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The problem with “human dignity” as a moral argument

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 15, 2018

Pope Francis’ revision to the Catechism on the death penalty says, among other things, that “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the human person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes” and that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”. Earlier, Pope John Paul’s initial revision to the Catechism had said that public authority should limit itself to “bloodless means”, if they are sufficient to protect human safety, “because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

I will not attempt to explain Pope Francis’ peculiar use of the term “inviolability” in this context, but the term “dignity” appears multiple times. It is clearly important to the formulation in the Catechism, and it is a trademark of moral discussions around the world today. So it is this term, “human dignity”, which I wish to consider in greater detail.

Here is the context: There is an ongoing argument over whether the change made by Pope Francis, declaring the death penalty to be “inadmissible”, represents a prudential judgment or a change in Church doctrine. Writing for, Phil Lawler and I have argued that it must be prudential, not only because it is the only understanding which fits with prior magisterial teaching, but for two other reasons: (1) The textual arguments for it are generally prudential; and (2) The word “inadmissible” seems deliberately chosen to avoid a non-prudential term such as “immoral”. Thus we might consider a particular proposal “inadmissible” under some circumstances without declaring it to be always and everywhere “immoral”.

However, other commentators have argued that the references to “human dignity” make it clear that this teaching is based on a universal moral truth. This is a profound misunderstanding, and it is precisely the error I wish to correct here, for two main reasons.

Meaning of “Human Dignity”

The first reason is that the term “human dignity” must be overloaded to be a concrete guide to moral behavior. “Human dignity” is simply shorthand for a recognition of “human nature” as something different from other created natures, which therefore demands its own assessment and response. To speak about “human dignity” is to say, in effect, “Now look here. We are dealing with a human being, a human person. Therefore, we must understand what this means, and take care.” But a great deal more is needed before we can determine the precise sort of care we must take. And that “more” comes to us through a careful parsing of the natural law into particular moral principles (or the parsing of Divine Revelation, since both come from the same source).

When it comes to “human dignity”, we must draw a clear connection between the “is” and the “ought”. Sadly, even in the context of many moral discussions, the term “human dignity” is too often assumed to imply something that has not been precisely delineated or proved. It is not enough to say that human dignity demands, as a matter of strict morality, treatment X or Y. That statement simply assumes the term “human dignity” includes “the right to treatment in accord with X or Y”, which is a tautology. No, for a strictly moral argument, the applicable principles must be specifically stated, connected and argued.

The second reason follows from the first. Without such carefully adumbrated principles, we cannot speak with any assurance about what “human dignity” means morally. What we find, in fact, is that conceptions of what violates human dignity not only vary widely from culture to culture but also very frequently depend, in the evaluation of particular actions, quite strictly on the end in view.

As an example of variation we might take something simple, like eye contact. In Western cultures, avoiding eye contact when speaking with someone is considered rude or demeaning to their dignity; in Asian cultures, it is considered a reverence, an acknowledgement of the other person’s dignity. Examples of dependence on the “end in view” are easily drawn from what we call “training”. Most of us would regard it as out of keeping with human dignity to order a person out of a room because he or she made a small disturbance. But when it comes to teaching children how to behave in society, we would consider it very much in keeping with their true dignity to do so.

Slippery Terminology

In contemporary Western culture, our elites seem to be on a mission to invest the term “human dignity” with whatever moral content best suits their purposes. We see this in the ever-escalating notions of the “rights” even of children to be able to develop into whatever they wish. But is it really in accordance with human dignity to affirm someone in doing evil (such as in sexual misbehavior of any kind), or is an act of correction more in keeping with that dignity? Or again, one can certainly argue that locking a person in a room or a cell is contrary to human dignity, and so it would be if it were merely whimsical. But when a punishment is calculated to teach someone to recognize his or her true dignity, and act accordingly, then a restriction may well be more consistent with human dignity than a permission.

The point is this: When we use the term “human dignity” properly, what we are really doing is calling attention to the special character of human nature. At its most fundamental level that character involves intellect and will, understanding and culpability. But there is a danger of using the term “human dignity” in ways that mask or undermine our human responsibility as moral actors. When that happens, the phrase becomes a slogan. We can easily slip into speaking not of the dignity of the human person but of our own agendas, driven by our own passions.

I am not going to argue that execution of criminals is nothing but a punishment calculated to increase human dignity in the accused. Considering this is about human persons discussing the fate of other human persons, it ought to be clear even to the most attenuated moral sense that the decision to take a life must scale a mountain of presumptions to the contrary. But it should be possible to recognize even here an enforcement of human dignity, when it becomes necessary to prevent its violation in the otherwise ungoverned interaction between perpetrators and victims. Considerations of human dignity weigh on all sides of the problem, and it is exactly this contextual ambivalence that leads me to argue again that the Catechism’s emphasis on avoiding capital punishment must be understood prudentially. There are, after all, prudential reasons given, and they do have weight.

The fostering and protection of “human dignity” does require not only prudential but universally moral decisions. But the term “human dignity” is not in itself a moral proposition. In the absence of precise moral reasoning, adverting to “human dignity” offers no moral code at all. It is the relationship of ontology with ethics—the reasoned connection between is and ought—that informs our understanding of authentic human dignity. If that connection is not made, we are reduced to either idealism or pragmatism, and we have no moral guidance at all.

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: Dennis Olden - Nov. 16, 2018 7:02 PM ET USA

    What a relief! I thought it was just me, who didn't know what "human dignity" meant. Thanks to Jeffrey Mirus, I know now that I wasn't alone, and now have some intellectual tools to take the phrase apart and understand what it does and does not mean. Thank you!