Human Dignity and Why It Matters
September 13, 2023
South Mountain Community College
· Thank you for the invitation by Christian Challenge to present before you today!
· Areopagus in the city of Athens
o Functioned at times—judicial court and place of intellectual examination of ideas
o Same city in which Socrates caused trouble by “corrupting the youth” and was put to death!
o I hope for better things today!
· We live in a time of cultural controversy: “Culture Wars”
o Fractured society at the ideological level (the level of ideas)
· Consider just a few of the cultural “hot spots” of clashing viewpoints…
o Sexual ethics
o Reproductive cloning
o Organ donation and informed consent
o Rationing of health care
o Embryonic stem cell treatments
o Biotechnological human enhancements (transhumansism)
o Poverty alleviation policies
o Affirmative action
o Prison reform and the infliction of punishment
o Death penalty
· And yet… amid all this controversy across multiple issues there is a surprising agreement about a central concept in all of these debates
o HUMAN DIGNITY (and human value)
o John Kilner: There is widespread agreement that people matter!
o Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
§ Preamble (1st paragraph)
“Whereas 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,”
§ Preamble (5th paragraph)
“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter affirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,”
§ Article 1
“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.”
§ Numerous human rights documents and over 40 constitutions since the beginning of the 20th century
· I want to probe this concept of Human Dignity
· My title: “Human Dignity and Why It Matters”
o Title is intentionally vague!
o At least two differing meanings…
§ (1) Focuses on the consequences or implications
· What happens when we deny human dignity?
· What areas of life are affected?
§ (2) Focuses on the foundation and framework which renders the concept of human dignity intelligible and defensible
· My focus is on (2)—the philosophical justification of human dignity
· In particular, I want to examine which philosophical worldview best accounts for human dignity?
o Flow of talk…
§ (1) Examine the concept and definition of human dignity.
§ (2) What are consequences of denying human dignity?
§ (3) Argue that Christian theism, as a philosophical worldview, better accounts for human dignity than naturalistic materialism
The Concept of Human Dignity: What Are We Talking About?
· If the concept of Human Dignity is so important, why have some called is “useless” (Ruth Macklin) and “stupid” (Steven Pinker)?
· Failure to account for conceptual distinctions in our use of “dignity”
· Three-fold distinction:
o Attributed dignity
§ Worth human beings confer on others or themselves
§ Comes in degrees
§ Created value
§ Attribute worth and value to others based on…
· Talents or skills
§ Example: When we say that extreme poverty creates degrading and undignified living conditions
o Intrinsic dignity
§ Worth or value that people have simply because they are human
§ Value, not conferred or created by human choices (individual or collective)
o Inflorescent dignity—human flourishing
§ The excellence of a human life consistent with and expressive of, intrinsic dignity
· Intrinsic dignity is the key element needed to undergird the equality of human rights and universal human value
· Intrinsic dignity cannot be a degreed property tied to the expression of a particular attribute
o “Intrinsic human dignity, if it indeed exists, cannot be a degreed property like rationality, moral virtue, intelligence, height, or weight. For at whatever degree each is manifested, that degree is accidental and not essential to the sort of thing that has that property. For by their very nature these properties change, develop, diminish or cease to be actual over time for a human being who has them.”
o If degreed: some humans will have more intrinsic dignity than others
§ Problematic for upholding human rights
§ As philosopher Francis Beckwith argues:
“… we would have to abandon the idea of human equality and draw the conclusion that no two human beings have the same degree of dignity.”
Problematic Moves in Understanding Human Dignity
· Deny human dignity
o Horrible consequences
§ Ashley Fernandes—“Why Did So Many Doctors Become Nazis?”
· Ideas have consequences, some bad ideas have victims!
§ “Personalism posits the ultimate unit of value of human life is the individual person herself. Society is and ought to be built around this value. In short, society is created for the person, not the person for society, and hence the dignity and integrity of the person and her freedom cannot be sacrificed for the sake of society. No contingent factor—race, religion, economic status, disability, or actions of the past, present or future—can rob a person the dignity she is owed. Integrating this kind of rigorous, universal philosophical anthropology is an antidote to the corruption of medicine, and vital for the prevention of future genocides.”
o Sociologist, John Evans—What Is A Human? What the Answers Mean for Human Rights(Oxford: Oxford Press, 2016).
