Thursday, October 24, 2019

Decretum Symposium summary

Last month I was a panelist at the Cardus Institute's third Decretum Symposium, representing a secular perspective on the practical implications of human dignity. I applaud Cardus for a sincere effort to reach out to others in order to hear different philosophical outlooks. For important topics in society where significant portions of the country disagree on principles and the policies that flow from them, it is essential to have a frank and respectful exchange of ideas. This was my goal with my prepared remarks on human dignity from a secular perspective.

I did not expect to change anyone's core philosophy, in the sense of converting the audience to adopt my worldview. My aim was get attendees - who were all adherents to a religious tradition, primarily Catholic - to think differently, and perhaps to recognize that people on the "other" side (secular folk, atheists, and non-Catholics) also had morals, values, and a philosophy based on a considered ethical foundation. If I was truly successful, they would realize that secularism (government neutrality in matters of religion) is the most reasonable compromise in a pluralistic society.

I had a couple interesting conversations before the event began. (Note that none of what follows is a transcript, though I am recalling what was said and maintaining the fidelity of all arguments to the best of my ability).

The Canadian federal election campaign had recently begun, so politics was a natural topic for conversation. There was a clear preference for the Conservative party in the room. The first person I spoke with told me, "One of my kids said the other day, 'I don't like team Red.' When I asked why, she said, 'Mommy told me they hate us.'" The "us" in his anecdote were observant Catholics. He didn't approve of his wife inculcating political partisanship in the children, though it was apparent he agreed with the sentiment.

Another individual (after introductions and an appropriate amount of small talk) lamented what he saw as an increasing trend toward censorship in today's society. He found there to be a trend of shutting down conversations, with a justification that once a decision has been made, it was time to move on. Surely, he asked rhetorically, we should welcome discussion, including dissenting views?

I inferred that the subtext was MAiD - Medical Assistance in Dying - but since he declined to make the topic explicit, I decided to follow his lead, and instead used a different concrete example to illustrate my thoughts.

I started by agreeing with him. I concurred that we should not censor dissenting views, suppress questions or ban conversation on just about any topic. But I provided two caveats: 1) Time is scarce. As the potential list of things to talk about is infinite, we ought to choose our discussion topics wisely, as the potential list is infinite. A person or organization may choose not to discuss something, or to discuss something other than your preferred topic, but that decision is not tantamount to censorship. Flat earthers are not censored, even if geologists won't talk with them or put their items on the agenda of meeting of their professional societies. 2) If a deliberative body has reached a conclusion on a matter, presumably there were valid reasons for coming to the decision. Anyone wanting it to be reconsidered has an obligation to review the arguments and evidence that underpinned the original conclusion. Unless members have new information, reveal a flaw in the decision making methodology, or can point out errors in the original premises, evidence, or reasoning, then there is no reason for an organization to heed some members' calls for a review. Again, as with those proclaiming the earth is flat, in the absence of any evidence of their claims, scientists are right to largely ignore them. They have better things to do with their time.

The Symposium began with a panel of four philosophers and theologians. As I had predicted, each presenter had a different definition of human dignity.

The first speaker, Dr. Moira McQueen of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, argued that human dignity arises due to each individual's uniqueness. This leads to a perspective of "radical equality, as each person has inherent worth." We should be considered full human beings "from conception to natural death, with no exceptions," and any definition of personhood that begins after conception "is an assault on human dignity." She stated that non-religious people are moral, who value truth and the good - which is a kind of faith, even if not in God. She also claimed that there was "no possibility of a state being neutral" in matters of religion.

Next up was Faisal Bhabha, a law professor at Osgoode. He believes that "what it is to be human is a philosophical and religious question, not a scientific one." There is no straight line between the Enlightenment and the development of human rights, he said, which came to the fore only after World War II. Though dignity is often mentioned in the law, especially Human Rights law, it is nowhere defined. The Supreme Court of Canada has "linked dignity to equality the exclusion of other human rights," which Professor Bhabha laments. Human dignity is a widespread concept, as illustrated by the Arab Spring's rallying cry of, "Bread, Freedom, and Dignity!"

