Are human difference and equal dignity opposed?

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig digs up this Will Saletan piece from 2007 on “liberal creationism” and l’affaire Watson, and comments:

What’s curious to me is that in this new age of scientism, Christian ‘superstition’ — our ethics, our value commitments, our axiomatic beliefs about the value of human life and dignity — is again becoming the hallmark of our ridiculousness. None of this is to say that evil hasn’t ever been done in the name of God, of course it has, but that isn’t what’s being lampooned here. Rather, the Christian commitment to the equal dignity of all people is conflated with piggish ignorance of science, which is synonymous with progress. …

The trick for Christians of this era will be to push back on the new scientism — on the truism that some people are just worth less, say, in market terms — while living in a world that identifies a total commitment to human dignity as a ridiculous superstition.

My first thought reading that sentence was, if people really are valued differently in the market — if they’re valued at all — is it not a little ridiculous to insist on the infinite worth of every human being? But so what?

I find this debate immensely frustrating because of all the point-scoring. You’ve got progressives like Saletan trolling secular liberals about the limits of their belief in evolution, and tradcons using it to say progressive assumptions about the world are informed by eugenics. Also it’s hard to separate from the history of white supremacy and American race relations in general. But let’s pretend we can for a minute.

In the years since Saletan wrote that, evidence has continued to build in favor of the idea that the story of human evolution is much more complicated, and in some cases much quicker, than we ever thought. I’m thinking of Neanderthal/Denisovian DNA being found among Asian and European populations; Harpending and Cochran on the Amish getting more Amish even in a couple of hundred years, or the cold-weather gene in Tibetans. I don’t find this scary or problematic at all, I think it’s beautiful. But whatever you think about it it’s getting difficult to ignore. I suspect this also means the guardians of political correctness will fight all the harder against the James Watsons of the world. That said, it makes about as much sense to say a person of African descent is stupider as saying a German is descended from cavemen.

I suppose there’s a case to be made for the “we don’t want to know” side; that this is a Pandora’s Box that society wisely leaves closed, and any conflation of ethics and science can only be a dilution of the former that leads to bad places. I’m sympathetic to that idea, but the robust alternative to Saletan’s “subtler account of creation and human dignity” (which, for the record, I don’t agree with), cannot be insisting that every human being everywhere in the world is exactly five-and-a-half feet tall, or an equivalent claim about intelligence. Think of it this way; say you have a perfect calculator that can measure all of a person’s qualities and give you a number of their worth in market terms. Say you can shrink that person and make him stupider, like playing an RPG backwards. Their value in the market would go down, but their value to God is unchanged. Earning less than your calculator number would be unfortunate or even unjust, and I suppose it could even be unjust that one’s number is not higher. But it makes no sense to take issue with the calculator itself, since it’s just a tool, and it certainly doesn’t bestow value, let alone infinite value.

Moreover, it’s important to ask whether insisting that human difference — which is to say, inequality — and equal dignity are opposed makes it more difficult to argue for equal dignity, especially as the evidence in favor of human difference seems to be growing. Two people can have unequal capacities but equal dignity. Scientism isn’t just the belief that evolution exists, it’s a whole complex of ideas that reduces people to instrumentalities. One could even say the vastness of human difference is further proof of the Christian idea that we are estranged from one another, and that trying to ameliorate that estrangement through policy, eugenic or otherwise, is usurping a role that properly belongs to God.

I also wonder if there’s an interesting natural law argument in the fact that progressive eugenicists were all about birth control as a means to breed “better” people, but the people who use it today are mostly the kind they would have wanted having babies. Is that to say modern America is dysgenic? I don’t know, but I doubt it will lead to good consequences. Is it scientistic to worry?


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