On the Coming Collision Between Human Dignity & Technology

On the Coming Collision Between Human Dignity & Technology

By Jay B Gaskill

This article is available as a PDF file download at this link: http://jaygaskill.com/ReflectionsOnHumanDignity.pdf

As a culture, we have been disarmed.

Grave ethical and moral challenges are now confronting us and the generations that are queued up to follow us; we face radical social changes propelled by radical new technologies; but we are without the tools to cope.  Many of our leaders and their followers have discarded the tools of wisdom, moral courage and faith, not realizing that these are our weapons of self-defense.

Major secular research and technology institutions are hiring “ethicists” to provide them with cover. It seems that morality now so abstruse and alien for them that moral experts need to be sought out by bureaucrats. Just how well cared for is our future when these same bureaucrats aren’t quite sure which experts to hire or what to do with them?

Morality and ethics are far too important to be left to our “official” moralists and ethicists, let alone to the leaders, movers and shakers who probably won’t heed them. It is not too late to recapture and retool our weapons. We’re going to need wisdom, moral courage and faith sooner than anyone realizes.


From Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Technology enhances and extends life.  But technology also has other uses:

Basically, I exploited the phenomenon of the technician’s often blind devotion to his task. Because of what seems to be the moral neutrality of technology, these people were without scruples about their activities. (Albert Speer,)

From Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, Hitler’s Reichminister of Defense – and favorite architect

From 1943 to 1944 the infamous doctor Mengele experimented on about fifteen hundred sets of imprisoned twins at Auschwitz. The twins, who were held in custody throughout, suffered horrific invasions of human dignity – the injection of different dyes into their eyes to see whether it would change their color; some twins were even sewn together in a bizarre attempt to make them conjoined twins.  There were three thousand individual human beings. About a hundred got out alive.

From September 1942 to December 1943 human experiments were conducted at the infamous Ravensbrück camp. Whole sections of bones, muscles, and nerves were surgically excised from people without anesthetics – inflicting intense agony, mutilation, and disability, all in the interests of “rational” Nazi scientific inquiry. A “humane” Nazi scientist might have used an anesthetic.  But the casual disregard of human dignity would have been the same.

There is much more of this dreary and sickening catalogue, but you get the idea.

For Speer’s technicians we can substitute the terms, scientist, engineers, researchers and even physicians.

As I write this, hundreds of brilliant technicians are pursuing their assigned tasks with the same enthusiasm, and the same blind devotion to task.  Most of us are sublimely confident that nothing but good things for humanity will result.  This is an unreasonable act of faith.

Consider a scene from somewhere in 12th century Catholic Europe.  A young Lord, in full kit, full of himself and angry, his blood running high, stands over a cowering commoner, intending imminent mayhem. A priest approaches, gets the hot blooded young Lord’s attention and says, “Strike that boy and I will deny you absolution.”  The sword is stayed.  This scene was repeated in various forms during the medieval period. For the period, this was an act of reasonable faith.

Then, in 1882, a young philosopher wrote –

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Six years after Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche declared that God is dead, Dostoevsky tells another audience, in effect, that “Without god, everything is permitted.”

In the 21st century, the scene with the thuggish lord and the priest cannot be repeated without killing the priest.

When, in 1931, Aldus Huxley wrote the dystopian novel, Brave New World, his dystopia was a stretch for some.

A partial summary

…everyone is happy. Natural reproduction has been done away with and children are created, ‘decanted’ and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres, where they are divided into five castes (which are further split into ‘Plus’ and ‘Minus’ members) and designed to fulfill predetermined positions within the social and economic strata of the World State. People of these castes make up the majority of human society, and the production of such specialized children bolsters the efficiency and harmony of society, since these people are deliberately limited in their cognitive and physical abilities, as well as the scope of their ambitions and the complexity of their desires, thus rendering them easier to control.

