Francisco E. Plaza, PhD Candidate
University of St. Thomas, Houston TX
As modern secularism strives to move further away from any sense of the religious, any principle which even suggests a possible theological basis rapidly comes under fire, even at the cost of human flourishing itself. Human dignity, an idea with Christian roots that has since been largely taken for granted in Western civilization, has become one such target within the past century. While some notion of human dignity pre-dated Christianity (that is, at least in the sense that human beings were above other beings in nature), it was given its full articulation through the Gospel. Christianity gave human dignity its most elevated expression particularly in meditating upon the incarnation of Christ. The profundity of this ontological meeting point between the fully divine and fully human eludes any form of natural reason, the mystery of which clearly asserts nevertheless the special place of the human being within creation. Moreover, putting aside the veracity of this belief, most people in the West enjoy its practical fruits, as the idea of human dignity has led to a greater increase in the respect for individual human rights and equality.
Christianity has elevated man indeed, but as modern philosophy has progressed beginning with Descartes on through Nietzsche, humanity has been increasingly devalued (particularly as human nature is deconstructed by thinkers such as Darwin or Freud). Even as modern thought has taken apart man, and as modern Western culture has aggressively been moving away from its Christian roots toward secularism, there still remains among many the desire to maintain some of the practical fruits of Christian teaching in isolation from their source, such as the ideas of human dignity, equality, and rights. When taken apart from their originating principles, however, these notions become empty and arbitrary. From a secular standpoint then, the best that can be done is to redefine these terms from the start in a way that excludes any religious connection. The question that remains, however, is whether these ideas can stand alone without Christian principles.
The Rejection of Dignity
Ruth Macklin’s brief 2003 editorial, “Dignity is a useless concept,” paved the way for secular bioethicists to confront the notion of human dignity directly, as she bluntly cast the notion aside. In her own words: “Dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content.” Macklin’s argument is based on the claim that when “dignity” is mentioned within the context of medical ethics, it merely refers to a respect for persons, which in itself only means the respect for individual autonomy. Thus, if this is all that is meant by human dignity, we ought to simply refer directly to autonomy instead for the sake of precision. If dignity is to mean more than that, Macklin asserts, it is only religious sources which attempt to move in this direction. Here, Macklin rejects an appeal to religious authority outright in the context of “secular literature in medical ethics.” Of course, Macklin does not bother to define dignity herself, much less seek to portray how it is actually defined on a traditional level. Instead, Macklin quickly moves toward a respect for autonomy and ends the discussion there.
While Macklin’s editorial goes straight to the point, it is nevertheless reserved in tone compared to Steven Pinker’s own efforts with “The Stupidity of Dignity.” Pinker did not add much substantive to Macklin’s arguments, but he is at least worth noting insofar as his article reveals the current trend in the attitude of contemporary, secular bioethicists. Apart from echoing Macklin, the substance of Pinker’s article lies in his tirade against Leon Kass and the so-called “conservative” side of bioethics. Pinker’s tone is downright inflammatory, categorizing Kass’ views as “pro-death” and “anti-freedom.” Against the reliance upon the concept of dignity in conservative circles, Pinker claims that dignity “is natural ground on which to build an obstructionist bioethics.” For Pinker, “theocon bioethics” represents an obstinate blockade to medical progress, and thus, human flourishing in of itself, which he states cynically as “the biggest affront to human dignity of all.”
Like Macklin, Pinker also seeks a “respect for persons,” but he asserts that dignity is unnecessary to accomplish this: “one hardly needs the notion of ‘dignity’ to say why it’s wrong to gas six million Jews or to send Russian dissidents to the gulag.” Yet, if we examine Pinker’s own understanding of “dignity,” we find that he does not adequately understand the very concept he is setting out to criticize. Pinker takes a very superficial view of dignity, relating it simply to one feeling or appearing “dignified” in the ordinary use of the term. For instance, he labels “getting out of a small car” as being “undignified,” but is this really what is meant by “human dignity”?
