The awe-full truth of human dignity

A MercatorNet contributor reflects on its unique “dignitarian” philosophy.
Zac Alstin | Nov 13 2014 | comment  



I’ve been writing for MercatorNet for four years, this being my 55th article published on this site

In that time I’ve had the opportunity to write on a range of topics, and better still, to launch into the fray that often follows in the colourful, sometimes bitter, always interesting comments threads.  I love that MercatorNet affords me the opportunity to write without consideration for partisan or ideological interests. While MercatorNet tends to draw more on conservative than progressive themes, it nonetheless stands independent of either side, a feat I attribute to the editors’ commitment to the principle of human dignity – an ideal that goes far beyond political persuasion. Human dignity is not simply the starting point or the desired goal, but the lens through which all other ideas may be tested and examined.    

Yet it is possible to talk about human dignity without being truly ‘dignitarian’.

We can pay lip-service to an ideal without internalising it, without following the principle through to its logical conclusion. And those who invoke dignity without really understanding it are quick to follow ideological patterns of thought, and accuse others of the same fault. We can wrongly invoke dignity as some unqualified good, adding weight to any argument; but to truly do justice to the dignitarian position we need to understand what dignity is at its deepest levels.

Dignity means ‘worth’, but is closer in a contemporary context to ‘worthiness’.  What makes a human being worthy? What is a human being worthy of?

Worth is implicitly a question of value, and though we nowadays are taught to think of ‘value’ as a relative economic construct contingent on such parameters as supply, demand, and competition, we should not forget the more archaic notion that an object might have a value that is intrinsic and therefore beyond the estimations of the marketplace. Such value is objective and fixed rather than subjective and relative.

We recognise this value in the ‘priceless’ status of unique and irreplaceable treasures of art and culture; and perhaps by extension we could apply the same status to each unique and irreplaceable individual human being? Each human being is unique, therefore irreplaceable, therefore priceless.

But such an understanding of human dignity or worthiness is still deficient. Are we really saying that humans are worth so much because they are all different? Would human dignity be lessened if we were individually less unique?  Would it likewise be increased for those who stand out from the crowd, more unique than the rest? 

The dignity we all have in common cannot subsist in that which none of us has in common; my unique qualities may be vain or glorious but the mere fact of being different is not enough to substantiate my share in ubiquitous human value. Indeed, our unique qualities are typically only minor variations in the common backdrop of our human nature, and we measure such differences against the far greater part of us which is the same, human to human.

The true source of our value, our worthiness, is the common fact that distinguishes us even from ‘priceless’ objects – that is, the fact that we are not objects at all, but subjects. Human beings are fundamentally rational subjects, and it is this that separates us from other things and gives us our underlying value. Within each human being is the capacity to recreate the world, the ability to make reality fully intelligible within our own minds.  This capacity to know and to understand is what sets human beings apart, and is the foundation of our own inner lives through which we recognise the value of other things, including other humans. Dignity therefore subsists in the recognition that humans are the kinds of beings that embody this profound capacity lauded by the wise since ancient times.

While not all human beings are able to reach their full potential in the unfolding of their natural intelligence, we can nevertheless recognise in all members of our species this great potential, and hence the immense intrinsic value of the rational subject reflected in our own awe-some experience.

This is the essence of a dignitarian perspective: to see in other humans the potential, the traces, and the full manifestation of one’s own core intelligence, one’s noetic capacity in its pristine spirit-like purity. 

To truly hold such a perspective is to stand in awe of the new universe that exists within each person’s mind; to know that I exist as an ‘other’ in your world, just as you exist as an ‘other’ in mine.  It is to recognise that all our differences are overshadowed, obliviated in the light of this overwhelming fact, this awe-full truth.

To meditate on this truth is to come to a full appreciation of human dignity. Such an appreciation of human worth cannot tolerate ideological or political schemes that are grounded in more superficial categories or which lack the signs of an encounter with this otherworldly insight. 

And yet there is always a temptation or a tendency to decline from a position of awe to a more pragmatic, perfunctory option; to downgrade near-mystical reverence to mere mandatory respect. A respect that is too easily let slip, overcome by considerations and concerns, by seemingly pressing and impressive problems, impending catastrophes, plots and conspiracies, or by our own strategies and ambitions, both selfish and utopian. These inferior attitudes diminish human dignity – treating others as mere secondary characters in our own self-obsessed play.

Unless we let a full appreciation of human worth shape us, we will find that the contours of our own inner world are overrun by lesser considerations. Considerations of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, class and creed may or may not have legitimacy; we cannot know – cannot put such considerations in their rightful place unless we begin with the central tenet of our intrinsic, infinite human worth. 

Yet a true appreciation of dignity can amend not only the abstract but the personal: spend some time sincerely meditating on, imagining how your whole world, the world where you are the centre of the universe, is reduced to a bit part in the mind of every person you meet from your own family and friends to complete strangers reading your online comments. Try imagining how you look from their perspective, how big or how small a presence you are in their reality, and the result is almost guaranteed to be utterly humbling. Contemplating one’s smallness cannot help but undermine the lusts, greed, vanity and other afflictions that grow like weeds to fill the emptiness of our solipsistic delusions.

Too often people go into battle armed with a misconception of what is truly important, and would have us substitute the idols of ‘racial’, sectarian, or political affiliation, in place of the far more awesome reality of human dignity. Those whose view of humanity is shaped by such impoverished and superficial labels, generalisations, and tribal reckonings exhibit an impaired and impoverished respect for human dignity.  At the same time our collective vices, passions and attachments bind us to a view of reality oriented towards the fulfilment of our own arbitrary desires, in a world made pallid and diminished in the absence of awe.

This is not an idea to be grasped but a vision to be cultivated, by contemplating the worlds in which I am merely my wife’s husband, merely an intractable obstacle to my 18-month-old son.  This is the answer to the question of human dignity, the source of our infinite, intrinsic human worth, and the secret to a life that is more than ‘solus ipse’ – more than self alone. 

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com.



This article is published by Zac Alstin and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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