It is no longer a stretch.  Our brave new technologies are fully capable of changing human nature (how much closer we are to Brave New World technology than in the 1930’s). Worse, some of these technological trends threaten to swamp ordinary human decision making processes.

Here is a partial list of the pending, deeply problematic developments that are being presented by new technologies.  A more complete list would be much longer.

  1. Using technology to aid in the political control of human populations
  2. Replacing biological human reproduction with genetic engineering
  3. Cloning humans for body parts
  4. Uploading the minds of immortality-seekers into supercomputers
  5. Remaking the human being into … X
  6. Achieving functional immortality by endless organ replacement and prosthesis – including the brain / mind
  7. Allowing the human control technologies (see 1) to control us
  8. Allowing artificial intelligent beings to replace us

If you doubt that computers (actually algorithms) will be thinking for us any time soon, consider the stock market and credit crash of 2008 as an early warning.  Clever algorithms were used to construct credit instruments, bundling underwater mortgages in a way the ordinarily intelligent people could not readily penetrate the fog to learn that these packages were actually hiding and marketing assets with negative value.  Usually when you bundle a package of toxic waste, coating it with silk with gold thread and sell it for 50 times its real value you are guilty of fraud.  But algorithms can seem to create their own reality.  The AI (artificial intelligence) problem is already with us.

Can morality be sustained without a credible appeal to an ultimate authority that implies some measure of ultimate accountability?

Do we already possess a sufficient reservoir of moral wisdom to straightforwardly address the kinds of issues I’ve just listed above?

In the Appendix to The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis assembled a multi-cultural and multi-millennial compendium of moral precepts; these moral nuggets form part of a commonly held moral system, what some of us still call the Natural (moral) Law. Regrettably, the postmodern ethos rejects the very idea that there could be a natural moral law. Yet a few major moral principles and injunctions have arrived in the current culture more or less intact, where they are recognized by the secular set as “important” and “valuable” though not binding in any ultimate sense.  Two of these come immediately to mind:

(a)    The principle of reciprocity, as in “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (from Leviticus and the discourses of Jesus) or “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another” (Hillel the Elder);

(b)   The principle of greater good, as in “The greatest good for the greatest number is the best guide of all policy and morality” (Jeremy Bentham).

On reflection, we notice that (a) can come in conflict with (b); and that each of these presents unresolved questions of definition, as in – What do we mean by others? What do we mean by the good?


These pending challenges invite us to explore the reach and power of an ancient but somehow new moral paradigm, the moral obligation to honor human dignity.

Cro-Magnon graves have been uncovered where the deceased persons were interred with carvings and flowers. These date from 40 BCE. And a grave in the Shanindar Cave in Kurdistan-Iraq (excavated 1957-1961) showed similar care, even residual pollen suggesting burial flowers – a burial by Neanderthals 60-80 BCE.

Anthropologists call this patterned mortuary behavior. I call it the first evidence of respect for human dignity.

Human dignity is one of those major ethical precepts that somehow remained implicit, undeveloped and unarticulated for a long, long time.  Such hiddenness is not unprecedented. Even the Christian doctrine of the Trinity did not emerge until long after the Gospels had been in general circulation. Like the Trinity, human dignity is an emergent value- development with both secular and religious iterations.

Human dignity emerged full blown as a major moral precept in the late 18th century and led to a number of important, history changing developments, as we will see.  Because this value was prefigured in our own religious tradition, we might ask ourselves – Why did it take so long?

A Definition

Human dignity comprises the entire set of views in which the very recognition of one’s human status intrinsically confers and/or reveals an irreducible, fundamental value.

Like many crossover ideas, the religious and biblical aspects of human dignity are often neglected, even when they confer more depth and authority.

Ancient Dignity

In ancient times, there was no recognized universal status of human dignity, but there were instances of a limited status that resembled it. The prime example of human dignity was Roman Citizenship, a set of rights that were conferred by the Imperium. It was a hierarchical arrangement at the apex of which was the Emperor who enjoyed maximum dignity.

