30 August 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 9

(Note: This is Part 9 in the series started here. The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #9:

If there is no God, humans and "other" animals are of equal value. Only if one posits that humans, not animals, are created in the image of God do humans have any greater intrinsic sanctity than baboons. This explains the movement among the secularized elite to equate humans and animals. [Note 1.]

I share Dennis Prager’s disdain for the “secularized elite,” which we have come to understand as being the left-leaning, subjectivist intellectual establishment. But I must point out that once again, he is conceding all ground to his enemies.

To claim, as Mr. Prager has, that men deserve special consideration only if they are created in God’s image is to imply that there is no natural reason - there are no facts - that justifies distinguishing men from other animals. This is exactly the position maintained by the subjectivists that he reviles. The only difference is that religionists, wishing to rescue mankind from being relegated to the status of lowly animals, proceed to invent a supernatural pretext; they regard men as divine beings, created and chosen by God as the stewards of the earth. Subjectivists refrain from fabricating this pretext, and thus regard men as mere animals, crass beings driven by their appetites and whims.

To see how both sides are mistaken - and to arrive at the correct perspective - it is instructive to recall the arguments of the “intrinsic/subjective/objective” trichotomy that I have written about elsewhere and is one of Ayn Rand’s important identifications.[Note 2.] Mr. Prager is precise in his term “intrinsic sanctity.” It is exactly the intrinsic value of man that he seeks to preserve - a value that is somehow an attribute of every man, apart from his relationship to the real world. It is a “sanctity” unsullied by the coarse considerations of the requirements of survival, and of living the life of a man qua man. In essence, the intrinsic value of man that Prager is attempting to secure is a divine one: eternal, other-worldly, inaccessible, akin to a Platonic Form.

A proper perspective is neither subjective nor intrinsic but objective. In this, we regard value as relating to all living organisms, and only to living organisms, for it is living entities that will exist or perish according to their natures and actions. For a living organism, its basic value is life, and each of its derivative values reflects this fundamental value in its capacity to contribute to or enhance the life of the organism. Crucially, it is from the perspective of each organism that value is determined.

In this last statement we see the sharp distinction between Prager’s “intrinsic sanctity” and objective value. In Prager’s view, the value of human beings exists as an intrinsic attribute - a value in itself, apart from any consideration of a valuer. It is a sort of reified universal imposed by a supernatural Creator, a stand-alone fact of the universe. As an implicit consequence, not only should a man recognize his superiority over animals, but a baboon (or lizard, worm, amoeba, tree) would necessarily defer to it; thus, built into each of God’s lower creatures would be a “sanctity” of its own life that was somehow less than that of a human.

Of course, that is nonsense. The value of human beings is not intrinsic; it is objective. For every living organism, from single-celled microbes to Homo Sapiens, its own life is the standard of value. A man’s regard of his own life as having sanctity is derived not from some divine proclamation - from the lucky chance of having been born among God’s chosen species - but from his nature as a living being. (To be more precise, a man’s value itself follows from his being a living organism; his regard of his own value follows from his being an organism with the ability to think and to be self-aware.)

Perhaps inadvertently, Mr. Prager left a clue that revealed how anti-scientific and anti-reason his perspective actually is. In the phrase “humans and ‘other’ animals,” Prager put quotes around the word “other,” as if humans are not animals at all. How deeply does he hold this idea? Can he really think that humans are not to be classified as part of the animal kingdom?

Humans are the rational animals. We have a perceptual apparatus that is similar to many of the higher mammals, but we also have a faculty that, as far as can be discerned, is utterly unique among all living things: a rational, reasoning mind that operates with free will.

The abilities to abstract and conceptualize, and to choose our actions, are far and away the most significant attributes of our species. Our conceptual faculty accounts not only for our survival, but for our ability to seek happiness. Human minds have created philosophy, science, mathematics; crop rotation, the printing press, the automobile, and the computer; Hamlet, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Parthenon, Falling Water, and the Empire State Building. By any objective standard, the human species is amazing and remarkable, “the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!”[Note 3.]

If subjectivists - seeing humans as automatons determined by social conditions and slavishly compelled by emotions - evade men’s true nature and consider us to be equal (or even “less than equal”) to other animals, they should be defeated on rational grounds. There is absolutely no reason to reach into the supernatural realm, as Mr. Prager has done, to find an excuse to shout the merits of man. As I have indicated, doing so has quite the opposite effect: it implicitly concedes that men have no value in reality.

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1. Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2. To capture the relevant idea, it is necessary to quote a relatively lengthy passage from Ayn Rand’s essay, “What is Capitalism?”

There are, in essence, three schools of thought on the nature of the good: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. It is a theory that divorces the concept of “good” from beneficiaries, and the concept of “value” from valuer and purpose - claiming that the food is good in, by, and of itself.

The subjectivist theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality, that it is the product of a man’s consciousness, created by his feelings, desires, “intuitions,” or whims, and that it is merely an “arbitrary postulate” or an "emotional commitment.”

The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man’s consciousness; the subjectivist theory holds that the good resides in man’s consciousness, independent of reality.

The objectivist theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of values. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man - and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man.

Ayn Rand, “What is Capitalism?” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pp. 21-22. [Italics are in the original.]

3. To be sure, it is the human mind that is behind the worst atrocities of history as well - slavery, the wars of conquest, inquisitions, persecutions, pogroms, and People’s States. But this consideration only emphasizes the importance of philosophy, and of getting our answers right.

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