Human Dignity and Its Obligations
The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God. —Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks1 The economist John […]
The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God.—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks1
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”2 Whether lionizing Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” or amplifying Ayn Rand’s “virtue” of selfishness,3 many on the right have done their level best to prove Galbraith correct.
But is conservatism, properly understood, about justifying selfishness? Is it about valorizing and reinforcing existing hierarchies to keep those at the top at the top and those at the bottom at the bottom? Is it about a “deserving” rich and an “undeserving” poor?
No. No. No.
Fundamentally, conservatism is rooted in a deep belief in the inherent dignity of every person. In the 1964 volume What Is Conservatism?, edited by Frank Meyer for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (a volume conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg calls “The Federalist Papers of American conservatism,” in his foreword to the book), authors including Russell Kirk, M. Stanton Evans, and William F. Buckley Jr. anchor their arguments about what conservatism is and what conservatives should do in the bedrock of human dignity.4 Human dignity, they argue, is the bedrock of individual liberty. But it isn’t just that. It also undergirds the mutual obligations that we have to each other.
In Meyer’s chapter, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” he writes, “Political freedom, failing a broad acceptance of the personal obligation to duty and to charity, is never viable.”5 But even before What Is Conservatism?, Russell Kirk wrote in the 1950s, “I hope that beyond our dreams of avarice there may lie not merely an Age of Gluttony, but a time of repentance and reform, devoted to restoring the dignity of man.”6 Human dignity, not greed and selfishness, should be the basis of conservatism. Conceptions of liberty or freedom that forget about human dignity should be seen as the road to ruin that they are.
What is human dignity? Why is it important? How might a time of repentance, reform, and restoration look? That is what I attempt to tackle here.
The concept of human dignity was present at our nation’s founding. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins with a statement about human dignity: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”7 But this is not limited to America; the Universal Declaration on Human Rights opens by stating, “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.”8
This is not to say that human dignity was first understood at the time of America’s founding or at the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. For people of faith in particular, human dignity has always been present. In the first book of Genesis, during the story of creation, God creates mankind in His image. This concept, the imago Dei, undergirds the understanding of human dignity in many of the world’s great religions. If human beings are made in God’s image, that imbues them with a special nature that must be protected.
But as central as the concept of human dignity is to our understanding of rights and obligations, discussions about human dignity can become abstract and esoteric. What is the root of the noun “dignity”? How does the adjective “human” modify it? This is the point where normal people will stop reading. And, compounding that, not everyone is religious, so appeals to God’s creation can ring hollow.
Let’s put it plainly. To do so, we’ll borrow from Harvard professor and former President of the American Enterprise Institute Arthur C. Brooks, who talked about human dignity in terms of seeing people as ends, not means, and as assets, not liabilities.
When you view people as means, you put what you want first and then situate everyone else as either helping you or harming you in getting what you want. Seeing people as ends puts them on equal footing with you and recognizes that they have wants and needs that may be the same as yours—or that might be different.
Viewing people as liabilities focuses on what they can’t do. It sees others as having defects and problems and then tries to find ways to manage them. Viewing people as assets recognizes that every person has something to contribute to the world. They have gifts. They have talents. They have capacities. It focuses on what they can do.
When we view others as ends and full of assets, we see a world of possibility. Our obligation is to help our fellow citizens develop their talents, find their passions, and flourish as human beings. As Brooks’s research has found, the happiest people are those who have meaningful attachments to faith, family, community, and work. Recognizing the dignity of every person—especially the vulnerable—impels us to help our fellow humans connect with the institutions that give their lives purpose and meaning.
Growing up in St. Elizabeth Parish at 75th and Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri, I was taught an important lesson in human dignity. It was taught to me by a man named John Bryde. All through my youth, I would see John at mass, helping out, serving at the altar, or rocking gently in the pews. From a young age, I knew he was different; it would only be later that I would put a name to his condition: autism.
I grew up, moved away, and forgot about John until my mother forwarded me a local news story. Unbeknownst to me, John worked at the post office a few blocks away from St. Elizabeth. The news came to profile him because he was retiring after 30 years of work. A lovely story: a man with autism retiring after 30 years of gainful employment.
But that isn’t the remarkable part of the story. In those 30 years, he never missed a day. Not one. He never called in sick. He was only late once, when it took him an extra five minutes to ride his bike through 10 inches of snow. In fact, as the news cameras were trying to interview him, John just kept working away, scanning and sorting the mail.
As it turns out, John had a preternatural ability to memorize numbers. He could, according to his supervisor, tell you any address’s ZIP code, from memory, and the name of the mail carrier who was supposed to deliver mail to it. When his supervisor was asked if John would be missed, the reporter got only one word in response: “sorely.”
