Is the Concept of Human Dignity Philosophically Verifiable?

Is the Concept of Human Dignity Philosophically Verifiable?

What is human dignity, and how can we understand the concept so as to promote respect for it in our day? In what follows, I demonstrate that arguments in favor of human dignity that rely on theological justifications or on metaphysical conceptions of humanity will fail to gain a hearing in the public square. We must seek a different way. I suggest that one viable path is to be found in Bernard Lonergan’s philosophy, which invites persons to encounter themselves as persons by discovering their interiority: those conscious operations that constitute their daily living. But before guiding readers through an exercise that I hope will facilitate this encounter with oneself, and before showing how that exercise helps us philosophically understand and critically ground the concept of human dignity, it will be useful to say a few words about human dignity in Catholic teaching.

We can get to the core of recent Catholic theological and philosophical foundations of human dignity if we turn to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Compendium defines dignity in terms of the Creator with whom the human person exists in a unique relationship. “Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men” (§144). Dignity, then, is not a quality couched in the individual, like the color of one’s eyes. Rather, to “have dignity” is to be treated with dignity, for dignity is ultimately a relational term. And the way God dignifies human person is by granting them his own glory. This makes human dignity an inviolable reality because it is something God bestows on persons; it is innate and cannot be undone, insofar as God’s address to the human person, that address which constitutes every moment of a person’s existence, is irrevocable (cf. Romans 11:29).

On the horizontal plane, human dignity obliges one person to have a particular sort of moral response to another: a relationship of mutual recognition that mirrors God’s recognition of persons. And this posture that dignifies the other, that performs dignity, is one that treats persons as ends and not means. Again from the Compendium: “The person represents the ultimate end of society, by which it is ordered to the person . . . In no case, therefore, is the human person to be manipulated for ends that are foreign to his own development” (§133, note the unmistakable Kantian influence). Human dignity is therefore honored by a particular kind of moral performance, a performance that dignifies the other by not reducing them to a means for any end other than that person’s own development as what he or she fundamentally is. And what that person is, according to Catholic teaching, is a subject

Open to the infinite and to all created beings. He is open above all to the infinite—God—because with his intellect and will he raises himself above all the created order and above himself, he becomes independent from creatures, is free in relation to created things and tends towards total truth and the absolute good (§130).

Here the philosophical definition of the person and the theological definition coincide: only because the human person is fundamentally oriented towards God, the total truth and the absolute good, should the human person never be treated as a means to any end other than their own, which is ultimately that transcendent reality who now and forever calls them into communion. 

The Question of Grounds

These judgments about human dignity found in Catholic social teaching are as lofty as they are controverted in much public discourse today. It is no secret that the concept of innate human dignity, and the idea of “human rights” that attends it, are under attack today after their heyday in the latter half of the twentieth century.[1] In the first place, theological justifications are no longer recognized by many as sufficient warrant for establishing the reality of human dignity: to argue for the innate dignity of the human person by appealing to the authority of scriptural texts or ecclesiastical documents will serve to convince only those who already are convinced.

The philosophical grounds of the concept of innate human dignity are equally unconvincing, especially those philosophical justifications that pursue the route of metaphysics, namely establishing the essence or nature of the human person and then afterwards attempting to derive moral obligations from this metaphysical knowledge of humanity. This approach encounters as many roadblocks as the first. Flanked on two sides, the very possibility of a critically grounded metaphysics is denied not only by much postmodern thought, which despite its diversity finds a common thread in judging the modern project of securing epistemic foundations to have failed, but also by a materialist and reductionist scientism, which cannot empirically discover faculties like “free will” that historically were central elements in the metaphysical definition of the human being. Yet this metaphysical angle is still the one taken by much of Catholic social teaching, which draws its inspiration from Thomistic metaphysics even as it complements it with resources drawn from twentieth century personalist philosophy.[2]

The Turn to Interiority

Is there some way of bypassing the roadblocks we have just named, some way to demonstrate the intrinsic value of the human person without resorting to theological or metaphysical justification? I believe the answer lies in a turn to interiority, to a phenomenological grasp of the constitutive acts of human consciousness. In my estimation, no twentieth century Catholic thinker has given us a more rigorous and comprehensive account of human interiority in its cognitional and volitional processes than the Jesuit philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan. Interiority, for Lonergan, is twofold: it is what we are spontaneously in our conscious operations, and it is also the knowledge of our conscious operations gained when we attend to what it is that we are doing in our knowing and in our choosing. To discover our own interiority is to discover the innate structure of our conscious intentionality as it strives ineluctably towards truth and goodness (as the Compendium teaches), even in the absence of explicit knowledge of those transcendental terms or concepts.

