Of Human Dignity


By Christopher Kaczor

Catholic teaching on religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the human person. In fact, the name of the Vatican II document on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, means “Of human dignity.” Dignitatis humanae teaches: “[T]he right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” (2). But what is human dignity? Why do human beings have dignity? What are the ethical and political implications of human dignity? These questions are worth considering. Human dignity is the cornerstone of a civilization of justice and peace. Without an acknowledgement of human dignity, the rights and respect due to others is compromised, the foundation of our democracy is upended, and the purpose of government is thwarted.

When we speak of ‘human dignity’ what do we mean? The core meaning of the term ‘human dignity’ is that every human being, from the very beginning of his or her life to the end of his or her life, has inherent worth and value. By contrast, things have an instrumental value. If a car cannot drive, if a phone no longer answers calls, if the refrigerator cannot cool, these things lose their value. We can throw them away, destroy them, discard them. The idea of human dignity is that, unlike things, every human being has inherent value, intrinsic worth. 

Most people recognize the dignity of those who share their own class, creed, color, or culture. The idea of human dignity is that all human beings, regardless of class, creed, color, or culture, enjoy the same basic value, deserve fair treatment in public and private, and merit the same basic protection by law. 

Why do human beings have dignity?

Over the centuries, sages and scholars have given many different answers to the question, why do human beings have dignity? The text of Genesis proclaimed a message that influences civilization to this day, “God created mankind in his image;  in the image of God he created them;  male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Genesis teaches that everyone, male and female, is made in God’s image. God loves each person into existence, God calls each person to return the Divine love, and God calls us to see the Divine image in every human being. We are all children of our Heavenly Father, so we are brothers and sisters in the human family. Catholic convert Fr. Richard John Neuhaus captured this idea when he said, “Nobody is a nobody; nobody is unwanted. All are wanted by God, and therefore to be respected, protected, and cherished by us.”

Jesus intensified this Biblical teaching on the dignity of every human being in the most radical way. Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these you did for me” (cf. Matthew 25:40). We serve Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the ill, the imprisoned, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. All human beings, from “the greatest” to “the least” share in fundamental human dignity for all human beings are in some way needy and vulnerable. Jesus taught that to serve anyone in need is to serve Jesus himself. As St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Each person is Jesus in disguise.”

However, an acknowledgment of the dignity of the individual human being is not uniquely Catholic. This belief is found not just in the Bible, not just in the teachings of Jesus, but in the wisdom of non-religious thinkers. Ancient stoic philosophers like Seneca emphasized human dignity. The enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) defended humanity as an end-in-itself never to be used simply as a means. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the American Founders affirmed the intrinsic value of the human person in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (The American Founders used the term “men” in the sense of “all human beings.”) Perhaps the most cosmopolitan document ever produced, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has as its first line: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world….” After speaking of “the dignity and worth of the human person,” in its preamble, article one of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”  Human dignity is fundamental to our understanding of human rights, including the right to religious freedom.

Sadly, in the course of human history, human beings have often divided themselves into members of an “in group” who enjoy dignity and value, and of an “out group” who have at best second-class status. This ethics of exclusion is found in white people subjugating people of color, in men denying human rights to women, in adherents of one religion mistreating adherents of a different religion. When we look back on those episodes of exclusion in history, we can now recognize how wrong it was to exclude some human beings from basic protection of the law. By contrast, an ethics of inclusion holds that all human beings, of every class, of every religion, of every condition, should be respected by all and protected by law. All people of good will can recognize the dangers of the ethics of exclusion. Indeed, given the shifting tides of history, we may find ourselves among those who are considered “second class” and unworthy of living a life with full civil rights and protection of law.

What are the ethical and political implications of human dignity?

As St. Augustine of Hippo pointed out in his book On Christian Teaching, a recurring human temptation is to love things and to use people, rather than to love people and use things. Immanuel Kant put the moral principle at issue in this way, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
We can be tempted to treat human beings as if they were things whose value depends upon supply and demand. The value of your car, your phone, or your refrigerator depends upon how well these things function. The better they function, the more demand there will be for them, and the higher their market value. Of course, the worse they function, the less demand there will be for them, and the lower their market value. At the low end of this spectrum, we have junk, trash, and whatever we throw away into the garbage. 

A recurring temptation is to treat human beings as if they were things. So, if a human being is smart, attractive, strong, and entertaining, that human being has high value. We treat these human beings with respect. If a human being functions well academically, socially or athletically, then this person merits our care and concern. But, of course, some human beings are mentally disabled, or unattractive, or weak, or an annoying burden, or all of the above. Do they have value? Do those who are sick, who are unwanted, who are difficult to deal with have inherent worth?

An ethics of human dignity calls us to respect and protect all human beings. Those who are like us and those who are different from us. Those who are helpful to us and those who get in the way of what we would like to do. 

An ethics of human dignity inspires individual and private actions. If everyone has dignity, then everyone in my life with whom I interact deserves to be treated with fundamental respect. If I harm other people, lie to them, steal their property, or kill them, I’ve failed to live out an ethic of human dignity.

