In a dominant tradition stemming from the Enlightenment, it is our rational will — the human power to reason and to exercise choice — that gives us moral worth or dignity. To be a rational, self-legislating being, as Immanuel Kant put it, is “the basis of the dignity of human nature”. The Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas, which offers, for a fee, to terminate the lives of those with incurable and irreversible medical conditions, appears to focus above all on this aspect of our humanity. The “dignity” that the clinic purports to promote and respect is above all the dignity of exercising the rational will; and this explains the elaborate procedures designed to make sure that the patient is rationally choosing to end his or her life, without confusion or external pressure. Clients are carefully interviewed on arrival at the clinic to ascertain that they are there of their own volition, and understand what they are doing. They are then interviewed again, after a “cooling off” period of one day, to check that they are steadfast in their resolve to end their lives. And finally, on the day of the killing, they are again questioned about whether they know what is about to happen, what will be the effect of the drugs administered, and so on. The use of the term “killing” may strike some readers as hostile or critical, but there is no such necessary implication. It is a matter of simple factual accuracy to describe the clinic’s work as that of killing people, or, perhaps, helping them to kill themselves. The euphemistic (not to say Orwellian) term “assisted dying”, used for example by Mary Warnock in her recent book Easeful Death, should cause disquiet precisely because it attempts to divert attention from what is actually being done in such cases.
I don’t however want to discuss the question of euthanasia here, but instead look at the more general question of what is the basis or grounding of our human “dignity”. Do we have dignity or worth merely by virtue of being human? If we look at the qualifications a candidate has to display in order to pass the tests required by Dignitas, they are very far from being a matter of simply belonging to the class of human beings. Something much more active is required articulacy, moral responsibility, ability to respond to searching questions at interview, and so on. And one can clearly imagine many confused, distressed or disabled terminally ill patients failing the tests. So perhaps paradoxically, the “dignity” that is the focus of attention in the clinic’s operations is by implication a property pertaining only to a qualified subset of human beings.
If we are to make acceptable use of the concept of human dignity, it seems clear that it needs to be a more “universalist” notion than this. But in the past, dignity was the very opposite of something universal. The Latin word dignitas, in its classical usage, most frequently referred to some exalted or honoured status that attached to someone by virtue of their rank or position — the dignity of a consul, for example, or of a patrician as opposed to a plebeian. This usage spills over into English term “dignity”, so that when Prince Florizel in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale leaves the royal palace in disguise to woo the humble Perdita, a courtier describes him as someone “who has his Dignity and Duty both cast off, Fled from his Father, from his hopes, and with a Shepherd’s daughter”. Luckily, of course, it eventually turns out that Perdita, unbeknownst to anyone, is herself a King’s daughter, so the threat to Florizel’s dignity which would have been occasioned by his marrying someone of low birth is happily avoided.
In this once dominant conception of dignity, status is conferred by birth or high office. But as so often in Shakespeare, the idea is no sooner developed than it is subverted. When the lovers are discovered, and Florizel is subjected to the furious wrath of his royal father for having risked his dignity, Perdita refuses to be cowed:
I was not much afeard; for once or twice I was about to speak and tell him plainly, The selfsame sun that shines upon his court Hides not his visage from our cottage but Looks on alike.
Just as the sun shines on all, high and lowly alike, so, she seems to be saying, distinctions of rank and status are irrelevant to someone’s true worth. This conception comes not from the classical or pagan world, where considerations of “dignity” as rank were all-important, but from the Judaeo-Christian worldview. In the words of the catechism of the Catholic Church, “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God”. Or again, “All human beings, in as much as they are created in the image of God, have the dignity of a person.”
Nicolas Wolterstorff, in an impressive recent study entitled Justice: Rights and Wrongs, has underlined the roots of this idea in the Hebrew Bible, where he argues, with a wealth of supporting evidence, that there is a clear recognition of the equal value of all in the sight of God. Throughout the Old Testament, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the impoverished — what Wolterstorff aptly calls the “quartet of the vulnerable” — make repeated appearances. And in the injunctions of the law and the prophets, and the poetry of the Psalms, God is seen as calling on his people to “loose the bonds of injustice” by rescuing these vulnerable groups who have been wronged: to “raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash-heap” (Psalm 113 ). Injustice is seen both as wronging God and as wronging the victims of injustice by failing to recognise their inherent human worth.
The New Testament continues the same message. The “kingdom” which Jesus set out to inaugurate was to be a kingdom of “justice and righteousness” — the very combination that so frequently occurs in the Old Testament (in the Hebrew terms mishpat and tsedeqa). And the righteous king or Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures was to be one who (in the words of Psalm 72 ), “judges the poor with justice and . . . saves the lives of the needy”. On Wolterstorff’s reading, Jesus’s words and actions (consorting with outcasts, touching and curing those who were ritually unclean, explaining why it was right to heal on the Sabbath) were designed to “appeal to our worth as human beings to explain God’s care for each and every one of us”.