The third panelist was Dr. Douglas Farrow. His address consisted almost entirely of Christian apologetics. It was biblical theism, he stated, that brought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into being. Dr. Farrow gives Christianity credit for all the good in the world. If a worthy idea was in a Psalm, then it clearly inspired all implementations of that notion.

The final contributor to the first panel was Dr. Victor Muñiz-Fraticelli. He said he was surprised to be representing the secular perspective, because he's usually an apologist for religious authority. He is a moral constructivist, which follows from the writings of John Rawls. He spoke at length about Immanuel Kant's ideas about the categorical imperative. He argued that because humans have reason, we act contra-causally (that is, we have free will). He claimed that in liberal circles, only a philosophical account matters when justifying moral or ethical propositions; religious arguments are discounted, or must be translated. He seemed saddened by this state of affairs, though it's not clear to me why, and he did not elaborate.

My presentation was immediately after dinner. Between performing in innumerable plays and debates during my high school and university years, as well as more recent conference and debate appearances, I have some experience in reading an audience to gauge how my words are being received. However, during my speech I could get no sense of the mood of the room. There were still some people finishing their dessert or concluding their conversations from dinner when I began; within thirty seconds, however, I had everyone's full attention, which I kept for the duration of my speech. Whether it was because I was a compelling speaker that maintained everyone's rapt attention, or people were shocked into silence due to the heresies I was seriously proposing, I could not tell.

My counterpart for the second panel was Dr. Lucas Vivas of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and Societies. He started by asking, "Why should we care for others, beyond family, loved ones, and for economic benefit?" His answer was human dignity and an ethic of care. Of dignity, he said, "I know what it is - but I don't really know what it is." Doctors tend to define dignity by its absence. For Dr. Vivas, human dignity is inextricably merged with God: if He doesn't exist, there is no such thing as dignity.

Dr. Vivas attempted to refute my contention that "Human dignity demands that we be pro-choice." He argued that autonomy is the equivalent to rationality, so if human dignity is grounded in autonomy, it would be permissible to kill babies. He continued, "Rape is an affront. But carrying life is a blessing, while killing a baby is not. Being pro-life is not an affront to a woman's dignity."

After the formal addresses was a discussion among all six panelists, moderated by Dr. Andrew Bennett. As soon as he was given the floor for some brief remarks, Dr. Farrow spent nearly fifteen minutes laying into me. It was the only time at the Symposium when I experienced overt hostility. To start with, he took great umbrage that my address contained
So many - I counted at least a dozen - "should", "must", and "ought" statements. On what basis do you demand so much of others? Your speech had no philosophical grounding - it was anchored in nothing more substantial than clouds!
Though I was asked to focus on practical applications of human dignity (since the mandate of the first panel was to establish its theological and philosophical underpinnings), this was a a fair criticism. He refused to allow me a chance to answer, however, and continued his rant. He "cannot imagine a civilized society not based in gratitude to the Creator," which - though it allowed for other faiths that worship a different Deity - poses an intrinsic conflict with my proposed secular outlook.

At this point I managed to offer a brief  rebuttal: "No. There is no inherent conflict with a secular person coexisting peacefully with those observing any religious tradition. An issue arises only when one party uses force to coerce the other into adhering to their worldview." His retort was, "Your arguments remind me of Michael Ignatieff," - someone I respect greatly as an academic (and considerably less so as a politician), but I didn't get the chance to say so - "whose position I utterly demolish in Chapter One of my book." (He didn't specify which of his publications.)

He asked me directly: "What would happen if I reject your premise of mutual non-antagonism? What if I want your head on a platter?" He claimed to know all about Hobbes' Leviathan and dismissed it with a wave of his hand, asking, "In your proposed worldview, what's to stop me from killing you?" I'm not sure I truly understood what he was driving at - was he implying that the only reason he didn't decapitate me was his faith in God and fear of His disapproval? I tried to explain that there were laws and norms against such an action, on top of which I would attempt to defend myself against such an onslaught, but I was interrupted several times and couldn't get my point across effectively.