John was an asset to St. Elizabeth, an asset to the United States Postal Service, and an asset to anyone in the neighborhood who wanted to get their mail on time. If people only saw his autism, they would have missed the incredible contributions he could make to his community.
Imagine how frequently we make that mistake, unable to see past others’ foibles or disabilities. Imagine what we’re missing out on.
Why is it important to put human dignity at the center of conservatism? Because everything else is based on it.
Take the free market. As is argued elsewhere in this volume, the free market has done more to lift people out of poverty and create opportunities for employment that are safe and meaningful than any other force in human history has.
But if we see the market simply as a tool to get what we want—and not as the common space where we all interact and try to solve each other’s problems for mutual benefit—markets can become exploitative. If we are blinded by greed, which is another way of saying that we’re seeing other people as means to achieve our ends, we can hurt people. We can destroy their lives. We can steal from them. We can defraud them.
Or take democracy (or in America’s case, constitutional republicanism). While not perfect, it appears to be the best way humans have divined to govern ourselves. But for democracy to work, all participants in it must have equal rights and dignity, or it will just become a high-minded edifice hiding rot and decay.
A shared conception of human dignity and a shared opportunity for all citizens to participate fully in our democracy, economy, and community are necessary for society to flourish. Stephen Tonsor wrote about this in his chapter “The Conservative Search for Identity” in What Is Conservatism?, drawing on the writing of Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville to make his point. He quotes Acton, who said, “There is no liberty where there is hunger. . . . The theory of liberty demands strong efforts to help the poor. Not merely for safety, for humanity, for religion, but for liberty,” and Tocqueville, who said, “If, then, a state of society can ever be founded in which every man shall have something to keep and little to take from others, much will have been done for peace of the world.”9
Tonsor drew these strings together and tied them up in a bow: “The theory of democracy requires an ever-increasing degree of equality, and unless this can be achieved though the instrumentality of a market economy and an advanced technology, it will be achieved by the hand of the demagogue or tyrant.”10
To put it more directly, everyone needs a stake in our society. Having a job, owning a home, or putting some money away in a 401(k) gives people a stake in our economy. These people are participants, not observers. They have agency to direct their own lives. They can help shape the world that they live in, not be buffeted by it powerlessly. Voting and having the means to interact with elected officials at the local, state, and national levels gives people a stake in our democracy. When they look at their city council, mayor, state legislator, governor, congressperson, or president, they can say, “I helped put them there; they represent me.” And participation in the institutions of civil society, whether that is a church, a slow-pitch softball league, a food bank, a Kiwanis club, or anything else that binds people together to accomplish a shared goal, gives people a stake in our community. Rather than alienated, atomized, and isolated, people’s lives are enriched and enlivened by their daily experiences.
Much of American history bears this out. While we had a form of representative democracy at our founding, not all our fellow citizens were deemed equal. This allowed for the legalization of slavery and, after its abolition, the legalization of Jim Crow, which subjugated black Americans and was an affront to their human dignity. It was only after the Civil Rights Movement, explicitly based in an argument about human dignity (recall the placards that protestors wore stating simply, “I AM A MAN”), that our fellow citizens received the full right to participate in our system of government.
When we view our political system as just a tool to get what we want, politics becomes a zero-sum game in which we see our fellow citizens as means to whatever end we are pursuing. Rather than seeing them as individuals, we see them as Democrats or Republicans or as coming from red states or blue states. We make sweeping generalizations and assume the worst. Our politics becomes nastier and more polarized.
As Frank Meyer also wrote:
Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.11
Our nation has been at its best when it took seriously its citizens’ human dignity. It has been at its worst when it has ignored it. To move forward from the polarized times that we live in, recognizing the fundamental dignity of those who are not from where we are from, do not look like us, do not worship like us, and do not vote like us will be of utmost importance.
Putting Dignity at the Center
To return to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s wisdom, what does it mean to foster a society that maximizes human dignity? How can we best care for the vulnerable in our midst?
These are some big questions. There are numerous substantial books, lengthy journal articles, papal encyclicals, and the like wrestling with them. I cannot fully do them justice here, but I would like to offer three short ideas on how to get started.
Healthy Institutions Strengthen Human Dignity. We are not born with an innate appreciation of human dignity. We are taught it by the institutions in our lives. Families instill values in us. Schools teach us codes of behavior. Churches orient our behavior toward eternal goals. Institutions connect us to networks of mutual support and form us into people who can act on our fundamental beliefs.
As Yuval Levin argues in his 2020 book A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, institutions are in crisis. Some of this crisis is of their own making. Whether it is government, academia, the media, or organized religion, scandals and poor behavior have eroded people’s trust of and investment in the institutions that shape us. But some of this crisis is driven by cultural changes that place people at the center of their own stories and criticize anyone trying to tell them how to live.
