Pursuing a Secular Defense for Human Dignity

In his “Reflections on Public Bioethics: A View from the Trenches,” Leon Kass writes that, “Although the term ‘human dignity’ has a lofty ring, its content is quite difficult to define. To be more precise, different authors and traditions define it differently … Yet all are struggling to reveal that elusive core of our humanity, those special qualities that make us more than beasts yet less than gods.”

Human dignity understood from a theological perspective is clear and scripturally-founded. As humans we have been created in God’s image and likeness, and therefore all humankind has an inherent and immeasurable dignity and worth. Every human life is sacred because of God’s outpouring of love in creation.

For those outside of the Church, human dignity is often assumed and promoted, and perhaps this is a good thing. Yet, if one does not believe in a creator God or defend some other theological claim to human dignity, it seems problematic to just assume it, not because human dignity is a bad thing, but because building policies and legal systems upon assumptions is undesirable, if not altogether wrong.

The first article of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The largest governing bodies and international political entities assume the concept of human dignity and build their policies off of that assumption. Human dignity stands as the defense against a host of evils, such as trafficking, torture, and genocides. However, considering the plurality of religious, moral, and ethical systems present in society, a solid defense of human dignity must consider the concept from a secular perspective. Human dignity should be applicable regardless of individual belief or creed–millions of dollars and, more importantly, millions of lives hang in the balance.

As I see it, there are two main camps. There are those who define humans biologically, by our biological markers and traits. Perhaps to be human you must share 99% of basic human DNA. Or maybe we can bump that to 99.99%. Though this would be a pretty useful definition, the percentage point where we draw the line at human vs. non-human would be arbitrarily drawn by biologists or molecular geneticists.

Another option would be to define humans by other traits that delineate our species from chimps, apes, dolphins, or any other animal with particularly advanced brains. For other species, biologists generally delineate based upon the ability to interbreed. Because a poodle and a labrador can interbreed, they’re considered part of the same species. Because humans cannot produce viable offspring with any of the animals above, although they are all highly intelligent, we can separate ourselves as a species from them.

This first camp, though it may be effective in separating ourselves as a whole species from all others, does little to support human dignity. Even if we are genetically dissimilar and unable to reproduce with other species, why do we deserve any more dignity than our animal kingdom brothers?

The secular argument must therefore stem from non-biological sources.

The best argument for secularists seems to be a reason-based definition of humans that supports the principle of dignity. In order to grant humans dignity, a dignity greater than that of other animals, we must find qualities of humans which not only define us but merit minimum levels of care, compassion, and respect.

A proponent of this reason-based human dignity would observe that humans can be set apart by certain activities like theoretical reasoning, language, or even eating with manners—activities that humans perform in a characteristic way. Aristotle provides an example of such observations in De Anima, concluding that rational part of human souls puts us above all other mortal creatures. Our agency, rooted in our rationality, is distinctly human; a secularist must say that what gives us our dignity or worth is that we can live in a uniquely human own way and are capable of uniquely human actions.

Yet here comes the difficulty, if the leaders of the United Nations or United States wish to use a reason-based argument for human dignity to avoid the sticky pluralistic nature of our world and its theologies, they must come up with an answer for the dignity of those without full rational capabilities—the mentally handicapped or ill, those who are brain dead or in a vegetable state, the elderly, the unborn, immature children or adults, etc.

While I know I have not plumbed the depths of the reason-based argument for human dignity, it should be an urgent and critical task for any man who does not believe in the Creator but desires to build policy plans off of the principle of human dignity. Need I repeat that the lives of many, especially the weakest and most vulnerable, lie in the balance?

Soren Hansen, a junior, is a proud member of the Program of Liberal Studies and is pursuing a minor in Constitutional Studies. She loves discussing what it means to be human. She can be reached at mhansen3@nd.edu.