The Sources Of Human Dignity

The Sources Of Human Dignity

Dr Paulina Taboada
Profesor Centro de Bioetica
Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile
Alameda 340 Correo Central 1
Santiago, Chile

Last month, explaining the core of moral reasoning according to ethical personalism, I suggested that morality is not about ethical principles, commandments or laws, but primarily about the proper response to the human person’s essential dignity. This statement referred us to the question about the sources of human dignity, which I promised to review this month.

In contemporary bioethical debates we encounter two main opposing – and apparently irreconcilable – conceptions of human dignity and its sources (Rippe & Schaber, 1999, Knoepffler & Haniel, 2000). The first is the traditional conception based on the person’s distinct position in the world: the person as ‘imago Dei’. According to this view, human dignity is the value that rests in the person’s essential mode of being, as an individual substance of rational and free nature. The second view understands human dignity as rooted in the person’s autonomy. This notion can be traced back to Kant, who conceived the capacity of self-determination as the foundation of human dignity. According to the first view, to respect the person’s dignity means first and foremost to respect the person’s life and integrity. In the second case, to respect the person’s dignity means primarily to respect the person’s free choices.

Anselm (in: Knoepffler & Haniel, 2000) warns us from the danger of the current ambiguity in the use of the concept of human dignity in bioethical debates. In order to avoid this notion to become the ‘Pandora box’ of bioethics, this author stresses the importance of explicitly clarifying the essential content and sources of human dignity. Seifert (1997) has made a significant contribution to this issue. By distinguishing different sources of human dignity, this author sheds light on some of the reasons for the common misunderstandings related to the current use of this concept. In so doing, Seifert also helps us to understand that the two apparently diverging conceptions of human dignity do actually refer to two different sources of human dignity. Hence, they are not absolutely irreconcilable. Indeed, these two conceptions refer to two different levels of personhood. Hence, the challenge is to assign each of them the proper place and weight, for which task a cogent anthropological foundation is needed.

Seifert (1997) distinguishes two main sources of human dignity: the ‘ontological’ and the acquired. The former is grounded on human nature as an individual rational substance, and the latter is derived from the awakened conscious life, as well as from the intentional and free acts of the human person. The ‘ontological’ dignity belongs to all human beings simply because of their existence as individual rational substances. It is thus independent of any particular quality or personal behavior and is shared by all human beings by the mere fact of existing. The acquired dignity corresponds to the actualization of the conscious life of the person and of all those other qualities that are essential to human nature, such as rationality, morality, sociability, etc. Indeed, through her conscious and free actions, the human person actualizes her various potentialities; the whole psychological and moral personality takes shape.

Seifert suggests that the fundamental value of the person – as different from non-personal beings – is her being a concrete rational and free individual, capable therefore of all those activities that reason and freedom alone make possible. But reason and freedom do not possess their own subsistence; they subsist always in a substrate: the person. In other words, the person is the subsistent subject of existence and action. Hence, the root of the person’s essential dignity is her uniquemode of being as an individual substance of rational and free nature. This mode of being precedes the actualization of any mental properties and moral qualities.

But it is evident that the person acquires a totally new dignity - which is added to the ontological dignity and belongs to a different level of personal being - when she actualizes her capacities according to values and the good. This level of the moral dignity is a conquest more than a possession (Marcel). Seifert recognizes three different sources of this ‘acquired’ human dignity, given by the actualization of conscious activities, the development of those special talents the individual person might posses – such as intellectual, artistic, or athletic gifts – and, particularly, the moral fulfillment of the person.

But to exist as an individual person is the necessary condition for the actualization of these other three sources of human dignity. Hence, although the exercise of conscious activities and freedom (autonomy) can be said to add a certain ‘dignity’ to the person, this ‘superviniet’ dignity demands a subject who lives and stands in himself. Thus, the acquired dimensions of personal dignity refer back to the first, inalienable, ontological dignity, which is the most foundational one. We find here a proper place for the different conceptions of human dignity that are sometimes presented as incompatible in current bioethical debates. The relevance of such a clarification of the concept and sources of human dignity rests in its implications for a proper understanding of the foundations of human rights, as we shall see next month.

Dr. Paulina Taboada, MD, PhD
Palliative Care and Bioethics