On a basic level, what human dignity really denotes is that human beings have an intrinsic value. This elevated sense of worth is such that the human being is considered as an end, a whole, or as a being that merits a particular degree of respect on account of the kind of thing he is. Now, if we examine Macklin and Pinker’s insistence upon respect for autonomy, we must ask the obvious question: why? Is there a particular reason why “autonomy” is selected? Moreover, if there is something special about autonomy, would that not also extend to human beings as such? In other words, would the human being also be considered “special” on account of possessing autonomy? If this is indeed the case, we are simply coming back to a notion of dignity, the very idea they wished to reject. Certainly autonomy is an important human characteristic; indeed, man’s freedom and self-determination is an important piece of his personhood. But why is autonomy exalted in particular, and what exactly does it point toward? Not only does this question remain unanswered with Macklin and Pinker, it is never even raised. Perhaps for the anthropocentric modern mind, autonomy takes precedence as all that remains is man’s subjective will to give meaning to his own existence.
Leon Kass: The Common Target in the Attack on Dignity
In his study of human dignity, Kass turned his attention to “rights talk,” as such language has remained central to moral and political discussions within the United States. As Kass pointed out, our Declaration of Independence is the basis for such thought, as it asserts that the primary purpose of government is precisely to secure man’s “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” granted to him by his Creator. Now, with contemporary biomedical advancements, we have, by our own very freedom and ingenuity, spawned several advancements which actually “degrade and dehumanize us.” Here, Kass cited “surrogate motherhood, cloning, the buying and selling of egg and sperm, embryo farming, the creation of man-animal chimeras, and even extra-corporeal gestation” as his primary examples. It is thought here that by exercising our very rights, we have, by the same token, stumbled upon an acceptance of things which deprive of us of them. What particularly concerned Kass, however, is the problem of euthanasia and abortion, the former of which is promoted by the dubious mantra of “death with dignity.” Both of these issues have at their core a denial of an individual’s “right to life.” This irony of juxtaposing a kind of dignity in death with a simultaneous aversion to life, while subsequently calling upon the government to allow for such “rights,” propels us to question just what it means to have “rights” or “dignity” in the first place. Putting aside common intuitions, we must examine closely just what both concepts signify in and of themselves, and how each could be understood in terms of their source.
As Kass tries to understand the fundamental nature of rights and human dignity, he returns to the thought of Thomas Hobbes, given his influence upon John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, as well as his place as the founder of our modern doctrine of rights. Beginning with Hobbes’ most widely known concept: the state of nature–that is, the natural condition of mankind before the invention of government–is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Human reason, however, propels us out of this chaotic state of affairs by securing peace though civil society. In so doing, we strive to protect our “first natural right,” that of life and self-preservation. As man is a free and rational agent, he has the wherewithal to free himself from basic natural evils, primarily death, which is thought to be the gravest of all. This power is unique to man, thereby opening the case for human dignity as founded upon the special existence of man’s liberty and rational capacity coupled with his natural instinct of self-preservation. Unlike brute animals, man can both recognize and exert this natural right for himself and others. Moreover, man ought to have the freedom and knowledge not to trample upon the rights of others. This Hobbesian portrait of rights and dignity, nonetheless, is an individualist one, as it is centered upon the individual’s own nature, power, life, will, etc. Hobbes’ notion of liberty is especially illustrative of this, as it is defined simply around the “absence of external impediments,” rather than some kind of ordering toward an ultimate or common good beyond the individual.
Kass raises the ultimate question for Hobbes at this point: why does the fact of human autonomy, reason, and instinctual drive to self-preservation become a “natural right”? It would appear as though Hobbes grants the human being dignity by a mere “sleight of hand,” skipping over the actual argument for it. With Hobbes, Kass argues, we find rights to be “politically rather than ontologically grounded,” with their moral force being “felt only when the liberties they assert to be rightful are denied by others.” This would suggest a certain intuition of justice in every human being, whereby there is at least an unspoken, vague recognition of some eternal order that determines moral absolutes. Given the nature of this confusion, it is only when we suffer injustice that the reality of justice and dignity becomes apparent to us. Yet, there remains that link to the transcendent through human reason, even though it is accomplished in a limited fashion. As such, human reason will appear to serve as our focal point for granting human dignity.
