What is a whole human being? Are all human beings equal, or are some more equal than others? What is the thing that gives us value? Is it physical? Is it something non-material like sentience or intelligence? Whatever it is, it must be something we share in equally.
We are continuing our series on Disabilities and the Church. Recognizing the disabled as full members of the human race only makes sense if the thing that gives us value is not physical or mentally grounded. These two aspects of our humanity are both had in unequal quantities.
As I have maintained throughout this series, we as a society have gotten much better at treating people with disabilities with respect and kindness. Thank God for that! We still have room for improvement, however. And those of us in the Church should be especially attuned to those among us with disabilities.
People have proposed “less than human” solutions in the past. Generally, every time one group wants to oppress another, they begin using “less than” language. This is meant to devalue the group being oppressed. The thinking is that if it can be shown that a certain group is “less than” human, oppression of that group is therefore justified.
Under the initial draft of the Constitution, slaves in the southern states were considered 3/5 of a person. Called the 3/5 compromise, it allowed the population of slave states to be calculated counting black slaves as 3/5 of a person. The south wanted the additional congressional seats that would be allotted if slaves counted as full members of the population. But they also realized the implications of recognizing them as full members of the society.
Life Unworthy Of Life
In Nazi Germany during WWII, the term “Life unworthy of life” was widely used. The term expressed the idea that some humans were less than human. The “life unworthy of life” mantra was not only used to commit the holocaust against the Jewish population, but the disabled as well. People with mental or physical disabilities were executed and subjected to torturous experiments.
What is the property that makes us a whole human being? Some say that intelligence is what gives us value as human beings. But do we share in intelligence equally? And at what point does someone gain enough intelligence to be considered a full member of the human race?
People usually peak intellectually in their late 40’s. But we don’t consider people in their early 20’s less than human. Nor do we consider the elderly as somehow unworthy of life. Those that suffer cognitive disabilities are likewise not considered less than human.
Physical attributes also fall short of giving us human rights. If someone tragically loses a limb, we don’t consider them 4/5 human. Our laws reflect this. There are not varying degrees of punishment for committing crimes against people with missing limbs. We consider you a whole human being no matter even if you are a quadriplegic.
So, whatever it is that gives us value as humans can’t be a physical trait. And as we’ve seen, mental abilities are also not a sufficient standard to say that someone is human, and another isn’t.
What Gives Us Value?
As you can see from the examples above, bad things happen when we get this question wrong. And those that suffer the greatest are the most vulnerable among us.
What is a whole human being? Again, it must be something we all share in equally. And that thing is our human nature. Scott Klusendorf makes this point in his book “The Case For Life”.
“Substances are living organisms that maintain their identities through time, while property things, such as cars and machinery, do not. What moves a puppy to maturity or a fetus to an adult is not an external collection of parts but an internal, defining nature or essence. As a substance develops, it does not become more of its kind but matures according to its kind. It remains what it is from the moment it begins to exist. Consequently, a substance functions in light of what it is and maintains its identity even if its ultimate capacities are never realized due to disability or injury. A dog that never develops his capacity to bark is still a dog by nature.”
Attempts to ground human value in physical or mental capacities will always fail. People will invariably claim superiority over those perceived as having “less than” whatever is required to be human. And this should be particularly worrisome to the disabled and those that care about them.
People with disabilities are human in virtue of their essential nature as human beings. As we have seen in previous posts, this assertion is challenged quite often when it comes to the disabled. And while the arguments are currently limited to the unborn, history shows us how quickly those arguments begin to be used on those outside the womb as well.
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Klusendorf, Scott. The Case for Life (p. 50). Crossway. Kindle Edition.