The payoff of such an approach, Lonergan claims, is that through heightening one’s awareness of one’s conscious operations, one can come to know these operations and so critically ground epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical positions by examining whether their contents contradict or align with the “conscious performance”[3] by which one came to affirm them. This conscious performance is discovered by an interiority analysis, and Lonergan names any philosophical positions that cohere with the analysis Lonergan “positions,” while those that contradict it are “counterpositions.” This is why the concept of “performative self-contradiction” plays such a major role in Lonergan’s philosophy. It is not that certain epistemological or metaphysical or ethical positions contradict themselves on a logical level, for that is neither the only nor even the most important way in which a philosophical position can be incoherent.

Rather, Lonergan highlights what Aristotle noted so many centuries before when he wrote that to refute a skeptic, all you had to do was get him or her talking, thereby uncovering the performative self-contradiction present in the conflict between the content of their philosophical judgment and the cognitional operations involved in that utterance.[4] As Andrew Beards puts it, to demonstrate to an interlocutor that she has performatively refuted herself, one need only bring the interlocutor’s attention to the contradictory situation implicit in her utterance of a counterposition.[5] So, for example, there is nothing logically contradictory in the phrase “I am not speaking,” for between “I” and “not speaking” there is no necessary exclusion (as there would be in a statement such as “this bachelor is married”). But the moment any person utters such a phrase while making a judgment, while intending to speak a truth—one of the core cognitional operations in our conscious intentionality—they have entered the realm of performative self-contradiction.

In the second half of Insight, Lonergan provides numerous examples of epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical positions that contradict what he argues is the universal structure of human cognitional and volitional operations.[6] Through such a procedure of identifying performative self-contradiction we can critically adjudicate between those positions that align with our interiority and those that belie it. Progress in philosophy therefore becomes possible when interiority opens up as an arena for evaluating sundry philosophical positions by subjecting them to this Lonerganian experimentum crucis.

Is there a similar line of questioning, based in an interiority analysis, that we could pursue in order to find a performative self-contradiction in denying the intrinsic dignity of the human person, the value that a human person ought not to be treated as a means but instead only as an end in herself? If there were, it show the denial of human dignity to be an ethical counterposition that it would be unreasonable to hold.

Volitional Intentionality Analysis

We can discover something like this, reader.[7] To begin, I ask you to engage a brief exercise with me. I call this exercise a volitional intentionality analysis, though the name is unimportant. [8] This intentionality analysis consists in asking oneself for what purpose one has made a particular choice. The tool of inquiry here is the question of teleology: “what for?” For the purposes of illustration, let us take a simple choice, such as my own choice to write this essay. If you ask me why I wrote this essay, the answer will be that I wanted to present something to readers concerning a topic I find of interest.

That answer is sufficient enough, but we also recognize that it is not a complete answer. How do we know this? Because a further relevant question (meaning, not a question about the price of tea in China, but a question related to your inquiry) may arise in the course of your attempt to fully understand my action. In other words, it makes sense for you to ask me in turn why I desired to present my thoughts to you in the first place; some intelligibility in my action is still missing. The answer to that further question is that I wish to test out some of my ideas, to see if they are any good.

But that response too is not self-sufficient: it invites a further question. Why do I want to know if my ideas are any good? Because I want to reach the truth about the critical grounding of the concept of human dignity. But why do I want that, you ask? Because discovering the truth satisfies a tension of inquiry within me that creates a feeling of restlessness. And I always seek this kind of rest.[9] But why seek this kind of intellectual rest? Because this rest fulfills me, makes me happy, satisfies me, makes me flourish as what I am: a truth-seeking person.

And I wish to make myself happy in this manner because I find it valuable to do so, because I find it valuable to satisfy my desire for truth, because I find myself valuable. But what if you ask me for what purpose I pursue such happiness, such a dignifying of myself as valuable and worth satisfying in this way? Well, at that point I find it difficult to give a further answer. I seem to have bottomed out. There is no further “because” or intelligibility to be found here; happiness is its own “why.”

Many readers will recognize this exercise as a variation of Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics that eudaimonia, or flourishing, represents the final cause of all human choices,[10] or you will see in the previous paragraph an extended illustration of Thomas Aquinas’s claim that the formal object of the human will is the good.[11] Today, however, we speak not so much of final causes in the faculty of the will in human nature as we do of values motivating human subjects. And so when we encounter a human decision, we ask: which value is being pursued in this or that choice?

What this brief volitional intentionality analysis reveals about value, however, is that any particular value or good which is sought in a choice, such as the good of writing for an educated audience or testing out ideas, is ultimately explained by and is only intelligible within the framework of a functionally ultimate value that is always operative in my conscious choosing, namely my desire for my flourishing, which I spontaneously identify as the fulfillment of certain desires in me. It is not that I value “happiness” as some abstraction, or that I possess the idea of “flourishing” as a defined concept lodged in the recesses of my mind; rather, it is that I always act to promote my flourishing, in whatever manner I happen to conceive it, and cannot consciously do otherwise. And in so doing, I dignify myself, I pay tribute to my dignity, by treating myself as an ends and not a means.

