The Problem of “Human Dignity”

Lots of indignities get promoted in the name of “human dignity”

Michelangelo, “Creation of Adam” (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512)
Michelangelo, “Creation of Adam” (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) (photo: Public Domain)

In his 1976 Lenten retreat for St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II told his predecessor that documents like Humanae vitae and Persona humana (the Vatican Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics) indicated that the Church was at the forefront of a “lively battle for the dignity of man.” John Paul said that, aware of the widespread dissent that the encyclical provoked; aware that Paul VI had given up encyclical writing after that reaction; and aware that many opponents of Humanae vitae claimed that they, not the Pope, were promoting “human dignity” by advocating contraception. By 1976, there were even “Catholics,” like ex-priest Daniel Maguire, ensconced in a tenured faculty position at Marquette, defending prenatal homicide as an aspect of “human dignity.”

Lots of indignities get promoted in the name of “human dignity.” Indignities as “dignity” seem particularly rife in sexual ethics.

But what is particularly disturbing is the progressive advance, especially in academic circles, of indignities that ought to compel any clear thinker to repudiate what Zbigniew Stawrowski calls these “sleek barbarians.” A South African philosopher is on record, telling us in Better Never to Have Been, that parents do a child injustice by bringing him into the world and that human extinction might not be a bad idea (although he does not urge us to pursue active measures to attain it). Benatar’s musings, brought to us by Oxford University Press, are popularized by people like Miley Cyrus, who announce they’re doing their best for the planet by foregoing children.

Meantime, Giubilini and Minerva advocate in a professional bioethics journal that parents enjoy something of a post-natal returns policy by advocating for “after birth abortion” and Princeton academic Peter Singer tells us that is you have a burning house with a baby and some animals and can only save one, that choice will be arbitrary and presumably species-centric (maybe even “species-ist”). But Princeton’s Robert George is criticized when he says he refuses to take the arguments of sleek barbarians seriously, and that the proper response to it is to condemn, rather than debate, such barbarism.

The latest? Two British faculty members from the University of Lancaster, Jared Piazza and Neil McLatchie, ask why we reject cannibalism.

In the end, they are “as happy as you to continue accepting the ‘wisdom of repugnance’” which declares cannibalism “firmly off limits.” But not before admitting there are many utilitarian arguments that could be advanced for knee of Neil. [Aren’t you glad they weren’t the shepherds asked to leave 99 lambs to go in search of one lost sheep? Luke 15 according to utilitarianism would look very different!)

Of course, Jonathan Swift had also advocated, in a satirical way, the consumption of newborns as a way of alleviating poverty in Ireland (a practice that the dean of Dublin might find today taken seriously as an aspect of “women’s rights”). But, then again, Giublini and Minerva later said their seminal article on post-birth “abortion” was just a thought experiment, never intended to be taken seriously. Right ….

Piazza and McLatchie also contend their kudos for cannibalism is just a kind of thought experiment, driven by a desire to show human arbitrariness: we have no compunction eating veal but not Neil or dining on steak Diane rather than its namesake. Yes, theirs is a manifesto for veganism, based on our supposed “bias” toward animals unlike us. Indeed, all the stops of “political correctness” appear in the article. Our anti-cannibalism leads us into “demon[izing] groups” like some tribes in Papua New Guinea, rather than presumably celebrating their diversity of custom and cuisine. We can let things like “an underlying reality or ‘essence’ that cannot be observed directly” to justify our anti-cannibalism. [I can imagine some future Justice Harry Blackmun opine that, “When those trained in the respective disciplines of . . . philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer” of leaving Uncle Leo off the lunch menu.

The fact is concerning that some people may give credence to the argument that deciding to rescue a baby rather than a pig from a burning house or leaving out David from dinner is just some remnant of irrational “species-ism,” a vestige of discrimination to be identified and overruled by contemporary social justice warriors. Piazza and McLatchie may in the end oppose cannibalism, but the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, because we disagree on fundamentals. We disagree on human dignity. And we disagree on our “Genesis heritage.”

I have repeatedly used the phrase “Genesis heritage” to identify a number of insights into theological and philosophical anthropology gleaned from the first three chapters of Genesis. I do not read these chapters literally, but I agree with St. John Paul II, who once observed that if man seeks to know where he comes from and where he’s headed, he should have recourse to those texts.

The sacred authors have carved out a masterful theological apologia in those pages. It is an apologia that differentiated Israel from its pagan neighbors, an apologia that shaped the basic worldviews of Western society from its Judaeo-Christian roots. It teaches such fundamentals as the duality of sex (“male and female He created them”) as a divine intention and blessing, not a cultural artifact and discriminatory “gender binary.” It also teaches the fundamental and qualitative difference between man and the rest of material creation, based on the human dignity that comes from being created, “male and female,” in the image and likeness of God. And it advances the superiority and stewardship of man over creation, an exercise of “dominion” over the world.

All those truths, which have been fundamental to Western society as we know it, are under systematic assault today. What is under assault is human dignity.

There is, in fact, no essential human dignity in the modern project. “Male and female” ceases to be normative, sex becomes fluid and intention-driven “gender.” Cannibalism is not inherently wrong but merely unfamiliar, a “repugnance” that getting to know other cultures might help us overcome. (I do not recommend getting to know the “Fore people of Papua New Guinea” over dinner). It’s all just a matter of plastic “culture” and nurture. Don’t assume there is such a thing as “human nature,” or at least don’t be so intolerant as to assign it normative value.

Well, I do. And it is precisely there that I find the basis for human dignity that, grounded anywhere else, will founder on the shoals of cultural and ethical relativism.

Stawrowski argues that the fundamental rift of modernity is not the West v. Islam. The fundamental fracture line is in Western culture itself, between a culture based on its Judaeo-Christian roots and a post-Enlightenment contender that appropriates the received language (with terms like “nature” and “human” and “dignity”) but then empties them of meaning and substitutes opposite meanings alien to the tradition. It’s a verbal shell game that keeps the covers but switches the contents for its own purposes.

Which means we need to engage in a “lively struggle not for “my dignity” or “your dignity“ but for “human dignity” that binds us all, to recover the truths of our Genesis heritage.


All views contained herein are exclusively the author’s.

Michelangelo, “Creation of Adam” (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-1512

From One Man God Made All Nations

“The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: ‘Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.’” (CCC 1935)