This argument is extended further, as Kass attempts to ground dignity in the very activity of man’s rational powers, particularly when applied to his desire for self-preservation. For Kass, this reality of human nature serves as the foundation for human dignity in and of itself. In other words, the human being is a particular kind of creature, set apart by its unique ability of “mindfulness,” which thereby points us toward the direction of his dignity. Thus, human rights rest upon – and are actualized by – human dignity. Human dignity itself, however, transcends these individual characteristics (rights, autonomy, reason, etc.); the relation between them is as sign to signified, whereby these specifically human characteristics necessarily point to his dignity. Still, dignity remains a mysterious concept here, even though, paradoxically, it is affirmed by common intuition. Our dignity is known to us connaturally, and it comes to mind immediately when confronted by the problem of evil. The problem of evil presupposes a kind of injustice when evil befalls man, as though man is owed something by his very nature due to an inherent worth (which is what we call human dignity).
The Case for Dignity
So far, both sides of the dispute on human dignity have arrived at a common central point: the human being is a being of reason and free will who must be respected. The difference, however, lies in their answer to the question of “why.” While Kass holds this position on account of an affirmation of human dignity as understood traditionally (even though this idea has not been fully established as precisely as one would like), Macklin and Pinker simply toss this concept aside, but without wishing to discard the promises entailed by human dignity. Macklin and Pinker wished to simplify the matter to a mere respect for human autonomy, which of course flows from man’s rational nature. Now, Kass also focuses on man’s reason and free will throughout his own treatment of the human dignity, but again, what distinguishes Kass is that he explicitly affirms that there is something precious about the human being beyond these two characteristics in and of themselves. It is not that his account of human dignity ends with just a reference back to reason and autonomy, it is that he heralds these as signs to something greater within man which itself concretely grounds his dignity. By stopping at autonomy or reason taken in isolation, Macklin and Pinker effectively cut man off from whatever this “something” is which lies beyond.
Generally speaking, the modern temptation has indeed been, as Macklin and Pinker have done, to reduce the human being to his consciousness, reason, or autonomy, all of which are taken in isolation. Historically speaking, Karol Wojtyla (Pope Saint John Paul II) traced this disposition back to Descartes, as he separated the human mind and body, placing them alongside one another in such a way that each exists without forming an undivided whole. Wojtyla describes this as a process of “hypostatization of consciousness,” whereby “consciousness becomes an independent subject of activity.”
If consciousness is taken as the independent subject, Wojtyla continues to explain, its activity exists “alongside the body,” meaning that the body itself is also taken as separate entity, but one that is “subject to the laws of nature.” Thus, what truly matters when defining the human person is his consciousness, remaining subsistent against “the background of the organism.” Ultimately, this forms the beginning stages of subjectivism, whereby the subjective dimension of the human being (that is, his inner world of consciousness) is “absolutized,” taking metaphysical priority over the deterministic, material realm. Now, in this abhorrence toward any hint of determinism, man proceeds to exalt his own freedom in a totally independent manner from the world. Thus, there is no longer a sense of teleology with the human will, as freedom is sought for its own sake, rather than as a means to the good which transcends the human individual. For the secular mind, this explains the emphasis upon autonomy in their attempts to redefine dignity, as autonomy lies at the basis for every modern ethical system. Over time, the human person becomes defined purely by the collection of his own lived experiences, such that the person is merely a property of them. Finally, in absence of teleology, these experiences are valued intrinsically. In other words, their mere existence is enough, just as man’s simple freedom suffices with respect to any kind of value or worth.
