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Dangerous Dignity

Image by Glenn Halog via Flickr. Image by Glenn Halog via Flickr.

Whatever your feelings about SCOTUS’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S., one benefit is that it has gotten people talking about the elusive concept of human dignity. Matt Franck caustically explains that Justice Anthony Kennedy has “converted the Constitution into a ‘great Dignity Document,’” determining that U.S. citizens have a right to dignity, including access to marriage:

Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right . . . [the petitioners] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Dignity should go on George Orwell’s list of words—including “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality—that are often used but so rarely defined as to make them “meaningless.” Russell Kirk noticed this about dignity in 1956, and in our time Yuval Levin has observed it is “a crucial concept, though . . . sorely in need of intellectual refinement.”

For Justice Kennedy, dignity is chiefly connected with autonomy, liberty, and identity. No one should be denied dignity or demeaned for making lawful choices that “define and express their identity.”

The fifteenth-century Christian humanist Pico della Mirandola presents a richer, though not entirely dissimilar, understanding of human dignity in his famous work Oration on the Dignity of Man. To explain “the preeminence of human nature” within the created order, envied even by the angels, Pico retells the biblical creation story, adding a discourse by the “Supreme Maker” to Adam. It begins with something akin to Kennedy’s notion of autonomy and identity:

We have given you, Oh Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may . . . select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will . . . trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.

Man is a “chameleon,” a unique creature “to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be.” But Pico doesn’t stop there. Instead, he introduces a key element of human dignity absent from Kennedy’s version: danger.

But what is the purpose of all this? That we may understand—since we have been born into this condition of being what we choose to be—that we ought to be sure above all else that it may never be said against us that, born to a high position, we failed to appreciate it, but fell instead to the estate of brutes. . . .

Along with the unique human power of choice comes the power to elevate—or to demean—ourselves. And, to quote Uncle Ben’s maxim, now official U.S. legal precedent thanks to another SCOTUS decision, “with great power there must also come—great responsibility.” The remainder of Pico’s oration on dignity is a defense of philosophy and its sister, theology, as critical tools for guarding against degradation. Traditional moral standards served the same function and were meant to restrain the danger that free will presents. Jeffrey Rosen at The Atlantic argued prior to the Obergefell decision that the Court had set itself against traditional morality in defense of its version of dignity—with consequences even social liberals may eventually regret.

We are accustomed to talking about the upside of human dignity, and we should. Gracy Olmstead, bemoaning President Obama’s invocation of “dignity” for favorite causes, which do not include the rights of the unborn, beautifully expresses the inclusiveness of what she describes as a “classical conception of human dignity,” which

reaches beyond the circumstantial, and speaks to the very core of who we are as human beings. It is founded upon the idea of human life as sacred, as imago dei, meaning that no matter the circumstances of a person’s life, he or she is precious and immeasurably valuable. This is perhaps the greatest of all equalizers: no matter the place or culture, the poverty or vulnerability, each life matters.

The downside—the dangerous side—of dignity is equally important. It is the basis of Ross Douthat’s “Case for Hell,” a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. However distasteful to the modern or postmodern mind, Douthat writes, the Christian doctrine of hell emphasizes the gravity of human choice. Abandoning that sense of gravity and its connection to human dignity “threatens to make human life less fully human.”

The petitioners in the Obergefell case are right to lay claim to the dignity that is everyone’s endowment, but it would be a pity to settle for the weak version underlying Kennedy’s opinion, equating dignity with mere self-esteem and a hitherto undiscovered constitutional right not to be lonely. Human dignity is more compelling and more dangerous than that, as Brad Birzer explains:

The human person is glorious and disgusting. He is brilliant and ignorant. He carries with him, at birth, the mark of original sin, but he is also a temple of the Holy Spirit. He chooses poorly, yet he carries the Imago Dei. He creates Auschwitz, and he writes the Divine Comedy. And . . .

As we discuss human dignity and how to respect it, we should realize with Pico that the human ability to “define and express” our own identity is a glorious and dangerous gift. Human dignity is grounds for the most extravagant sense of self-esteem and worth, but also cause for a most intense fear and trembling.

It is so offered for your consideration. Thank God I don't have the authority to say, It is so ordered.


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