Tuesday 6 March 2012

Fr Andrew Pinsent helps pro-life youth uphold human dignity

The first speaker of this past weekend's 5th International Youth Pro-Life Conference, organised by SPUC, was Fr Andrew Pinsent of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science & Religion. Fr Pinsent spoke in a scholarly yet accessible way on the subject of human dignity, providing some practical tips for pro-life youth when debating the subject. He also asked searching questions of the delegates to help them solidify their understanding of pro-life principles.

Fr Pinsent prefaced his address by saying to the young delegates:
"Thank you for being heroes, in the light of the grave challenges we are facing today."
Here are some paraphrased notes from Fr Pinsent's address.
  • Dignity can be defined as the quality of being worthy or honourable.
  • Our opponents consider their role to be to close us down. We therefore need to understand their arguments.
  • It could said that a person's support for legal abortion is not necessarily motivated by a desire for the act of abortion per se but motivated by a desire for dignity which the person believes (albeit wrongly) will result from abortion.
  • In contrast, some people (albeit very few people), argue against the idea of dignity, sometimes dismissing it as a specifically religious or narrowly Catholic concept.
  • It has been argued that appeals to dignity are too vague and are mere slogans which add nothing to an understanding of a situation.
  • Dignity has a power to move us and to move our will (affectivity). This power is recognised by our opponents, which is why they use it.
  • The law often finds it impossible not to refer to dignity.
  • The concept of 'respect for persons' is closely related to dignity.
  • False thinking about dignity comes in different forms: sufficiency of autonomy; sufficiency of rights; sufficiency of divine command
  • Dignity is irreducible to mere autonomy. For example: Why is it contrary to dignity to use a human ear as an ashtray? Or (if one denies that newborn children are persons) to stamp one's foot on a newborn's face? Principlism, the ethical system devised by Beauchamp and Childress which elevates autonomy, is thus inadequate to defend human dignity.
  • We see evidence of a growing inability of people in Western society to recognise and respect other people's dignity. For example, the recent Bad Samaritan case, in which a young man injured during the London riots was robbed by people as they pretended to help him; the Walmart worker crushed to death by a stampede of bargain-hunters; businessmen who have adopted a principle not to treat people with dignity; the ugliness of modern art and architecture.
  • The NHS is concerned about medical staff not treating patients with dignity, about a lack of compassion there. Yet, when medical staff have to perform so many acts of indignity on patients, it's unsurprising that the dignity of medical staff  is also suffering - e.g. the Glasgow midwives denied their right to conscientious objection to abortion.
  • Judges interpret laws, yet judges are also formed as persons by culture. Today some judges decide cases even before they consider the law.
  • There have been many attacks on human dignity by non-Christian states e.g. Communist regimes.
  • Dignity is not self-protecting, even though people in general agrees that it's a good thing.
  • Dignity does have a power to appeal to the right-hemisphere of the brain, but this metaphoric power can be misapplied,  unsupported or unformed.
  • Natural reason is not sufficient to protect dignity. This is shown by the fact that the number of actions and conclusions regarded as unaccepetable is declining. A problem with a reductio ad absurdum argument is that people are increasingly choosing the absurdum.
  • There is a lack of understanding of cause and effect. Consequences of evil actions don't come home to people.
  • Human understanding - the intellectus, the perception of truth and goodness - is also not sufficient to protect dignity. Images that are themselves unattractive at first sight can lose their unattractiveness; taboos can be broken.
  • Some things need to be recognised as wrong simpliciter; the principle of non-contradiction is breaking down in society.
  • Stories provide examples of admirable lives and show what happens when dignity is stripped out of society. However, narratives can be used in opposite way e.g. the use of films by the Nazis to promote euthanasia.
  • Great violations of human dignity sometimes are largely ignored. For example, the killing of six million people in the ongoing war in the Congo has been almost entirely unreported, even though it has included cannibalism on a massive scale.
  • We need people who treat persons as persons. We need people (like that) in whatever discipline they work in.
  • We need second-person ethics (patiency, I-thou relationships) because third-person ethics (agency) is not sufficient to protect dignity. Natural family planning (NFP) is an example of second-person ethics, because it consists of two people loving together what the other person loves, thus upholding dignity; whereas contraception is an example of third-person ethics, as it is like a business contract and therefore breakable.
  • Avoid cold benevolence and narcissism. Listen to others and read their body language. Find common ground. Avoid ad hominem attacks. Exercise mercy and forgiveness.
Comments on this blog? Email them to johnsmeaton@spuc.org.uk
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