Two Concepts of Dignity2 min read

Historically, the idea that human beings have a special dignity is rooted in the Christian teaching that we are made in the image of God. Although it avoids religious language, that heritage is reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This document speaks of our “inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Here, dignity is not something that governments and lawmakers can grant or remove, but something objective that they must recognize and protect.

Recently, a new concept of dignity has emerged. In Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court argued that not granting marriage rights to same-sex couples would violate their dignity. The claimed reason was that these couples would feel humiliated if they were denied such rights. On this understanding, if individuals choose to identify themselves with a certain orientation or lifestyle, the state has a moral obligation to grant rights of equality that protect them from humiliation.

Clearly, Obergefell’s understanding of dignity is not the same as the Universal Declaration’s. For Obergefell, rights are not rooted in the given identity of human beings, but also apply to constructed identities, based on choosing to identify who one is with how one prefers to live. And, for Obergefell, the state does not merely recognize rights that already exist, but has the power to confer new rights.

In this presentation, I will show that the “new dignity” is theologically and philosophically problematic. Theologically, the new dignity is incompatible with the biblical understanding that our worth and value depends on God’s will and the identity He has given us, not on our own will and our self-chosen identity. The assumption that we can manufacture a status for ourselves gives humans a godlike power they do not possess. Philosophically, such a postmodern, constructivist view of the self implausibly claims we have powers of self-creation and it is ethically and legally unsustainable: it has implications, and sets precedents, that even the supporters of Obergefell would reject.

Photo (c) aradaphotography/iStock


Dr. Angus Menuge is one of the featured speakers for the upcoming Theological Conference Let’s Talk Male and Female, to take place February 11, 2017 at Our Savior, Lansing. For more information, or to register, click here.


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About the Author

Dr. Angus Menuge is professor and chair of philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin and President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

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