Planned Parenthood executives bargain to sell aborted body parts, Bruce Jenner strikes a pose across the cover of Vanity Fair, Justice Anthony Kennedy spews purple prose in Obergefell, and California Governor Jerry Brown signs a law allowing doctors to kill.
All in the name of dignity.
Underlying all of these events is a rapid and radical transformation in our culture’s understanding of what it means to be human, and, in particular, what it means to have dignity. Dignity apparently justifies abortion, transgenderism, the redefinition of marriage, and physician-assisted suicide.
But what exactly constitutes this New Dignity? The work of George Kateb, professor emeritus at Princeton, provides a clue. In a book titled Human Dignity, Kateb writes: “Since nature has no telos, the human species is at its greatest when it breaks out of nature.” Human dignity is grounded, according to Kateb, in our ability to defy nature—to go beyond natural limitations and thereby create ourselves anew. Kateb agrees with Sartre: the freedom to “become different through an upsurge of free creativity,” which “can never be conclusively defined or delimited,” is “the philosophical anthropology that underlies human dignity.” This is the meaning of human dignity in a world with no clear origin, no purposeful end, no intrinsic meaning, and nothing real beyond matter in motion.
The New Dignity demands new positive freedoms, freedoms to—to remake our gender, to marry someone without regard to sex or the procreative potential of the union, to choose our time to die and enlist the medical profession in ending our lives, to not only abort a child developing in the womb but also to harvest his or her body parts for commercial gain. It also calls for new negative freedom, freedoms from—from all unwanted pain or discomfort, from limitations on what I can do to or with my body, from language or ideas that offend me or that challenge decisions I have made.
Dignity is no longer so much about who or what we are; it is about what our unfettered will can do, and what it can forbid others to do.
Christian Sexual Ethics and the Ancient World
This represents a transformation the likes of which the West has not experienced since the fourth century. Historian Kyle Harper describes the tectonic shift that took place as Christian ideas of sexuality and personhood uprooted and replaced ancient Greco-Roman understandings. As Giulia Sissa documents, among Greek elites, older men were expected to have younger male lovers. This was considered the highest form of love, even though it was not physically procreative.
While the Romans were less appreciative of same-sex relationships, they too were clear that, for men, sexual relations outside marriage were the norm. The mater familias was to be chaste and faithful, a loyal wife and loving mother. The pater familias, however, was not held to such a high standard. It was expected that he would engage in sexual relationships beyond his marriage bed, with both men and women. As Harper points out, those extramarital relationships were almost always with men and women who were slaves. These “partners” were mere objects for use, commanded to perform.
Into this established social order, Christianity came. It not only preached a resounding rejection of these sexual norms, it also championed human dignity in a new way. The Gospel proclaimed that every human being has inestimable worth and value, because every human being is created in the image of God. Human beings have an eternal destiny and therefore are not to be treated as objects.
Imagine what this meant to the slave woman or man who had been forced to submit his or her body to a master. To those who did not have a voice, who indeed did not have a personal “face,” Christianity said: that is most assuredly not who you are. Your body belongs to you, and it belongs to God. Whatever has been done to you and your body is covered by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote, in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. It may be difficult for us to fully appreciate how profoundly transformative this was in the ancient world.
It took two hundred years for this understanding of human dignity to permeate the culture, but by the sixth century the Christian idea of faithful marriage between a man and a woman became the social norm. Celibacy and virginity were valued as ways for men and women to leave the objectification and enslavement of their bodies behind and celebrate those bodies in fruitful work for the world. Thus were laid the foundations for the Christian conception of human dignity that was embraced by the West into the twentieth century.
The Christian Vision of Dignity in the Modern Era
In the modern era, this Western conception of dignity is exemplified by the Irish Constitution of 1937, in which dignity is clearly tethered to Christian roots. The Preamble begins, “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred” before making reference to “the dignity and freedom of the individual” that the constitution seeks to protect.
Similarly, the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, drafted in no small part under the influence of philosopher Jacques Maritain, opens with the words, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 1 asserts, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” We can see running through the Declaration the broad outlines of the older conception of human dignity: it is intrinsic to all human beings and inalienable; it is pre-political, or “already there,” so to speak, and can therefore only be recognized and acknowledged; it can neither be conferred nor taken away by the State.
That paradigm is now all but destroyed in the West. From the highest levels of the academy and the courts to popular culture and the mainstream media, dignity is no longer understood as an inherent inalienable quality with which we are “endowed by our Creator,” as in the Declaration of Independence. Instead, dignity is understood as our freedom to defy nature and create ourselves anew, free from discomfort and pain and unconstrained by the natural order.
Is Dignity “Stupid”?
In 2008, Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker made the argument that the concept of human dignity is nonsensical and, well, stupid. His article, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” appeared in the New Republic in response to the collection of essays, Human Dignity and Bioethics, compiled by the President’s Council on Bioethics, which was chaired by Leon Kass. Pinker claimed bluntly that “dignity” was nothing more than a Trojan horse for smuggling religious ideas into bioethics—a domain that should be closed to anything other than a wholly materialist science.
