, we are often disappointed. Finding happiness is not so easy. The world is full of options which promise happiness; some actually deliver, many do not. Some deliver fairly well for a while, but decay ultimately into boredom, emptiness or pain.
Ancient philosophers observed that types of happiness could be ranked. What they called "lower" forms of happiness had the advantages of being immediate, intense and apparent, but suffered from being short-lived and relatively narrow in focus. "Higher" forms of happiness had the advantages of being pervasive, enduring and deeply satisfying, but the disadvantages of being more abstract and less rapidly attained than lower forms, and frequently took more effort. Lower forms of happiness were generally more material or physical; higher forms were generally more emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. The lower levels of happiness tended to break down into one form of crisis or another. The very highest levels managed to avoid crises altogether.
Philosophers throughout the ages sought to draw their students away from the lower levels of happiness to the higher levels of happiness, appreciation of which generally requires some developmental maturity. They sought to train hearts and minds to prefer those forms of happiness which are deeper and more lasting over those which are superficial and intense, but short-lived.
The first and most basic level of happiness (in Latin, laetus) comes from an external stimulus. It interacts with one or more of the five senses, gives immediate gratification, but does not last very long. A sensorial pleasure like an ice cream cone or a possession like a new car can impart immediate gratification from these stimuli. We will call this Happiness 1. Keep reading...
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