The belief that humans have a special status is as old as humanity itself. This belief has generally been understood, and perhaps unavoidably, as a form of mystery, or, more specifically, as having reference to an endless quest. Who are we (“Who am I”?), mortal beings suspended between life and death, incarnated in a finite bodily existence, exemplifying both an immense spiritual power and a fatal vulnerability and mortality?
Traditionally, religions have given a firm answer to this quest – not only in the form of a revelatory truth, but also in the form of practices and attitudes that embody and shape this truth. Humans are said to reflect the divine nature of creation itself. Especially in monotheistic religions the sacredness of human life is acknowledged to reside in the whole life cycle, starting before birth and stretching beyond death. As a matter of fact, in all religious traditions the recognition of each individual existence as part of a larger, divine whole (the ‘great chain of being’) forms the core of an attitude of piety. In its original meaning, piety (pietas) refers to both the solemn worship of ancestry and the devotion to the gods or God. In principle, through piety one recognises the sacredness of each and ever human being as something inalienable. The special status of each individual, in whatever phase of life, irrespective of special qualities or talents, irrespective also of success or merit, is seen as something what cannot be lost. Dignity is the aura that shines through the existence of the vulnerable bodily life of each and every human being, a life that bears at the same time the potential for spiritual growth and self-transcendence.
Since the Enlightenment the idea of human dignity has been more and more dissolved from its religious context and meaning. In contemporary culture human dignity is considered to reside in the capacity of human beings for self-determination and autonomy. According to this view the idea of an inalienable, sacred status of human existence – already to be acknowledged in a vulnerable foetus up to the body of a deceased person – becomes more and more enigmatic. Dignity is less and less seen as a sort of sacred aura, more and more as a capacity that can wax and wane. In a way, this conception of human dignity emerged in response to a growing sensitivity for the conditions that in the messiness of everyday life often obfuscate the flourishing of human dignity. There is certainly a genuine and authentic concern for individual life and freedom to be discerned in the emancipatory ideal of Enlightenment culture. For Enlightenment, according to Immanuel Kant, implies the liberation of humanity from ignorance, dependence and violent oppression: this liberation goes hand in hand with a growing recognition of the value of individual freedom and self-perfection. Since the 18th century, human dignity is therefore more and more identified with a capacity of autonomy and an ideal of individual rationality that depends on conditions of political freedom and the recognition of basic rights and freedoms to flourish. On the one hand, this mirrors a growing sensitivity for the fact that often in real life humans do negate or violate the unique status of humanity: in more than one way human history exemplifies a dark record of this sad truth. On the other hand, by identifying human dignity with the preservation of the conditions for and the actual exercise of self-control and autonomy Enlightenment culture caused the impoverishment of the idea of the sacredness of human life. The idea of the inalienable status of human dignity became less and less intelligible in terms of sacredness and pietas.
This caused the notion of human dignity to become subjectivist and relativist in nature. At the dawn of the 21st century, human life is understood almost without further ado to have worth, to be valuable only insofar the capacity for self-determination and autonomy is present. Usually, this idea is interwoven with a more hedonistic conception of human life: the exercise of autonomy is thought to be instrumental for the preservation of a positive quantum of positive experiences (happiness), and the avoidance of suffering in the consciously experienced lifespan of the individual. Human dignity has become the purely sensible aura of the pleasure machine ‘man’: when this machine starts to sputter, human dignity also diminishes in quality and can even be totally lost. Human dignity thus becomes radically dependent on the conscious experience of life quality. For that very reason, we lack in contemporary culture an intelligible vocabulary to conceive of the inalienable status, the dignity of human life as related to the whole of creation, as exemplifying an incomparable value that stretches out before the birth of individual human beings and does transcend their bodily death. The idea that we could harm, for example, a deceased person by desecrating his grave, or that we can do injustice to an unborn infant who is still unconscious about its life to come by just ending its life, has become in contemporary moral philosophy almost inconceivable.
This relativist and subjectivist conception of human dignity confronts us with the need for what Charles Taylor has called ‘subtler languages’ to articulate and give meaning to the classical conception of human dignity in terms of inalienable status and sacredness. In fact, this more original and fundamental conception of human dignity has also been recognised by some Enlightenment figures, such as Immanuel Kant. For Kant, at the root of our preoccupation with human rights and liberty lies what he calls the recognition of the inalienable Menschenwürde (human ‘worth’ or dignity) present in every member of the human species. This idea of the irrevocable value of human life, exemplified in each and every individual, contains in an implicit way a reference to the more traditional religious conception of human dignity. What is, after all, the core value in the name of which we should care about human rights, the preservation of the conditions of liberty, the respect of other humans being as ‘ends-in-themselves’, this means, exemplifying the sacredness of humanity itself?
It is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of 21st century culture to explore again the ‘subtler languages’ that can help us to reinvent and invigorate the notion of the ‘sacredness’ of human life. The challenge is huge indeed, for the subjectivist and relativist conception of human dignity has gained pride of place in contemporary culture, both in practice and theory. Think for example, of the way in which recently a famous liberal intellectual as Richard Dawkins judged about the non-value of the life of an unborn child with down syndrome, or the way in which in the euthanasia debate human life is weighed as having more or less value dependent on the subjective experience of life quality. Part of the challenge ahead is the question which role, if any, religious traditions can play in the exploration of these ‘subtler languages’ to articulate a common conception of human dignity as inalienable status. Some would without doubt contend that religious conceptions of the sacredness of human life should be totally banned from the public debate, because in our liberal, pluralist society not all citizens can identify with these conceptions. Others, such as the liberal atheist Ronald Dworkin for example, recognise that in fact the fundamental moral discussions ahead of us are deeply religious in nature. Even in a world where God is silent – at least according to a considerable part of the civil society – we cannot think about fundamental moral issues if we do not put at the core of our discussions the inalienable value of human life. We have all reasons to expect that religious traditions should be a major participant in these discussions, in this quest for a better understanding of ‘who we are’ and what makes human life having a sacred, incomparable value.