Monday, January 4, 2021

Human Dignity and the Law

Following are some snippets from a talk given by Robert George entitled “Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity” (video).  Robert George is a professor at Princeton University.  The entire video is about one hour, but I include below some sections relevant to our discussions here.  For each section, I have included the timestamp link.  The first one begins at about 25 minutes into the talk, and the others follow almost directly.

I just offer some notes for each section; no transcripts or further comments.  Certainly, the video is worthwhile; for sure the last 35 minutes.

Natural law, radical individualism, and collectivism

Natural Law theorists propose to understand sound principles of justice, including those principles we call human rights. 

Natural law theorists reject both strict individualism and collectivism. 

Radical individualism overlooks the intrinsic value of human sociability, and tends to view human beings atomistically and materialistically.  I enter into relationships solely because I see some gain in it for me, and not for anything to do with the other persons’ intrinsic worth.

Collectivism, on the other hand, instrumentalizes and subordinates human beings and their well-being to the interests of larger social units.

Both have theories of human rights, but both are defective.  Neither does justice to the concept of a human person – instead, either as a means to someone else’s ends, or as a being with no consideration for sociability. 

We must treat ourselves and others as ends, not as means.

The human rights of abortion

A “human rights” discussion on abortion.  This includes a comment on those who accept a utilitarian calculation for when it is right to kill an innocent person – say one or a few – in order to save many others.

To be made in the image of God

What does it mean that man is made in the image of God?

Can we not reason about ends?

Discusses David Hume’s reason as slave to the passions: we can never reason about ends – these are driven by passion; we can only reason about the means.  A comparative example between Mother Theresa and Hitler is offered – can we not reason about which of these two individuals held better “ends”?

Natural law as a basis for a common ethic

Can natural law provide some measure of common ground for a common ethic, even for those who are atheist?


  1. As a (repentant, reformed) radical individualist, I can attest to the description laid out above. Guilty as charged!

    It seems to me that radical individualists do an extreme amount of damage to themselves personally, a smaller amount to those immediately around them, and increasingly less to the general society proportionate to the distance from the individual. As extreme individuals, they have significant influence only with those they can (literally, figuratively) touch. One person alone is not usually a great danger to anyone else who can sever the relationship if deemed necessary.

    Not so with collectivists. Due to their propensity to group together and feed off each other, they can and do cause immense damage, not only to themselves, but also to the greater society around them. Their influence and power spreads in relation to the number of people who have joined the group.

    If this is true, then it can be seen that collectivists pose the far greater threat to a freedom affirming lifestyle and credo, i.e., natural law, which has no chance of success within a group of irrational people whose only "rule" is to force conformity to the group on everyone.

    The "lone gunman" is a potential threat to a very limited number of persons. The raging mob in the streets of a large city is a very real threat to large numbers, both in person and property, and is not limited in range or scope.

    It is possible to reason with a radical individualist. Reason is wasted on a collectivists unless they can be isolated from the group and addressed solely as individuals in a one-on-one manner.

    1. Roger, on one level I agree with this. However, the philosophy )concept, ideology) of radical individualism leads to collectivism - more specifically radical statism.

      It is also dangerous, but in a different way.

    2. Bionic, can you expand on that a little? I'm not sure what you mean.

    3. Solzhenitsyn describes the individualism born in the Renaissance and given political life in the Enlightenment as “the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.”

      The problem is, there will always be a higher force above these individuals, and now the individuals have no intermediating institutions that can stand against the monopoly of this higher force. It is a story of the West since the Enlightenment.

      Robert Nisbet tackles the consequences of this individualism very well, in his book “The Quest for Community. I have written many posts on this book, and these can be found in the bibliography tab at the top of the page. Probably reading these first two will be sufficient:

      If this doesn’t better explain my thoughts, let me know.

    4. Bionic, I see your point and find no fault with it.

      In all the "churning of thought" on this, I keep coming back to this:

      "For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." -- Satan, speaking to Eve in the Garden

      This is the ultimate radical individualism, being able to determine what is good and what is evil with no restraint or limiting factor, or as you have quoted Solzhenitsyn above--"the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any force above him".

      Man was not created to be alone and even God recognizes this. It is impossible for man to live in perfect solitude. Given the choice, he will always choose to live in community with other individuals. (Robinson Crusoe is a good example.) This requires cooperation and a recognition of the needs of others which leads to a deliberate denial of our own desires. Or it should, which leads to the adoption of love as the base of our cooperation.