In ancient Rome, residents of the Roman state could roughly be divided into several classes: A male Roman citizen enjoyed the widest range of privileges and protections.  Female Roman citizens were not allowed to vote or seek elected positions, but had the right to own property, to engage in business, and to obtain a divorce. Citizens of a client state and allies could enjoy Latin Rights, a form of limited citizenship.

Those with Latin Rights were protected by Roman law and were allowed within Latin cities to own land and to make legally enforceable contracts with their citizens, to make a lawful marriage with a resident of any other Latin city, and enjoyed the capacity to acquire citizenship of another Latin state simply by taking up permanent residence there.

Slaves were property. Killing someone else’s slaves was actionable, but killing your own slave was your own business.

The first century apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, an advantage that afforded him protection from the non-Roman mobs, but did not prevent his incarceration.  In ancient times, dignity was a tribal or Imperial status, not a status that was enjoyed by virtue of merely being a human being.

The Process of Universalization

Enter the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 –1804) whose insights gave a universal status to human dignity, elevating the idea that “merely” being human confers moral worth.

In Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1985), he developed the notion that utility is trumped by what he called dignity.  In Kant’s schema, everything has either a price (meaning a utilitarian value, as in an economic measure) or a dignity, meaning an inherent, irreducible value, in and itself. You might remember the cynical assertion that “Everything has its price.” Kant’s view disputes this. Quote-

“Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. But that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth, i.e., price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity”. (p. 53)

…Kant also wrote…

“Morality and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity.” [Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals]

Enter John Locke (1632-1784), and his Second Treatise on Government (1690):

“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

“This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life together: for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. Nobody can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it: for, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.”

Human dignity is one of those ideas with the power to change history.  The major 18th Century Enlightenment thinkers (among them Locke and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) agreed that the essential humanness of each person trumps tribe, royalty status and other arbitrary, “irrational” categories.

It was no accident that the Enlightenment simultaneously generated the American Revolution (1776) the French Revolution (1789), and the slavery abolition movement (1676-1860).

Christianity (which In my personal theology is a branch of Judaism) escaped the early 1st century tribal boundaries of traditional Judaism and, as a consequence, brought the essential message of the Torah to the world at large.  But that universalizing tendency was effectively stalled on the slavery question until the impetus of the Enlightenment (roughly 1660-1860).

The detached rhetoric of the 18th century secular philosophers awakened a latent moral awareness, and ignited a sleeping moral fervor in 19th century religious communities; the Enlightenment supplied the first spark that became the fire of fierce moral outrage among the American abolitionists of the mid-1800 period, particularly in the USA.

Kant was not a particularly cuddly or social man.  His philosophy was – like most philosophy – somewhat arid and disconnected in tone. Contrast the vivid, earthy language of the bible, or of the inspiring, flesh and blood orators and leaders.

Surely, it’s a stretch to move from language like, “the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth, i.e., price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity,” to this legendary eloquence –

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

Winston Churchill at the beginning of WWII

This was the voice of a champion of human dignity resolutely facing down a grave peril.

The Need for More

This is why I believe that the postmodern defense of human dignity fails. Human dignity needed Ultimate support in the 19th century struggle against slavery and it needs Ultimate support now, ever more urgently, in a culture saturated with moral ambivalence and skepticism, whose reigning intelligentsia is filled with the condescending dismissal of religion.

From the classic biblical perspective, the very existence of human dignity originates in the status of God as the Creator of all humanity. The divine love of humanity confers a God-derived status for human dignity, uniquely and absolutely important, yet subordinate to the supreme status of the Creator.

