A New Moral Argument for Human Personhood
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charles Darwin’s theory of origins reinforced the dehumanization of black peoples in the West. At this time in history, the consensus among the most influential scientists, philosophers, academicians, politicians, and even leading theologians, was that natural selection kept blacks enslaved to nature—a brutal master whose unguided selection relegated them to the lower rung of the evolutionary ladder.
A century later as Western culture continues to grapple with how to ensure human equality, a new argument against this kind of dehumanization comes from what I call the moral argument for human personhood. The structure of my argument is based on what is commonly known as the moral argument for God.
Grounding Morality in God
The traditional argument is premised on the observation that some moral laws (e.g., racism is evil) are independent of individual opinion or cultural consensus. The argument may be framed as follows:
Premise 1: If objective moral laws exist then an objective moral lawgiver exists.
Premise 2: Objective moral laws do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, an objective moral lawgiver exists.
This argument establishes the moral lawgiver as the ontological ground for ethical norms and moral duties. For both the religious Jew and Christian, grounding law and duty in God is the key. Why? Because even an atheist who denies the existence of God can choose to believe that racism is wrong, but only the Judeo-Christian belief in God as our creator makes the argument coherent. For the Christian, the logic of this argument is supported by Romans 2:12–15, which says that the existence of God is the necessary ground for knowing objective moral laws and duties exist. But, as compelling as this argument is, the belief in God as our lawgiver is not enough to protect human sacredness. We need to go one step further and ensure that the sacredness of every human person is protected against dehumanization. Building on the moral argument for God, I frame my moral argument for human personhood as follows:
Premise 1: If the objective moral duty to protect human dignity exists, then the objective fact of human personhood exists.
Premise 2: The objective moral duty to protect human dignity does exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, the objective fact of human personhood exists.
What Is Human Personhood?
This new moral argument establishes human personhood as the ontological ground for ethical norms and moral duties. Premise 1, like the first premise of the moral argument, asserts that if we wish to affirm human dignity for every single person, that claim must be connected to the definition of what it means to be a person. The conclusion that the objective fact of human personhood exists is significant because it exposes a deep flaw in the naturalist’s argument that humans evolved from lower animals. How? By recognizing that naturalism is grounded in the presuppositions that reality is circumscribed by nature, sufficiently explained by science, and excludes supernatural causation. This definition of naturalism is often associated with atheists, but it also includes some theists who believe that God did not supernaturally intervene in the process of natural selection. Consequently, all naturalists—atheists and theists alike—are forced to argue that evolving biological systems provide the sole explanation for human personhood.
Human personhood, for the naturalist, is both a contingent and emergent property of nature. But, if biological systems are continually changing, then human personhood itself is continually changing. Certainly, many naturalist philosophers have tried to resolve this problem by connecting personhood to other special features such as self-awareness, consciousness, or social standing. In the end, these philosophers end up conceding that personhood is a property contingent on some combination of these features, and humans who lack these features lack full personhood. Human personhood for the naturalist, therefore, is not a fact that exists independent from natural selection, but a concept of identity that evolves as our biology (or even perception of biology) evolves.
Now comes the problem for naturalists. If some biological systems (and the species they produce) are better suited to survival, then other systems are less fit. And history shows us that this line of reasoning invariably leads to the dehumanization of those humans who are deemed lower on the scale of fitness.
Is a “Herd Instinct” Morality?
In the hope of affirming the second premise (the objective moral duty to protect human dignity does exist), the advocate of theistic evolution may try to claim that the drive to protect the rights of every person emerged as a result of some herd instinct common to a particular group of hominids. However, as philosopher Brian Morley points out, this “instinct to help and support the members of the herd is not genuine morality.”1 In other words, theistic evolutionists may describe how ethics work as an instinct that occurs in nature, but they fail to show why we are morally obligated to cooperate with this instinct. I may need to protect the people in my “herd” so that we can survive, but why should this obligate me to protect members of other “herds” who are competing for limited resources?
The desire of theistic evolutionists to ascribe dignity to other humans and protect their rights is, therefore, only a subjective preference for a certain set of actions that the majority of humans believe serve the greater good of the community. Advocates of naturalistic theistic evolution may choose to affirm the abstract principle of human dignity, but they cannot ground that belief in an objective definition of personhood that equally applies to every evolved human.2
Human Dignity Stems from Creation in God’s Image
The moral argument for human personhood, however, establishes an important line of reasoning. It grounds human dignity in the fact of human personhood, which stands outside the boundaries of naturalistic animal-to-human evolution. For the Christian, our belief in Adam and Eve as created in the image of God—the first humans and sole progenitors of every living human—grounds the fact of human personhood outside culture, politics, and nature. While this image of God was deformed by the fall depicted in Genesis 3, creationists affirm that the impact of sin did not destroy the nature of human personhood nor did the fall destroy the sacredness of the material body.
For the apostle Paul, the incarnation of Christ, and his subsequent death and resurrection, transforms the individual believer into his or her ultimate state of being (Galatians 2:19–20). The transformative work of Christ, however, occurs without the individual losing their unique identity as a human person. Therefore, the creationist theology—seen through the lens of Christ’s redemption of humankind—is distinct from the evolutionary worldview that sees the human species as only one short stage of identity along a spectrum of evolved forms. This historic doctrine of special creation provides a stable and persistent foundation for defining human personhood, safeguarding human dignity, and ensuring human rights. The affirmation that every human is a person made in the sacred image of God takes us back to the opening discussion of racism.
Special Creation Grounds Personhood
The moral argument for human personhood, grounded in special creation, offers the most coherent argument against any form of dehumanization. Regardless of how society defines race or dehumanizes based on racial hierarchies, the Christian doctrine of special creation affirms that every human body, regardless of skin color, reflects the image of God and is the object of Christian love. The theology of special creation summarized in the moral argument for personhood undermines racism and does not suffer the definitional problems endemic to theistic evolution. The moral argument for human personhood affirms that discrimination against any racial group is unequivocally a violation of human sacredness and that Christians have a duty to ensure justice for every marginalized group.
- Brian K. Morley,Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 262, Apple Books.
- See my article for a related discussion, J. R. Miller, “A Response to Clunn’s Axioms of Morality,” Communications of the Blyth Institute 3, no. 1 (January 3, 2021): 39, doi.org/10.33014/issn.2640-5652.3.1.miller.1.