Bryan Sebesta

Is Human Dignity Self-Evident?

John Barclay:

The American Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Nowadays we are not at all sure how these claims can be regarded as “self-evident,” and it is clear that no one can take them for granted. In the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reference to the “Creator” disappears, and we have only the assertion, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards on another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Ever since this was drafted, there has been no consensus regarding the basis of this equality in dignity and rights. In practice, the influence of power, wealth, and national self-interest ensure that some lives matter more than others and that some people’s dignity is denied.

I like this articulation! It’s a problem that others I have read, like Tim Keller or Christian Smith, have noted: that the “self-evident” nature of people’s inalienable rights and dignity is not really self-evident as belief in God recedes in the culture. Which isn’t to say that people can’t be kind to others without God—that is definitely not true! But it is to say that there is no supremely compelling, metaphysical reason to treat those who are not in your in-group with dignity. As he says, “power, wealth, and national self-interest” (or any group’s self-interest you identify with) can tend to act against treating everybody with dignity.

It seems to me like there are three foundations for a belief in human dignity available to me, as a Christian and Latter-day Saint:

  1. All Humans are Made in the Image of God. In the first chapter of Hebrew scripture, it’s written: “So God created humans, in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1.27, NRSV). As I understand this idea (in its original context), this means that all human beings are made to represent God; to reflect his image into the world; and to be partners with God in taking care of the Created world, animals and people alike. This stood, from the beginning, in stark contrast with other ancient near-east ideas of dignity, where national myths often held that one nation was blessed by the gods and everyone else was meant to be ruled.
  2. Christ’s Death and Sacrifice for All. Barclay again: “Paul, the value of each person resides in the worth that they are given by the love of God in Christ. Believers are required to care about others ‘for whom Christ died’ (1 Cor 8:11), and since, as Paul says, Christ died for all (2 Cor 5:14-15), we may regard everyone as accorded the same worth in that single act of unconditioned grace. That would constitute a starting point for a distinctively Christian contribution to the current discussion about the basis of human rights and the individual’s worth.”
  3. We are Each Actual Children of God. In the LDS faith, we are taught that each of had souls and lives before coming to earth, and that each of us are actual children of God, of the same kind with a vast and divine potential. Thus, each of us are precious persons, beloved by God, and meant to treat each other as the actual brothers and sisters that we are!1

I’m not sure if any one of these has a stronger claim than others. Barclay points out that the “image of God” idea is nebulous enough within scripture that “it is not wholly clear what that motif entails or whether it can bear such weight.” I’ve personally found a lot of meaning in that—admittedly due to a lot of Bible scholars unearthing the original context!

I’m not prepared to put one above the other right now: each of these points works together to emphasize one thing: treat everyone around me as a child of God, made on earth in the image of God, whom Christ died for. Not sure the reason for dignity can get much stronger than that!

  1. It’s neat that Judaism, Christianity, and my own LDS faith each have a unique contribution that sheds light on our dignity. ↩︎