“The longing for a heavenly, other worldly paradise is man’s longing not to be man.”
― Milan Kundera
Many adherents of religion assert that human beings have an inherent, metaphysical dignity because they are created in the “image and likeness of God” as stated in Genesis.
This same line of religious reasoning continues, that if it weren’t for that of God within all humans, if it weren’t for the divine spark in each of us, if it weren’t for our likeness to God – humans would simply be just one more animal among other animals. Therefore, for many, the assertion of human dignity is a religious assertion that is valid only because our dignity is granted by, and grounded in, God.
That reasoning is flawed as I will now argue. Humans possess an inherent dignity and value whether God exists or not and this dignity is not lessened because we are one animal species among others.
The Meaning of Dignity
Human dignity is an ontological status and not in itself a moral status. Philosophical and practical reflection on human nature reveals us as animals of a high degree of self awareness, rational intelligence, affectivity, the ability for (some degree of) reasoned self-determination and governance, the ability to love, and the self-reflexive capacity for comprehending meaning and purpose.
If what gives us dignity and a moral status higher than that of other living creatures is related to the fact that we are complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts, then it is clear that there is no simple answer to the question, What is Factor X? That is, Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X.
– Francis Fukuyama
The ontological nature of the claim of human dignity is attested to by the human capacities for moral awareness, reasoning, and love of others. Our capacity for gratitude, awe, humility, generosity, love, mercy, kindness, and reasoned justice are functions of a metaphysically significant being. Yet to assert the inherent dignity of humans is to not overlook our potential for evil and destruction. Still, even our innate capacity for such harm also attests to the dignity we speak of.
Human dignity is the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings. Claims of dignity are asserted as universal, unconditional, inalienable and overriding of other concerns.
Human dignity is an assertion of something recognized or intuited about human beings. As such, it cannot be proven in the strict sense of the term. Human dignity cannot be demonstrated through deductive argument. Even the most careful and accurate social science analysis won’t strictly yield the concept’s validity either. The argument for human dignity rests in the application of illative reason and the corresponding forms of argument and persuasion.
To reflect on human dignity is in itself, a testament to that dignity. The complexity of human consciousness allows for such self-awareness and self-reflexiveness. We are the only creatures capable of existential questioning, of asking questions of meaning, and of yearnings for the realizations of ideals and transcendent realities.
Human Personhood and Dignity
Human beings emerge from nature as persons – free, emotive-rational, conscious subjects. Reflecting on our status as persons also grants insight into our ontological dignity, inherent value, and a sense of worth that is grounded in our very being and is not merited or earned.
What does it mean to assert that every human being is a person? The concept of person implies a relative independence of being and acting, echoing back to classical Roman law – persona est suri iuris et alteri incommunicabilis – a person is a being which belongs to itself – is self-aware, and to some degree, self-directing. (John Crosby, The Selfhood of the Human Person, p. 41)
Personhood implies subjectivity – we are not inert, passive objects in the world – we are centers of awareness (including self-awareness), action, and unrepeatable individuality.
Each human person carries with them a rich, vast inner world of memories, meanings, experience, affections and particular attachments, accomplishments, and relationships. When any person dies, it is as if an entire universe dies with them.
Human Dignity & Morality
To reflect on human dignity is a gateway to moral understanding and the assertion of human rights and responsibilities that form our social order. Our dignity makes certain demands on us in terms of how we live, eat, dress, work, have sex, entertain ourselves – and how we relate to others, both humans and nonhumans, in the world around us.
At the heart of most forms of moral understanding is the affirmation of human dignity. Our dignity calls out for recognition, affirmation, and respect. Humans are not to be instrumentalized, treated solely as means to ends, but in a sense are always ends in themselves.
Much of the Western tradition is grounded in the affirmation of human dignity, from democracy, social justice, human rights, aid to the needy, compassion, and freedom, to themes in art, religion, literature, style, cuisine, and architecture.
Human Dignity & Speciesism
To assert the inherent dignity of the human person is not speciesism or a denigration of other life forms. Every living being is unique and of value. Each species has its own dignity. Yet human self-awareness, reason, language, the engendering of culture, freedom, capacity for virtue (and vice) calls attention to the unique place of the human person within the ecosystem.
Affirming the unique ontological status of human beings, noting those capacities and powers that differentiate ourselves from other animals, need not lead to the devaluing of other life forms.
For example, the vast, vast amount of ecological damage is human caused. We’re the species that has chain cut forests, overfished the seas, sent billions of tons of carbon waste into the atmosphere, poisoned the soil, the air, and the water.
However, we are also the only species capable of repairing some of the damage and altering our behavior for the better. And this fact, as well, speaks to the our profound dignity and place within the natural world.
THE NECESSARY ECOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF OUR ANTHROPOLOGY
Religious naturalism stresses the importance of the ecological dimensions of our anthropology – our natural status and connectedness to the natural order. From nature we arise, are sustained by nature through our lives, and at our death, we return to nature. Developing an ecological vision of the human person is therefore essential to a proper anthropology.
Some religious traditions posit the human person as somehow above or separate from the natural order with a destiny that resides beyond this world. Embodiment, this world and this life, are seen as a stepping stone to a greater existence outside of this one.
Unfortunately, accepting this notion often leads to the denigration of the world, treating the natural order as fallen, corrupt or corrupting, and therefore, ultimately insignificant or even harmful. From this perspective, the human relationship to the environment is often reduced to matters of utility and/or subjugation. Nature is at best, solely for human benefit, and at worst, a tragic (temporary) home for humans.
From a naturalist and humanist perspective, we are not in exile from some heavenly destiny, there is no original sin, meaning there is no sense of metaphysical or moral flaw in human nature wrought by some act of cosmic disobedience. Humans are limited and imperfect beings, but we’re not fallen. There is nothing to be redeemed or saved from. Our challenges are always human and natural. Our crises are existential, moral, and ecological.