Still, Pinker’s argument didn’t carry the day. Instead of abandoning the concept of human dignity, the New Dignitarians did something much more clever and more powerful: they kept the word but completely transformed its meaning.
Since Jeremy Waldron delivered the 2009 UC Berkeley Tanner Lectures on Human Values, “Dignity, Rank, and Rights,” there has been a spate of new books on the meaning and importance of human dignity. Kateb’s Human Dignity came out in 2011 and Michael Rosen’s Dignity: Its History and Meaning in 2012, both published by Harvard University Press. In Britain, the collections Understanding Human Dignity and The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity came out in 2013 and 2014, to name but a few. So much for Pinker and the stupidity of dignity.
A Self-Destructive Will to Power
A close reading of these volumes and of recent court decisions, such as those written by Justice Kennedy in Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell, makes it clear that we have left any notion of human dignity based on the imago Dei far behind. “God,” according to Kateb, “is only another way of saying that we cannot dissolve certain perplexities.” For him and the other New Dignitarians, “We are left with no choice but to assume that human science is objective knowledge of nature”—which, it is implied, is the only knowledge we are capable of acquiring.
And so, this New Dignity is founded on nothing more than a self-creating will to power that is so thoroughgoing as to become, in the last analysis, self-destructive. Central to the New Dignity are the newly minted rights to refashion one’s body to suit one’s subjective preferences, to end the life of one’s offspring—not only those unborn, but infants as well, according to the Groningen protocol in the Netherlands—and, finally, to take one’s own life in the timing and manner of one’s own choosing.
For more on the latter two items, we can look to a recent Economist editorial advocating doctor-assisted suicide—not only for terminally ill patients, but for anyone suffering from a medical problem, mental illness, or existential despair. The article even endorses euthanasia for children. Brushing aside the grave concerns about assisted suicide voiced by the disability rights community, the article quotes the physicist Steven Hawking, who described keeping someone alive against his wishes as the “ultimate indignity.”
There’s that word again.
The Economist goes on to tether this new right of death on demand to other favorite rights asserted by the New Dignitarians: “Competent adults are allowed to make other momentous, irrevocable choices: to undergo a sex change or to have an abortion. People deserve the same control over their own death.” Since human dignity is now grounded in the power of the autonomous will to create oneself anew and to defy nature, the Christian concepts of creation and incarnation are but historical artifacts. The body is not integral to the self, but merely the raw material out of which we create something radically novel, even transcendent.
The Gnostic Elitism of the New Dignity
The New Dignity is a Gnostic project, and Gnosticism was always an elitist enterprise. As it was in the Greek and Roman worlds, so now there are signs that this New Dignitarian playground will be open and available only to serve the desires and the projects of cultural and political elites. For those on the margins, it portends new forms of enslavement.
The writings of the apostle Paul and the teachings of Jesus gave birth to a new culture built on human dignity. Today’s apostle of the New Dignity, Anthony Kennedy, has provided the movement with its own sacred text. An acquaintance recently attended a wedding (of a man and a woman, and not in a church) where the first “reading” at the ceremony was a passage from the majority opinion in Obergefell.
Hang on for the Ride
The same ingenious alchemy used on the word “dignity” is now at work on the US Constitution. Religious liberty and First Amendment rights will provide scant protection. Dissent, even if grounded in religious beliefs, is assumed to cause stigma, shame, and emotional injury—dignitarian harms that cannot be permitted.
I will leave it to the philosophers to trace the genealogy of the New Dignity—from Descartes with his anthropological dualism, to Kant with his self-legislating autonomous will, to Nietzsche’s will to power, to Sartre’s claim that existence precedes essence, to Derrida’s free play in the absence of stable natures, to contemporary thinkers like George Kateb, Jeremy Waldron, and Michael Rosen who attempt to locate a purely secular or materialist grounding for human dignity.
I will leave it to the constitutional lawyers to trace the genealogy of the New Dignity in the courts—from Griswold’s invention of a right to privacy, to Roe’s placement of abortion upon this privacy foundation, to Casey’s expansion of abortion by means of its seminal “sweet mystery of life” clause, to Romer and Lawrence, which explicitly introduced the New Dignity jurisprudence, to Windsor, which expanded this jurisprudence, and finally to Obergefell, which gave the New Dignity a definitive juridical form.
For now, at the very least, I can say the New Dignity may well be the harbinger of a social transformation the likes of which we have not seen in the West for 1400 years. The wave is cresting, and the tsunami will reach shore before we know it. As the bumper sticker says, “Your body may be a temple, mine is an amusement park.”
Hang on for the ride.
Roberta Green Ahmanson is a writer and speaker who lives with her husband in Orange County, California. A former newspaper religion reporter, her current work focuses on the intellectual roots of current trends as well as the relationships between art, religion, culture, and history.