2.2.4 Human dignity

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Unit 2 Contents

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If God has made men and women in his image, giving them dominion on his behalf, we may say that they matter very greatly to God. This is expressed in the principle of ‘human dignity’ – which means that each and every human being, whoever they are and in whatever circumstances, has an immeasurable worth, which we must respect in one another.

Read what the Compendium says about human dignity.

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Reading (6pp)

Compendium, ##127-134 and 144-148 (Chap. 3, sec. III A, C and D)

Skip over ##135-143.  (These are set as reading in Unit 7.)

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By the particular way the Compendium expounds human dignity it is seeking to oppose various ‘reductionist’ understandings of humanity.  The word ‘reductionist’ refers to any view that over-simplifies what it’s talking about and therefore reduces it to something less than it really is.  For example, it would be reductionist to say that the explanation for people being seriously over-weight is that they don’t do enough exercise.  In fact this is only one factor, and both how much and what people eat, among other things, are significant also.  Therefore that view is reductionist because it says that the phenomenon in question is explicable in terms of just one factor, when really several are salient.

By insisting that the human person is both bodily and spiritual, and is “open to transcendence”, CST is marking itself out against views that, for example, see humans as no different in kind from other animals or as purely economic beings.  Against such views,

[t]he Church’s social doctrine strives to indicate the different dimensions of the mystery of man, who must be approached in the full truth of his existence…” (#126, quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptor Hominis, #14)

Go back to that reading from the Compendium and scroll back to the immediately preceding passage, ##124-126 (from which this quotation is taken).  This makes very clear that among the reductionist views of humanity that CST opposes are both the following:

  • radical individualism – this label refers to views in which individuals are each seen as able to be fully human regardless of how other people are doing
  • radical collectivism – according to which we are each no more than “a molecule within the social organism” (#125).

Refusal of reductionist views of the human person, and what they lead to in society in practice, is a major theme of CST.

The principle of human dignity is related to ‘the priority of labour over capital’ (2.2.2) in a straightforward way.  It is because of human dignity that no human person must ever be subjected to capital, to material wealth – because however valuable this might be, it is ultimately only things.  Human dignity means the value of a human being is greater than any amount of capital.

In a moment we shall look at the way CST sees the principle of human dignity as generating a clear and robust understanding of duties and rights. But first it is important to note a point about human responsibility for the rest of nature.  Even though the affirmation that men and women are made in God’s image together with the corresponding principle of human dignity mark out human beings as uniquely special among all God’s creatures, it does not follow that we should regard ourselves as the only kind of creature God is concerned about, or as having liberty to do whatever we like with other creatures.

On the contrary, the very fact that God has given us the huge responsibility of being “in his image” means we must act towards the rest of nature on his behalf – in the way God the creator would act.  The text of Genesis 1 itself could not convey more emphatically that all the different kinds of creature are good – and the whole they make together is, as quoted above, “very good”!  On the basis of this one biblical text alone, therefore, it is plain that God’s granting of dominion to humans is not a licence to ruin or destroy – this could only be rebellion against God.  Rather, the role of human dominion entails overseeing or stewarding of what is “very good”.  Here is one strong basis for Christians exercising ecological responsibility.

This can be studied further in Unit 3 of this module.

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End of 2.2.4

Go to 2.2.5 Duties and rights

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