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It’s hard to imagine a decent politics that doesn’t depend on the notion of the dignity of the human person. It’s unfortunately also hard to specify how to anchor that notion in something beyond our earnest moral intuitions. As the bioethicist Adam Schulman poses the question: “Is dignity a useful concept, or is it a mere slogan that camouflages unconvincing arguments and unarticulated biases?” The question has implications far beyond the field of bioethics. Indeed, it has haunted the entire modern human rights project ever since the drafters of the UN Charter chose to begin that historic document with a profession of the member nations’ “faith” in “freedom and human rights” and in “the dignity and worth of the human person.” That act of faith in the wake of a war marked by unprecedented atrocities struck political realists of the day as astonishingly naive. Nevertheless, the concept of human dignity was made central to the scores of new constitutions and rights declarations that were adopted in the late twentieth century.

Today, controversies about the meaning and value of the concept are more intense than ever, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to evade the question of whether “dignity” can support the enormous weight it has been asked to carry in moral and political discourse.

Certainly few in pre-World War II intellectual circles would have expected the idea of human dignity to acquire the importance it was soon to achieve. Faith in science was riding high among the intelligentsia in Europe and the United States, especially among those who equated religion with superstition and ignorance. The progress of scientific rationality, Max Weber confidently proclaimed in his 1917 lecture on Science as a Vocation, means that the world is now “disenchanted”:

It means that we are not ruled by mysterious, unpredictable forces, but that, on the contrary, we can, in principle, control everything by means of calculation. That in turn means the disenchantment of the world. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to control or pray to the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Instead, technology and calculations achieve our ends.

That same uncritical faith in scientific progress drew many of Weber’s contemporaries into Social Darwinism and eugenics. One who was quite vocal about his scorn for the idea that human life is worthy of respect was the celebrated jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. “I see no reason,” he once wrote, “for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.” “The sacredness of human life,” he stated, “is a purely municipal ideal of no validity outside the jurisdiction.” The only possibility for human improvement, he added, would be some process of breeding a “selected race.” Holmes did not hesitate to import those views into the now infamous Supreme Court decision in which he voted to uphold the constitutionality of a statute providing for the sterilization of mentally ill persons, saying, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The idea of human dignity got a fresh look, however, in May 1945 when the first photographs from the concentration camps appeared, and the world began to come to terms with the atrocities committed in the course of the National Socialist extermination program. That program, we now know, began with forced sterilization measures modeled on those promoted by the American eugenics movement. It proceeded in stages—from sterilization to killing the mentally ill, then to “impaired” inmates of concentration camps, and finally to mass killings of those inmates. When the full horrors implicit in the idea of “life unworthy to live” (Lebensunwertesleben) came to light, the concept of the dignity of human life began to receive serious attention from opinion shapers.

Building on the references in the UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in the first line of its preamble that “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.” Article 1 of the UDHR affirmed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The concept of human dignity became the hermeneutical key of constitutions like the German Basic Law of 1949, which opens with the statement that: “The dignity of man shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

Among the proponents of these hopeful new charters, however, there was already a certain uneasiness about whether the concept of human dignity could really do all the work it was expected to do. For one thing, dignity was nowhere defined in these documents. Rather, as Adam Schulman has pointed out, the statesmen who drafted them seem to have used the word as “a placeholder for whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms.”

The reason such important matters were left vague was explained by Jacques Maritain, a member of the multinational group of philosophers consulted by UNESCO in connection with the preparation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “We agree about the rights,” he famously remarked, “so long as no one asks us why.” In their Report on the Theoretical Foundations of Human Rights, the UNESCO philosophers’ committee said they were confident that “the members of the United Nations share common convictions upon which human rights depend,” but they had to acknowledge that “those common convictions are stated in terms of different philosophic principles and on the background of divergent political and economic systems.”

That admission led the rapporteur of the committee, Richard McKeon, to warn that there was likely to be trouble ahead. “Different understandings of the meanings of rights,” he wrote, “usually reflect divergent concepts of man and of society.” “Difficulties will be discovered,” McKeon predicted, “in the suspicions, suggested by these differences, concerning the tangential uses that might be made of a declaration of human rights for the purpose of advancing special interests.”

