Centering Social Economics on Human Dignity

By Lutz, Mark A. | Review of Social Economy, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Centering Social Economics on Human Dignity


Lutz, Mark A., Review of Social Economy


In surveying the fifty presidential addresses so far presented to this Association, one is left with the impression that about one in five of them dwell on philosophical and methodological topics. That in itself suggests that in contrast to our more orthodox colleagues, we seem to positively value, or at least tolerate, such excursions into what might be labeled "speculative metaphysics." The last two examples of such deliveries were by Dan Finn in 1987, and by Warren Samuels two years later. We may therefore conclude that it's time for another such address. And I intend to meet the challenge. In so doing, I want to echo Father Mulcahy's justification given three decades ago where he started out by explaining: "I have always felt that a presidential address should treat of a topic not of significance for technical economic theory but which involves values, and thus has broad significance for the members of [our Association]" (Mulcahy 1964: 45).

More specifically, I want to talk today about a distinctly human value, the value of human dignity, and relate it to economic thought in general and social economics in particular. In the process, we will need to focus our attention first on the meaning and, as we will see, the very logic of human dignity, and then explore its potential relevance with respect to economic method, economic rationality, economic institutions and economic policy.

PART I: THE CONCEPT OF HUMAN DIGNITY

1. The Meaning of Human Dignity

In the first part of the paper I will attempt to explicate the very meaning of human dignity before indicating its relevance for contemporary social thought. Ironically, we cannot learn much about human dignity by consulting the various dictionaries, all of which recognize an entry for "dignity" but not "human dignity." The former is a term of many meanings, all carrying various connotations that relate to relative social rank or elevation. There dignity is a matter of degree, some people or "dignitaries" enjoying it more than others. Human dignity, on the other hand, belongs to every human being qua human being. It belongs to all in equal amounts and is inalienable, meaning that it cannot be gained or lost.(2) Although the meaning of human dignity had been correctly understood by Pico della Mirandola when he challenged the Church with his "Oration on the Dignity of Man" in 1486, the term subsequently changed its meaning with Thomas Hobbes and especially Edmund Burke, until Thomas Paine and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant set it right again.

The adjective in "human dignity" tells us that dignity is something that persons possess by virtue of their shared humanity and with it also the claim of equal human rights. For Kant, dignity is unconditioned, it is an attribute of persons as "ends in themselves," and has an "incomparable worth" exalted above any price. Persons have dignity, while things have only a price.(3) Furthermore, in Kantian philosophy, personal dignity is regarded as an "objective end" in contrast to the subjective ends of instrumental or prudential action, and it serves as the foundation for his categorical imperative, known as the principle of humanity: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end" (Kant 1964: 96).

2. The Importance of Human Dignity

Ever since Pope Leo XIII's social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1890), the concept of human dignity has been called the guiding principle in Catholic social doctrine. In Pope John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (1991), for example, the concept of human dignity crops up more than two dozen times.(4)

On a more secular note, the concept of human dignity, is central to the liberal credo in politics: a commitment to the equal worth and dignity of each and every person (Howard and Donnelly 1986: 803). Specifically, the concept implies that basic human rights are not just a matter of social or political attribution, but instead are intrinsic to human nature and therefore also to be respected by the state. …

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