§ Social science test: more than 3500 adults in the US
§ Three views:
· Christian theological view—created in the image of God
· Philosophical view—defines humans by possessing certain capacities (self-consciousness and rationality)
· Biological view—defined and differentiated from animals solely by DNA
§ Q: How do these views affect one’s perceptions about humans rights?
· Risk soldiers to stop a genocide in a foreign country
· Allow kidneys to be bought from poor people
· Have terminally ill people die by suicide to save money
· Take blood from prisoners without their consent
· Torture terror suspects to potentially save lives
§ “What came out was very striking. The more a respondent agreed with the biological definition of a human, the more likely they were to see humans as being like machines and the less likely they were to see them as special, unique or all of equal value. On the human rights questions, they were less willing to stop genocides and were more likely to accept buying kidneys, suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners. In contrast, those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners against their will.”
· Misunderstand the nature of human dignity
o Need intrinsic dignity
o Dignity not a degreed property
§ It is an intrinsic, essential property
Grounding Human Dignity: The Need for Philosophical Justification
· How do we explain and justify the needed concept of intrinsic human dignity?
· Can’t we just agree and not worry about the philosophical justification?
· Jacques Maritain
o Catholic theologian, instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
o “… someone expressed astonishment that certain champions of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on a list of those rights. ‘Yes,” they said, ‘we agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why.’”
· “In a society such as ours, committed as we are to human equality, we cannot avoid worrying about distinctions in dignity, and we cannot forever avert our gaze from the question of what grounds our commitment.” –Gilbert Meilaender
· “Pragmatic foundations are inherently vulnerable and even if the moral edifice that is constructed above them is unlikely to collapse altogether, it is surely beholden on us to construct it as securely as possible. Hence the question about which ideology best supports humanist ideals.”  --Nick Spencer
Which Worldview Best Accounts for Intrinsic Human Dignity
· Comparative approach—compare worldviews to each other
o “Ideally, a worldview should be evaluated in comparison with other worldviews—at least with major alternatives. The reason for this is that if we think a certain worldview faces some difficulty or problem, we might be tempted to dismiss it simply for that reason, without taking proper time to consider whether competing worldviews face the same or similar challenges—or perhaps even greater challenges. In other words, rather than asking, ‘Which worldview passes all the tests without any problem whatsoever?’ we should ask, ‘Which worldview passes the tests better than any other worldview?’ We will then be able to see which worldview is the most reasonable to believe. This worldview will be one that is most consistent and coherent, that best explains the most important features of the world we inhabit and our experiences of it, and that can best account for all the evidence available to us.” —James Anderson
· Naturalism with its attendant materialism cannot account for human dignity and value
· Defining “naturalism”—can be difficult; multiple conceptions
o E. O. Wilson—“The central idea (of naturalism) is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and torturous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”
o John Searle: “There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy … :How do we fit in? … How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?”
o Yuval Noah Harari—professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (sold over 20 million books)
§ “There are no such things as rights in biology.”
§ “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”
§ “He [Harari] concludes that the concept of equal rights is nothing but a ‘Christian myth.’”
o Harari is not the only atheist to acknowledge the deep connection between human dignity with its attendant human rights and Christian theism…
o Nancy Pearcey draws attention to atheistic philosophers, Luc Ferry and Richard Rorty
§ “Christianity is the first universalist ethos.” –Luc Ferry
§ “Rorty notes, Christianity gave rise to the concept of universal rights, derived from the conviction ‘that all human beings are created in the image of God.”
· Human dignity—”an intrinsic, immaterial, nonempirical, non-degreed, and essential property had by human beings by nature.” --Francis Beckwith
o This conception of human dignity does not comport well with a naturistic ontology and epistemology
Christian Theism and the Grounding of Human Dignity
· As a Christian, I want to argue that Christian theism, as a philosophical system, provides the needed grounding for human dignity
· Human dignity finds a coherent home in Christian theism
· Many themes and concepts from within Christianity move toward this point
· Two themes in particular: Creation and Redemption
o Creation in the image of God (Genesis 1-2)
o Love of God displayed in Jesus Christ
§ John 3.16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
§ Especially the self-giving love displayed in the death of Jesus Christ
· Romans 5.8—“But God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
o Gilbert Meilaender—“a great rupture in Western culture, a rupture that gradually reshaped the classical notion of dignity … by brining it within a system of thought and practice that worshipped as God a crucified man who suffered a criminal’s death upon on a cross.”
o “God stopped at nothing to reach out to humanity. God in Christ suffered and bled and died. What more could God do to demonstrate love for the world? Belief in human dignity is deepened considerably by reflection on the ultimate nature of the price God paid at the cross. The incalculably terrible suffering and death of Jesus Christ and the demonstration in that suffering and death of how very much God values each and every human being have contributed profoundly to a Christian moral tradition that exalts the immeasurable worth of the human being.”