Not only does Wolterstorff trace the origins of the idea of universal human dignity back to early Jewish and Christian moral thinking, but he also makes the striking and controversial claim that without such theistic resources we will be left without any satisfactory grounding for dignity: no secular worldview can do the job. In Kant’s ethics, for example, dignity hinges, as we have seen, on the capacity for rational choice; yet if human worth depends on this, then those who lack that capacity (infants, those born with severe mental impairment, Alzheimer’s patients) risk being excluded from the domain of rights-holders. If rational choice is the criterion, how can this explain why every human, qua human, should be regarded as having inherent worth?
The Judaeo-Christian idea of the importance of loving one’s neighbour may have something to teach us here. A neighbour is someone with whom we enter into relations of vulnerability and dependence, simply in virtue of our shared proximity. To be a friend or neighbour with someone is to be prepared to have one’s own space encroached on by them, just as they are reciprocally prepared to receive us. If we were purely rational disembodied agents or mere “persons”, in some quasi-Cartesian sense of mere “thinking things” or “conscious beings”, true relationships as we understand them would be inconceivable: they would be reduced to detached interchanges of information, interactive exercises of intellection and volition, but without all the vulnerabilities of embodied particularity that make love and friendship truly precious. For in true relations of neighbourliness, friendship and love, we abandon our austere self-sufficient autonomy, and accept our “passivity” (as the Zurich-based philosopher Ingolf Dalferth has put it): we know our need, our dependency, and need it to be recognised by others. And once we know this, we can see at once that our dignity and worth cannot depend on our rational powers and capacities, nor our ability to determine our choices as moral lawgivers, nor any other intellectual endowment, even that of consciousness (which may of course be dormant, or de-activated, as in a coma), but simply and solely on our need for others to reach out to us, as we need to reach out to them. This is a need that applies to every single human being on the planet. To mature morally is to come to realise that we gain nothing by insisting on our status, or “standing on our dignity” (as the English idiom has it), but that we gain everything by recognising the dependency we share with all our neighbours.
This seems to me to be a clear point in favour of the religious account; for why should our human weakness and dependency provide any purely secular reason why dignity or worth should attach to us all simply as human beings? On a standard Darwinian view of human nature, our nature is simply a set of contingent features that have emerged out of a blind nexus of forces, shaped by random mutation and the struggle for survival. So selecting any one of these features, such as our frailty and dependency, as the basis for according inherent worth to us, seems pretty arbitrary, or at any rate no more or less warranted than ascribing true dignity on the basis of heroic intellect and will (following Nietzsche), or aristocratic “great-souledness” (following Aristotle).
On the Judaeo-Christian view, by contrast, human beings, despite their frailty (formed of the “dust of the earth”), are, as the Hebrew Bible has it, made in the image and likeness of God. So simply in virtue of our human status we participate in some way in that infinite worth that is God. And building on this foundation, the Christian vision takes the extraordinary further step of declaring that our corporeal human nature is actually “divinised” — raised up to the fullest dignity by Christ’s humbling himself to take our bodily nature upon him. As the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins so vividly put it:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, andThis Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,Is immortal diamond.
Nothing, on the face of it, could be more undignified than this “Jack” — a common, ordinary fellow, of undistinguished worth; this “patch”, a mere fool or ninny; this potsherd, a broken fragment, like that with which the wretched Job, reduced to the utmost indignity, scraped his sores (Job 2:8); weak and feeble, as perishable as matchwood. Yet all at once, by Christ’s sharing in our bodily nature, this paltry individual becomes “immortal diamond” — of infinite worth and dignity.
None of this, to be sure, counts as a philosophically watertight grounding of the concept of human dignity, since it depends on the revealed truth of the Incarnation. But for those who accept that truth, it does indeed, as Hopkins beautifully expresses it, raise every human being, “all at once”, to infinite, Christlike, worth. The secularist can, to be sure, resolve to treat every human being as if they were of such infinite worth; but it is entirely unclear what might ground that resolve, since there is nothing in the way things are, on the purely naturalist worldview, that underwrites it; there is only a plurality of diverse specimens of a certain species of featherless biped, some stronger, some weaker, some outstanding and splendid, some defective and wretched, all subject to infirmity and eventual decrepitude. The universal dignity of humankind is the pearl of great price in our ethical culture. But torn out of the religious seabed that nurtured it, it may not take very long to be swept away on the advancing tide of secularism.