The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 4, Universal Human Worth and Dignity

As many cultural historians have noted, the universal ethic of Western humanism and liberalism--where every human person is treated as a sacred location of inviolable worth and dignity--is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That God sides with the slaves against their oppressors in Exodus now strikes us as obvious. The Golden Rule is almost trite. That there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female" sits at the heart of liberal democracy.

As Rene Girard has pointed out, victims are the greatest moral authority in our ethical universe. And the very first stories that recounted history from the perspective of the innocent victim were the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But again, metaphysics.

That humanism and liberalism take human worth and dignity as axiomatic is a metaphysical stance. There is no empirical or scientific account that can justify the notion that every human life should be treated equally. Our ethical foundations are inherently metaphysical. Axiomatic and nonnegotiable.

For example, if a person suggested on CNN today, from a eugenics perspective, that cognitively disabled people should be sterilized, we'd shout that person down as a moral monster. It's taboo to even think such a thought. It's blasphemy. Heresy.

Again, metaphysics. Our ethical system is inherently religious.

But it might not be religious enough.

Yes, human worth and dignity is metaphysically grounded, but in liberalism and humanism it's more axiomatic than religious, given to us ex nihilo rather than grounded in a metaphysical account of the cosmos. In the Judeo-Christian tradition human dignity and worth is rooted in the account of the Imago Dei, the belief that humans are created in the image of God. In liberalism and humanism human worth and dignity is simply taken as a given, but it's not really rooted anywhere. There's no account for it.

Which makes it very vulnerable. All lives have the same dignity and worth. Unborn lives? The lives of prisoners on death row? The lives of our enemies in war?

To be clear, the Imago Dei is vulnerable in Christianity as well. Christians don't agree on abortion, capital punishment or war. God has been and is used to take and diminish life.

But since Christianity is religious, and not merely axiomatic, it has the metaphysical resources to critique itself. You can use the Golden Rule against Christians, and since it's their own rule it should give them pause. And if it doesn't, you can point out the contradiction. And keep pointing out the contradiction. You can call them hypocrites, using their own faith against them. There is moral traction for self-criticism.

But in a purely axiomatic account there are fewer resources for self-criticism. You can't use an axiom against itself. If push comes to shove, you can just reject the axiom to pick a different one. As an example of this, consider the ethical system of the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. Singer starts with some very different moral axioms from those liberals and humanists inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the moral conclusions Singer reaches--which are perfectly logical given his starting axioms--are very different from those espoused by many liberals and humanists.  Moral monster worthy stuff if shared on CNN. But it's all perfectly logical and defensible given his moral axioms.

Again, I'm not mounting evidence that the Judeo-Christian axiom of universal human dignity and worth is more "true" than Singer's axioms, or any other axioms in rival moral systems. That's sort of my point. It's a metaphysical game we are playing. Pick your axioms. And by the way, science can't help you.

My point is simply that Christianity has an attractive metaphysics.

Christian metaphysics gives us an account of universal human worth and dignity and that account is robustly metaphysical enough to spark and sustain moral self-criticism in a way that a purely axiomatic account does not.

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