Speakers, attendees discuss human dignity

​​Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture held its 22nd annual Fall Conference from Thursday, November 11 to Saturday, November 13. The conference, which brought together more than 100 speakers and 950 registrants, was entitled “Human Dignity in a Secular World.” Speakers addressed the topic of human dignity from a variety of disciplinary perspectives ranging from medical bioethics to patristic theology.

Keynotes included a discussion of dignity in the American context with Harvard’s Jacqueline Rivers, reflections on the incoherence of the vision of human dignity underpinning disability law with Elizabeth Schiltz from the University of St. Thomas and Mary O’Callaghan from Notre Dame, and an analysis of international human rights with Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon.

Other speakers included Erika Bachiochi from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Dean Marcus Cole of Notre Dame Law School, and Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University, among many other scholars and students.

Alasdair MacIntyre also spoke at the conference, where he delivered his annual address. MacIntyre, professor emeritus of philosophy at Notre Dame and distinguished virtue ethicist, has spoken at the Fall Conference every year since its inception in 2000. Every year he has spoken to a full house, and this year was no exception.

MacIntyre’s talk challenged the very concept of human dignity, putting in relief the talks of many speakers who used the term unquestioningly. MacIntyre argued that in contexts where appeals are made to human dignity, appeals to justice would be more fitting. He spoke of the concept of human dignity as an empty signifier intended to fabricate rhetorical agreement between groups that do not agree to begin with. This agreement, argued MacIntyre, is possible precisely through the lack of substance in the concept of human dignity.

While the modern conception holds that persons have dignity as individuals qua individuals, MacIntyre noted that the classical Thomistic conception holds that we derive dignitas from our final end, God, and that, accordingly, we can increase or decrease in dignitas. MacIntyre clarified that this does not mean that we are not to treat others with respect; on the contrary, justice demands that we do treat people with respect, and that any injustice harms in the first instance not only individuals, but relationships and communities.

In her Saturday keynote, Glendon proposed that the modern conception of human dignity, which is grounded in the 20th century human rights movement, is not completely vacuous, as MacIntyre seemed to argue, but is rather in an ongoing process of unfolding and articulating its own foundations.

Glendon’s remarks focused primarily on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the U.N. in 1948 in order to proclaim the Allied countries’ commitment to human flourishing in the wake of the atrocities of World War II. Glendon noted that this declaration “only asserts human dignity”; it deliberately does not address the foundations of that concept. She quoted Pope St. John Paul II, who celebrated the Universal Declaration but said that it “lacks the anthropological and ethical foundation of the human rights which it proclaims.”

At its worst, Glendon argued, the concept of human dignity simply becomes an instrument for contending interest groups. She cited Václav Havel’s observation that a particular word or concept can be “at one moment radiating great hope, at another radiating lethal rays.” As an example, she mentioned the appropriation of the phrase “human dignity” by advocates of euthanasia, who have used it as a stand-in for autonomy.

Glendon argued that the human dignity project of the 20th century has seemed to hover over an abyss not because it lacks foundation but because it involves “an ongoing process of understanding, judging, and acting.” At the end of the day, the practical answers to questions about human dignity and rights are contingent upon consensus, not foundational principles.

Glendon decried the “nihilism seeping into the capillaries of society, draining the regenerative powers of faith and reason” but maintained a optimistic position, holding that we can in fact establish common basic principles because “structures of human knowing, experiencing, and judging are universal and God-given.”

The de Nicola Center will be welcoming friends to campus for another conference filled with discussion and fellowship on November 10-12, 2022.

Josh Gilchrist is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies with a supplementary major in theology. When he’s not in the library or the PLS lounge, you can find him running around the lakes, mixing drinks, or enjoying a good conversation over a cigar. You can reach him at jgilchri@nd.edu.

Photo credit: de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame. Used with permission.