      Ted Kaczynski (Unabomber) was about as radical as an individual could get while still living, but in the end he was forced (literally) to live in close communion with others and to submit to the "rules" of the community. He would have done better to have learned that voluntarily.

    5. Roger, your quoting of Satan speaking to Eve is perfect in this context. Satan is offering that man should use his reason alone, not reason under God. It is the autonomous individualism that Solzhenitsyn spoke of. God just explained it better!

  2. Setting up my framework and basic thoughts on natural law are in the links below.

    I don't remember if I mention natural law specifically or not. But the subject I was trying to cover is basically that. There must be a recognition about what set up is best for humans. Freedom and connectedness are both important. Individuals need to be protected and respected. But there is a human nature, and it is beneficial for us to live life a certain way or certain ingredients each life needs in some measure or type in order to have a "good" life.

    Natural law may be the most important consensus to get as a society to build a legal system on. I wish the subject wasn't largely abandoned so long ago.

    1. "Natural law may be the most important consensus to get as a society to build a legal system on."

      I am becoming ever more certain that this is the dividing line, the line of battle.

    2. I good starting point would be something I have seen in other places and backed up by sociological data.

      Graduate high school, graduate college, get a job, get married, have children, in that order.

      Why? Well empirically it is the way out of poverty or to prevent entering it. This doesn't mean there should be a law forcing all people into this mold, but the mold is good to point to. Of course there are different exceptions that should be allowed and respected based on individual circumstances.

      There are different assumptions that go into that path, which many on the left won't agree with. There is also much more to natural law than the 5 steps I wrote including some of the assumptions.

      That would be an exhilarating conversation for me to hear. If those in academia and politics and churches were talking about these things. Politicians are talking about these issues but with their assumptions unspoken.

    3. I am hesitant to comment on specifics of natural law, but I have a thought regarding your five steps. I don't see natural law as so specific. In the case of your example, it might be more like: establish yourself to be prepared to get married and have children.

      This is applicable in all locations and through time. For example, 1000 years ago, one need not have a formal education at any level to be sufficiently be "established" to be properly able to marry and have children. This could be done by around the age of puberty.

      Today, in our western society, this could take anywhere from five or ten years after puberty, to be in a position to properly marry and have children.

      Something along these lines?

    4. This is the problem with natural law I think, to get it to something specific enough to be helpful but broad enough to apply to everyone. I think maybe there could be levels from broad to specific. The specifics could take into account the uniqueness of time and culture.

    5. Aquinas offered the answer to this, which is that it must be the laws specific to time and place must be tailored to that time and place (he named this type of "law," but I don't want to look right now).

      However, such laws must conform to the natural law.

      I guess in your example, even today one need not go to college to be prepared to care for a family. However, one must be prepared to care for a family before having a family.

    6. Totally agree. It could be something like complete education (whatever that means), acquire valued job skills, get hired, then married and children.

      But this doesn't mean all people must get married or have children. This path would be a proverbial path to success, deviation from it would be allowed. The point would be to draw the principle out even if you operate outside your society's prescribed natural law.

    7. To your last sentence, I fully agree. This also conforms to my understanding of natural rights (to property and life): these rights define what is subject to legal punish; not every violation of natural law is so subject.

  3. "What does it mean that man is made in the image of God?"

    Not sure, but I think it might be found somewhere within these three quotes:

    "The heart of man is not compound of lies,
    but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
    and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
    man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
    Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
    and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
    his world-dominion by creative act:
    not his to worship the great Artefact,
    man, sub-creator, the refracted light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind." J.R.R. Tolkien, 'Mythopoeia'


    "To tamper with man's freedom is not only to injure him, to degrade him; it is to change his nature, to render him, in so far as such oppression is exercised, incapable of improvement; it is to strip him of his resemblance to the Creator, to stifle within him the noble breath of life with which he was endowed at his creation." - Frederic Bastiat

    And finally:

    “I have only to contemplate myself; man comes from nothing, passes through time, and disappears forever in the bosom of God. He is seen but for a moment wandering on the verge of two abysses, and then is lost. If man were wholly ignorant of himself he would have no poetry in him, for one cannot describe what one does not conceive. If he saw himself clearly, his imagination would remain idle and would have nothing to add to the picture. But the nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he ever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself.” - Alexis de Tocqueville

    1. Yes, it is. God breathed into man, giving him a soul and reason. God did not breath into any other creature.

    2. I have thought of the image of God along these capabilities:

      reason/logic, emotion, creation, making order, language, self awareness, depth of relationships, moral agency (ability to choose)