Materialists Have No Theory of Human Dignity
People logically make the connection between human exceptionalism and dignity, but scientific materialism cannot supply either.
Two interesting worldview articles appeared in New Scientist this week. One began by acknowledging that Christians often blame evolutionists and materialists for undermining human rights, claiming that theism alone protects human dignity. Aware of the criticism, John H. Evans was curious whether it really affected people’s attitudes about others. So he conducted surveys with 3,500 adults. He found that the less they believed people were made in the image of God, the more willing they were to treat other people badly.
Evans asked the participants how much they agreed with one of three views: (1) that humans were made in God’s image, (2) that humans are another kind of animal with unique capacities (the biological view), or (3) are whether humans are distinguished from other creatures only by their DNA (the materialist view of Richard Dawkins). Then Evans asked them about the implications of their position.
I also asked them how much they agreed with four statements about humans: that they are like machines; special compared with animals; unique; and all of equal value. These questions were designed to assess whether any of the three competing definitions are associated with ideas that could have a negative effect on how we treat one another.
He followed up with specific “human rights” questions about whether the participants approved of certain actions, such as torture, buying organs from poor people, or risking soldiers to stop a genocide.
What came out was very striking. The more a respondent agreed with the biological definition of a human, the more likely they were to see humans as being like machines and the less likely they were to see them as special, unique or all of equal value. On the human rights questions, they were less willing to stop genocides and were more likely to accept buying kidneys, suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners.
In contrast, those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners against their will.
Shockingly, then, the critics appear to be right. People who agree with the biological definition of a human are also more likely to hold views inconsistent with human rights.
Only 25% of the US public accepts the biological view, Evans points out. Still, he found a serious connection between worldview and ethics. People recognize the tension between human dignity and scientific materialism. Dawkins is an advocate for atheism and for human rights, but how can he justify the latter from the former?
Evans is worried that science (which he conflates with evolutionary biology) threatens to undermine human rights. Wanting both, he offers a suggestion: scientists need to come up with a new “scientific” definition of human dignity.
The answer, I think, is for influential people like Dawkins to try to sever the link the public apparently makes between definitions and treatment. The way to do this is to promote the idea that however a human is defined, humans are sacred.
This sacredness does not have to be of the religious variety: it could be based on secular ideas of dignity found in many European constitutions, treaties and human rights documents.
The words “sacredness” and “dignity” are nowhere to be found in the Darwin dictionary. But the survey’s clear evidence that ideas have consequences (Evans calls them “unintended consequences”) he finds worrisome. It led the editors of New Scientist to issue a proclamation, “We need a new secular approach to dignity.” And how, exactly, is that to come about?
Like it or not, the scientific view of humanity is a bleak one. But there is a way round it: breaking the link between what we are and how we are treated.
Ever since Darwin, some people have warned that social ills would soon follow the idea that humans are no more than a particular species of ape. If there’s nothing special about us, why should we treat people any better than we do other animals? The stock response has been to say such worries are groundless: our sense of morality appears to have been hardwired into us by evolution.
Now, new research suggests that those who have a strictly biological definition of humans are subtly less supportive of human rights, although it doesn’t claim they are any more likely to treat others badly (see “Does science undermine human rights?”). But if this preliminary result is upheld by further research, it will come as an unwelcome shock to scientific materialists – and as ammunition for their opponents.
New Scientist’s editors are surely never going to give in to the theists, or even claim humans are special just to get them to behave better.
Nonetheless, the former [scientific materialists] must hold true to their philosophy, especially when that means accepting unsettling conclusions. To do otherwise would be to stoop to the level of those who accept only facts that fit their beliefs.
Rather, materialists should focus on building a secular view of human dignity. After all, spiritual world views haven’t prevented outrages. Breaking the link between what we are and how we are treated might help prevent them in future.
Like Evans said, people seem to be confusing “is” with “ought.” Did evolution hardwire that into them, too?
OK, Darwin skeptics! They just handed you some ammunition. Use it!
While they are fumbling to define what sacredness and dignity could possibly mean, ask them: “Which gene in your DNA is telling you that you ‘should’ build a secular view of human dignity? Did natural selection cause you to confuse ‘is’ with ‘ought’? Was that a beneficial or a deleterious mutation?” Try to muffle your chuckles when asking these questions. “Which of your genes is telling you that you must hold true to your philosophy? Do you want to hold to it because you think it is right, or did natural selection create that sensation in your brain?”
Exercise: Think of other questions like these you could ask a scientific materialist to expose the self-refuting fallacies in the editorial. But remember; this is no game. Ideas DO have consequences.