“WHAT are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.4). The question posed by the psalm is universal: what does it mean to be human? It has occupied poets, storytellers, philosophers, and worshippers throughout the ages, as they seek to understand the endless complexity of human experience.
Our culture, however, has a distinct way of answering the question. Certainly, the output of poems, songs, novels, essays, and sermons continues as ever before. And a poem plumbing the depths of human emotion, or a philosophical essay analysing various types of volition, still poses the question about humanity “from the inside”: the author draws on his or her own experience and ideas, included those inherited from others.
Alongside this approach, however, has emerged a very different one. Our culture has grown accustomed to relying on science to tell us who we are, and how we are to live our lives.
Science, by definition, observes its object objectively, “from the outside”. It has good reasons for doing so. In order to analyse, say, the reproductive properties of a new breed of apple, scientists must put aside any personal interests in their object — they must, for example, resist the urge to eat it.
This suspension is normally a temporary device. The objectivity of science is rarely, if ever, purely for its own sake. That the scientists’ analysis of the apple is “disinterested”, is a matter of great interest to the company funding their research with a view to developing a new type of cider.
Things get more awkward, however, when science turns its gaze on humanity — on us. We are no longer known to ourselves as agents, but rather as, say, products of evolutionary adaption and selection: specimens of the human species whose behaviour is to be studied, not by asking us why we behave as we do, but by analysing our brain structure — or interpreting the cultural detritus we leave behind.
Of course, neuroscience is extremely useful to the treatment of mental afflictions; and anthropology helps us to overcome our parochialisms. Popularscience, however, assumes that the scientific account of human existence is an exhaustive one.
It even tends to assume that it can tell us how to live and act. So we may read in a magazine that adultery is actually rather healthy behaviour, “allowing our genes to spread”. Similarly, competition and consumption have become the default paradigms for administering public life and services, because we have come to believe that our human life is, essentially, a struggle for survival.
There is a strand in modern Western thought, however, that resists what C. S. Lewis described as this “abolition of man”. Alongside the scientific method has emerged one that is almost its opposite, epitomised by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Here, human beings are viewed as more than the conditioned organisms that science describes: elevated above their natural conditions insofar as they can act morally, are capable of rising above their personal interests and recognising those of others, and indeed inhabit a genuinely universal perspective.
In other words, they are persons — not least because they can treat the other as person rather than merely as competitor, source of comfort, or object of desire.
Kant’s distinction between rational agency and conditioned behaviour, however, easily becomes a distinction between different kinds of human beings. According to the influential Australian ethicist Peter Singer, not all human beings are persons. Persons are a distinct class, as long as they have a minimum level of intellect and autonomy, which confers basic rights such as freedom from coercion.
Excluded from this class, however, are not only embryos and foetuses, but also young infants, severely mentally disabled people, or patients in a permanent coma. In principle, according to this view, an early infant has no greater claim to life than a battery chicken.
Theology agrees with modern science that creatures, including ourselves, are flesh and bone: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Psalm 104.29). Yet it reflects on these truths, too, from the dizzying heights of Kant’s universal perspective — or, better, from a divine perspective: “When you take away their breath . . .”
This paradox is in fact the point of Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens . . . what is mankind that you are mindful of them?” And yet: “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psalm 8.3-5).
Crucially, there is no separation here between humans who are persons and humans who are not: the psalmist speaks of the human race as a whole. The psalm does not ask us to regard ourselves as somehow superior to other species. Especially when read together with God’s “mandate” for humanity in Genesis (1.26-30), the picture that emerges is rather of a task given to humanity.
Humans have been given “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands” (Psalm 8.6). God has appointed them to that office, giving them “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air”, and so on. (Genesis 1.26). Human beings are called — to live and act as representatives of God in creation.
That, arguably, is what it means to be created in God’s “image”, according to God’s “likeness” (Genesis 1.26-27). God created us out of nothing, like any other species. And yet we are also called to extend the Creator’s gift of life, in a creaturely manner, taking responsibility for other creatures.
This calling implies responsibility for the least capable among us. For a mother to talk to her new-born baby may seem strange, since the child does not speak. Yet in talking to her child, she reserves for him or her, as it were, the place of dialogue partner. As the Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann says, it is this treatment that enables the child gradually to learn language in the first place. It allows the child to occupy, that is, the place that the mother is currently still reserving for him or her.
Indeed, we were allonce dependent on such careful attention, before we could rise to the task ourselves. So why shouldn’t we extend this care to those who, in this life at least, may never be able to perform any tasks? Spaemann describes this as “the acid test of our humanity”.
Taking that on board, Kant’s insight about human capabilities need not proceed in the direction that someone like Singer takes it. In the terms of Psalm 8, that “acid test” is whether we manage to follow God’s care for human beings: care expressed most powerfully in the example of Christ, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians. 2.7).
Dr Guido de Graaff is Tutor for Christian Doctrine and Ethics, and Director of Studies at the South East Institute for Theological Education, and the author of Politics in Friendship: A theological account, Bloomsbury, 2014).