Introduction to Functionalism
It is a violation of a human being’s dignity, his or her inherent worth, to be treated as merely or only as an instrument or tool for the benefit of others. However, a human being has a right, even an expectation, to be treated better than that, because he or she is the imago Dei, that is, a person. In the words of Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”
But how is a human being treated merely as tool or instrument? The first way is by viewing him or her as if he or she were a disposable item, something which no longer has any value. Usually, when that happens, it is time to “get rid of him or her,” treating him or her, for all practical purposes, as an “it,” a thing. The second way, which is even worse, is to treat a person as though he or she were rubbish, destined for the junkyard, when he or she is no longer useful to others. Usually, such a human being is “thrown away,” because of his or her appearance, declining skills, performance or old age. Of course, ultimately, all things change and decline over time, “wearing out.” That truth also applies to every human being. But what should remain morally constant, always the same, is the inherent value of a human being as a person. But, unfortunately, it does not.
A Utilitarian Ethic: Human Value Based on Function or Usefulness
When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she accepted it, in her words, on behalf of
“the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the leprous, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared [for], thrown away of the society, people who have become a burden to the society, and are ashamed by everybody.”
Indeed, our society throws away — like a used up or worn out pair of shores or clothing — the sick, poor, weak and vulnerable, treating them as if they were objects or things to be used and discarded. One reason is that the West, particularly, the United States of America, is embracing a quality of human life ethic, which says, in effect, “If you cannot do anything for others, then you are not anything.” That is to say, a person who cannot produce is reduced in his or her humanity, treated as if he or she were a nobody and better off dead than alive. Like Mother Teresa, Viktor Frankl, the eminent Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, objects to discarding or throwing away persons who are no longer useful to others. Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy established by Dr. Frankl, affirms, in his words,
“…[T]he unconditional value of each and every person. It is that which warrants the indelible quality of the dignity of man. Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are the most miserable, so too does the value of each and every person stay with him or her, and it … is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present.”1
An Ontological Ethic: Human Value Based on Being a Person
The opposite ethic, which is truly human and humanizes other persons, is called “an ontological ethic.” It teaches, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I am somebody. I am a person …. with dignity and honor.”2 In other words, every human being, regardless of his or her physical or mental condition, is someone, not something. Such an ethic, rightly understood and applied, promotes the dignity of the human person and would not, under any circumstance, throw away the life of an innocent, vulnerable human being.
How often we humans miss the obvious! How often we pass by each other without taking the slightest notice of the humanity of the person in front of us! The next time you see another human, take a moment to realize that the being before you is a subject, not an object; a “who,” not a “what;” an end in himself or herself, not merely a means to someone else’s ends. In short, that being is a person. And nothing can be greater than that!
1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 151-152.
2. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eds. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, Inc., 2001), p. 184.