Levin argues we need to recommit to institutions that help form us and connect us to each other. As he writes,
What is required of each of us is devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration, and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit. That kind of devotion calls for sacrifice and commitment. It calls on each of us to pledge ourselves to an institution we belong to unabashedly. To abandon ironic distance and dispassionate analysis and jump in. Even to submit to its demands on us.12
Find an institution and commit to it. Allow it to shape and mold you into a better person. Work together with others to accomplish shared goals. In doing so, you are more likely to acknowledge others’ dignity, see the assets they bring to the table, and see them not merely as means to get what you want but as ends in and of themselves.
We Can’t Rely on Government Programs Alone. Those who identify on the left side of the political spectrum might have read up to this point and said, “I agree with all of this, so what makes protecting human dignity conservative?” The answer: nothing. Liberals and progressives believe in human dignity, too, and seek to protect it. Conservatives don’t have an exclusive claim on human dignity.
Where conservatives do differ, though, is in the location of that protection. While many on the left default to government to safeguard human dignity, conservatives are more likely to look at organizations and institutions that exist outside of government.
In 2019, Timothy P. Carney wrote an outstanding book titled Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. In it, he tracks the hollowing out of much of American life and the decay of the organizations and institutions that help bind us to one another. Part of his argument is that government programs have usurped the role of voluntary organizations, providing some of the benefits but removing the community.13
Think about the difference between a food bank run by a local church and the food stamp program. People in the community volunteer at the food bank and donate the food themselves, binding them to those in need. Insofar as the food bank serves a local community, it comes to know and care about the people who patronize it—not simply as recipients of a handout but as human beings in need of care and support. An Electronic Benefit Transfer card can feed people’s stomachs, but it cannot feed their need for other people.
But people are hungry. That is a failure of civil society, and those who recognize government’s limitations and the way it runs roughshod over more organic and authentic human connections have a responsibility to step in before government does. If they do not, they shouldn’t be surprised when government gets involved. That would require a serious attitude adjustment for many people. Father Greg Boyle, a member of the Society of Jesus and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a massive gang-rehabilitation program in Los Angeles, described what that would look like in a 2014 commencement address at Whittier College:
Imagine a circle of compassion and then imagine nobody is standing outside that circle. And to that end, you want to obliterate the margins that keep us from each other. You want to stand at those margins, and then look under your feet and discover that the margins are getting erased, because you chose to stand there with the poor, the powerless and the voiceless, with those whose burdens are more than they could bear, with those whose dignity has been denied, with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop, and with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.14
It is only after we change our attitudes toward the poor and marginalized, recognize their dignity and potential, and commit to doing something about their plight that we can have the kind of society in which all members can flourish.
Dignity and Responsibility Walk Hand in Hand. Treating people with dignity involves recognizing that they have inalienable rights and a fundamental worth that can never be taken from them. But with those rights and with that worth come responsibilities. Recognizing that people have dignity does not give them carte blanche to act however they want. Having empathy for the plight of others does not mean excusing every time they act inappropriately.
In fact, having expectations for others means you are valorizing their dignity, not questioning it. While we should be understanding and forgiving, especially of those who come from underprivileged and challenging backgrounds, simply offering excuses for violent or irresponsible behavior is a way of relegating others to a kind of second-class citizenship. Having different standards of behavior for different groups breeds dehumanization, not humanization. We should avoid it.
A Closing Thought
Truly recognizing others’ inherent dignity is scary. It is much easier to throw people away who are inconvenient to you. It is easier to ask the government to create a program to help them, paid by some tiny fraction of your taxes and a tiny fraction of everyone else’s taxes. Really being with them and sharing in their burdens is hard. I certainly have fallen short of this, repeatedly. But it is important to establish ideals to aspire to. It helps us understand what actions and programs will actually help those in need and which will just make us feel better while leaving their lot unchanged.
- Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 195.
- John Kenneth Galbraith, “Wealth and Poverty” (speech, National Policy Committee on Pockets of Poverty, December 13, 1963).
- Oliver Stone, Wall Street, 1987; and Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964).
- Frank S. Meyer, ed., What Is Conservatism? (Media, PA: Open Road Media, 2015).
- Frank S. Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” in What Is Conservatism?, ed. Frank S. Meyer (Media, PA: Open Road Media, 2015).
- Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: Essays of a Social Critic (Chicago: Open Court, 2000).
- Declaration of Independence (US 1776).
- United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
- Stephen J. Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in What Is Conservatism?, ed. Frank S. Meyer (Media, PA: Open Road Media, 2015).
- Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity.”
- Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism.”
- Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 202.
- Timothy P. Carney, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (New York: Harper, 2019).
- Greg Boyle, “Address to New Student Convocation at Whittier College” (address, Whittier College, Whittier, CA, October 6, 2015).