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02/07/2015

The State of the Union and Human Dignity

In his recent State of the Union address, the President made the following statement: “As Americans, we respect human dignity… We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.”

Human dignity is a concept rich in significance and riddled with controversy. While you would be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree with the President that human dignity should be respected, the question will inevitably arise as to whose definition of dignity he is referring to. For example, opposite ends of the bioethical spectrum will both tout human dignity in the articulation of the position they hold. Whether one is pro-life, pro-choice, an advocate for “death with dignity,” or staunchly opposed to physician assisted suicide, an understanding of dignity is key to the debate.

The vastly different understandings of human dignity have led some to suggest that we should do away with the concept all together. Because it appears that consensus will never be reached, we should move away from the discussion and focus on topics more practical and profitable. However, a lack of consensus does not negate the significance of the discussion. Nor should it deter us from seeking to discern what human dignity is and why it matters. Like many things in life, a lack of consensus does not equal a lack of truth. There can, and I believe there is, a true understanding of human dignity, one that is discernible and has profoundly practical implications for how we respect the human dignity of those around us.

I would suggest that a correct understanding of human dignity must be grounded in a Theistic worldview. Catholic theology is right when it emphasizes that the first aspect of the dignity of persons is a dignity of Source.[1]  The significance of every individual rests not in humanity, but in the personal, triune God who chose to create us in his image. It is a dignified worth irrespective of size, age, or capacity. As philosopher and ethicist Paul Copan has aptly said, “With God, there are no ‘potential human beings.’”[2] Every human being is a person who has been ascribed sacredness by God.[3] It is God himself who imparts the unique dignity upon every individual life that the President was emphasizing.


[1] Christopher Tollefson, “A Catholic Perspective on Human Dignity” in Human Dignity in Bioethics: From Worldviews to the Public Square, eds. Stephen Dilley & Nathan J. Palpant (New York: Routledge, 2013), 50.

[2] Paul Copan, “A Protestant Perspective on Human Dignity” in Human Dignity in Bioethics: From Worldviews to the Public Square, eds. Stephen Dilley & Nathan J. Palpant (New York: Routledge, 2013), 74.

[3] Ibid., 109.

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