This ethic of human dignity also includes a political dimension. If everyone deserves basic human rights and fundamental protection, then part of being a good person is promoting the well-being of other people, including their legal protection. If everyone deserves basic human rights and fundamental protection, people of good will work to create a more just world where everyone actually enjoys basic human rights and fundamental protection by law.

The political ramifications of the proposition that all human beings deserve basic human rights are significant. An ethics of human dignity gives rise to a politics that respects each individual person in contrast to a totalitarian politics in which individuals are considered expendable for the good of the collective or nation. Totalitarian governments deny basic rights to individuals in order to protect the interests of the greater whole, represented by the state. Defenders of totalitarian regimes might say, “you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” That is, the totalitarian government cannot achieve its goals without silencing the opposition, denying religious liberty, seizing private property, and killing political opponents. By contrast, a politics inspired by human dignity recognizes that the purpose of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property of innocent citizens. A totalitarian government places no limits on the extent to which the interests of individuals can be sacrificed to benefit the greater whole, whereas a politics based on dignity recognizes certain basic rights that cannot be violated. A politics founded on human dignity, in other words, limits the power of government. 

Another basic political principle that arises from an acknowledgment that every human being is an individual with dignity is equality before the law. To be equal before law means that individuals are to be treated fairly, which includes fair treatment in relation to their fellow citizens. If we acknowledge individual human dignity, we cannot say, “Oh, this person is of this race, so this person must be guilty and we can just skip the trial and administer punishment.” To be equal before law means that the law does not arbitrarily discriminate against people on the basis of their color, creed, or class. So, in cases that are in other ways equal, a law that punished a black person guilty of murder with the death penalty and punished a white person guilty of murder with ten years in jail is unjust. To be equal before law means that all people have the same basic rights as everyone else and that all people have the same basic duties as everyone else. Everyone has the same right not to be enslaved and the same duty not to enslave others. Everyone has a right to life; everyone has a duty not to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Everyone has a right to own property; everyone has a duty not to steal or destroy the property of others. The dignity of the human person inspires the political principle of equality before the law.

The objectivity and fairness of justice under law is represented by the image of a blindfolded person holding up scales. A just person is “blind” to factors that are irrelevant to making a just law and the just application of the law. The just person is fair to all parties, impartial in judgment, and makes sure that everyone is treated with dignity. The ethical and political principles arising from an acknowledgement of the dignity of each human being can guide us personally and politically to making a more perfect union established in justice. 

Human Dignity, Conscience, and Religious Freedom

As creatures made in the image of God, people have a desire to know God and how to respond to the truth about God. A most precious aspect of human dignity is the two-fold capacity to exercise reason and to respond to found truth. It is natural to ask, How do I live a good life? Who created this wonderful world, and how should I respond to this Creator? Why is there suffering, and how should I alleviate it? Religious traditions offer answers to these deeply human questions. It is imperative for the sake of human dignity that people are free to pursue these questions, to seek the truth about them, and to live in accord with the truth they find. 

Conscience is the distinctly human capacity to understand how to do the right thing in a particular set of circumstances. Although damaged by sin, human reason remains capable of coming to know religious truth. Pope St. John Paul II pithily made this point in his encyclical, Fides et ratio (Faith and reason):  “It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth” (33). And reason is properly exercised when inquiry is free, for truth can only be grasped in a free response. “Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. … For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain ‘under the control of his own decisions,’ so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure” (Gaudiem et spes, 17). 

A good conscience is one that is well-formed, having been informed by an ardent seeking for the truth. Conscience does not create the truth, but discovers the truth which comes from God. A person with a good conscience lives with integrity. His or her actions match his or her convictions about what is right. To be sure, one may judge wrongly. That is, the conscience can be mistaken at times. Like a good mirror, a sound conscience reflects truth. To act in good conscience doesn’t mean that one has certainly done what is good, but it does mean that one is seeking to do good with all of one's mind and heart. A good conscience directs us to try to live rightly before God in all that we do. 

The Church affirms that all people must live in accordance with their consciences. While not every person knows the true God, each person has the right to seek the truth about God. It is important to note that, in some cases, for the sake of public order and the common good, the state might prevent a person or community from engaging in certain actions, even if those actions are made in good conscience. For example, a person could judge according to an erroneous conscience that stealing a bicycle to give as a gift to his daughter is acceptable. He may have sincerely weighed reasons for against the action, and thus truly believed himself to be doing good. However, the thief does not have a right, in this case, to disobey laws against theft. In other words, the state is not violating the rights of the thief by preventing him from following his conscience in this case.

Religious liberty is the freedom a person has to fulfill his obligation to seek God and to order his or her moral life to God. Each person has an intellect that seeks and is fulfilled by truth and a will that is free to choose what is good. The highest truth and the greatest good is God. Religious freedom is a freedom for truth, or a positive freedom. “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth” (Dignitatis humanae, 2). This positive implies a negative freedom, that is, freedom from coercion. No one may force another to believe, nor must any person or group be made to disobey the commands of God. The positive freedom takes priority, and freedom from coercion is meant to serve that positive end.

Dr. Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University.