A Bioethicist Looks Toward the Future of Human Dignity

Recovering three pillars of a truly human society

C. Ben Mitchell

In a scathing criticism of the President’s Council on Bioethics under the Bush administration, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said in a 2008 edition of the New Republic magazine, “The problem is that ‘dignity’ is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it.” This was indicative of a future that will require almost no end to shoring up the pillars of human dignity.

To that end, three important renovation projects come to mind as necessary for a truly human future where inherent value is understood and celebrated: the reclamation of theological anthropology, the reappropriation of Christian-Hippocratism in medicine, and a recommitment to the Great Commandment.

Reclamation of Theological Anthropology

Reclamation of theological anthropology is the first priority in understanding, celebrating, and protecting human dignity. Since at least 1948, with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the notion of human dignity has been enshrined in international jurisprudence, treaties, and policy. One of the chief architects of the declaration was the formidable Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain who described it as “the preface to a moral Charter of the civilized world.” Yet despite his erudition, when Maritain was asked about the declaration’s appeal for the protection of human rights he famously replied, “We agree about the rights but on condition no one asks us why!”  

Christian theological anthropology answers the “why” of human rights by pointing to the “Who.” 

Only human beings are made in God’s own image, and Jesus, fully God and fully man, sacralized our embodied humanity in his incarnation. Human rights, including the rights to life, liberty, equality, privacy, non-discrimination, etc., do not derive merely from a social contract but from the investiture of the God who made us and the Messiah who lived among us as a human person, was crucified, raised from the dead, and will return one day. We may happily use the publicly accessible language of human dignity, but Jews and Christians confess that human dignity has a divine origin.

Furthermore, as theologian Kelly Kapic reminds us in his recent volume, You’re Only Human, Christian theological anthropology teaches us that to be human is to be embodied, limited, dependent, relational, and much more.1Kelly Kapic, You’re Only Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022). These necessary aspects of our humanity are divine gifts and human goods to be celebrated, protected, and cultivated from conception to natural death. Only a robust theological anthropology can anchor the notion of human dignity against the tsunami of late modernity.

Reappropriation of the Christian Hippocratic Tradition

A second pillar supporting human dignity is Christian-Hippocratism in medicine. Unfortunately, medical ethics too often focuses on moral dilemmas or public policy debates. We almost never ask the question, “What is medicine for?” 

The Hippocratic tradition of the medical profession begins with the famous—but by now hardly ever recited—oath that acknowledges divine obligations and pledges as its first principle to “do no harm.” Down the ages, Christians appropriated and revised the oath for its affirmation of the patient as a person, the physician as a professional, and the practice of medicine obliging a responsibility to serve the common good, especially for the vulnerable who are suffering from illness and disease.

Today, patients have become customers, physicians providers, and medicine a consumer good. If we are to answer accurately the question, “What is medicine for?” we must resist a provider-of-services model—with its terrible implications—and reappropriate the Christian virtues of medicine.2Farr Curlin and Christopher Tollefsen, The Way of Medicine (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021) Physicians are not healthcare “providers,” they are professionals who should pledge to use their extensive training, wisdom of experience, and virtuous ethical judgment to help “patients” (literally, “sufferers”)—not customers or clients—mitigate, recover from, or face the fragility of our fallen humanity. 

The profession of medicine can serve our common humanity by treating every patient as a possessor of human dignity, regardless of one’s age, state of health, or ability to pay. This also means that physicians should not kill their patients at the beginning of life or at the end of life. They should not mutilate bodies through transgender surgeries or grotesque “aesthetic” modifications, even if the patient requests it. Medicine should not cater to customer satisfaction but serve truly human goods to continue to be worthy of public trust.

Recommitment to the Great Commandment

Finally, another pillar on which human dignity rests is the Great Commandment—to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and body, and one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt. 22:36-40). Love of neighbor has been the origin of many of the practices and institutions that respect, defend, and protect human dignity. For instance, the modern hospital system owes its existence to people of faith, love of God, and love of neighbor. Rabbinic sources often cite the second-century B.C. book of Ecclesiasticus as a reminder that medicine owes its origins to God: 

“Honour a physician with the honour due unto him for the uses which ye may have of him: for the Lord hath created him. For of the most High cometh healing, and he shall receive honour of the king. The skill of the physician shall lift up his head: and in the sight of great men he shall be in admiration. The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them” (38:1-4 KJV). 

Christians have been leaders in medicine and in the building of hospitals because Jesus of Nazareth healed the sick and disabled. 

Early Greeks and Romans made great contributions to medicine, but, as late University of Washington historian of medicine Albert Jonsen said in his A Short History of Medical Ethics, “the second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.”3Albert Jonsen, A Short History of Medical Ethics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13. 

This extraordinary, formative period in medicine was characterized by the Church’s intimate involvement. Jonsen argues, 

During these centuries the Christian faith … permeated all aspects of life in the West. The very conception of medicine, as well as its practice, was deeply touched by the doctrine and discipline of the Church. This theological and ecclesiastical influence manifestly shaped the ethics of medicine, but it even indirectly affected its science since, as its missionaries evangelized the peoples of Western and Northern Europe, the Church found itself in a constant battle against the use of magic and superstition in the work of healing. It championed rational medicine, along with prayer, to counter superstition. 

As a means of caring for those who were ill, St. Basil of Caesarea founded the first hospital (c. 369), and Christian hospitals grew apace, spreading throughout both the East and the West. By the mid-1500s, there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick. 

Furthermore, as Charles Rosenberg shows in his volume, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System, the modern hospital owes its origins to Judeo-Christian compassion.4Charles Rosenberg, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1995). Evidence of the vast expansion of faith-based hospitals is seen in the legacy of their names: St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s, Mt. Sinai, Presbyterian, Mercy, and Beth Israel. These were all charitable hospitals, some of which began as foundling hospitals to care for abandoned children.

Similarly, in Europe, great hospitals were built under the auspices of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, an ancient French term for hospital is hôtel-Dieu (“hostel of God”). In 1863, the Société Genevoise d’Utilité Publique called on Swiss Christian businessman Jean Henri Dunant to form a relief organization for caring for wartime wounded. Thus, the emblem of the Red Cross was codified in the Geneva Convention a year later. And in Britain, Dame Cicely Saunders founded the hospice movement by establishing St. Christopher’s Hospice in the south of London in 1967.

These three pillars are reminders that human dignity is not an abstract concept to be protected, but a way of referring to the sacred value of real, living, embodied people made in the image of God. The future will demand that Southern Baptists and other Christians excavate, recover, and renovate these three pillars if human dignity is to stand.

Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is a research fellow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. In 2020, he served as a member of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board. Mitchell served as a trustee board member of what was then the Christian Life Commission in the late 1980s, as the ERLC’s Director of Biomedical and Life Issues from 1992-1994, and afterward as Consultant on Biomedical and Life Issues from 1994-2013.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24