Dignity and Distance

Note: One reason life in the womb and at its natural end receives so little respect in our culture is because we have false notions of human dignity. As Professor Wood recounts today, there are serious efforts to remedy that lack – even at places like Notre Dame. And, we might add, here at The Catholic Thing. We’re about halfway through our year-end campaign and we need more of you to step up to help in this spiritual, as well as social struggle. We only ask twice a year. Please, don’t wait. Do your part for TCT right away. – Robert Royal

The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame held its Fall conference last week on the theme, “I Have Called You by Name: Human Dignity in a Secular World.” This year’s conference sought to clarify a notion – human dignity – that is both necessary and abused in contemporary discourse, with ever-expanding demands for human rights often couched as flowing from dignity.

In the traditional Christian understanding, the dignity of the human person derives from our creation in the image of God. Our rationality and freedom give us and creation itself a special status that God in Genesis calls “very good.”

Dignity means that the rest of Creation serves us, and we have a duty to exercise dominion over Creation. We have a right to be served, and the duty to serve.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre spoke on “Human Dignity: A Puzzling and Possibly Dangerous Idea.” He aimed to give a solid grounding to the idea of human dignity and described dignitas as the traditional understanding of dignity, rooted in justice and a natural moral order.

That traditional understanding, in Thomistic terms, identifies the telos or end of the human person as to know and love God. We must direct our choices about the various goods around us, such as health, hearth, and political community, towards that end. Failing to do that, we abandon the order that is the basis for dignity, and we lose it.

The phrase “human dignity” began to take on another cast in the 20th century, when some governments established dignity as a fundamental constitutional principle. Dignity now justifies the human rights to be granted to each person. It appears in the first line of the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international charters.

In this context, dignity is not grounded in the classical understanding of dignitas and a natural order, but on a consensus of those who choose and define it.

That new understanding widens the possibility of agreement as to rights and dignity beyond those who might agree with MacIntyre’s rigorous teleological view. But it leaves the notion of dignity with no firm foundation, and vulnerable to being used as justification for everything from free speech to abortion – so long as a consensus among courts or legislators approves.

On this understanding, man’s choices, not God or nature, drive the dignity train. We choose not how to live our telos to know God in dignity, but what dignity itself is.


Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School, closed the conference. She has toiled long and hard to build a coherent approach to human dignity and rights. Her book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse analyzes the increasing babble of human rights chatter. The question was a central focus of her time as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and later, when she chaired the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights in 2019.

She acknowledged the absence of a clear foundational basis and the associated dangers of the contemporary approach to dignity. But she argued that the approach has merit. It hovers over a process of looking at experience and acknowledging that some acts are so bad that no government or people would want them exposed; and some things are so good that everyone wants them for all.

A process that can identify those common points of good and evil can do some good in containing the worst and promoting the best. This is why even the cruelest, most shamelessly corrupt rulers do not want to be labeled as human rights violators.

A classical teleological approach to dignitas doesn’t get far with cultures and peoples that see the world differently and won’t pass muster with those unaccustomed to seeing rights as necessarily entailing duties. A process approach based on experience and consensus can attract wider acceptance, but risks generating a barrage of “rights” untethered to, and thus damaging to, the truths of the human person.

This difference of approaches fascinates me, and it runs through every domain in human life. Neither approach should exclude the other.

The philosophical approach takes a distance from the world, and from people, in order to understand the truths about them including their real, God-given dignity. It’s the approach that enabled the Greek thinkers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to begin asking questions about the cosmos, and all that’s in it, by seeing themselves as “subjects” and the targets of their study as “objects.”

Viewing people this way can come off as snobbish and cold, and too often it really is. So there’s an additional step necessary, to be a philosophical subject seeing persons as objects, in order to gain understanding of them as subjects in their own right. Not many people can pull that off, but those who do can advance our ability to treat one another as persons in the right way.

That’s a great contribution to understanding Christ’s command to love one another as he loved us.

Other people have the simple, sympathetic capacity to love persons with immediacy, to take them on their own terms and share their experience. Perhaps this is a poetic approach. That gets at the truth of the human person in its own good way.

A few golden souls, MacIntyre and Glendon among them, can do both.

TCT writer David Warren got it right when he cut through these distinctions and wrote that dignity “is not something that can be bestowed, let alone demanded, or even earned. It simply is, in and of the person. . . .All human beings have or should have dignity . . . and we live and interact with the world in recognition of this astounding fact.”

That’s what dignity is: what God put in us that we justly recognize in others and ask that others recognize in us. Both at a distance, and up close.


*Image: The Adoration of the Holy Trinity by Albrecht Dürer, 1511 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]. Commissioned by the Nuremberg metal trader Matthäus Landauer, Adoration is the center panel of what is now called the Landauer Altarpiece.

You may also enjoy:

Randall Smith’s When Are We Human?

Michael Pakaluk’s What It Means to Be Human: A Review

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.