· A cautionary caveat…
o Claim is NOT that Christians have lived out or up to these ideals!
o Nor… only Christians are or can be concerned for human dignity
§ Plenty of non-Christians—including naturalistic atheists—are concerned for such things
· Key issue: the grounding of human dignity
· What we’ve seen…
o Near universal assent to human dignity
§ Tried to briefly spell out what that entails—intrinsic human dignity
o But what worldview best provides the most philosophically coherent home for the concept of human dignity?
§ “Here, then, is our problem, from which we cannot for long continue to avert our gaze: Our society is committed to equal human dignity, and our history is in large part a long attempt to work out the meaning of that commitment. Christians and Jews have an account of persons—as equidistant from God and of equal worth before God—that grounds and makes sense of this commitment we all share. A society that rejects their account but wishes to retain the commitment faces, then, a serious crisis in the structure of its beliefs.” –Gilbert Meilaender
§ “It may be that we cannot make good sense of an egalitarian and non-comparative understanding of human dignity, to which our civilization has in many ways been committed, if we abstract it entirely from the context of the religious beliefs that formed it.” --Gilbert Meilaender
o In the end, I would argue…
o Jesus Christ is not only the Savior in a religious sense, but he is also the Savior of the philosophical concept of human dignity.
o Thank you. [Questions and dialogue]
 Much of this list is motivated by John F. Kilner’s lead essay, “Why This Book Matters: The Need for Common Ground in Debates Today” in Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance, ed. John F. Kilner, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2017), 4-7.
 Francis J. Beckwith, “Dignity Never Been Photographed: Bioethics, Policy, and Steven Pinker’s Materialism,” in Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 89.
 Francis J. Beckwith, “Dignity Never Been Photographed: Bioethics, Policy, and Steven Pinker’s Materialism,” in Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 90.
 John H. Evans, “Does Science Undermine Human Rights?” New Scientist (August 3, 2016)—online: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23130850-200-who-we-think-we-are-and-why-it-matters/.
 Gilbert Meilaender, “Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, ed. Edmund D. Pellegrino (Washington D.C.: The President’s Council on Bioethics, 2008), 275.
 Quoted in Scott B. Rae, “More Than Meets the Eye: Naturalism and Human Significance,” in Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance, ed. John F. Kilner, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2017), 95. Rae is quoting E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, (New York: Knopf, 1998), 266.
 Quoted in Scott B. Rae, “More Than Meets the Eye: Naturalism and Human Significance,” in Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance, ed. John F. Kilner, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2017), 95. Rae is quoting John R. Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 4-5.
 Andrew Wilson, “We (Do Not) Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident,” Crossway (September 10, 2023)—online: https://www.crossway.org/articles/we-do-not-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident/?utm_source=Crossway+Marketing&utm_campaign=9eb62330ff-20230911+Acad%2BArt%2BGov%2BHist-Truths+Self-Evident&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0275bcaa4b-982ebf4e4d-%5BLIST_EMAIL_ID%5D. Wilson is quoting Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Vintage, 2011), 123.
 Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2018), 65. Pearcey is quoting Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 108-110.
 Francis J. Beckwith, “Dignity Never Been Photographed: Bioethics, Policy, and Steven Pinker’s Materialism,” in Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 91.
 See the essays by John F. Kilner, “Special Connection and Intended Reflection: Creation in God’s Image and Human Significance,” and David P. Gushee, “Nothing Is Merely Human: Various Biblical Bases for Human Significance,” both in Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance, ed. John F. Kilner, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2017).
 Gilbert Meilaender, “Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, ed. Edmund D. Pellegrino (Washington D.C.: The President’s Council on Bioethics, 2008), 261.
 David P. Gushee, “Nothing Is Merely Human: Various Biblical Bases for Human Significance,” in Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance, ed. John F. Kilner, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2017), 181-182.
 Gilbert Meilaender, “Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, ed. Edmund D. Pellegrino (Washington D.C.: The President’s Council on Bioethics, 2008), 263-264.