Saturday, September 5, 2009

dignity and worth of the person

Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person

Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.

This from the NASW Code of Ethics. There is much to say about this core value, especially in relation to eugenics, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, racism, sexism, breeding sibling embryos for medical treatment, gendercide, abortion, cloning, rationing of medical treatment on the basis of age, disability, ascribed "quality of life," and other aspects of bioethics.

But here I want to consider the source of this principle, adopted as a universal standard for mankind in the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). A staff working paper of the outstanding (and recently dismissed) President's Council on Bioethics, called Bioethics and Human Dignity and written by Adam Schulman , has a useful discussion of four sources of the principle--in classical antiquity, biblical religion, Kant, and 20th century constitutions and international declarations. All but the first of the these--the pagan version that has a concept of human dignity but does not accept the intrinsic and equal dignity and worth of all humans--find their origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, just because of its universalism, in Christianity.

As David Bentley Hart argues (see earlier posts), the Christian Revolution transformed the cultures that absorbed it in this as in other respects. (See his fascinating discussion of Peter's tears as a simple but profound expression of this new universal-democratic principle, as well as opposition to infanticide, abortion, gladiator contests, and other practices that violated the principle.)

The 2007 debate between Dinesh D'Souza and Christopher Hitchens brought out how the transformation of cultures throughout the world by Christianity represented a great gift (and not just or only an alien imposition) as it established the equal and intrinsic dignity and worth of all as a recognized, if not always practiced universal principle. One of the most interesting questions in the debate was posed to Hitchens by a man from Tonga. Before the Christians came to Tonga, he said, the place was a mess. Even cannibalism was widespread. The Christians stopped this practice and brought to Tonga the notion that each person has a soul and God loves everyone equally. The man from Tonga asked Hitchens, "So what do you have to offer us?" Hitchens was taken aback, and responded with a learned disquisition on cannibalism in various cultures. But he clearly missed the intellectual and moral force of the man's question. The man was asking why the Tongans, who had gained so much from Christianity, should reject it in favor of atheism. See this segment of the debate on youtube at

Nietzsche, who saw Christianity as having lost its credibility and moral force in modern Europe--God was dead, he said--scorned those like the English novelist George Eliot who wanted to salvage Christian morality in the absence of Christian faith. His own vision was much bleaker, one consistent with the actual course of events in the 20th century with its murderous anti-Christian regimes of Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. that explicitly rejected the moral constraints of a Christian God.

Phillip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, has argued against the alarmist view of Europe as abandoning its culture and the faith at its heart in face of secularist and Islamic pressures. (See his God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis.) In the course of his argument, he noted that "Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher, stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, 'Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter'[emphasis added]." Interestingly, Habermas, that old radical European intellectual, shares with that old European Catholic intellectual now known as Pope Benedict XVI, this deep understanding and concern about what is at stake for the future of Europe. (See their dialogue on The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, published in 2007 by Ignatius Press.)


  1. Philip Jenkins's "quotation" of Jürgen Habermas is a serious misquote. Jenkins's is not quoting Habermas, but an Italian journalist Sandro Magister's summary of what Habermas stated in an interview in 1999. See Magister's website:
    Habermas's statement is available at Wikipedia on Jürgen Habermas:
    (1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of universalistic egalitarism (our legacy / heritage) - not it's foundation today.
    (2) Habermas mentions both Judaism and Christianity - not only Christianity.
    (3) Habermas says that there is no alternative to the legacy - not that we have no alternative to Christianity.

    Thomas Gregersen (

  2. Thanks for the clarification. That's exactly what I took Habermas to mean. The context is the tendency in Europe to deny or denigrate that legacy (as in the proposed preamble to the proposed EU Constitution. Your #3 is also what Jenkins says. There is always an alternative. We need only look at the blood-soaked history of the 20th century.

    My post was precisely about the source of the principle stated in the NASW and other codes of ethics.

    Glad you read Sandro Magister--my favorite source on the Vatican.