John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, refers to “the great anthropocentric shift in philosophy,” in which Descartes redefines the human being in terms of consciousness. Referring to St. Thomas Aquinas, John Paul reiterates that “it is not thought which determines existence, but existence, ‘esse,’ which determines thought!” In other words, it is man who thinks, not thinking that is man.
The Cartesian shift away from man’s fundamental being to an accident (consciousness) took place within philosophy. But this shift, throughout history, has been commonly employed on a practical level. In our own time, Peter Singer, for example, in his book Practical Ethics, rejects ontology and replaces it with the notion of quality of life. Thus, he divides humanity into those who do or who do not have what he calls a “preferred state.”
The practice of dividing the human race according to some accidental feature and then discriminating against those who occupy the “wrong” side of the spectrum is particularly evident with regard to abortion.
There are those who are “unwanted,” an accidental feature by which they are arbitrarily labeled as such, and those who are “wanted.”
People who are “pro-choice” unwittingly accept this anthropocentric shift as if it were an indication of enlightenment, not suspecting that it is a form of discrimination. Contemporary Americans, however, would do well to familiarize themselves with their own history of discrimination based on this anthropocentric shift. In this regard, the history of social Darwinism in America is most instructive, as well as disturbing.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin writes: “The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: All ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage.”
Darwin is not concerned with universal human rights based on a common human nature (nor in helping people to rise from poverty), but in dividing the human race into the wealthy and the poor, or the more fit and the less fit, or the strong and the weak. Such a division, of course, is the form that fuels discrimination. Social Darwinism in America has been amply documented. Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1992) and Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (2007) are well researched and highly recommended.
Madison Grant, in The Passing of the Great Race (1916), predicted “a rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit — in other words, social failures — would solve the problem in a century.” Harvard-educated Lothrop Stoddard wrote an influential work bearing the now rather disquieting title of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (2003). He urged widespread segregation and immigration restrictions to combat the “unfit” races, which he compared to infectious bacteria.
Perhaps the most vigorous social Darwinist in America was a Yale University professor by the name of William Graham Sumner. Hofstadter contends that Sumner “converted his strategic post in New Haven into a kind of social-Darwinist pulpit.” The following paragraph that flowed from his pen could hardly represent his case more clearly:
“Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”
Social Darwinism in America may have reached its apogee in 1927 in the notorious Buck v. Bell Supreme Court decision. This court, by an 8-1 count, ruled in favour of forcible sterilization. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ words will reverberate forever:
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Neither IQ nor economic factors go into determining the humanity of the human being. Yet, we find Justice Blackmun making the following statement in the 1977 Beal v. Doe Supreme Court case:
“But the cost of a nontherapeutic abortion is far less than the cost of maternity care and delivery and holds no comparison whatsoever with the welfare costs that will burden the state for the new indigents and their support in the long years ahead.”
By this strictly economic calculus, one could argue in favor of aborting every pregnant woman. In this case, ironically, the economically costly is commensurate with all human beings.
A contemporary philosopher by the name of Daniel Dennett appraises Darwin’s view as the “universal acid” that has eroded the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of the dignity of the human person. The peculiar feature of a “universal acid” is that it is so strong that there is no matter to be found anywhere that can contain it. In a certain sense, Dennett is right; by abandoning the ontological reality of the human being, there is no philosophy or ideology that can protect him from the corrosive acid of discrimination.
Catholic teaching concerning the dignity of the human person, as grounded in his being, provides a firm basis for equality and justice.
The basis of discrimination against human beings is using an accident rather than the ontological reality of a being to define the human. This procedure inevitably divides the human being into two groups, of which one is preferred over the other.
Catholic education concerning the universal nature of the human being recognizes the primary significance of the ontological.
What this means, simply, is that it is the being of the human that defines him and is the foundation of his rights. In this sense, all human beings are equal insofar as they share the same specific being. Only by this ontological understanding of the common nature of all human beings is it possible to render justice to all human beings.
The notion that “all men are created equal” is based on a common ontology, the understanding that all human beings have the same nature. The notion that all human beings are created in the image of God also affirms this common ontology of all human beings. People are equal in their humanity, though each individual is unique in his personal identity.
At the same time, the ontological nature of the human being, which is a metaphysical concept alluding to man’s concrete and fundamental reality, is not something that the senses can perceive. The senses, in fact, perceive the accidents of the human being, such as the binary tandems of rich/poor, powerful/weak, healthy/unhealthy, white/black, born/unborn, and so on.
Without this ontological (and hence, eminently realistic) starting point, it becomes inevitable, as history has clearly shown, that the human being will be defined by one or another of his accidents. The predictable result of this definition by accident is inequality and discrimination.
This also explains the urgency John Paul attached to what he referred to as “anthropological realism”: We do not know how we should live until we know who we are. This same anthropological realism is crucial if we are ever to realize the discrimination that is currently leveled against the unborn.
Catholic education embraces both philosophy and theology. The Church’s philosophy is a search for truth, including the truth of man. This truth of man in its ontological character is a universal. A universal, naturally, is a generality, and, as such, though an object of the intellect, is not an object of love.
The Church’s theology, however, because it is a theology of Christian love, urges people to direct their love toward individual human beings. In this way, philosophy and theology work hand in hand, one supplying the truth, the other, the moral imperative. In this way, also, Catholic education honors both the universal as well as the individual dimensions of the human being.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels, in a collection of essays by various authors under the title Handing on the Faith in an Age of Disbelief, expresses great sympathy for the many people in the world today who are bereft of both truth and love. In this deprived state, he says, they experience both “darkness” and “cold.”
Many of them seek love, but they look for it apart from truth. “But what good is it to be warm,” the archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Belgium, asks, “if you are in the dark?
“Love is not enough; we need also, and first of all, the truth, without which the fire is but a straw fire.”
The twin goals of authentic Catholic education are beautifully encapsulated in Psalm 85:11: “Kindness and truth shall embrace.” The truth can make us free, while love can make us whole.
Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at
St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
and Mater Ecclesiae College.