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Human dignity: Finding a secular justification

Tom Beaudoin:

...’human dignity’ and ‘mystery’ can easily ossify into buzzwords. We continually have to find evocative ways of describing dignity and mystery. I propose that we ask ourselves what is that undomesticatable region of ourselves that cannot be bought, cannot be branded? What about us cannot be traded away, drugged up, or dieted off? What about ourselves cannot be sold, sweated away, or co-opted by an advertiser? How would you describe that dimension of yourself, and what might it mean to live from that ‘place’ in your economic life?

A passage in the Brown Alumni Magazine:

Speaking at the Joan and Frank Rothmans Forum on Saturday, Leo M. Cooney, chief of geriatrics and a professor at Yale’s medical school, explained that autonomy and dignity are particularly important to people in their eighties and nineties. ... Partly this is a matter of listening, Cooney said: “The worst thing to do is to get a patient in the room and then start talking to their daughter or son.” ... Above all, respect a patient’s identity. “If Mrs. Jones is used to being called Mrs. Jones, then call her Mrs. Jones. he is not now Anna just because she’s living in a nursing home.”

"Where do human rights come from, and what grounds them?" asked Anat Biletzki. Biletzski cited Ronald Dworkin's 1993 essay that stated that human life "has intrinsic and objective value quite apart from any value it might have to the person whose life it is," which is another way of saying that it is "sacred," although Dworkin also acknowledged that this idea of sanctity need not be theistic. She also cited Michael Perry's book The Idea of Human Rights in which he said, of the grounding for the claim that "every human being is sacred," that "the only intelligible versions are religious."

She wrote:

Aristotelian virtue and natural justice or the Kantian categorical imperative (arising from reason, of course) offer philosophical bases for morality at large. Theories of human needs, human interests and human agency provide analytical foundations for the idea of human rights. And then there is Hart’s one natural right – the equal right to be free; Gewirth’s turn to human action and logic; Sen and Nussbaum’s talk of basic human capabilities, and oh-so-many others, all affording humanistic starting points for the human dignity at the base of human rights that need nary a wink at religion. There is also a legitimate and, to my mind, strong critique of the individualism guiding the liberal idea of human rights that enjoins us to rethink our mantras regarding the autonomous self who is the “human.” That these are intricate and sometimes problematic, that they might be in tension with, even contradict, each other, that we must do considerable analytic and  philosophical work in their explication does not cancel out their equal profundity – equal to religion, that is – in justifying human rights.

Does it matter whether efforts to defend "human rights" have religious or secular grounding, as long as the work is done? Yes, it matters, Biletzki said, because "religion, even when indirectly in the service of human rights, is not really working for human rights. Although there is recognition of the human as sacred, it is not the concept of rights that propels the religious person. For him, the human status of sacredness draws from divine creation and directive, from man (and woman) having been created in God’s image, and therefore has nothing to do with a human right." When people agree on the work that is to be done, there is no obvious conflict, but when they disagree, then "the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights" since

an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to 'command' us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit." The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command;  if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it. There is no meaning to human rights under divine commandment.

Robert P. Kraynak observed that

People today display extreme moral sensitivity to injustices that they understand as violations of the equal rights and equal dignity of all persons – especially the rights of persons thought to be victims of discrimination and oppression. This sensitivity leads to demands for government policies on behalf of “social justice,” and for changing social customs to protect individuals and groups from insensitive words and actions.

But at the same time that people are asked to become more aware of injustices and indignities, the foundations that might justify such obligations are disappearing from philosophy, religion, science, and culture.

Kraynak says that the idea of dignity is essential to the idea of human equality. Humans must be seen to have a "special moral status in the universe," and each individual must be seen to have "unique moral worth" that makes intelligible the idea of justice. He points out that the philosopher Richard Rorty identifies himself as a “free-loading atheist” since he admits to being unable to provide secular grounding of his moral notions, and therefore "lives off of the moral inheritance of the biblical tradition without contributing to it, and even while undermining it."

Despite the inconsistency of Darwinians and moral relativists, they perform the useful service of showing how indispensable is the concept of human dignity, even when it cannot be adequately explained or justified. The great puzzle is that everyone seems to believe that man is different from all other creatures in the universe, in some essential and fundamental way – “enough even to make a moral difference,” as Dennett says – but that no one seems to know why.

