Human dignity is almost universally affirmed as a foundational moral and political principle by persons and groups with vastly divergent perspectives. With the American political philosopher John Rawls, we can say that there seems to be an overlapping consensus regarding the reality and importance of human dignity. Biden’s political approach has been described as upholding human dignity. Trump spoke of “building a culture” that will “cherish the dignity and sanctity of human life.” However, when we ask for the justification of this principle, or, more urgently, what it demands and entails, we encounter very different, often incompatible stances.
“It is the contention of the American Solidarity Party that affirming human dignity demands both protecting the lives of all human persons and promoting the conditions fitting for human flourishing.”
It is the contention of the American Solidarity Party that affirming human dignity demands both protecting the lives of all human persons and promoting the conditions fitting for human flourishing. The two dominant parties in the US fail in both of these ways, by failing to include all human persons in their affirmation of human dignity and failing to promote the conditions fitting for human flourishing. As a society, we need to become more familiar with seeing the inseparability of these two themes.
Affirming Human Dignity
Whether believing that humans are made in the image of God, or that humans are uniquely endowed with reason and freedom, there are a variety of ways humans can compellingly justify the reality and importance of human dignity. No US politician nowadays, when pressed, would openly deny the reality of human dignity as a principle for politics. The situation changes when we consider the unprepared remarks and convoluted policy proposals of the two parties. More disturbingly, both parties freely engage in open dehumanization of categories of persons so as to negate moral responsibility.
Democrats increasingly and aggressively insist that children in the womb are not really persons possessing rights, despite the promotion of policies intended to support pregnant women and their children. We see this clearly in the recent decision by Biden’s administration to allow for the fetal tissue of electively aborted children to be used for scientific research. Republicans openly characterize desperate refugees as scheming criminals in order to justify denials of asylum. One of the longest serving and most powerful figures in the Trump Administration, Stephen Miller, has been single-mindedly obsessed with dehumanizing immigrants.
“While there are legitimate political questions about how precisely to deal with different categories of humans, we first must acknowledge and affirm the dignity of every person.”
The first demand of affirming human dignity consists in accepting that it belongs to all human persons, all members of the human species. The child in the womb and the desperate mother at the border are human persons possessing human dignity. While there are legitimate political questions about how precisely to deal with different categories of humans, we first must acknowledge and affirm the dignity of every person.
This demands, as Charlie Camosy has forcefully argued, that we eliminate dehumanizing speech from our discourse. Enwombed children are not ‘fetuses’ and mothers at the border are not ‘criminals.’ They are human beings worthy of respect, sympathy and support insofar as we are able to provide it. At the very least, a politics that affirms human dignity must avoid engaging in violence against human life, whether through words or through actions (abortion and inhuman border conditions).
While refraining from violence against humans is foundational, the affirmation of human dignity demands much more. This becomes evident to us when we begin asking what a human being is. At this point, I am going to philosophize briefly in order to frame and to clarify this issue.
Promoting Human Flourishing
We are enabled to see what something truly is when we see the thing in question in its fully realized state. For instance, you may encounter a strange object (a tire gauge) and be unaware of what it is until informed about what it is for and see it in action (checking tire pressure). In relation to living organisms, this point becomes more interesting. We do not fully know living organisms until we see them reach full maturity.
As a simple example, we see acorns dispersed throughout the grass and may wonder what they are. We learn or are told that acorns are seeds of oak trees and that an acorn is fully realized as what it is once it has become a mature oak tree. In a very real sense, we do not fully know a living organism until we see it in its fully realized state of maturity. With non-human organisms, instinct and preserved ecosystems ensure that some or most members of a given species will reach maturity (most acorns do not become oak trees, but most baby elephants become mature elephants). Biology concerns, among other things, identifying the developmental patterns and mature end-goals of living organisms.
Human beings are unique organisms among those we know on this earth. We are the only living beings who are freely responsible for helping to bring to realization our own lives and the lives of others. This is most clearly evident in the long-term education and formation of children and continues into adulthood as most humans must take some responsibility for their own development, as I frequently remind my freshmen college students. While the path towards human maturation can go awry if a particular human does not take adequate responsibility for his or her life, we must appreciate that the very possibility of humans becoming self-responsible in a mature way presupposes sustained and multifaceted support from family, communities, social institutions, and environmental conditions more broadly.
“If we are serious in our affirmation of human dignity, in our belief that humans are worthy of profound respect in virtue of being human, then we ought to take seriously the inescapable structure belonging to human development.”
If we are serious in our affirmation of human dignity, in our belief that humans are worthy of profound respect in virtue of being human, then we ought to take seriously the inescapable structure belonging to human development. Human dignity is present at the outset of a human being’s life, conception, but human beings only become fully actualized decades afterwards.
To neglect the importance of supporting the developmental structure of humans while claiming to affirm human dignity would be comparable to affirming the dignity of oak trees while being indifferent to whether acorns had access to sunlight, soil, and water. Such ‘affirmation of dignity’ remains abstract, detached from reality, and ultimately empty. Affirming human dignity demands that we ought intentionally to structure our society so as to promote the possibility of flourishing, mature, realized human beings.
But what does a mature human being look like? And how can we promote the conditions and structures suitable for mature human development? Are not answers to these questions necessary if we are to promote successfully human flourishing?
“A central element of achieving human fulfillment involves ensuring that human families and communities are strong.”
This is a complex and multifaceted issue. In subsequent articles, I will paint a fuller picture of what this entails. For now, I will propose that a central element of achieving human fulfillment involves ensuring that human families and communities are strong.
Since it is the case that humans require substantial formation prior to arriving at the threshold of self-responsible adulthood, it is exceedingly important to ensure that the persons and structures providing that formation be healthy and stable. This may seem like a fairly straightforward and non-controversial claim. However, it can be surprising to consider all the ways our society neglects and even antagonizes communal structures.
Rather than focus on ensuring families have the support necessary to raise children, the Democratic Party seems more concerned with ensuring unrestricted access to taxpayer funded abortion. Despite assuring the nation that he would promote unity, Biden insisted upon appointing a man who aggressively sought to force nuns to cooperate in the procurement of abortions to lead the HHS Xavier Becerra.
While the Republican Party claims to support family values, its economic policies of favoring the wealthy and neglecting the working class undermines the ability to of families to thrive. Near the end of his term, Trump appointed to head the Department of Labor Eugene Scalia, a lawyer who had dedicated his professional life to undermining worker protections.
At the core of the American Solidarity Party’s vision is the understanding that human beings require strong families and communities to flourish and that it is one of the central goals of politics to protect and to strengthen these basic units of society.
We are all familiar with affirming the reality and importance of human dignity, but there is much confusion surrounding the simple truth that human beings require ample social support in order to arrive at mature states of self-realization and flourishing. If we are to take seriously our commitment to affirming human dignity, then we must actively, from local to federal levels, promote the conditions suitable for human flourishing.
Sean McCarthy is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He joined the American Solidarity Party in 2016.