The problem with subjectivism is that it divorces man from reaching any kind of true moral state of goodness. Here, a Sartrean attitude comes to the foreground, whereby man is called upon to “just live” or “just choose”. Whatever the human being ends up choosing is valuable for the simple reason that he chose it. Freedom, then, consists precisely in this ability of the human being to will “anything,” thereby forcing his mark upon the world. Under this view, man has the responsibility within the temporal realm to forge his own meaning by virtue of his freedom and reason, whereby man’s reason is what allows for his creativity. This is essentially what permits the individual to transcend the limitations of the natural world, not because there exists a state after death, but because the effects of his actions in the world remain in some form or another. Yet, if we travel along this path, we find that just as absolute good is lost, so too does moral evil vanish from the spectrum. So, if a nation collectively chooses to exterminate an entire race of people, is this valuable as well because it was chosen? After all, Nazism was a “triumph of the will.”
Within the discussion of dignity, we find another common idea between each side in their assertion of human personhood, that is, that the human being is a “person.” Wojtyla believed that everyone, regardless of worldview, would agree with this statement. This is a significant starting point, for as Wojtyla explains, “it marks out the position proper to the human being in the world. It speaks of the human being’s natural greatness.” Moreover, “to acknowledge the dignity of the human being means to place people higher than anything derived from them in the visible world.” The human being’s elevated nature with respect to the rest of creation is something that is verified by his own experience; it is constantly verified as the human being acts in the world, especially in communion with others (for instance, through economy, technology, and civilization). In at least some confused sense, then, human dignity must always be felt and appreciated. Arguably, this remains the case even for those who nominally deny dignity for the human being. After all, few, if any, would hold that all human beings (themselves included) are beneath other creatures, and that there are no human rights whatsoever. Indeed, for human rights to be properly understood, they must be rooted in a true sense of dignity, which itself must be ontologically grounded in some way.
Human dignity is necessarily attached to what the human being is essentially; every human being is a person. Dignity is not something earned by the human being after reaching a certain stage of development, nor is it a question of his quality of life. Rather, the human being’s inherent dignity is derived from the kind of being he is. Now, there are two ways to study the reality of the human person: objectively, and subjectively. The objective analysis of the human being is a metaphysical study of the human being as a being, whereas the subjective dimension of the human being is centered upon his lived experience which is irreducible. It would be a mistake to limit ourselves to only one of these paths when studying the human person, thus, Wojtyla’s project of “Thomistic Personalism” was centered precisely on uniting the two, relying upon the Thomistic tradition to explain the objective side of man, and the phenomenological method to aid us in understanding man’s subjective reality.
It is important to note the difference between an objective and subjective analysis in the person. Within an objective study, reality is studied in a reducible manner, whereas a subjective analysis attempts to appreciate what is irreducible as such. Here, there are two paths, for example, toward the metaphysical good. An objective view would have us arrive at the reality of an ultimate good through a reductive, logical procedure. However, a subjective study would isolate the real existential experience of the metaphysical good as it truly presents itself to the person in his lived experience. Now, man’s lived experience is precisely what Wojtyla refers to as the “irreducible” in the person, as one could generalize this objectively under the umbrella of reason and free will (given that these are the two necessitating conditions), but to “pause at the irreducible” is to transcend such a reductive treatment, meditating upon the individual variance found through each person. In Wojtyla’s own words: “Lived experience essentially defies reduction. This does not mean, however, that it eludes our knowledge; it only means that we must arrive at the knowledge of it differently, namely, by a method or means of analysis that merely reveals and discloses its essence.”
Before treating what is irreducible, however, we must first understand the metaphysical foundation of the human being, as Wojtyla took this to be the initial point of departure. The traditional definition for “person” came from Boethius, and is the same one which St. Thomas Aquinas (and later Wojtyla) used: “persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia” [the person is an individual substance of a rational nature]. Against subjectivism, the human being’s rational nature is not something which subsists on its own, but is in reality something which subsists within the person, who is “a subject of existence and action.” Freedom is a concomitant to reason, such that a personal being is one who has reason and freedom by definition.