  • The human-God relationship marks a bright line boundary against the temptation to idolize mere human institutions, or to deify humanity, qua humanity.
  • That same boundary operates as a bulwark against the ultimately nihilistic claim that humanity can unilaterally create and redefine all value, for and against itself.
  • The “have no other gods before me” injunction of Judeo-Christian monotheism is a bulwark against the worship of human constructs, ideologies, leaders,  races, robots, states or systems, as if these could ever be deities in themselves.
  • To this we can add an essential Judeo-Christian qualification. Human dignity applies and is owed to the individual human person.  This forms a second bulwark against the back-door deification of human institutions like the state, and of the faux scientific utopias like racial purity and Marxist reengineered human nature.

Ideas do change the course of history.  One single idea – that of human dignity as a divine engendered attribute of the human individual, a universal that recognizes no race, gender or imposed status – became the engine of our liberation from all oppressive human institutions, starting with slavery.

The Problem of Definition

The literature of science fiction has provided us with a set of thought experiments that have portrayed intelligent alien beings, sometimes malevolent, sometimes not; alien machines, sometimes malevolent, sometimes not; manufactured humans, cloned humans, and so on.  Almost every current ethical issue that technology is now presenting to us, was prefigured somewhere in our literature. The secular humanist consensus, an amalgam of utilitarian ethics, the golden rule and a vague sense of compassion, has not proved adequate to the challenge. The idea human dignity has suddenly become the indispensable ethical tool. But technology is now raising the threshold definitional element inherent in human dignity. Who or what is truly human?   Thus we are called to address the question of the “other”, whether “what” or “who” and if “who” to decide where and how the notion of human dignity operates.

A related set of definitional issues arise from the biological sciences, especially from the capacity to dissect, assemble, reassemble, replicate and maintain living tissue and organs.  Consider a tissue that biological science has already manipulated or is about to manipulate: Are we addressing a “what”, a “who”?  Even if it is something that defies easy classification, are there consequential ethical implications?  How and by what ethical criteria are they to be addressed?  The work of bio-ethicists like Leon Kass describes some of the ethical concerns that are now being confronted in connection with the market in human body parts, the use of cloned or “harvested” embryos for experiments, and the prospect of crossing seemingly innocuous moral boundaries only to discover that they pose grave implications for future horrific abuses. All this comes in the context of what Albert Speer described as the “moral neutrality” of the enthusiastic technicians and the overriding amoral pressures of money, power and political pandering.

A rapidly emerging set of problematic examples were prefigured in the science fiction literature about robots and thinking machines, and these issues will become real within the future of at least one living generation of humans[1].

Among the new questions all of us must face, armed with whatever moral intelligence and insight we can bring to bear on the issue:

  • Can (and should) technology create any computer or software entity as a living, conscious machine being?
  • If that machine being is made, will it be entitled to the protection afforded by virtue of human dignity?
  • If that machine being is made, will it represent an essential or existential threat to our own human dignity?
  • What should we do and why?

My personal response to these questions in the order they are posed, is:

  • No;
  • No;
  • Yes; and
  • Prepare for a long and difficult moral struggle.


To Kant, we should add the modern humanist, Martin Buber (1878-1965).  His iconic work, “I and Thou” made us aware of the demeaning “I and it” relationship when it takes place between individual people or (as in Nazi Germany) between a dominant people and oppressed victims.

Secular thinkers who have not studied Buber closely tend to miss a key point: Martin Buber contemplated a Trinitarian relationship, “I and thou (lower case) and I and Thou (upper case), in effect two human persons are in relationship with each other and with the divine person.


From Genesis 1:27

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Psalm 8: 5-7 … you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field…”

From Psalm 139

“O LORD, You have searched me and known me.  You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.

“You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.  It is high, I cannot attain it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall fall on me,’ even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You.

“For You formed my inward parts You covered me in my mother’s womb….”


