Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance

Written by John F. Kilner, ed. Reviewed By Joshua Kira

Why People Matter is a book that attempts to encourage discussion as to how a view of human significance affects one’s overall moral thinking. John Kilner has assembled a strong set of scholars to discuss, in a survey fashion, the manner in which a Christian perspective on human dignity and rights sets a more defensible foundation for speaking to ethical topics than many other influential contemporary theories. The book argues that in a world where there is frequent disagreement about moral judgments, certain values appear to underlie said arguments, especially the idea that humans have some sort of worth. Kilner perhaps sets the stage best, writing: “However, a closer look at their arguments reveals that there is substantial common ground after all. Opposing ‘sides’ in so many disagreements argue that people matter—that how people are viewed and treated is crucially important” (p. 3).

After an introductory chapter that briefly explains why human significance is foundational to ethics, the book proceeds with five chapters (pp. 17–132), each representing a rival theory of human value that has seen recent popularity. These five theories—or “isms” (p. 11)—include utilitarianism, collectivism, individualism, naturalism, and transhumanism. Each chapter attempts to show the internal incoherence of its particular “ism” of discussion, either by arguing that they do violence to the idea that people matter or because they oversimplify the question of human value. Each then proceeds by demonstrating the preferability of a distinctly Christian view of anthropological worth, specifically by showing the manner in which it does not fall under the same criticism as the opposing perspectives.

The book then continues with two chapters that argue that a biblical perspective on human dignity, based in the image of God and recognition of divine activities towards and for humanity, should be entertained as a plausible, if not superior, theory. In these chapters, the worth of an individual is understood as relational (pp. 141–44) and rooted in God’s action (pp. 161–66). Thus, it reinforces the criticisms of the earlier chapters by arguing for individual significance against utilitarianism and collectivism and for human worth deriving from God’s work against individualism, naturalism, and transhumanism. The book concludes with a helpful summary chapter which thematizes and contextualizes the main arguments set forth.

A book’s effectiveness is indexed to its purpose, with Why People Matter being no different. It attempts to fill a gap in Christian philosophical literature on how human value should relate to ethics. It does not attempt to end a debate, but begin one, by surveying the contemporary efforts in the field and providing just enough criticism to show why the Christian perspective should be recognized as both viable and, likely, preferable. For this reason, its lack of depth in any particular area should be excused, since it is setting the stage and not finishing the production. In this way, if it is read as a foundational piece as to why human dignity is significant to ethical debates, Why People Matter is successful. It is not written in a highly technical manner, neither does it seem to be written only for the layperson. Instead, it appears to be written for educated readers, such as seminary students and professors, who have yet to do extensive work in normative ethics or metaethical theory. Consequently, as a call to action for scholars to begin to direct their energies towards value theory in relation to Christian theology, it is indispensable.

There are many ways in which the book is useful, but length limits me to mention only four. First, it promotes a healthy humility that is often wanting in philosophical endeavors, including Christian ones (pp. 26–33, 51–53, 79–80, etc.). It encourages a sort of epistemic humility that questions whether humans are ultimately able to answer questions of worth and a doxological humility as the questions that are broached are understood in the context of relationship to the divine. Second, the book provides sufficient reasons to believe that the “isms” are internally inconsistent (e.g., they require absolute value yet attack it; they assume the dignity of humanity while removing its foundations, etc.). It does not attempt to sound the death knell to any given position, but gives a number of examples in each chapter that would cause one to question whether any of the competing theories can actually provide a coherent theory of human value that could undergird a practicable normative ethic. Third, it recognizes the significance of the other positions, retrieving those aspects of them that are correct and should be heeded. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, this book performs its function from a distinctively biblical view. Whereas, in Christendom, “mere Christianity” has passed into “mere theism,” the authors of Why People Matter do not fall into the modern myth of neutrality nor the postmodern myth of relativism. Instead, they recognize that they can only argue for the Christian perspective as Christians. In this way, the argument is, at times, unabashedly exegetical and theological. Such a practice is especially refreshing in a book that addresses philosophical issues.

There are, however, a few areas where the book might have been improved. First, there is a structural issue in that the first major examination of the image of God does not happen until chapter 7, even though three of the previous chapters rely heavily upon the notion. Were the chapters on the biblical perspective moved forward, it may have been helpful in reading the “ism” chapters. Furthermore, some of the analyses of the language used in the debate do not happen until relatively late in the book (e.g., “dignity” on pp. 118–21). Though it would be unrealistic to believe that perfect clarity is necessary before anything helpful can be said, in a philosophical debate, such clarity may be necessary to sort out some of the conceptual difficulties. Second, there are a few times where the arguments of a chapter rely upon controversial topics, without explicit mention of their contentious nature. Of particular note is the editor’s understanding of the “image of God” and the employment of liberation theology in the later chapters. Third, there are a few unusual statements that aim to simplify the discussion for the audience and are likely inaccurate. For example, the phrase “If the moral law (on the utilitarian picture)” (p. 70) would represent a very idiomatic version of utilitarianism, especially since it is frequently employed to attack the static nature of ethics that “law” would seem to imply. Last, there appears to be at least one missed opportunity, which may have been a function of the length of time it took to gather the material for this book. Race is addressed in this issue, but infrequently and only in the later chapters (primarily in terms of historical slavery). Yet, it is an important test-case, particularly in the light of recent events, as to one’s view of human value. However, that these criticisms of the book are relatively minor, shows the strength and overall importance of the work. If one desires to begin delving into questions of axiology and ethics, it is a valuable primer.

Joshua Kira

Joshua Kira
Cedarville University
Cedarville, Ohio, USA

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