Saturday, December 18, 2010

If People are Genuine Agents . . .

A post on Siris here recently gave a fascinating if brief quote from a paper by Jeremy Waldron, of the New York University School of Law, entitled Image of God: Rights, Reason, and Order. The paper itself is accessible here, but to get it you have to download the paper with a click. The phrase in the title, Image of God, refers to Genesis where God is quoted saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Waldron examines this framing as the potential foundation for human rights—which is a rather refreshingly traditional look at a thoroughly modern notion, namely inalienable human rights. I’d never linked the two myself, revealing how alienated I’ve become from modernity—and it was therefore refreshing for me, too, to imagine that the endless hue and cry about rights might actually have something to do with a fundamental tenet of my own thought, namely that people are genuine agents, thus belong to another order than matter—which exhibits no agency at all.

By interesting coincidence, a C-Span discussion just a week or so ago about Economics and Environmentalism, both labeled secular religions, featured a theologian who, in commentary, cited the same verse in Genesis to speak about dominion. The verse is:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26.
The theologian was at pains to point out that, in this verse, dominion meant caring and responsible oversight by a created being endowed with agency by the Highest—with emphasis on care and keeping rather than selfish exploitation for limited ends. Brigitte noticed this first and then drew my attention to it. I watched the replay with great pleasure. The traditional ways of seeing Reality are returning. You see and hear them on TV these days in the least expected places.

A third coincidence was a New York Times article today reporting that modern medicine has now succeeded in nearly fail-safe early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, producing a dilemma. Should the patient be told—especially in light of the still persistent incurability of the disease? To tell the patient is tantamount to announcing a sentence to senility. I got to thinking about that. The dilemma is deep indeed. If people are genuine agents, they have the right to know. They have the right to have an opportunity to make such arrangements as they still can in their outer and inner affairs before the disease claims them. They also have the right to refuse. But to refuse, they have to know something, don’t they? The problem is real. Is it right to impose a burden of responsibility on a person? I think yes. Because we are real agents, each and every one of us, and knowing is better, even when painful, than not. In the long run. And there is a longer run even beyond death.

The pleasing aspect here is that the times, they are a changing. Ever more frequently, you hear Reality discussed in the clear even in our media.

1 comment:

  1. In Genesis 1:26 the phrase, as I read it, bestows "dominion over all creeping things" to "man." It gives the right to fishing and hunting to "them," too.

    Where does this leave fish-beating and moose-hunting Sarah Palin? Is she using this "right" for "selfish exploitation," though even for an elevated goal: a run for the presidency?

    Please read your bible, Sarah!

    (Sorry, Arsen, sometimes I can't help myself...)