Bioethics and Gnosticism

I am continuing to reflect on the ideas presented at the CBHD summer conference this past week. The talk that impacted me the most was given by Robert George on Thursday evening. His topic was Bioethics and Gnosticism. His focus was the distinction between different concepts of who we are as human beings. One way to think about who we are which is present in Aristotle, Hebrew thought and Christian thought is that we are a unity of spirit and body. That says that we have a nonmaterial part of our being (the spiritual or mental part) that is in unity with our physical or bodily part and that it is the unity of the two that is what we are. The other view goes back to Greek Gnostic thought and was picked up by Descartes and modern western philosophy and has been called substance dualism. It says that we are nonbodily persons who inhabit or use bodies that are nonpersonal.

This difference in what we understand human beings to be impacts how we define persons and understand who has full moral status. For those who believe we are a unity of spirit and body it makes sense to say that personhood begins with the creation of a new human organism at the time of conception and that every human being is a person until the body ceases to be alive. That view gives moral value to every member of the human family and leaves no one out. However if we are nonbodily persons who inhabit a nonpersonal body, our personhood and moral status can be seen to be a function of whether we have the cognitive abilities or attributes that characterize a nonbodily person. That allows us to define who is a person based on those attributes and leaves the possibility that very early human beings such as embryos and fetuses and those with severe cognitive impairment from mental disabilities or dementia are not persons and do not have full moral status. This makes this difference in how we see human beings very important.

It also impacts our understanding of human sexuality. If we are a spirit-body unity, what we do with our body has a significant impact on us as persons. That gives particular significance to marriage and clarifies why extra-marital sex can cause such significant harm to us as a person. Seeing the body as an instrument of the true person leads to a loss of traditional sexual morality and opens to door to redefinition of marriage, gender fluidity and transexualism.

Thinking beyond what Dr. George expressed, neognostic thought also underlies much of what is expressed by transhumanists. Ideas of transforming ourselves into something that is beyond human or downloading our consciousness into a non-living computer to achieve immortality fits with an understanding of our being nonbodily persons who simply inhabit nonpersonal bodies.

Recognizing this difference in how what it means to be human can be understood helps us to understand the thinking behind some of the differences on moral issues that we see in modern society.

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Paige Cunningham
Paige Cunningham
6 years ago

Nice summary, Steve. I agree that it was a profoundly important address. One conference participant commented that it was a transformative experience, dividing his perspective into “before George” and “after George” (not a quote; that ‘s my characterization).

Carol Eblen
Carol Eblen
6 years ago

Thank you so much for this clear explanation of “personhood” as defined from two different perspectives.

Sadly, “personhood” is not defined clearly in the federal law that pertains to public and commercial health insurance and this leads to moral and legal turpitude (depending on one’s perspective) that is swept under the rug of “ethics violations” by hospitals who are regulated by the states.

Don’t we have to have a transparent and open discussion with the American people and in our courts about the 14th Amendment Right to Die and the 14th Amendment Right to Live that will settle the matter of “personhood” in the law?

Louise Mitchell
Louise Mitchell
6 years ago

I agree with what you are saying about the different views of the body/spirit connection. Please allow me to use this occasion to introduce a topic of concern to me. I find troubling the use of the term “moral status” to describe what rights someone or something has and what duties we owe to them. In Beauchamp and Childress’s use of the term, it can be applied to non-human animals and human embryos and corpses and pretty much anything else. For example, persons with dementia have a lower “moral status” than competent adults which is why we “take away” some of their rights (according to B&C). By using “moral status” in this way, we seem to be leveling the playing field: everything and everyone gets evaluated by the same calculus regardless of if they are human or not. It seems to ignore the difference in kind of human beings and their inherent dignity made in the image of God, something in which the rest of creation does not participate. It seems to me that using “moral status” to refer to how we should treat other human beings lends itself to Peter Singer’s proposition that parents should be allowed to kill their child before the age of 2 if they want; and also to his proposition that young apes should have more rights than human babies. I don’t have the same problem with using the term “moral status” in reference to acts (what is the moral status of an act, i.e., is it good or evil?) or to the character of persons (is the person good or evil?). Are we allowing the term “moral status,” used as a determination of how to treat people and things, to creep into our discourse when as Christians we should be rejecting such use outright?