Among the biblical themes and elements to unpack and examine as providing ancient support for the idea that honoring human dignity is among the most central of our moral obligations are these–

  • In several biblical accounts, Jesus engages in healings in the form of exorcisms and casting out demons. Moderns dismiss these accounts and therefore miss the deeper message. Anyone who is still paying attention to the degraded and anti-human behavior exhibited by some of our fellow humans is compelled to agree that we still encounter the demonic even in this sophisticated, “modern” age.  One can easily experience the disgust that some of these modern horrors evoke and even (as I often have) indulge the desire to see some of these demonic miscreants quickly destroyed. But what Jesus sought to rescue and preserve was the inherent human – as opposed to demonic – dignity in the afflicted, which is why these stories are worth retelling and reexamining.
  • The interpersonal edicts of the Decalogue – as in do not kill; do honor one’s parents are variations on the same theme: Protect human dignity in this way.
  • The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)… “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all you might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
    • The “No idols” commandment…
  • Jesus’s parables about the lost ones (as in the lost sheep and the lost coin, see Luke below) are – I personally believe- intended to convey that the ultimate value expressed by human dignity means, profoundly and simply, the human dignity of the individual.


Reason is essential but not sufficient.  I cannot escape the strong sense that if humanity is to survive the new millennium we will need to address the profound need for deeper foundations and deeper motivations than the purely secular views can provide.  Humanity may actually need a religious perspective that strongly supports human dignity just to survive just the current century.

Consider these three elements at play-

[1] Without God, all values are preferential, and what is preferential is optional.

[2] Traditional religious perspectives are profoundly bio centric.

[3] Not every secular view is as strongly pro-human as Genesis.

Science fiction has portrayed apocalyptic struggles of humanity against machine beings and aliens.  From a shallowly humanistic point of view, we are rooting for the home team in these stories, but I can now detect an occasional postmodern undercurrent theme of surrender that would have been almost unthinkable two generations ago.  The current climate of moral ambivalence makes these three questions more and more plausible:

  • Why fight for the good and oppose the evil when you are comfortable and the struggle is inconvenient?
  • Why struggle at all, when the outcome will only affect a later generation, long after you are gone?
  • Why struggle at all when maybe those aliens/machines are just the next wave after humanity?

Why, indeed?

Because if God did form my inward parts and God did cover me in my mother’s womb, then God formed you…her…him…and them as well.



Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, by Bill Joy. This is a cautionary, prophetic article by the technologist and scientist who invented some of the basic programs on which the internet depends. It is still available on-line from WIRED Magazine where it first ran in the year 2000. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant (H J Patton Trans. Harper 1964)

Excerpt from “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”, pp. 114-17,122-23. Copyright ©

1986 by Random House by James Rachels, PHD.


“Kant believed that morality can be summed up in ~on one ultimate principle from which all our duties and obligations are derived. He called this principle “The Categorical Imperative”.  In “The  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) he expressed it like this:  ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’.  However, Kant also gave another formulation of The Categorical Imperative. Later in the same book, he said that the ultimate moral principle may be understood as saying: ‘Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.’”

Kant’s Moral Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


“Most philosophers who find Kant’s views attractive find them so because of the Humanity formulation of the CI (Categorical Imperative). This formulation states that we should never act in such a way that we treat Humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself. This is often seen as introducing the idea of “respect” for persons, for whatever it is that is essential to our Humanity. Kant was clearly right that this and the other formulations bring the CI ‘closer to intuition’ than the Universal Law formula. Intuitively, there seems something wrong with treating human beings as mere instruments with no value beyond this.’

The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis (Touchstone 1944, 1947 / 1972, 1975)

“For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. (p 70)

Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, The Challenge of Bioethics by Leon R. Kass, M. D. Encounter Books 2002.

“Paradoxically, worries about dehumanization are sometimes expressed in the fear of super-humanization. That is that man will be “playing God.” This complaint is too facilely dismissed by scientists and non-believers. This concern has meaning, God or no God.”

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and Coin

Luke 15: 3-10

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Human dignity is an evolving topic.  Send your thoughts and suggestions to JBG via email – jgaskill@yahoo.com.

[1] See the referenced article by the technologist / scientist Bill Joy.

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