One would be hard-pressed to find an intelligent or thoughtful person today who would disagree with the claim that the human person has an inherent dignity that no one can take away and that is not simply something attributed to the person by a dictate of the State or religion.
Indeed, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Canadian jurist and human rights advocate John Peters Humphrey, who spent 20 years promoting human rights legislation in the United Nations, authored the first draft of the Declaration.
Most reasonable people will agree that we humans do indeed have a certain inalienable dignity, which includes a right to life, to respect, to self-determination and so on. But what the Declaration does not give us anywhere in its preamble or 30 articles is a definition of either person or dignity; nor does it tell us on what basis we are able to establish a relationship between these two concepts. That relationship is taken as axiomatic or self-evident both in the Declaration and in political discourse today in general.
But clearly the definitions of person and dignity are not self-evident; one only need take into consideration the euphemism "death with dignity" to see that we are experiencing today a profound disagreement over both what it means to be a person and what constitutes a person's inalienable dignity. This disagreement is further revealed in debates about abortion, the nature of marriage, reproductive technologies and so on. As an abstraction or as an ideal, the notion of dignity is not controversial. What is controversial is what human dignity consists of, what it is in its essence, or how it is manifested in the lives of individuals and society at large.
A difficulty we encounter in combatting human trafficking and prostitution, for example, is the basis on which we are able to declare that human trafficking and prostitution are wrong. Most people of goodwill, of course, have no problem declaring that the trafficking of persons for sex or labour is something to be combatted with every means at our disposal. But what would we say in the event that a trafficked person consents to being trafficked?
How will the courts — which have shown time and time again a willingness, even eagerness, to acquiesce to the desires of individuals to construct their own identities — respond to the foreseeable case in which a woman or a man insists they want to be sold or enter into servitude or prostitution? How will the current debates in Europe about the age of consent (some prominent politicians are calling for ages of consent to be removed altogether) affect the classification of child abuse or pederasty? The legal pitfalls and obstacles to combatting trafficking are bound to multiply as various jurisdictions consider not only decriminalizing prostitution but — and there is a significant difference — legalizing it. Amnesty International, an organization that, despite its auspicious beginnings, has sadly lost its way on the meaning of human rights, has gone so far as to call prostitution a "human right."
One of the those influential in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. He was a strong advocate of human rights and international law, and saw a great opportunity in the 1948 Declaration to unite nations under a common understanding of justice. For Maritain, that common understanding necessitated an acceptance of, and attention to, the natural law.
While supporting the Declaration in principle, Maritain was deeply concerned that the "member states represent different and conflicting ideologies, philosophical and religious traditions, cultures, histories." Commenting on Maritain's unease about the Declaration, the late Ralph McInerny said, "Agreement by their representatives on such a Declaration… thus must seem either merely verbal or cynical or hopelessly confused."
What Maritain saw at the heart of these conflicting ideologies was confusion about, and outright abandonment of, the Natural Law upon which the Declaration had ostensibly been founded. He understood that there could be no agreement on rights and human freedom without an agreement first about the Natural Law upon which a stable account of these rights and freedoms must be firmly based. One cannot build consensus on the practicalities of human justice without having a reference point that grounds those practicalities.
"The true philosophy of the rights of the human person," Maritain wrote, "is based upon the true idea of natural law, as looked upon in an ontological perspective and as conveying through the essential structures and requirements of created being the wisdom of the Author of Being."
The only way the Declaration and collective efforts like it to protect human rights would ever work, Maritain insisted, is by building a consensus among peoples about the essential role of Natural Law at the heart of our common quest for justice.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that the widespread rejection of the Natural Law today is accompanied by a proportionate inability to arrive at any consensus about what constitutes human rights and freedoms.
Even in 1948, numerous nations abstained from ratifying or subscribing to the Declaration due to objections over articles dealing with the freedom to travel (Article 13), marriage rights (Article 16), and religious liberty and freedom of conscience (Article 18). And among the 48 signatory nations to the Declaration and its resolve to defend the "dignity and worth" of every person are Belgium and the Netherlands, two countries that have legalized euthanasia — and now in the case of Belgium, also child euthanasia.
Of considerable note, the Declaration relies — at least implicitly — on Judeo-Christian notions of person and dignity. One cannot find, for example, matching thought in the philosophies and jurisprudence of Greece or Rome on the protection of property rights, freedom of expression and conscience, or the protection of children and women from exploitation.
Christianity, in particular, has given us over the millennia a refined and coherent concept of both person and dignity, which the articles of the Declaration tacitly cling to. But this underlying fabric of the Declaration is undermined by a competing philosophy rooted in individualism and inherited from the Enlightenment.
What is the essence of this individualism that takes leave of the notion of person handed down to us by Christianity through the ages? In a nutshell, it is a divergence over the meaning of the word freedom that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human. Freedom, properly understood, is also the basis for human dignity: we respect the dignity of others when we have an understanding of what authentic human freedom consists of. When we violate the authentic freedom of others, we violate their dignity at the same time.