Whereas Biletzki said that Aristotle and Kant offered secular groundings for ethics, Kraynak says their groundings are inadequate, as Aristotelians postulate a "rational soul" which does not jive with modern science, while Kantians require "practical postulates of morality" to be undergirded by foundations that they cannot prove. Dignity, then, seems to be a "genuine cosmic mystery." Kraynak concludes that

reason is a very powerful, but ultimately limited and incomplete, tool for finding the whole truth about man. Thus reason must seek its completion and perfection in faith. But the faith that completes or perfects reason cannot be an arbitrary faith, like the irrational leap of postmodernists and Darwinists in accepting human dignity; rather, it must be a reasonable faith – a faith that is beyond reason while not being against reason. Such a reasonable faith is what the Bible offers us: the mystery of man as a creature favored or selected by an all-powerful Creator whose will is inscrutable but benevolent. This is a faith that arises from awe and reverence at the true but insoluble mysteries of the created universe, and the special place of man in the order of creation. And it is a faith that shows us that the Judeo-Christian conception of man provides the most plausible account of human dignity – and that divine love is the ultimate foundation of human justice.

Agreeing upon a "reasonable faith" will be hard, as what is seen as "reasonable" is usually subject to differences in individuals' common sense or personal preference. One internal problem in the way that Kraynak asserts faith here is that, if God's will is "inscrutable," then by definition we do not know that God's will is "benevolent," and we probably do not know that humans are "favored or selected" by God, either. It is furthermore a circular epistemology to say that we are alerted to our special moral worth by faith that is acquired through our "awe and reverence" of our special moral worth. If we do not yet know that we have special moral worth, we cannot be in awe of it, and then we cannot acquire the faith that is needed to realize it.

Apart from considerations of how dignity is rationally justified, the humanist chaplain Greg Epstein gives an explanation of how it is "done":

...eventually we remembered that he'd been very clear about how to deal with life's tragedies: by cultivating dignity.

[Sherwin] Wine spent many years refining his definition of this ephemeral quality, a kind of stew with equal parts love, friendship, reason, justice, and self-discipline, taken with a shot of optimism and a chaser of defiance. He defined it by describing its four qualities: "The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one's own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one's identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one's behavior is worthy of imitation by others.”

Along with these four characteristics of dignity come three moral obligations for the person who values them: First, "I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life." Second, "I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy." And third, "I have a moral obligation to be generous.”

* * *

All of us know what it feels like to realize "I am a person." But it takes a little more awareness to realize, <“I>You are also a person." And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.

* * *

So call it "integrity" if you like, or "flourishing," or ”humanity,” or call it "x" if you like. But there is a state in which you're aware of your own humanity, and you're also aware of others' humanity, and you're aware that all human beings are human. There's a state in which you're aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There's a state in which you don't have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term – good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there.

Additional quotes on dignity

…no matter how closely I examined paperwork itself, no matter how much I learned about its materiality, I was never going to come around to the argument that things have agency like people do. This is not because I am especially sentimental about the humanity of humans, though it can be one of their nicer features. Nor do I have much patience for the idea that scholars have an obligation to “grant agency” to their subjects, an imperative that, however well-intentioned, involves a fairly serious category mistake. Rather, for reasons personal and professional, I am committed to the idea that people are ruled by unconscious processes, which is simply not true of even the most “agentic” things. Barbara Johnson has said something smart about this difference and its implications for scholarship. “The more I thought about the asymptotic relation between things and persons,” she reflects in the prologue to her book People and Things, “the more I realized that the problem is not, as it seems, a desire to treat things as persons, but a difficulty in being sure we treat persons as persons.” - Ben Kafka

"So understood, biblically understood, the divine glory dignifies humanity, and reciprocally, humanity with the glory of the dignity within glorifies deity." - Willis Elliott

"No one is naked unless he or she is aware of it. A great paradox is that we cannot claim dignity unless we are truly aware of our nudity — yet nothing challenges our dignity more than the realization that we are naked." - Rabbi Nilton Bonder

[T]here is a state [dignity] in which you're aware of your own humanity, and you're also aware of others' humanity, and you're aware that all human beings are human. There's a state in which you're aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There's a state in which you don't have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term — good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there. - Greg Epstein


Tom Beaudoin. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy. Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 2003. p. 98.

“Rx: Dignity.” Maria Di Mento ’03. BAM. July/August 2004. p. 37.

"The Sacred and the Humane," by Anat Biletzki, NYT Opinionator blog, July 17, 2011.

Robert P. Kraynak, "Justice without Foundations," The New Atlantis, Number 32, Summer 2011, pp. 103-120.

Greg Epstein. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. William Morrow, 2009. p. 90, 93, 98.

Ben Kafka. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. New York: Zone Books, 2012. p. 14.

Willis Elliott. Flow of Flesh, Reach of Spirit: Thinksheets of a Contrarian Christian. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. p. 84.

Rabbi Nilton Bonder. Our Immoral Soul: A Manifesto of Spiritual Disobedience. (2001) Translated from the Portuguese by Diane Grosklaus. Boston and London: Shambhala, 2014. p. 2.

Greg Epstein. Good Without God. Quoted in "Greg Epstein, Atheist Superstar" by Adam Reilly. Boston Phoenix. November 24, 2009. Accessed November 28, 2009.


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