What is a Human Being?

This is the foreword for the Conference Proceedings for the 3rd International Conference on Coma and Consciousness; Salerno, 4-7 July 2010

Let us remember – since such are the facts - that ‘bio-ethics’ and the State’s obsession with euthanasia were explicit categories of the Nazism. Fundamentally, Nazism was a thoroughgoing ethics of life. It had its own concept of ‘dignified life’, and it accepted implacably, the necessity of putting an end to undignified lives.
Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2001)

There are times in life when even a philosopher will have to ask herself: What is a human being? Even we who have conceptualized morality, even we who have presumed to have the right to ask: what is virtue, what is justice, even before asking, even before having understood what is a human being, even we should stop and try to understand of whom we are talking about and what this being is capable to bear.

To ask and answer this question is a preliminary step to the pretence of any ethical position about the dignity of human life, and thus for the constitution of any so called bio-ethical commission which pretends to be entrusted with the responsibility to define what neurological states together with ostensible behaviour underpin a dignified human life.

The outcome of such an assessment must be nothing less than the key to our happiness. Since we pretend to define in this way the limits of what is the minimum bearable for a dignified human life, we must presume to be able to find the necessary requirements for the definition of human happiness. We cannot stop shorter than that in our pursuit of an answer to the question, because "dignity", it is believed, is what we need to be human and therefore to be able to bear a human life and thus to be happy. For what is happiness if not the fulfilment of one's essence and therefore of one's humanity? And is this dignity not the necessary and sufficient requirement for the fulfilment of our essence as human beings? So a human life to be defined as such has to be dignified and to be dignified means ultimately to fulfil one's essence. This is a definition of happiness, but so far we have not answered the question but only moved in a circle. The reason for this is that we are dealing with a badly posed problem. For the first move is to understand what it means to be human, not what it is to be a "dignified" human being, or what is a self-justified human life, because this already presumes an individual perspective on the "minimum requirement" for being human: dignity in this case, for which we are presuming a general agreement. It is what in philosophy is called petitio principii or begging the question.

In all honesty the only answer I can find to to the question: "what is a human being?" is the Terentian adagio:

Homo sum, nihil humani a me alienum puto.
I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.

Nothing of what can happen to a human being, is foreign to me and makes me less human. Thus, neither happiness nor dignity is the definition of what has to be a human life, but human life itself, for as long as it is recognized as such and cared for as such. Every other definition is and expresses the superfluous.

In fact, where would we stop in the search for a criterion of what is a dignified and thus self-justified and bearable human life? What would suffice for the criterion of dignity? This is the murky ground where the search for a "good death" opens the floodgate to eugenics and thus to an unrestrained Hedonism. In fact, the gate is already wide open in the Western world and that is what explains such enquiries and pseudo-debates. The real challenge now, for both scientists and philosophers should be to contain the flood, by showing the fallacy behind such presumptuous enquiries. In this the honesty of the scientist is more urgent than that of the philosopher because for better or for worse in our technocratic culture the person on the street looks at scientific knowledge for ultimate answers. The scientist should have both the intelligence and the honesty to admit that there is no criterion for "dignified" human life, other than our Western concept of happiness which is disgusted by what is less than beautiful and perfect (where is the room in our culture for a slow death or old age, for example?).

Therefore, we should ask now: Is there really a criterion which comes to our aid from science - a theoretical and thus absolute, self-evident knowledge - that can sustain us in our decision of what kind of life is justifiable as human? What categories can be invoked to define such criteria? Are they neurological, psychological or rather purely hedonistic? Nowadays the media - and the confusion that always ensues when serious scientific research is banalized by an information source which has at heart first and foremost to impress the public and keep it in that state of semi-consciousness that allows the indoctrination and the dependence for mediatic information - are enforcing on us the belief that we have the support of the neurological sciences in establishing such criteria for a "dignified life". But can any serious scientist believe that there is now or could ever emerge in future, some theoretical knowledge on which everybody agrees, and which can thus substitute the moral choice based, as usual, on the individual situation, chance, the circumstances of life, the maze of the consciences, combined with a rigorous treatment of the clinical situation, as the ultimate judge of each and every life and death?

Thus, what is Bio-Ethics if not a doctrine that tries once again to reduce to theoresis what cannot even be conceived outside the singularity of the pathos of each individual life?


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