Human Frailty and Human Dignity

The New Atlantis (Fall 2004-Winter 2005).


In the aftermath of an election season, with the question of stem cell research in the public eye and demagogued in the most awful way, Eric Cohen has chosen to ask more fundamental questions. His essay reflects upon the morality of nature, the redemptive aspirations of medicine, the character of human rationality, and the human quest for justice. And it uses the embryo question to illuminate fundamental tensions and troubles in our culture.

Cohen begins by arguing that the embryo debate is not strictly speaking a contest between science and religion or between reason and faith. Rather, it is a story about the fate of our idea of human equality. In order to redress nature’s inequitable treatment of the sick, especially children, we are threatening our core social and political ideal of radical human equality, itself an article of democratic faith. In the desire to rescue the afflicted, we are creating, exploiting, and destroying human embryos, embryos that reason can show to be human beings in the decisive moral sense, human beings like and equal to us. The essay is thus a tale of the “tragedy of equality.” It is about our willingness to seek justice for the sick by committing injustice against the weak, to serve equality by denying equality.

I have to express my sympathy for the moral sentiment of the paper and the moral conclusion to which it points. But if there is a tragedy here, it is not a tragedy best told in terms of the story of equality. It is the tragedy of compassionate humanitarianism, in which devotion to a partial (and egalitarian) view of the human good — health and avoidance of suffering — is allowed to ride roughshod over richer and fuller accounts of dignified human life.

The New Atlantis