Dr. Farrow then linked increasing secularization in society with the observation that things are getting steadily worse. I rejected his premise, saying that overall humanity is making progress, as average lifespans are increasing and levels of violence, with some unfortunate spikes, are generally decreasing. The audience gasped in shock at this claim; it was clear they vehemently disagreed, and Dr. Farrow mocked me for it, saying this was only true if one cherry picked the data by ignoring all the wars of the 20th century. When I had the chance to speak again, I mentioned that my argument is documented in Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of our Nature", but unfortunately by that point it was too late to be an effective bolster.

Most interesting for me was the audience Q&A session. One attendee was struggling with Dr. McQueen's statement that human dignity is inherent, not something that is given or needs to be earned. "You are claiming," he said, "that humans do not have dignity because we are made in God's image, because that is in reference to God. If dignity is inherent, then God is simply an overlay, and He is not necessary for human dignity!" I realized I was leaning forward in my seat at this point - though the question was not directed at me, I was intensely interested in how he resolved his cognitive dissonance. In the end, motivated thinking won out - he had to reject the notion that human dignity is inherent because he could not accept that an important concept in how we relate to each other did not have God at its centre.

Dr. Bennett directed a question to me. "If we acknowledge that we should respect people's wish to die, does it made sense to spend money on suicide prevention? For these days we are investing millions of dollars to fight an epidemic of suicides among native communities in Canada."

I responded as follows:
There are two parts to this. First, there is a qualitative difference between suicide and assisted death. The first is an over-reaction; a transitory, passionate response to a temporary state of affairs, which the individual lacks the perspective to realize at that moment. We know this to be true because of the many people who have attempted suicide and are subsequently glad that they were unsuccessful. Assisted death, at least in Canada, is restricted to those that have a permanent, degenerative, and fatal condition for which there is no effective treatment or cure, and even then only after significant consultation and evaluation by medical and psychological experts. 
Second, and more importantly, before we start creating rationales to halt suicide prevention programs on reserves, we have an obligation to give first nation communities the same opportunities that other Canadians living in urban and rural areas have. We could start by ensuring that all First Nations have safe drinking water, as some have had boil water advisories for decades. We should increase the amount spent on education and child welfare to match what other Canadians receive. And we need to eliminate the bias in our policing and judicial systems that has discriminated against aboriginals since the first Europeans set foot in North America. If we do that, it is entirely possible that there would no suicide epidemic among First Nations communities to contend with.
A little later, Dr. Bennett directed a second question toward me. He led with a quotation, "He who drools has just as much dignity as he who does not." (I do not recall the source.) He proceeded by querying whether our shared commitment to human dignity (though defined differently by each of us) precluded us from actively terminating a person's life. I decided that there had been enough talk about broad principles and abstract ideas, so I hoped that a personal anecdote might demonstrate the point more poignantly:
A dear friend contracted ALS several years ago. She did not speak of human dignity explicitly, but what gave her life meaning was her interactions with others. The nightmare scenario, for her, was to be trapped in a body with full awareness but be completely unable to communicate. Medical technology could have kept her alive with a feeding tube and a ventilator.
How can anyone claim it is ethical to put her through years or decades of what would be, for her, the worst torture she could imagine? If the key objection is taking active steps to end her life, can one genuinely argue it would be better to let her drown in her own saliva or suffocate because her body no longer could bring sufficient oxygen to her lungs? A decision to end one's life, and to assist someone to do so, should not be undertaken lightly - but I cannot agree that the moral thing to do would be to prolong her life, against her wishes, condemning her to a personal hell, indefinitely.
The conference ended on a positive note, from my perspective. Dr. Vivas had lamented during his speech that he did not practice in a Catholic hospital (and that many such hospitals are Catholic in name only). Further, the Ontario Medical Association is "prosecutorial" towards faith having any role in his medical practice - that is, while he is allowed to be a Catholic who practiced medicine, he risked official censure if he practiced Catholic medicine. In his final remarks to the conference, he explained that in Brampton his patients are overwhelmingly Sikh and Muslim. If his hospital reflected the local demographics, he would be a doctor in a Sikh or Islamic environment, a prospect that made him "distinctly uncomfortable". Perhaps, he acknowledged, "there is some merit in a secular approach," which allowed everyone, regardless of their personal faith, to focus on health.

Overall, I was pleased that I was able to contribute to the public discourse on the role of faith and secular ethics in a pluralistic society.