From the opposite end of the spectrum come equally reductionist views, prompted by narrow applications of science. Humans are conceived of in various materialist-reductionist manners, devoid of the larger spiritual-existential concerns of meaning and without proper due given to human creativity, dignity, and moral responsibility. If human beings are simply gene-machines in an ecosystem or innately, ecologically harmful parasites, not only is such a view reductionist, it also makes it impossible to imagine how we will be able to guide ourselves out of the current ecological dilemma we are now experiencing.
Asserting a human disconnect and rift with nature has consequences, both for the broader ecosystem, but also for humanity as well. Humans often seem confused about their relationship to nature or else convinced of the terms of that relationship, but in ways which are unhealthy, imbalanced, skewed, and simply inadequate.
Overcoming our current challenges certainly requires scientific, technological, and advanced ecological knowledge, but also a radical change in human awareness of our place in the web of life and the broader ecosystem. What is required is not so much renewed efforts at increasing our mastery over nature, but rather individual and collective self-mastery. And that self-mastery requires a spiritual awakening and renewal to be accomplished. (Thomas Berry, The Great Work, p. 56)
HUMAN MEANING & PURPOSE
The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
– Steven Weinberg, Astrophysicist
The claim that religion and spirituality are primarily arenas for exploring human meaning presupposes questions of meaning in the first place.
Steven Weinberg’s well known quote on cosmic nihilism argues that the universe as a whole is meaningless affair. And when we’re honest with ourselves, when we ponder the vastness of the universe, the possibility of multiverses, the immense time elapsed – it’s difficult not to agree. Speaking philosophically, we are hard pressed to find any purpose or meaning to the universe. It doesn’t appear to serve some higher function or end. It simply is.
Yet if we grant that Weinberg is right, does this mean that our lives are also devoid of all meaning? The answer resides in exploring whether human ends and actions need serve cosmic ends in order for life to be meaningful. (Loyal Rue, Nature is Enough, p. 56)
Notions of meaning and purpose are intertwined. As we noted with Weinberg’s quote. The universe serves no purpose beyond itself. But what about on the human level? Is there a purpose for living organisms? What are humans for?
What exactly are humans might even be a better starting question. Are we souls imprisoned in bodies awaiting death and immortality? Are we simply our bodies, a system of flesh and chemicals?
It seems a mistaken notion that we are immaterial souls trapped in bodies, or some sort of dualist hybrid of spirit and flesh. Yes, such language at times does help us make sense of certain human realities. But it is truer to say that we are unified self-aware flesh, that our existence melds material and immaterial realities (mind), and that the exact relationship of the mind to the body remains a mystery.
Humans are biological beings. Biology studies living organisms and shares the consensus that from the perspective of evolution living organisms are for achieving reproductive fitness. While we need be careful not to improperly read intention or teleology into our analysis, it does seem that humans are the result of adaptations and incremental changes, resulting in giving the species better ability to survive and reproduce. (Loyal Rue, Nature is Enough, p. 59)
Humans are conscious, self aware animals. Our thriving is a matter that goes beyond simple biology. From an evolutionary perspective, the foundations of human meaning are to survive and to determine goals that are personally fulfilling and socially constructive. Therefore, in the most general sense, the purpose of human life is the survive, thrive, and enjoy such, while helping others do the same.
Where this is heading is that context matters. From the cosmic, big picture perspective, it appears that there is no inherent meaning in the fact that humans exist. But from the perspective of the living human being – there appears to be some inherent purpose, that of survival, thriving, and reproducing (or at least contributing to the welfare and continuation of the species in some manner.) (Loyal Rue, Nature is Enough, p. 61)
Nature as a whole has no purpose. But there are ample purposes within nature, that is, in the distinctive modes of aspiring, acting, and flourishing among sentient beings and especially in the lives of human beings. So purpose has emerged in nature even though there is no overarching purpose of nature. It is natural for us humans to live purposively as we go about planning our lives, rearing our children, relating to one another, devoting ourselves to our careers, involving ourselves in creative activities, and committing ourselves to moral and even religious ideals. (David Crosby, A Religion of Nature, p. 138)
Are these goals, purposes, and meanings cosmic or eternal? No, but still meaningful in a personal, social, and natural context.
There remains the criticism that meaning needs to be enduring, even eternal to be genuine or even intelligible. That there can be no meaning to life, no morality, no purpose for humans without a supernatural, transcendent God to “ground” such things and an eternal existence after this life in some form of “heaven.”
Such assertions are spurious at best, dangerous at worst.
We miss the meaning of life if we live it only in reference to the future. We can experience only the now. The past is gone, and the future isn’t yet a reality. To live only for some distant, other worldly future is to miss the point of living. We should live our lives as if each day matters as much as the day to come. This doesn’t mean not to plan and sacrifice for the future – that’s prudence. It means not neglecting the joys and challenges of today for an uncertain, distant future. (Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, p 81)
Our place is in this world. Our meaning is too. We don’t need any eternal, absolute, supernatural destiny to ground our meaning.
Human beings emerge from nature, our life supported and enmeshed in the ecosystem, and at the end of our life, we (or, perhaps, at least, our physical aspects) return to nature. As for a life, awareness, or some manner of personal existence that continues after this life is over – one can’t deny such possibilities philosophically, but no one can offer any evidence for such either.
Nature is Enough – Loyal Rue
Soulcraft – Bill Plotkin
Dependent Rational Animals – Alasdair MacIntyre
The Selfhood of the Human Person – John Crosby
The Wisdom of Insecurity – Alan Watts
Why Does the World Exist? – Jim Holt
All Things Shining – Dreyfus and Kelly