We’ve been talking a lot about human dignity on this blog and elsewhere, so it seems like an opportune time to make a few comments . . . particularly today, when people are focused on the current election for U.S. president.
And what is “dignity”? Dignity is the “quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” (“Dignity,” Meriam-Webster Dictionary.) In the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas — “Thomism” — every single human being, by virtue of his existence as a human being, and thus a person, is “worthy, honored, or esteemed” . . . or should be.
This definition is reflected in the concept of “personalism,” which itself has evolved along somewhat divergent paths. As developed by Pope John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła) within the framework of Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, personalism can be used to describe any school of thought, or any intellectual movement that focuses on the reality of the human person and each person’s unique dignity. (Thomas D. Williams, L.C., “What is Thomistic Personalism?” Alpha Omega, Vol. VII, No. 2, 2004, 164.)
Bound by the absolutes of the natural law, this “Thomistic personalism” is critically important for moral, spiritual, and even material development. Outside the parameters established by the natural law, however, personalism becomes invalid, even anti-human. It descends into moral relativism, and ultimately nihilism.
|Martin Luther King, Jr.|
Personalism recognizes a radical distinction between persons and things, the latter category consisting of other beings and non-persons. (Ibid., 179) This distinction opposes what may be one of the most serious philosophical, even economic and political errors of the modern age, and one that has inhibited or prevented people from understanding social justice. That is the failure to distinguish between actual human persons and the abstraction (a thing) of collective humanity or “the People.”
Although coming from a different religious and philosophical tradition, the personalism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. supports the Thomist focus on the dignity of the human person. To King, personalism was valuable as a practical means of eradicating injustice, especially as it related to racism, but always consistent with the demands of human dignity and the principles of natural law. (Rufus Burrow, Jr., God and Human Dignity. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006, 69.)
Simply imposing desired results regardless of the means was not King’s objective, nor would this have been consistent with his moral and political sense. King’s personalism was grounded on his acceptance of a transcendent God Who, nevertheless, has a personal relationship with His special creation, man. (Ibid., 70.)
|Pope John Paul II|
For King, applying personalist principles involved introducing changes to the social order by reforming institutions. This was by means of organized actions for the common good, what in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church are called “acts of social justice.” The goal of an act of social justice is to reform institutions to make it possible for people to live virtuously.
Human dignity is key. It derives from the unique value every child, woman, and man has by the mere fact of being a human person. Respect for human dignity, therefore, is not a vague feeling of liking, admiration, or veneration, such as some individuals or groups accord others. That sort of thing is based on something other than mere humanity, such as wealth, poverty, race, religion, or sexual orientation, the type of prejudgments both John Paul II and King explicitly repudiated. (Ibid., 165) Rather, respect for human dignity is realized through recognition and protection of the sovereignty of each human person as a person under the ultimate sovereignty of God.
Nor is “sovereignty” a mere platitude. In this context, sovereignty refers to power over one’s life. Specifically, sovereignty of the human person consists of the ability to exercise one’s natural, inalienable rights, especially life, liberty, and private property. Through the exercise of rights, people become more fully human by acquiring and developing virtue.