On The Dignity Of The Human Person

When considering the dignity of man, or specifically, the dignity of the human person, it is important to understand that such a notion is not a first principle and that this dignity must arise from what it is to be a human person. If this is not done, then the phrase loses all meaning and relevancy, and becomes like an anchorless boat in the harbor, carried on the tide of human emotion and opinion now drifting towards the rocks of error, now towards the open ocean of meaninglessness. Rather, it is important to anchor this concept to a true principle and thereby give it both meaning and relevancy. I propose as that necessary first principle, the definition of a person as manifested by, first Boethius1 and then St. Thomas Aquinas2, namely, “an individual substance of a rational nature.”3 Taking this as my true principle I then propose that the source of the dignity of the human person arises not from our being an individual substance, but from our rational nature.

The very word, dignity, is itself somewhat ambiguous as to its meaning, and it must first be tied down in order to guide this consideration. In light of the thesis of this paper I do not mean to find some very determinate account of dignity, but rather something general that will fit its uses today. The word is derived from the Latin dignitatis, which is translated as worthiness. This is not far beyond what the word means today for it seems that when we speak of the dignity of some one or some thing, we intend to say that it is worthy of some respect and/or honor because of its character or quality. For example, we rebuke a man for having lost his dignity on account of doing something shameful, such as flinging himself at some woman after she has already poorly used him several times before. We say this because we see that he is not acting in a way worthy of a man, but is being compelled by some weakness within himself. The definition of dignity, then, as worthiness of some respect and/or honor, seems to be sufficient.

It is therefore true that dignity must arise from what is most noble in a thing, for we do not respect or honor something because of what is base in it, but because we see what is most excellent in it. For example, we do not give honor to war hero because he has appetites, but rather because he has shown an excellence in virtue, specifically in courage. The dignity of a human person therefore, must arise from what is most noble in the human person. That a man's rational nature is the most dignified part of his person is clear from the following argument: First, as manifested by Aristotle in De Anima, the rational nature of man arises from his intellect, which is immaterial. What is immaterial is more excellent than what is material because it is not parted, it therefore has no principle of corruption, and is therefore incorruptible. The intellect, therefore, is the most noble part of a man. But his intellect is that by which man is said to have a rational nature. His rational nature is therefore most worthy of respect and honor, and is therefore the source of his dignity.

That man's dignity does not arise from his individuality is clear first of all by considering that if this were true in man, then it seems that there is no reason it would not be true universally. Therefore, any individual substance would have dignity. Therefore a man and a stone would both have dignity, based on individuality, but this is manifestly absurd, for no one speaks of the dignity of a stone.

Even if it is objected that the individuality of man might more properly arise from a higher principle, such as God willing and loving the individual, this does not suffice as an account for man's dignity. For, according to natural reason we can understand God's willing and loving the individual in so far as God is the agent cause of being.4 Here again we see that there is no essential difference, with reference to being alone, between the man and the stone. If then, we bring in the idea that man is more of an individual than the stone on account of his rational nature, then it must be asked why would one take rationality together with individuality, if rationality is sufficient.

Further, if one holds that God loving and willing the individual man is not as agent cause of being, but rather as redeemer of this individual, then he departs from the realm of philosophy. For, man does not relate to God as redeemer according to the order of nature, but according to the order of grace and inasmuch as he is a child of God. This, then, misses the purpose of the inquiry and fails to give an account of man's dignity from his nature.5

Finally, it seems that the most common argument for the dignity of the human person arising from his individuality is as follows: each human person is one of a kind and therefore rare. Things that are rare are valuable, and have worth. Therefore, each person, on account of his individuality and rarity has dignity. This argument, however, fails to consider that just because something is rare does not mean that it is good. There was only one Hitler, and it seems to be good that there is only one and we would not consider it a loss to not have more. Rather, if something rare is to be valuable, it must also have something good and excellent that arises from its nature that makes that thing desirable. This is not to deny that rarity is a principle of value, but it must presume that the rare thing is good.

It is therefore clear that man's dignity arises from his rational nature and that individuality in no way causes his dignity.

