Sunday, September 29, 2019

A secular perspective on human dignity

On Thursday, September 26, I took part in the third Decretum Symposium, an event organized by the Cardus Institute, a faith-based think tank. I was invited by Andrew Bennett, a director at Cardus, whom I met in May while testifying about hate speech before the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights committee. 

The Symposium was about human dignity: what it is, and how it can be applied to the topics of assisted death, abortion, and conscience rights/freedom of religion. I was asked to present a secular perspective on these issues, representing the Canadian Secular Alliance

I knew little about my audience save that they would be predominantly practicing Christians, though there would be representatives of other faiths present as well. I will publish my thoughts about the Symposium in a few days.

Here are my prepared remarks:

Good evening. My name is Leslie Rosenblood, and I am a secular humanist. I have chosen this philosophical outlook because it most closely aligns with the principles, morals, and values I hold dear.

Human life is precious. It is precious not because of a deity, nor because of the words written on a sacred scroll centuries or millennia ago. Life is precious because it is rare. As far as we know, there was no life anywhere for the universe’s first 10 billion years, and humanity’s ancestors evolved only a few million years ago. Though we are fortunate enough to be living in Canada today, we can still glimpse just a tiny fraction of the vastness of the universe, and even then only for a minuscule sliver of its existence - on average, for a little over 80 years. The billions of years that will follow us will be known, if at all, only by our descendants. That is why human life is precious, has meaning, and is of value. This life is the one chance we have to experience and understand the world we were born into. It is precisely because there are no second chances, no guiding hand of Fate, and no divine safety net, that our decisions and actions matter. It is only us who are responsible for how we treat each other. It is precisely because I do not believe in an afterlife that I place such value on this one. This, for me, is the source of human dignity.

I have struggled over the past few weeks with the definition of human dignity. It has not been difficult because I don't think it exists. The challenge is that I have not been able to find a definition of human dignity that I believe will be shared by all present tonight. When we speak of human dignity this evening, we should do so with the caveat that we are not likely to have a common understanding of what the phrase entails.

When I speak of human dignity, I do so through the lens of the following two principles:
  1. Human autonomy
  2. Amelioration of suffering
A genuine commitment to individual autonomy means recognizing that people have different priorities, and will choose different things in similar circumstances. We must be humble enough to acknowledge we do not know what is best for others. Thus I do not think there exists a one-size fits all, simple rule that applies to everyone in all circumstances.

Reducing suffering is essentially an extension of the Golden Rule - suffering is defined as pain and distress, and by asking others to reduce my anguish, I have an obligation to reciprocate.

Neither of these rules is absolute. A prohibition on killing others is a justifiable restriction of untrammeled individual autonomy because it infringes both precepts of human dignity – it is the ultimate violation of another person, and adds greatly to the suffering of the victims and their loved ones. Yet even here, our proscription is not absolute – we allow for an exception when one kills in self-defence.

In addition to avoiding universal or binary rules, we should also agree to a philosophical commitment to truth. We need to examine not only if an idea makes sense in principle, but also be willing to honestly evaluate its real world effects when implemented, and adjust our thinking accordingly. Because while in theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice, they are not.

With this groundwork laid, we can apply these ideas to the specific topics in tonight's discussion.

It is clear that a forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term against her will is a violation of her autonomy. Doing so in cases of rape is cruel, adding to instead of reducing her suffering. When this topic arises, some argue that terminating a set of rapidly dividing largely undifferentiated cells is the moral and legal equivalent to slaughtering an adult human being. This contention contradicts the knowledge about human embryology and development we have accumulated over the past few centuries, and contravenes our commitment to truth and avoiding false dichotomies. Human dignity demands that we be pro-choice.

