Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Human Dignity?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 25, 2011

The language of “human dignity” has been very popular among ethical thinkers of the past couple of generations, though it is increasingly under attack now. Part of the reason is that dignity is necessarily a vague or nebulous concept, which can be developed in a wide variety of directions unless it is coupled with a sound and keen sense of the nature and ends of man. Thus the concept we have of it today is not, to say the least, your father’s concept of dignity.

Peter Augustine Lawler, who served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, has written a highly interesting book on this subject, Modern and American Dignity: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for our Future. This is not a review, but the book opens quite a few profitable lines of thought. Among other things, it provides a cogent explanation of why so many of our contemporaries have adopted an understanding of human dignity which is firmly rooted in two concepts: autonomy and productivity.

It seems clear enough that human dignity must consist in what is unique about man as compared with other beings. Moreover, in a culture which has little or no conception of the supernatural, man cannot avoid comparing himself primarily with other visible beings (as opposed to invisible or spiritual beings) in determining where his uniqueness lies. Especially in a scientific culture, preoccupied as it is with natural studies and the alleviation of natural problems, it is not hard to see why many would reasonably conclude that what is unique about us humans is our ability to reflect on and alter our own nature.

Animals cannot do this. You will never find even the noblest ape attempting to do things that it cannot do given its natural (or material) constitution (to fly, for example, or to develop electronic means of communication), nor will an ape attempt to make itself something other than it is by nature. Yet because of our unique abilities for intellection and self-reflection, we humans do extend our abilities beyond what nature has equipped us to do (that is, our physical limitations), and we also dream of improving ourselves in other ways, including overcoming our own mortality. Human persons, in other words, have a strong tendency to find their uniqueness precisely in their autonomy with respect to nature, including their own nature.

This sense of autonomy opens up a vast series of undefined, unlimited options for the person, who can (or so it seems) be and do whatever he or she wishes to be and do. The lack of definition—and therefore of structure, guidance, stability and security—may be bewildering, but all possibilities do quite naturally tend to have one thing in common: A refusal to accept what nature has given. The ability to transform or improve upon one’s nature soon develops into a rejection of one’s nature, and a determination not to be blindly mastered by it, as all other visible beings most certainly are. I do not say there is no confusion about “nature” in this attitude, quite the contrary, but it certainly goes a long way toward explaining, among other things, the sexual attitudes which lie at the very heart of contemporary culture.

It explains, for example, why so many men and women rebel so strongly against the link between sex and reproduction, insisting on both their ability and their right to operate independently of nature in this sphere, whether they wish to be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, or anything else. The only thing that is absolutely unthinkable is to succumb to nature and have children as a result of sex, for this is seen as a direct contradiction of what makes the human person unique, that is, his autonomy with respect to nature.

One problem with the seemingly limitless possibilities opened by this understanding of autonomy is that it leaves people with no clear pattern for claiming, demonstrating or assessing their worth (or, to use the term with which we began, their dignity). Worth is asserted, of course, in the continuous exercise of autonomy, but everybody asserts this worth in different ways, ways which by definition must be equally valid, since whatever an autonomous individual decides to make of himself must be, after all, purely and precisely a personal choice. But we are still social beings who strive for the recognition of those around us, paradoxical as that might seem to the truly autonomous. And in a culture without ultimate values, this recognition invariably comes through our performance against one particular measure of what it means to be human: the measure of productivity.

I believe it was Horace who said that you can drive nature back with a pitchfork, but it continually reasserts itself. So it is that we apparently need some way to measure (or gain a healthy sense of) our own self-worth. Simply being and doing whatever we want (every choice in effect a new hobby) does not provide such a measure. Moreover, we need to eat, and frequently we need wealth to pursue the full range of our possibilities for self-determination, perhaps even to be (in our own estimation) fully human. For all these reasons, personal productivity becomes the common denominator of human worth.

Another of Lawler’s many insights is that even the university, which used to seek to inculcate in young men and women the breadth of understanding and social virtue characteristic of the freeborn (that is, those not tied slavishly to constant work) , has ended by eschewing all higher values as mythical, instead sacrificing nearly every study and every motive to the god of productivity. Again, in a culture that lacks transcendent values, we quickly find that unproductive persons—especially those who cannot be made productive—are considered of no account: the old, the sick, the handicapped, the very young, and often the poor and ignorant who cannot self-actualize, or even those who lack political power, those who are laughably easy to control.

It may be worth mentioning as well that our concept of rights seems to be rapidly evolving into the removal of all restraints from those productive people who are willing to resist nature through their personal autonomy—and to hell with everyone else. This too would seem to follow. In the context, this too makes sense.

I have tried to portray this resolution of human uniqueness into autonomy and productivity as, to a considerable extent, an eminently logical position, at least based on the ideas most moderns have been given to work with in a highly pluralistic, technocratic and anti-supernatural era. I do intend to consider the flaws in the perceptions which lead to these conclusions, as well as the ways out of the box it puts us in. But for now it is not at all a bad thing to have a little greater understanding of why so many of our contemporaries think and act as they do. Admittedly, it does not help that this mindset allies itself so easily with the human passions, which would surely make a more perceptive generation extremely suspicious. But there is in the attitude of this generation a point to be taken, an understanding to be achieved, and perhaps even a certain sympathy from that understanding. Between installments, so to speak, let us think about that.

Next in series: The Choice for or against God

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 31, 2011 1:02 PM ET USA

    One of the stupefying ironies of our age is that those individuals most committed to autonomy from norms, conventions and traditions agitate for acceptance from those most likely to adhere to religious, social and moral conventions. The free-agents abhor judgement, sanction or consequence with respect to their behavior, but they can't seem to move on without the stamp of approval from the conventional society they reject. The tyranny of relativism, indeed...

  • Posted by: impossible - May. 28, 2011 11:52 PM ET USA

    To our "Catholic" politicians and partisan clerics who have become enablers of socialism, "human dignity" which is basic to Catholic Social Justice teachings, is one dimensional - his physical, secular side is all importnt. His soul and the soul of our culture have no dog in the hunt.

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - May. 27, 2011 1:21 PM ET USA

    The image that comes to my mind, out here in San Diego, is that of a surfer who wants to be "automomous" of the waves. He wouldn't simply be laughed off of the beach. He would end up being carried off of the beach.