1. De Persona et Duabus Naturis Contra Eutychen et Nestorium , 4
2. I, Q.29, a.1,2
3. It is not my intent to defend this principle here, but rather take it as my starting point. The two great minds above have sufficiently shown this definition to be true.
4. For, insofar as God wills something he brings it into act. To will any other being is to cause its being and since being and good are the same in re, it follows that being as being is lovable.
5. This is not to say that an argument from theological principles cannot be made. Only, it is not my purpose here to make such an argument.


  1. ho mathetes said...
    Greetings, friends.

    A couple of questions and comments.

    First, when considering the definition of dignity, I am having a difficult time seeing how the essay argues that what is properly a principle of dignity of a thing must be something most noble in a thing, as opposed to just some property worthy of honour or respect, but not that which is most so. The definition proposed seems to include both possibilities. Moreover the example thereafter provided has its own difficulties: in a given situation of war, the warrior would also be praised (though not as much) for prudently retreating even if it were less excellent than if he was to remain and heroically battle.

    One might gather from this that it seems what makes a thing dignified are those things which are good about that thing. Obviously, the “base,” as such, is not worthy of praise. But certainly the basic or simple can be good. It would seem that an argument would be needed to manifest that the best quality (quality taken loosely) of things are that that which give them dignity most of all---to do this would seem quite easy, admittedly. However, further argument would be needed to show that such a quality is a thing’s proper dignity.

    I think an argument like the following, a-la-Physics II would resolve this last question: that which most formally and properly defines things is that for the sake it of which they exist, for nature is called the end for the sake of per se movers and is the ‘what-it-was to be.’ Now motion is ordered to actuality, and perfect motions are for the sake of perfect actuality (perfect taken here in the sense of per-fectum ). So also the greater per se motion is more for the sake of the per se actuality. But that for the sake of which is what constitutes nature. Therefore the greatest actuality of things is their nature, properly taken. And we can imagine here we have successfully argued that the best of things are that which give its dignity most of all, and we can conclude that nature is which give its dignity most of all.

    I might note however, that a further difficulty remains in our present case, if the intellect is in fact the proper principle of the dignity of man (a position I hold, tangentially) one must explain how this can be possible given the fact that non-human intellects exist. Any suggestions on this one?

    Lastly, it doesn’t “manifestly absurd” that a stone would possess dignity in a certain respect. Presently I’m living in a place where the ‘rights’ of animals are defended virtually as much as human rights are. Of course, there are serious errors with that ideology, which I am entirely disinterested in defending. Nevertheless, in my feeble attempts to be a magnanimous philosopher and see the good even amidst error I can appreciate the common recognition of the goodness of things and the corresponding respect which follows. After all, the One whose opinion really counts called such things “good” and even went so far as to command us to be stewards over them. To grant this sort of dignity to any thing would not be to put indisputably lower things on equal level with man, but place it’s proper goodness amongst the order of lesser and greater which correspondingly is the natural order of things.

    Enjoyed the article and hope this helps!
    ho mathetes said...
    woops, in the last paragraph the opening sentence should read '...it doesn't seem...'
    Frater Asinus said...
    ho mathetes,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    I am a little puzzled as to your difficulty, but as far as I understand it you are holding that it is unclear that we must resolve to the most noble part of some substance to determine the source of its dignity.

    I had in mind, as I was writing this article, to proceed in a more dialectic and informal manner, that is the reason that I kept away from a more formal argument, like the one you gave above. I suppose I should have made it more clear by an argument like the following: Dignity arises from worthiness and worthiness is what is from what is honorable and noble in a thing. Whatever is most honorable or noble in a thing is therefore in possesion of the greatest dignity. Therefore, when I am looking to find what is most essential to the dignity of the human person I will look to what is most, for that seems clearer and more evident. Also, in this case, I think it is able to be shown that anything else that contributes to the dignity of man will in fact arise from his nature. This could be shown from the argument which you gave above. I however opted for a more accesible argument and left this ambiguous. (This itslef might be an error)

    As to your second point, I suppose I should have been more sensitive towards any petrophilic special interest groups that might catch wind of my article. But in all seriousness, I did intend to resolve to how we speak about things, and it seems that we see just from the way we speak that we attribute dignigty to the more noble of substances more readily than to something like a rock. This is an argument, it seems to me, that we look to something more than individuality when we ascribe dignity to a thing.