Nonetheless, I support measures that have the effect of reducing the number of abortions within society. If that is your goal, there is much we can agree on. Fortunately, we have data spanning decades from many countries and we know several things society can do to significantly reduce the number of women seeking an abortion, even where they are readily available:
  1. Comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education. When people understand how their bodies work, they make more informed decisions about what to do with them. We know that abstinence-only curricula are positively correlated with teenage pregnancy rates. Accurate information drives down unintended pregnancies, which in turn reduces the number of abortions. 
  2. Ready access to birth control and contraception, such as condoms and the pill. Humans are sexual beings, and tend to have intercourse no matter the parental or societal taboos surrounding it. We need to accept this about our nature, and permit the act without the often undesired consequence of a pregnancy. 
  3. Increase support for parents of infants and toddlers. There is a clear inverse relationship between structural societal support for babies - such as paid parental leaves and affordable child care - and the number of abortions. When having a child does not threaten a lifetime of poverty, more people choose to become pregnant, and fewer decide not to carry the fetus to term. 
We also know that restricting or banning abortion does little to reduce its prevalence. Introducing education, contraception, and societal supports dramatically lowers the abortion rate. I put it to you that we can agree on public policy goals, even if we arrive at our conclusions starting from different premises.

Assisted death is a complex subject. If we are to consider voluntary euthanasia, we must build in protections against errors and abuse. A temporary condition, such as some forms of pain, should not lead to an irrevocable decision. When people approach the end of their life, they are often robbed of the ability to make informed decisions - and next of kin, regrettably, sometimes prioritize their own interests over the ailing person's. And medical professionals, being human, sometimes make errors in judgement - so we need to independently double check every decision to ensure no mistakes have been made.

Given the extensive efforts required to even consider assisted death, perhaps we should reject it outright. But once one sees what transpires so often in our medical centres today - excruciating pain; dementia; seizures; involuntary expulsion of bodily fluids from every orifice; with many of these cases being untreatable and/or incurable – one cannot conclude that it is moral to prolong their agony for as long as technologically feasible. Human dignity demands otherwise.

I therefore reject both extreme views - that we should take active steps to end a person's life at the smallest inconvenience, and that we should always take all measures to extend every life to the maximum possible extent. Our commitment to autonomy and minimization of suffering means that we must respect a person's desire to die, under appropriately constrained conditions.

A respect for autonomy also informs freedom of conscience. As a secularist - meaning I believe government should neither support nor suppress religious expression - I believe in both freedom of religion and freedom from it.

Let us consider seriously the premise that conscience rights imply one may refuse to perform an aspect of their job that violates their faith. In such a world, the simple act of ordering a bacon cheeseburger at a restaurant may be fraught with difficulties. A Hindu waitress could refuse to serve the burger. A Muslim chef would possibly refuse to cook the bacon. A Jewish employee might forbid the mixing of dairy and meat. And if the customer nonetheless persevered and ate one, a Jehovah's Witness physician would perhaps refuse to perform a lifesaving blood transfusion after the heart attack that followed.

This may seem a trivial thought experiment, but its lessons apply broadly. Let's imagine an employee of the Canada Revenue Agency holds the sincere belief that religion is the root of evil in society today. A church, temple, or mosque applies to have its new house of worship recognized by the CRA as a charitable organization, in full accordance with Canadian law. Should this employee be able to veto the application if it crosses his desk?

I would argue no. This CRA employee cannot claim his personal beliefs override the rights of others to services (or, in this case, tax credits) to which they are legally entitled. By the same token, a sincere belief that homosexuality is a sin does not mean that a justice of the peace may refuse to conduct a marriage ceremony for a same sex couple. Nor, for that matter, should a doctor be permitted to deny an effective referral to a patient that is seeking an assisted death. Religious freedom, and freedom of conscience, cannot be used as a cudgel to enforce one's personal or religious preferences upon others.

Laws must be generally applicable, and apply equally to people of all faiths, as well as those that have none. I want there to be Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Mormons, Wiccans and more represented in our various municipal, provincial, and federal legislatures and in our civil service. Laws and public policy must not be dictated by any of these faiths. The beliefs of an individual employee should have no effect on the governmental services one receives.  

A secular society allows for the greatest religious freedom for all citizens, subject to reasonable limits in a free and democratic society; it does not include a protected right to coerce others to behave according to the tenets of a particular faith. Recognizing that human dignity consists of individual autonomy and reduction of suffering leads to a society with greater freedom and diversity, thus creating the conditions for human flourishing. I hope that everyone here tonight shares with me that objective. 

Thank you.


  1. Well said. I am wondering what the reaction was to your presentation of this at the conference.

    1. I wrote about the reaction to my comments (and other observations about the conference) in a subsequent blog post, Decretum Symposium Summary.