Bioethics Blogs

Bioethics and Gnosticism

I am continuing to reflect on the ideas presented at the CBHD summer conference this past week. The talk that impacted me the most was given by Robert George on Thursday evening. His topic was Bioethics and Gnosticism. His focus was the distinction between different concepts of who we are as human beings. One way to think about who we are which is present in Aristotle, Hebrew thought and Christian thought is that we are a unity of spirit and body. That says that we have a nonmaterial part of our being (the spiritual or mental part) that is in unity with our physical or bodily part and that it is the unity of the two that is what we are. The other view goes back to Greek Gnostic thought and was picked up by Descartes and modern western philosophy and has been called substance dualism. It says that we are nonbodily persons who inhabit or use bodies that are nonpersonal.

This difference in what we understand human beings to be impacts how we define persons and understand who has full moral status. For those who believe we are a unity of spirit and body it makes sense to say that personhood begins with the creation of a new human organism at the time of conception and that every human being is a person until the body ceases to be alive. That view gives moral value to every member of the human family and leaves no one out. However if we are nonbodily persons who inhabit a nonpersonal body, our personhood and moral status can be seen to be a function of whether we have the cognitive abilities or attributes that characterize a nonbodily person.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.