Traditions come alive and can remain resilient when we regularly examine and discuss their content. Our task is to think critically and creatively, from one generation to the next, about how this content bears on our personal lives and communities. Ideally, as adherents of traditions, we do more than recite what we have been taught; we understand and mean what we say. We do more than follow rules; we have the wherewithal to make context-sensitive decisions for which we can give good accounts. By fostering active engagement, our traditions can be sites of genuine meaning making and character building.
In this spirit, I engage the Christian ethical tradition on the idea of human dignity and the moral requirement to love and respect humans because of their dignity. Here, dignity refers to a moral status that attaches to our embodied human form—more specifically, to our built-in potential to be subjects of moral experience. Love and respect refer to modes of registering what our shared nature makes it possible for us to be and to do. The notion that humans are equal in this dignity, even though they actualize their potential to different extents, appears to be a modern one shaped by secularization. Yet Christians can find good reasons and resources in their tradition for advancing a religious ethic of equal human dignity. I encourage readers who are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and followers of other religions to discover resources in their traditions for articulating such an ethic, even if they favor other ethical approaches.
Why an ethic of dignity and why now? Our world is burdened with much hatred, including racial, gender-based, ethnic, political, and religious hatred. It harbors undisguised callousness, cruelty, and neglect. It finds amusement in displays of human denigration and humiliation. Such evils reveal a growing obliviousness to the inherent value of human existence—the spread of a kind of moral and spiritual deadness. It does not suffice that our traditions call on us to love and respect one another. Many of us have only a vague understanding of what love and respect are and what they require of us and we have not yet acquired an experiential knowledge of their proper expression. Where our moral understanding is limited, we tend to conceive of love and respect in ways that accommodate, rather than interrupt and displace, existing patterns of hatred.
When articulating an ethic of equal human dignity, it is common to begin with the concept of respect. I begin, instead, with the principle of love—the religious-moral requirement to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. In the context of this requirement, love refers to benevolence (goodwill) that generally motivates beneficence (beneficial action). Moreover, it refers to a cultivated habit of genuinely wishing others well and reliably acting in ways that protect or enhance their well-being. In the Christian tradition, this habit is often characterized as a virtue.
Loving others does not entail giving them what they mistakenly think will make them happy, wishing that they could do well without also being good, tolerating their hurtful behavior, or otherwise catering to their moral weaknesses. To the contrary, it is a matter of wanting, on principle and as a chosen way of life, that persons actualize a satisfying range of their potential in the direction of their greater moral perfection. Love involves working with passion and patience to create relationships and social structures in which human flourishing, in tandem with ecospheric health, is possible.
In addition to benevolence and beneficence, love includes an appreciation of the human potential for moral subjectivity. We can think of it as a disposition to acknowledge and consent, by the power of our will, to the value of this potential where consent is ideally accompanied by a pleasing emotional resonance. There are, to be sure, circumstances in which it can be difficult for us to recognize the dignity of another’s humanity. Sometimes it appears that a person has so abused their potential that they cannot possibly have any left. Perhaps we know someone, for example, who relishes demeaning or denigrating others and making them feel miserable. When we encounter such a person, we are likely to experience a painful dissonance that can overwhelm any resonance we might otherwise be able to experience in their regard. A limited dissonance can be helpful; it can alert us to danger. Yet it ought to operate in the service of our love for what is good. The experience of being attuned to goodness is foundational for the development of the rest of our moral sensibilities. Past experiences of this ethical-emotional connection serve as touchstones—as indications of where we want always to be able to return.
Finally, I want to draw a connection to the idea of respect. Much as love involves benevolence and beneficence, respect involves non-malevolence and non-maleficence—that is, refraining from intending, causing, or permitting wrongful injuries. It also involves securing people’s basic liberties, such as their freedom to enjoy life unburdened by arbitrary acts of violence. Moreover, respect involves encouraging people to make free and responsible decisions—including decisions that discern, express, and uphold the best of their moral traditions. For me, the experience of respect is partly one of feeling humbled in the presence of a remarkable kind of being—standing in awe of the human form and all that it makes possible. This sense of awe or reverence can be aligned with the appreciation that is integral to love of the neighbor and serves as a basis for benevolence and beneficence.
One of the most attractive possibilities of life is communal existence under social and cultural conditions that provide all rational souls with opportunities to think critically and imaginatively about what we believe to be true about the universe; what we take to be possible for ourselves, given our nature and the world in which we live; and what we regard as most worthy of our affirmation and pursuit. Ideally, we would all have the basic goods, wellness, safety, and moral support that would allow us to develop our rare potential for moral agency—whatever specific shape that development might take in a given social context and however limited the development might turn out to be. We ought to do our best to create such conditions for all humans simply because it is good that humans flourish.
In my experience, the consent, resonance, and awe that partly comprise the acknowledgment of human potentiality are of a piece with a general consent to being itself—to the fundamental and final cause of everything. To experience a deep, stirring awareness and appreciation of the unlimited goodness and dignity of the divine, as it is manifest partly in the human form and in the rest of creation, is to thrive as only humans can.