For a while, it seemed that McKeon might have been overly pessimistic. The idea of human rights grounded in human dignity became the polestar of the movements that led to the nonviolent collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and of apartheid in South Africa. And the dignity-based Universal Declaration became the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of human rights. By the end of the twentieth century, however, McKeon’s prediction was borne out: The more that human rights ideas showed their moral force, the more special interest groups sought to capture the prestige of the human rights project for their own purposes. The concept of the dignity of human life was attacked by some, and co-opted by others.

Population-control lobbies and proponents of sexual liberation mounted the first assault. The turbulent decades of the sexual revolution were accompanied by campaigns to have sexual liberties and abortion recognized as universal rights. Since the proposed new rights clashed with established rights relating to religion and the family, it was only a matter of time before advocates of sexual and abortion rights began to speak of “deconstructing and reconfiguring the human rights framework.”

The postwar dignitarian constitutions and rights instruments, with their family protection provisions, became a principal target of these efforts. Test cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights resulted in decisions that many national laws were in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the “intimacy of private life.” That language in Article 8, originally a family-protection concept, has been reinterpreted by the European Court as grounding a right to individual self-determination in all matters relating to personal, sexual, and affective relationships.

The assault on the dignity-based vision of human rights was particularly intense at the UN’s Beijing Women’s Conference in the fall of 1995. In fact, a European-led coalition attempted to remove the word “dignity” from the Beijing documents because they suspected it might be in tension with their particular view of gender equality. They also opposed all references to the Universal Declaration’s provisions on marriage, the family, religious freedom, protection of motherhood, and parental rights. The reason, apparently, was that those provisions were regarded as obstacles to the new sexual and reproductive rights for which the coalition hoped to gain recognition.

Meanwhile, the idea of the dignity of human life was coming under attack from members of the scientific community who wished to remove obstacles to experimentation on human embryos. Stephen Pinker charged, in an article titled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” that the concept of dignity was not only meaningless but harmful when used to oppose biological innovations that could enhance or lengthen human life. The biotechnologists were joined in their efforts by the vast profit-making businesses that depend on the destruction of unborn human life—the in-vitro fertilization and abortion industries. In the affluent societies of the West, the idea of the value of unborn human life lost traction among people who had become inured to abortion, and who were now lured by hopes that embryonic experimentation would yield benefits in the form of prolonged longevity and enhanced youthfulness.

Yet another offensive was launched by advocates of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Proponents of the right to control the time and manner of one’s death adopted the slogan “death with dignity” to counter the tendency of euthanasia opponents to speak of the duty to respect the dignity of human life from conception until natural death. To supporters of euthanasia, the dignity of the person primarily refers to the rights of the autonomous individual, while its critics emphasize the obligation to protect those whose autonomy is very limited. In a much-quoted article, bioethicist and UN consultant Ruth Macklin weighed in on the side of right-to-die advocates, dismissing dignity as “a useless concept” and arguing that it should be folded into other conceptions, such as respect for individual autonomy.

No wonder that the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz mused ruefully at the close of the twentieth century about “those beautiful and deeply moving words which pertain to the old repertory of the rights of man and the dignity of the person.” Milosz wrote: “I wonder at this phenomenon because maybe underneath there is an abyss. After all, these ideas had their foundation in religion, and I am not over-optimistic as to the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. Notions that seemed buried forever have suddenly been resurrected. But how long will they stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?”

It is evident that these recent developments pose considerable philosophical, political, and cultural challenges to defenders of the concept of the dignity of human life. It is now apparent that the choice of dignity as “a placeholder for whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms” entails a number of philosophical difficulties. As Pope John Paul II observed, the question of foundations has never been adequately addressed:

It has been rightly pointed out that the 1948 Declaration does not present the anthropological and ethical foundations of the human rights which it proclaims. It is clear today that at that time such an undertaking would have been premature. It is thus the task of the various schools of thought—in particular the communities of believers—to provide the moral bases for the juridic edifice of human rights.