Human dignity, then, exists as the operative norm of human action before it exists as an explicit concept produced through human reflection. This is especially obvious given the fact that talk of “human dignity” in precisely those terms has an identifiable history; as Lonergan rightly notes, concepts have dates. Had the concept of human dignity never arisen in human societies, we would nonetheless still be performing our dignity in treating ourselves as an end and not a means; we would still treat ourselves with such dignity! (Though, sadly, we would still be failing to consistently treat others in this way.) What is foundational here, therefore, is not concepts or ideas but performance, or operations, which are the true a priori at the root of human cognitional and volitional activity.

This turn to our interiority reveals that we spontaneously, in each and every choice, treat ourselves as an end and not a means, precisely because we seek our own happiness. This desire for our flourishing as an end is the structure of our every conscious choice whether we ever come to knowledge of it or not (in fact, most never will). But that it is true can be verified by any individual, simply by asking questions of his or her own choices and thereby seeking to uncover the intelligibility of those choices in attending to the conscious process that brought them about.

The Performative Self-Contradiction in Denying Human Dignity

How can this brief exercise help us find a performative self-contradiction in the one who denies innate human dignity? As follows. Consider that if I deny the claim that the performance of my dignity constitutes my conscious intentionality, then I inadvertently perform my commitment to my dignity in that very denial. If this denial is a conscious and purposive act, then it can be questioned as to its intelligibility, just as my choice to pen this essay was questioned above. While I cannot here detail all the reasons why a person might deny their innate dignity (I invite readers to substitute their own reasons and run an intentionality analysis on them), if this person—let us say it is me—were to deny it, I would most certainly do so for a reason.

Here is one reason that seems most probable for uttering such a denial: perhaps I deny this claim that I perform my innate dignity because I am not convinced of its truth. But if I reject claims that I do not consider truthful, I thereby bear witness to my commitment to truth as a value. And yet even my attachment to that lofty value is subject to further questioning: why do I so value truth? Because I believe that knowing the truth will help me flourish as a truth-desiring creature. That I treat myself as worthy of truth is what I communicate by rejecting whatever I perceive to be falsehood or by withholding judgment on what I fear may be a mistaken view.

My conscious performance indicates that I pursue truth in order to dignify myself as someone who is an end in themself, and so affirming the truth represents for me a means to that operative end. Thus, to deny that I have innate dignity for reasons of failing to see the truth of this position leads me into a performative self-contradiction: I perform that very dignity in denying it. We cannot help but treat ourselves as an end and not a means, even if, and especially when, we try not to.

It is of particular significance that in this illustration, it is my desire for truth that I performatively and spontaneously identify as a means to my flourishing. This fact illustrates that the performance of my dignity in treating myself as an end cannot be reduced simply to rational egoism that seeks material or social benefit, cannot be boiled down even more basically to the animal instinct to survive, for my desire for truth as such and my repulsion by falsehood (St. Augustine well reminds us that even the deceiver hates to be deceived!)[12] indicates that in my conscious intentionality, I am not intrinsically constrained within the biological pattern of experience proper to me as a mammal, [13] and that I am not inescapably bound by the social welter of public valuation and ego-comparison,[14] but instead pursue a different class of object altogether for my satisfaction, for my flourishing and rest.

And truth, as can be understood upon a moment’s reflection, is the most universal, most expansive class of object that exists, for whatever is can in principle be judged to be true, and so there is nothing outside of the scope of truth—for “apart from the realm of being [what is], there is simply nothing.”[15] This means that my appetite for truth, and the object that would fully satisfy my performance of my own dignity in my quest to flourish and bring me to a final rest, is infinite. And with that we have come full circle to the definition of the human person articulated in the Compendium: the human person is,

Open to the infinite and to all created beings. He is open above all to the infinite—God—because with his intellect and will he raises himself above all the created order and above himself, he becomes independent from creatures, is free in relation to created things and tends towards total truth and the absolute good (§130).

Through our interiority analysis, we have critically grounded this definition of the person by drawing our attention to the conscious performance that serves as its experiential correlate. Only through such a phenomenological grasp of our interiority, achieved through our volitional interiority analysis and the disclosure of a performative self-contradiction in the denial of our innate dignity—which thereby uncovered the fact that this position is in fact an ethical counterposition—could we philosophically verify the Compendium’s teaching.

