Human Dignity At 160



160 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address to a packed crowd in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

Speaking as part of a dedication to a new military cemetery for those who died in the battle earlier in the year, Lincoln gave a speech at the dedication that was short, concise, and to the point. 

His opening line is perhaps the most memorable:

Four-score and seven years ago, our father brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

In his opening sentence, Lincoln lays out the basis for his talk: People are all equal in virtue of their shared humanity, created equal, rather than equal in virtue of some other arbitrary characteristic like skin color or gender. 

We know how the story ends. The Union won the Civil War and slavery ended, and whole it took several more generations for equality of people among races to be achieved, the question of human dignity is still with us today. 

When it comes to the issue of abortion, many people are confused. They look at the unborn and aren’t impressed. After all, the unborn are smaller, less developed, located in a womb, and are dependent on someone else for their survival. After all, we are often told, why should the unborn matter more than an actual woman who is pregnant? 

When it comes to the ethics of how we treat other human beings, it’s important first and foremost to view ourselves with a proper perspective. Two questions need to be asked: Yes, adults like us matter; but why do we matter? And if we matter now, have we always mattered as human beings, or only when we achieved something in the course of our lifetimes? In other words, did we have value from the moment we began to exist, or did we gain value, a right to not be intentionally killed, when we reached a performance threshold? 

Let’s discuss the second question first. Do performance thresholds bestow value? Very often advocates of abortion will answer yes. The unborn aren’t human enough to count because they lack consciousness, desires for life, sentience, an ability to feel pain, or some other factor. Because of this, while abortion may at most destroy a human body, it doesn’t destroy a valuable human person because there is no “person” present to be killed, or the factors needed for killing to be wrong are not yet present. 

As Scott Klusendorf points out, this confuses functioning as a person with being a person. While consciousness and a desire to feel pain are undoubtedly human characteristics, it’s worth asking if we attain these characteristics because we are human to begin with. Put differently, we attain consciousness or self-awareness as a result of our human nature. 

This is what Lincoln was referring to when he stated that all men(meaning, all people) are created equal. We may vary in ability, or even in our immediate capacity to exercise certain abilities, but fundamentally we are all equal because of our shared human natures. We have had our human natures from the moment we began to exist, which the science of embryology shows is at conception. 

There is one other problem with a functional view of human beings: If a functional view of human value is correct, Lincoln was wrong. Not all human beings possess the same ability or exercise functions like consciousness in the same exact way or all of the time. Take consciousness for instance. Humans will vary in consciousness or conscious experiences even on a day to day basis(such as when sleeping), or due to things like age, disease, or injuries. A person may go into a coma for a period of time where they are unable to exercise consciousness. 

Functional abilities are assumed to be almost like a light switch, with an “on” and “off” function, when in reality they are more like a volume knob, one that can be gradually increased or decreased over time. If humans only have value in virtue of functions, then human equality is itself a myth, because people vary in ability, 

There’s a better way to ground our conviction that people have value: Value people according to their shared humanity, rather than their functions, appearances, degrees of dependence, or any other factor.