Thursday, August 19, 2004

Cognitive Dissonance and Human Personhood

A friend sent me this link this morning-it’s a picture of the youngest, lightest known child born alive. She is now entering high school as an honor student and a musician.

This makes for a good reason to talk about the problem of cognitive dissonance in our society. Cognitive dissonance is the state of holding to two beliefs simultaneously which contradict each other. There may be no more visible case of societal cognitive dissonance than the issue of unborn human life. On the one hand, abortion is not only legal, it is demanded in all its forms by vociferous segments of our world today. A good chunk of the U.N. population control policies involve funding for abortion, for instance. On the other hand, laws which protect pregnant women and their unborn children in cases like abuse and drunk driving are on the books in several states. Additionally, with the visibility of the Laci and Scott Peterson trial, several politicians have tried to pass “Laci’s Law” protecting unborn children on a federal level. As a result of these laws, people can be tried for double homicide if the mother and the unborn child die.

So which is it-is an unborn child a human person or not?

The apologetics literature and work on abortion is gargantuan, and in a lot of cases, very high quality, so I won’t rehearse all the arguments here for the personhood of unborn children. But I do want to make one point about what may be one of the worst arguments for abortion. Why take a look at a bad argument? Because it is believed by so many. Some hold to it consciously, others without reflecting on it. The argument is that fetuses take on human personhood when their mothers decide they are worth keeping. In this view, babies are not human until the mother wants them, or some other important party wants the organism to survive. Until then, they are sub-human biological organisms without any of the rights or benefits which come along with being a person.

To the contrary, human personhood is not conferred, it is innate. The argument for conferred personhood rests on a very postmodern and, might I add, Darwinistic metaphysic. If human dignity, value and morality are constructed by culture, then there are no innate values that come with being a particular kind of organism. Instead, a culture can determine among themselves what is and what is not worthy of their attention as special and protected creatures. This is not that different from extreme forms of xenophobia and slavery. In those cases one ethnic culture has decided that another ethnic culture is less human than they are and are not endued with the same value. In some of the more radical cases like that (think Rwanda, Sudan, etc.), human value is conferred based on the shapes of noses. In our case, value is conferred on the basis of things like matriarchal emotion, physical visibility, or economic viability.

Additionally, if the line between the animal and human biological kingdoms is seen exclusively in biological and physiological terms, then the difference between species is one of gradation-it is quantitative, not qualitative. There is no real way to put a mind through the same tests you put DNA through, so there is no way, given this worldview, to distinguish between mind and mind and mind and no mind. It is a reductionistic methodology which not only does not see human personhood in all of it’s splendor, it simply and technically cannot. It is impossible for a metaphysically naturalistic scientific endeavor to grade things beyond the natural. As a result, human personhood is reduced to something more akin to a conferred attribute than an innate property.

As Christians, we see personhood as something much more inviolable and divine than this. Although personhood is still in many respects a mystery (and it will remain that way until the Beatification), it remains rooted in the work and will of our Creator. It is a property we have qua humans. There is nothing in this world which can either confer or remove our humanity or the humanity of an unborn child, especially something as protean and unreliable as the emotion of desire. We are humans by divine decree.

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