Dignity Discovered

If the reader has followed the argument so far and affirmed it to be true for themself, that they indeed always perform their dignity by seeking their flourishing, then they have grasped that their dignity as an infinite openness to God which constitutes them as an end in themselves is tacitly proclaimed in their every conscious choice. That relational core of the concept of dignity, which the Catholic Church teaches is found in God’s relation towards human persons—with whom he shares his glory by creating them as infinite openness and desire for him—is reflected in our own relation to ourselves as we treat our flourishing as the end of everything we do.      

We discovered this dignity in our interiority analysis and the performative self-contradiction inherent in denying that dignity. Such a procedure can become the basis of dialogue with others who seek to understand Christian talk about “innate human dignity.” If our conversation partners are open to discovering something about themselves through this mode of inquiry, such a conversation may bear fruit in bringing persons to a deeper encounter with the dignity of the other by facilitating an encounter with themselves and so with their innate dignity.[16]   

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a contribution to the “Lonergan and Human Consciousness” conference at the University of Notre Dame, 3-4 December 2021 (more information and free registration is available here).  

[1] See Andrew Clapham’s Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction  (Oxford, 2016).

[2] Robert P. Kraynak’s “The Influence of Kant on Christian Theology: A Debate About Human Dignity,” Journal of Markets & Morality 7:2 (2004): 517–525, gives a helpful and brief outline of this marriage of Thomism and personalism in the twentieth century Catholic social teaching.

[3] See Mark D. Morelli’s Self-Possession: Being At Home in Conscious Performance (Lonergan Institute, 2015), for a recent and stunning phenomenology of conscious performance of our intentionality towards truth and goodness.

[4] Metaphysics, 4.41006a.

[5] Andrew Beards, “Self-Refutation and Self-Knowledge,” Gregorianum, 1995, Vol. 76, No. 3 (1995), 564.

[6] Lonergan’s mature position is that humans intend the true and the good by a sublating process in which we attend to experiences, inquire (“what does this experience mean?”) into them, have acts of understanding about those experiences as a result of inquiry, make judgments as to the validity of our acts of understanding (“is my understanding true?”), and then, when action or evaluation is demanded, ask the deliberative question that flows from our judgments about states of affairs (“what should I do because of what I have understood? How should I value what I’ve discovered?”). This four-fold development of conscious intentionality is invariant and universal, but that it is so can only be discovered by attending to one’s own operations (so, if you are reading this and wondering if it is true that it is invariant and universal, you are at this moment operating on what Lonergan calls the third level of cognition, that of rational judgment, as you ask for sufficient evidence to evaluate the truth of what you have understood based on your experience—namely, reading my description of Lonergan’s position). For a concise presentation of Lonergan’s view without undergoing the labor of reading the bulk of Lonergan’s Insight, I recommend Terry Tekippe’s short work, What is Lonergan Up To in “Insight”? (Liturgical, 1996).

[7] To my knowledge, Lonergan never undertook such a demonstration of human dignity through an interiority analysis meant to demonstrate performative self-contradiction.

[8] I first encountered this sort of intentionality analysis in David Bentley Hart’s, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale, 2013), in the chapter “Bliss (Ananda).”

[9] “Now, Aristotle defined nature as an immanent principle of movement and of rest. In man such a principle is the human spirit as raising and answering questions. As raising questions, it is an immanent principle of movement. As answering questions and doing so satisfactorily, it is an immanent principle of rest.” Lonergan, “Natural Right and Historical Mindedness,” 166, in The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: A Third Collection (Toronto, 2017).

[10] Nicomachean Ethics, 1.7

[11] Summa Theologiae, I.82.

[12] “This is the happy life which all desire; this life which alone is happy, all desire; to joy in the truth all desire. I have met with many that would deceive; who would be deceived, no one.” Confessions X.23.

[13] On the biological pattern of conscious experience, see Insight, 205-207, and Mark D. Morelli, Self-Possession: Being At Home in Conscious Performance (Lonergan Institute, 2015), 193-196.

[14] See Robert Spitzer’s Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts for more on these distinct levels of human satisfaction, the physical and ego-comparative.

[15] Insight, 375. For a fuller development of this argument, see chapter 12 in Insight, “The Notion of Being.” To imagine that something ‘is’ which is not capable of being known because it is not intrinsically intelligible is what Lonergan would call a ‘counterposition’: for to know this crucial fact about this purportedly unintelligible being is already to know about the being affirm cannot be known.

[16] Heartfelt thanks to my friends and conversation partners Matthew Vale and Taylor Nutter for their help in making this essay better.

Featured Image: Edgar Degas, Portrait of Duranty, 1879; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Roberto J. De La Noval

Roberto De La Noval is assistant professor of theology at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD. A systematic theologian and scholar of Russian religious thought, his publications include a translation of Sergius Bulgakov: Spiritual Diary and other translations and essays in academic and popular journals.

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