In speaking of reason and freedom, we must refer back to man’s spirituality, as these are natural properties of his soul. Understood on an Aristotelian basis, the soul is the principle of life and activity, and its operations are mediated by certain faculties in the human being. Reason and free will are a consequence of man’s spiritual reality, and indeed, they may also act as direct signs of it. The proper human action will be understood as one which flows from his reason and freedom–in other words, from his spirituality–such that the human soul forms the basis for his actions. Nevertheless, the human soul is united with man’s corporeal nature. While modern philosophers (starting with Descartes) tend to neglect this fact, it remains the case that man cannot act in a manner divorced from material reality, or more generally speaking as well, from reality at large. As Wojtyla explains: “human thought has a creative character; it is the basis of creativity and the source of culture. This does not mean that by thinking we create a world of ideas and judgments separate from and independent of reality. Quite the contrary. Human thought has a very realistic and objective character.” To avoid the idealist or subjectivist pitfall here, then, we must maintain a firm, integral understanding of the human being as a whole, rather than narrowly focus upon only a singular aspect of the human experience in isolation from the rest.
Beyond the metaphysical reality of each human individual, we must also give an account of the metaphysical reality of “the Good” and “the True.” Morality is made possible through freedom and reason, as the moral question is essentially how one ought to act. Properly understood, human freedom is not without purpose; there is such a thing as a “good” or “bad” use of free will. Moreover, freedom is not an end in itself, but a means to something greater: man’s personal, free choice of the good. By extension, this is what makes the person himself morally good or evil. Now, “good” and “truth” are intimately united here, as man is made good only by what is truly good. Reason also enters into the fore, because as his will is directed toward the good, man’s reason is directed toward what is true. Both must work together for man to actually become good.
This experience of man’s own freedom and reason as he acts in the world reveal to him his own structures of “self-determination,” “self-governance,” and “self-possession,” each of which serve to form the nature of lived experience. With regard to the first, self-determination is essentially the person’s ability to freely make himself according to his will, that is, to become good or evil. Moreover, man’s own experience of his self-determination subsequently reveals to him his self-governance and self-possession. The latter of these simply refers to the fact that each individual person has authority over himself, whereas self-governance builds upon this notion, relating to how one ought to possess themselves. Again, the question of “ought” here is necessarily attached to the reality of the good, thereby forming another intimate link between man’s subjective realm and his objectivity.
While our objective analysis looks at these structures of lived experience in a general manner, it is the subjective experience (that is, each person’s own experiencing) of these inner-realities which reveals to each man that he is a person. In other words, man experiences his own personhood, which is “unique” and “unrepeatable.” This is what grounds our real experience of human dignity, as we experience this unique “inner universe” of the person (beginning with ourselves) within the outer universe of nature. Thus, the person constitutes a whole of sorts within the whole of nature. But as this begins with a personal experience of ourselves, the I, we transfer the same reflection to others, as we recognize them first to be fellow human beings. While our own inner-subjectivity is incommunicable, we are nevertheless capable of transferring the reality of what structures our own inner-self to others, as we come to understand that we possess such structures on account of our personhood. As such, we begin to experience other human beings around us as “other I’s,” with their own unique subjective dimension as well. As Wojtyla explains:
In order for me to regard the other or a neighbor as another I (and only this qualifies as participation in another concrete humanity), I must also become aware of and experience, among the overall properties of that other “human being,” the same kind of property that determines my own I, for this will determine my relationship to the other as an I.
In this manner, we transfer our experience of dignity (stemming from our personhood) to other human beings; we recognize one another as neighbors, capable of participating in one another’s lives, and thus, in one another’s inner subjectivity. Against solipsism, we come to experience in our relation to others that we ourselves are “other” from their perspective, which confirms for us not only the reality of human dignity on a general level as noted above, but indeed, its obligation and calling as well. In other words, we experience dignity as not merely a property of the person, but as a matter of responsibility. Through experiencing our own personhood, we also become aware of its uniqueness, and therefore, we recognize that it merits respect. As we see other human beings as I, then, we also experience the responsibility to respect their personhood as well.