    I should reiterate that this article was proceeding in the mode of the dialectic and that to fully consider this matter I beleive that arguments similar to the one you made above would be proper and necessary.

    Thank you again for the comment and please advise if my reply is missing the point or is itself misguided.
    ho mathetes said...
    Hm, good comments. I am sorry for my obscurity.

    I suppose if I was going to re-phrase my concern I would say that it seems that there is an assumption that what is most dignified is univocal with what is essential with respect to the human person in your essay and I suppose in your comments above when you state:

    "Whatever is most honorable or noble in a thing is therefore in possesion of the greatest dignity. Therefore, when I am looking to find what is most essential to the dignity of the human person I will look to what is most, for that seems clearer and more evident."

    An argument is needed if you are to say what is 'most' dignified in the human person is also what is the 'most essential,' or the proper reason for dignity.

    I bring this objection up keeping in mind that the 'most dignified' attributes of man are also in some way found in other creatures, and so to conclude that the proper (or differentiating) cause of of dignity is man's rationality requires an explanation of how that property is distinctive in man.

    Although, I suppose I am making a fuss about it after all, as Aristotle presumably shows that man's rationality is essential to mankind in the De Anima, and so for the sake of dialectical simplicity I can see why the principle is assumed. This does seem like a crucial step in the argument, though, and one you could argue from general principles as I tried to, which would be more a bit more scientific.

    So what about the angels?

    And rest assured, I am printing legions of this discussion onto fliers and flinging them all about the streets of Berkeley--those freaks could use it.

    Pax tibi, fraters.
    Frater Asinus said...
    Your point is well taken. I should probablly add a paragraph clarifying that point.

    As for the angels...

    I beleive that there is a real distinction between an intellectual being and a rational being. i belevie the following argument will manifest this, and I will try to speak as formally as possible: It is clear from Aristotle's De Anima, that the way to distinguish the powers of the soul is by examining their respective operations. So the vegetative part of the soul will is know through the operation of growth etc. , the sensitive through the sense operations, the intellect through knowing. Moreover, these powers will have their respective proper objects as well. It is further true that the matter of the object must be proportionate to power (St. Thomas, Division and Method, Q.V,1 Respondeo) In the same articel referrenced above (as you well know) Thomas distiguishes the Sciences according to their proper objects. Now, I will not give those arguments here, but i do want to note that the principle of distinction of the objects is the degree of remotion for matter and motion. The point, then, that I wish to take from this, is that the operations of mans intellect all proceed with reference to matter and motion. I beleive that it is proper to name such knowing as rational.

    Given, then, that angels are wholly immaterial, it would seem right to say that their intellects would not proceed with reference to something extrinsic to their natures, i.e. matter and motion, but rather they would know things in a wholly immaterial way. Going back then to the general principle above that we came to, namely that the operation of the intellect distinguish the powers of the intellect. It would seem safe to say that if the angels' intellects proceeded in a wholly immaterial manner, then there would be an essential difference between the intellect of a man and the intellect of the angel. The one we call rational, the other purely intellectual.

    It is important to note that I do not intend to say that the object of the intellects of men and of angels differs, only their mode of knowing.

    Having shown that there is an essential difference between the two, it remains to show that the intellect is the most noble faculty in angels to complete the argument. This is not difficult to see, if one recognizes that it is proper to knowing to be immaterial and that angels, as Aristotle would understand them, would be simply defined as separate intellects.

    One could go into greater detail about how angles know, and their proper powers and then distinguish the perfections of operations of each of the choirs of angels and assign a proper dignity accordingly, but this has already been done by one far greater than I. (Summa, Q.50-64)

    I will close merely with the words of Our Lord "The evil of the day is sufficient thereof."

    I hope this makes sense.

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