Some attempts to provide a moral basis for the concept of the dignity of human life proceed in Kantian fashion from the premise that human beings have dignity because they are autonomous beings capable of making rational choices, while others, following Rousseau, base the concept on the sense of empathy that most human beings feel for other sentient creatures. But the former understanding has ominous implications for persons of diminished capacity, while the latter places all morality on the fragile basis of a transient feeling. Christian and Jewish believers commonly say that the dignity of human life is grounded in the fact that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. But that proposition is hardly likely to convince a nonbeliever.

Even within the Christian tradition, moreover, the meaning of dignity is not entirely free of ambiguity. Gilbert Meilaender asks how we should understand, for example, the tension between John Paul II’s insistence that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity” and the teaching of Thomas Aquinas that “a man who sins deviates from the rational order, and so loses his human dignity . . . . To that extent, then, he lapses into the subjection of the beasts.” The answer seems to be that the term “dignity of the human person” has two different connotations in Christian teaching. In its ontological sense it is a given attribute of the person, while, in its moral sense, it is a call toward an end to be gradually realized. The two senses come together in the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of morality with this quotation from Pope Leo the Great: “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning.”

All in all, it seems fair to say that the challenge of supplying the concept of dignity with philosophical foundations that are intelligible to believers and nonbelievers alike is still a work in progress. That does not mean, however, that, as Milosz feared, it rests on an “abyss.” For, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in his essay On the Dignity of the Human Person, the recognition of human dignity is rooted in the experience of living with and interacting with other human beings: “The community is the vehicle through which we experience our own dignity and the dignity of others, and the connectedness of persons and the value of persons are discovered through their interdependence.”

Through experiencing and reflecting on experience (historical experience as well as our own), we accumulate a body of knowledge about right and wrong. The impressive multinational consensus reached on documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is testimony to the fact that some things are so terrible in practice that virtually no one will approve them—or openly admit they approve them—and that some things are so good in practice that virtually no one will oppose them, or admit they oppose them.

This observation suggests a point often overlooked in these discussions, namely that the challenge of building a civilization in which human life is respected is not only philosophical but also political. Recall that the decision to ground the post-World War II human rights project on the concept of human dignity was made on the basis of a political—not a philosophical—consensus. As Richard John Neuhaus put it: “The resolution (always provisional and open to revision) of the great majority of political disputes does not ordinarily require delving into the foundational truths explored by philosophy, ethics, and theology. Our political discourse is guided, and frequently misguided, by custom, habits, and tacit understandings.” The question of the dignity of the human person, Neuhaus argued, is a preeminently political question because it comes down to “Who belongs to the community for which we as a community accept responsibility, including the responsibility to protect . . . their right to life?”

In fact, if we understand politics in the Aristotelian sense—as the process of deliberating and deciding how we are to order our lives together—the question of human dignity is one of the most fundamental political questions that one can imagine, for it involves deliberating about what kind of people we want to be and what kind of society we want to bring into being.

To say that such issues are political does not, of course, mean that the political process will always resolve them correctly. What it does mean is that the defenders of the concept of the dignity of human life have the responsibility to make their case in the political arena and to do so in terms that are accessible to persons of all faiths or no faith.

That, of course, involves nothing less than the transformation of culture. As Maritain observed about the future of the dignity-based human rights project: Whether it will be “in tune with or harmful to human dignity will depend primarily on the extent to which a culture of human dignity develops.” If Maritain was correct, the best protections for freedom and dignity will be in the habits and opinions of ordinary citizens and their political leaders, reflected in appropriate institutions. And if that is so, the answer to Adam Schulman’s question will depend primarily on bolstering what one might call our moral ecology.

That, to be sure, is no small task. But we should not flatter ourselves that the task is much more difficult today than it has been in times past. The fact is that the world in former times was never so “enchanted” as Weber imagined, and it is not so “disenchanted” today as he believed it would be. The world throughout history has been inhabited, as it is today, by men and women who are searching for meaning and struggling with doubts.

So far as the world’s religions are concerned, the cultural challenge seems as simple in description as it may be difficult in fulfillment. It is up to them to demonstrate that they are capable of motivating their followers to fulfill the call to perfect their own dignity and, in so doing, to respect the inherent dignity of fellow members of the human family.

Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, serves on the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

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