The Pluralistic Roots of Human Dignity

The idea that we all have an innate human dignity has dominated traditional ethics. To speak to our pluralistic society, secular ethics has formed a sound theory on Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-Maleficence, and Justice. There is a valid concern that dignity is an unhelpful principle in the face of these principles. What work does dignity do within this new ethical paradigm? My theory is that dignity spans multiple cultures and is thus a pluralistic principle. The following is my attempt to show that ethical frameworks share dignity as a foundation.

What is Dignity

The common critique given against dignity is that it is difficult to define. Webster defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” This definition seems straightforward enough. What is perplexing is how humans have worth. What makes humans so special to have an innate dignity? It is more natural to put a value on someone based upon their net worth or what (s)he can produce. How does an ordinary person have the same worth as the President of the United States of America? History tells us a fascinating story about this mystery.

History of Dignity

Attributing dignity to every person is a new phenomenon. Historically, “dignity” was reserved for those of high status. Thus, only the monarchs and upper class were considered to be “dignified.” For centuries, society placed more value on the King than on his servants. Given that the United States was born out of a struggle with a monarch, it is no wonder why the founding fathers omitted “dignity” from the Declaration of Independence. It is heartbreaking that we have not thought of all people as having equal worth until recent history.

One of the first public declarations of universal dignity is in 1948’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This document began by placing dignity at its core foundation; “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” They attributed dignity to all members of the human family. It is no longer earned based upon race, sex, status, etc. Because you are human, you have an innate worth that demands respect. The “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” echoed this fundamental understanding of dignity in 1966.

Imago Dei

Fortunately, we have more than the secular declarations to rely upon. The religious understanding of dignity goes back for centuries compared to the secular tradition. Most of the major religions believe that all humans are essentially equal. Christians, Jews, and Muslims base this foundation on the fact that humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). Since we are made in the image of God, we have a piece of Him in us, which demands value.

As an analogy of why this is, my friend has a Picasso sketch. He and I agree that it fails on all levels of aesthetic appeal. Honestly, I would commission my 2-year-old niece to paint the picture for my living room before hanging this sketch. Yet, something about it being “made by” Picasso makes it attractive. How much more should we value the human made by God?

Since God created all of nature, wouldn’t all creation have the same worth? The analogy seems to fall short here. But there is something different between a sketch and a masterpiece by Picasso. Similarly, the person made in the image of God has a little more worth than the dandelion on my lawn. I argue that Picasso’s masterpiece is more akin to being made in God’s image.

Dignity as a Capacity to Reason

In solidarity with the western religions, Buddhism also appeals to the idea of an innate worth of humans. The Buddhist’s supreme way of life is the state of enlightenment, known as Buddhahood. Humans have the rare opportunity to choose to pursue this worthy goal. Their innate worth is based on the capacity of the person to go on this journey. “The Buddhist understanding of human dignity is rooted in the idea that we are able to choose the path of self-perfection.” 

Interestingly enough, it is this eastern thought that aligns with the most praised secular ethicist, Immanuel Kant. Kant also binds dignity to the human capacity, specifically our ability to reason about the categorical imperative. As he puts it, “The dignity of humanity consists just in this capacity to give universal law, though with the condition of also being itself subject to this very lawgiving” (4:440).

Some have argued that Kant believes dignity is innate to the human being. Citing him when he says: “Humanity itself is a dignity, for man can be used by no one (neither by others nor even by himself) merely as a means, but must always be used at the same time as an end. And precisely therein consists his dignity (personality), whereby he raises himself above all other beings in the world” (6:462). This view seems to rise or fall based on your interpretion of Kant when he says: “man as a person, i.e., as the subject of morally-practical reason, is exalted above all price” (6:434). Is it a capacity or innate quality to be “the subject of morally-practical reason”? I agree with Sensen’s “Kant’s conception of Human Dignity“, which argues for it to be a capacity.

Bridging Capacity and Imago Dei

The Kantian and Buddhist ideas of dignity seem to be at odds with the Imago Dei. Those who believe that man was created in the image and likeness of God purport to an innate value in itself. On the other hand, the capacity argument says you are valuable because you can do x. The pragmatist in me wants to say, “Who cares? They both find value in the other, so practically speaking, there is nothing to split hairs about.”

Many may see this as a bold claim, but I believe that having the capacity to reason is synonymous with being made in the image and likeness of God. God has given humans His image/ability to think rationally. Thus the reflection of God we participate in is His reasonableness. To quote Aristotle; “But concerning reason and the capacity for contemplation nothing is yet evident but it seems to be a different genus of soul, and this alone admits of being separated, in the way the everlasting is from the perishable” (413b 25). Aristotle is distinguishing between humans and all other living things by classifying humans as having a rational soul. Thus, his definition of humans as rational animals. Similarly, God set us apart by making us in His image and likeness, by making us rational animals. 

Being made in God’s image is no different than being made with the capacity to reason. If we think humans are rational animals, the difference between dignity’s foundation as a rational capacity versus the Imago Dei disappears. Our rationality sets us apart. 

Potential to be Reasonable Implies Dignity

A critique of this view is that the capacity to reason can fail. Maybe I fall into a coma, or a car accident leaves me mentally impaired. Would the Buddhist or Kantian preserve my dignity if I do not have the capacity that makes me valuable? 

I hope they would both argue that capacity does not entail ability at that precise moment. When you are asleep, you cannot control your dreams, let alone make universal laws. Yet, the capacity is maintained because of the way humans are made! 

There is an important distinction between active and passive potentiality, which is worth noting here. When we think of active potentiality, the same thing that possesses the potentiality is the same thing that will later activate the potentiality. Many thinkers conflate this with passive potentiality. But passive potentiality is typically something to become something completely different. Think about oxygen’s (O2) ability to become two water molecules (H2O). The oxygen is now a part of something completely different. (adapted from Patrick Lee)

Each person has active potential to be rational and make universal laws. Even if the person is not activating this capacity at the moment, (s)he is still a rational animal, that is, still made in the image and likeness of God. Whether you use the capacity or the Imago Dei argument, we all agree that each human person has dignity.

I love struggling through these ideas with you. But I do miss things from time to time. So let me know what you think about these different ideas of dignity? Which do you think is most correct? Let’s start a conversation by tweeting @PaulWagle or by commenting below.

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