From Genesis through the history of the Church, the proper exercise of freedom has always been understood as an orientation of reason to something that transcends the desires, whims and wants of the individual. Indeed, the self-referential use of free will has been properly understood to be the source of sin and evil. Medieval thinkers had a term for this self-referential use of freedom: incurvatus in se (turned inward on oneself). The term was first coined by Saint Augustine, who employed it to describe the effects of sin.
For Augustine, all sin damages our relationships with God and others; the homo incurvatus in se becomes transfixed on an arbitrary and willful exercise of freedom detached from an understanding that the human person is, by Divine decree, oriented in nature to relationships with others and governed by natural law in conjunction with the Divine law. With the Enlightenment came a radical shift in the understanding of freedom, which in turn gave birth to a new definition of person and dignity.
There was, in general, a collective affirmation in the Enlightenment in favour of human dignity and the rights of the individual. But what we find in Enlightenment Europe is a notion of person and dignity that has become detached from the Christian concept of authentic freedom that preceded it; the result is that the Enlightenment concepts of person and human dignity are ultimately incoherent and were unable to withstand the attacks and distortions of later modernity.
The Judeo-Christian concept of human dignity is rooted in the awareness that freedom is derived from the reality that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. Without this imago Dei — which the Enlightenment thinkers ultimately rejected (sometimes unwittingly) — one must seek a foundation for human freedom and dignity either in social contracts or in reason: in other words, in "natural states" that could substitute for the Divine origins whence an authentically inalienable freedom and dignity flows.
Two of the Enlightenment's most notable thinkers on human freedom — Rousseau and Voltaire — could not agree on what constituted human freedom or the metaphysical foundation on which to build a coherent concept of person once the awareness of the imago Dei had been rejected.
"Man is born free," Rousseau famously and forcefully declared in the Social Contract, "and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are."
He sent a copy of his book to Voltaire (surprising, given the disdain Voltaire apparently held for him), who wrote in response, "I have received your new book against the human race and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages of Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves."
One will not find in either Rousseau or Voltaire, regardless of their opposition to one another's views on human nature, a philosophical foundation on which to build a rigorous or lasting concept of either personal freedom or dignity. For both Rousseau and Voltaire, the dignity of the human person is derived from what was commonly called in the Enlightenment "the natural state."
Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes (who both denied final and exemplary causes) and John Locke and Gottfried Leibniz (who located the meaning of person in psychological continuity), the "natural state" of the human person was taken to mean that the person has no reference point for moral action that lies outside the natural and voluntaristic exercise of reason. There was little room in this account of "natural states" to accommodate the Judeo-Christian understanding of the person as first revealed in the Book of Genesis. The consequence of this failure is significant, because it resulted in a redefinition of the very notion of person.
Building on the work of their predecessors, Rousseau and Voltaire were unable to define the "natural state" and both simply assume it as a metaphysical starting point for their anthropological views. For Rousseau, the "natural state" was moderated by social agreement: in other words, in legal structures according to which persons could determine their own destinies while at the same time allowing as much latitude as possible for the volitional destinies of others. The natural state is thus realized and, as far as possible, perfected in law, which provides checks and balances to accommodate individual freedom. The human person is therefore never truly autonomous — only in a qualified sense inasmuch as the freedom of one person is balanced against the freedom of his or her neighbour.
Voltaire, on the other hand, understood the "natural state" as being fully realized according to the exercise of reason. Voltaire's scientific racism is wellknown and is rooted in his belief that some peoples, such as white Europeans, are superior to other peoples, such as black Africans. The Africans, he surmised, allowed themselves to be taken slaves and therefore had an inferior use of reason. The Canadian "savages" lacked culture, art and technology.
Voltaire saw this apportioning of reason among races as a necessary consequence of the polygenism to which he subscribed: each race has its own "Adam and Eve," and so each race has varying degrees of participation in reason. The white European intellectual elite, like Voltaire, was at the top of the heap. The superior cadre was also both deist and anti-religious, for true liberty could not be achieved through subservience to religious dogma. It was the perfection of reason, aided by advances in natural sciences, that was the hallmark of dignity and the pinnacle of human freedom.
Broadly speaking, Rousseau and Voltaire represent two strands of thought in the emergence of individualism in the Enlightenment that persevere today and that suffuse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These strands — those of "natural states" comprised of common law and self-referential reason — have formed the philosophical foundation for the notion of freedom and personal dignity in contemporary discourse.
One finds this appeal to these two strands in the very beginning of the 1948 Declaration cited in the beginning of this essay: human beings are "endowed with reason and conscience" and "should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood." It is not that these two strands are false; indeed, they are positive goods (governments should support laws that defend human rights and dignity). But they are not capable on their own, and detached from the reality of human origin and destiny, of providing a coherent foundation for the notion of person and human dignity.
Nor were these two strands innovations of the Enlightenment. They had already been considered by the Scholastics, most notably Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Saint Thomas, the meaning of person is bound up in the notion of relationship. The person is, essentially, constituted in self-communication. In other words, the human person originates in, and is oriented toward, friendship and communion.