Thus far, we have endeavored to study the matter of human dignity from a philosophical vantage point, but Wojtyla did not hesitate to remind us that theology is what provides for us the fullest explanation with respect to the place of the human person within creation, as it “must remain a deep and impenetrable mystery of human experience” “when viewed in the light of human reason alone.” Christianity serves to answer the fundamental question of human existence with respect to death, as it is something natural to the human being as a “creature,” but unnatural to him insofar as he is a “person.” It is in the transcendence found through the redemption of Christ that the person is capable of finding his proper fulfillment, as the demands of his spiritual nature exceed his natural and temporal limitations. Moreover, it is the very incarnation of Christ, coupled with his sacrifice, which confirms more than anything the dignity which God allots to each human being.
References Historically Layered
KASS, Leon R. (12 February 1939—).
2007. “The Right to Life and Human Dignity.” The New Atlantis (Spring): 23-40.
MACKLIN, Ruth (1938—).
2003. “Dignity is a Useless Concept”, British Medical Journal 327: 1419-1420.
PINKER, Steven (18 September 1954—).
2008. “The Stupidity of Dignity”, The New Republic. Last modified 28 May 2008. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/the-stupidity-dignity.
WOJTYLA, Karol (18 May 1920—2005 April 2).
1961. “Personalizm tomistyczny“, Znak 13: 664-75 in the English translation by Theresa Sandok, “Thomistic Personalism” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 165-75.
1964. “O godnosci osoby ludzkiej”, Notificationes a Curia Principis Metrpolitae Cracoviensis in the English translation by Theresa Sandok, “On the Dignity of the Human Person” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 177-80.
1972. Człowiek w polu odpowiedzialności (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1991). Reference to the English translation by Kenneth W. Kemp and Zuzanna Maslanka Kieron, Man in the Field of Responsibility (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011).
1975. “Uczestnictwo czy alienacja”, paper originally presented to the Fourth International Phenomenology Conference in Fribourg, Switzerland 24-28 January 1975 and published in 1978 Summarium 7.27. Reference to the English translation by Theresa Sandok, “Participation or Alienation?” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 197-207.
1975. “Podmiotowsci i ‘to, co nieredukowalne’ w czlowieku”, paper originally presented in Paris 13-14 June 1975 and published 1988 in Ethos 1.2-3. Reference to the English translation by Theresa Sandok, “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 209-17.
1976. “Osoba: Podmiot I wspolnota” in Roczniki Filozoficzne, 24.2: 5-39, in the English translation by Theresa Sandok, “The Person: Subject and Community” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 219-61.
 Ruth Macklin 2003: “Dignity is a useless concept”, British Medical Journal 327, 1420.
 Ibid, 1419.
 Ibid, 1420.
 Steven Pinker 2008: “The Stupidity of Dignity,” The New Republic, 28 May 2008. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/the-stupidity-dignity.
 Leon R. Kass 2007: “The Right to Life and Human Dignity”, The New Atlantis Spring, 23.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 30.
 Ibid, 31.
 Ibid, 38.
 Ibid, 39.
 Wojtyla 1961: “Thomistic Personalism”, 169.
 Ibid, 170.
 Wojtyla 1964: “On the Dignity of the Human Person”, 178.
 Ibid. Also, p.180 of the same.
 Wojtyla 1961: “Thomistic Personalism”, 210.
 Wojtyla 1975: “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being”, 215.
 Wojtyla 1961: “Thomistic Personalism”, 165.
 Ibid, 167.
 Ibid, 168.
 Ibid, 169.
 Ibid, 171.
 Wojtyla 1975: “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being”, 213.
 Wojtyla 1961: “Thomistic Personalism”, 172.
 Wojtyla 1976: “The Person: Subject and Community”, 234.
 Ibid, 230.
 Wojtyla 1975: “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being”, 214.
 Wojtyla 1976: “The Person: Subject and Community”, 221.
 Wojtyla 1975: “Participation or Alienation?”, 200.
 Ibid, 202.
 Wojtyla 1961: “Thomistic Personalism”, 175.
 Wojtyla 1964: “On the Dignity of the Human Person”, 179.