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​Delasanta Lecture Casts Light on Human Dignity

Dr. John O’Callaghan, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, told students and professors in the Providence College Liberal Arts Honors Program that human beings deserve dignity by virtue of being human, no matter their physical condition or stage of development.

O’Callaghan presented this year’s Rodney Delasanta Lecture, sponsored annually by the Honors Program in honor of the late Dr. Rodney K. Delasanta ’53, a professor of English who directed the program from 1987 to 2004. The lecture, which also was open to the College community, was delivered in Aquinas Hall Lounge.

Dr. Stephen J. Lynch, professor of English and director of the honors program, said the lecture seeks to continue Delsanta’s teaching goal of bringing “the wisdom of the past to bear upon the thorny problems of today.”

O’Callaghan, whose topic was “Human Dignity, Excellence, and the Embryo,” is director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, where he has taught since 2003.

He graduated from St. Norbert College in 1984 and received a master’s degree in mathematics from Notre Dame in 1986. He worked as an engineer in Boston for two years before returning to Notre Dame, where he received a doctorate in philosophy in 1996. He taught philosophy at Creighton University and the University of Portland.

In 2010, he was appointed a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

“What I want to suggest to you today is that dignity attaches to the most fundamental way in which we are the same — it attaches simply to being human, whatever stage of development a human being is in, and whatever illnesses or disabilities may be suffered,” said O’Callaghan.

O’Callaghan rejected the Utilitarian argument of Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton University, who wrote in Rethinking Life and Death that it can be acceptable to kill people — if they are in pain, for example, or if their lives are deemed unproductive, such as in the case of a very old person, or an embryo.

O’Callaghan quoted Singer: “To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child’s abilities. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.”

“We say that human dignity here is measured very much in terms of the prospects for winning in the great game of life,” O’Callaghan said.

‘No magic moment’ when dignity dawns

O’Callaghan refuted “contemporary suggestions” that the medical community should treat people differently because of their disabilities. As an example, he cited “the regular denial by many in the medical community” of heart, liver, kidney, and lung transplants to people with cognitive impairments, partly from the belief that such people will not be able do the follow-up required after surgery.

“I think the more honest, but also more disturbing, answer within the medical profession is that such patients will not lead as successful and fulfilling lives as the lives of patients without cognitive impairments,” O’Callaghan said.

“In that sense, they are judged to be outside the community of potentially fulfilled and successful human beings. And we can begin to see that the criterion for inclusion, for dignity, is cognitive achievement.”  

But “there is no magic moment when personhood and human dignity dawn upon a human organism, other than when that human being began to be,” O’Callaghan said. “And there are no mere human beings who await dignity, and whom we may treat as we will until that mythic magic moment.”

— Vicki-Ann Downing

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