The annual fall conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture is taking place today and over the past few days at the University of Notre Dame. A highlight of every meeting has been the Friday afternoon lecture by Alasdair MacIntyre, emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. At yesterday’s lecture, the ballroom of the Morris Inn was packed to overflowing, every seat full with no remaining standing room as people were arrayed several rows deep at the back and sides of the large room.
MacIntyre’s lecture was titled “Human Dignity: A Puzzling and Possibly Dangerous Idea?” It is difficult to summarize the ranging and learned paper that MacIntyre delivered in his soft, Scottish voice to the packed assembly - but it was at once a tour-de-force and a bombshell that exploded in the midst of a what had been a congenial and largely uncontentious gathering. The conference attracts nearly 1000 attendees and speakers, most of whom are faithful Catholics, and it’s likely that, to a person, nearly every participant would have agreed that the ideal of human dignity is a foundational idea of his or her faith and philosophy. As the conference title itself suggests - “Human Dignity in a Secular World” - the main purpose of the gathering was to confirm the central importance of human dignity in a secularizing world that can no longer ground the concept that it purportedly supports and increasingly seems to undermine when it comes to the unborn, the elderly, and infirm. MacIntyre issued a profound challenge to the entire rationale for the weekend.
MacIntyre began with a genealogy of the concept of dignity in modern times, which he argued arose out of the devastation of World War II. While an appeal to “human dignity” was especially a response to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and even horrors by the allies in the execution of the war, the concept was advanced with a conscious and intentional “lack of substance” in order to secure agreement between various worldviews that were involved in the crafting of various national and United Nations constitutions and charters. The language of “dignity” provided a minimal standard that people of various faiths, secularists, different traditions, and varying nationalities could agree upon as a basis for a decent political and social order.
MacIntyre then compared this more minimalist “consensus” about “inherent” human dignity to the philosophic system that it ended up replacing: a Thomist conception of justice. Referring to arguments advanced by Charles de Koninck against the “personalists” such as Jacques Maritain - who were especially responsible for the post-war rise of the language of “dignity” - MacIntyre laid out the four main points of the Thomistic conception that had been largely abandoned:
The human end (telos) is distinct: to know and love God;
In directing humans toward that end, many other goods are necessarily involved and included, reflecting a broader ordering of a good political and social order;
It is in our power, and our responsibility, to direct our choices;
If we fail in that task, we lose our worth or dignity.
(Charles de Koninck)
For the remainder of his talk, MacIntyre pressed the implications of the divergence of the two approaches - the “minimalist” ideal of “inalienable” human dignity and the more demanding, teleological standard of Thomistic justice. Above all, he sought to force the recognition that appeals to “dignity,” while seemingly sources of great support for human decency and mutual respect, in fact conform quite comfortably with a broader libertarian approach to politics, society, and economics. He noted, for instance, that an appeal to dignity can justify freeing slaves, while leaving them in a condition of relative economic, educational, and social deprivation. Or - in an example quite deliberately chosen for his audience - that the stance against abortion can and is likely to be popularly undermined if the kinds of resources for childcare are not made available, whether support for mothers, families, communities, or wider provision of healthcare.
MacIntyre used the occasion of a packed house and perhaps his most significant annual platform at Notre Dame to challenge - and chide - the audience that was gathered there. Knowing he was speaking to many who would identify as politically conservative, and were likely to comfortable in their support for the ideal of human dignity and varying degrees of economic libertarianism, he sought to instruct them of the deficiencies of that ideal, and pointed them instead to the more demanding standard of Thomistic justice. He laid bare the contradiction involved in defending human dignity while neglecting the political, economic, and social conditions that make possible human flourishing. At the end of his lecture he received a standing ovation, but the intense murmuring that arose as the applause died down was a sign that the audience had received a “disquieting suggestion” indeed.