SJP2’s account of dignity

There is a traditional Catholic account of human dignity was that the person is in God’s image and (leaving aside the damned for a moment) is always called to union with him. John Paul II gives an account of human dignity that appropriates Kant’s second categorical imperative: the person is always to be loved as opposed to merely used. The definition has proved particularly fruitful and appropriate to dealing with the moral problems of a technologized world.

One consequence of the definition, which for many Catholics counts as a scandal, is that it is very difficult to square it with an in-principle acceptance of capital punishment or eternal punishment. Both seem to be cases where the person is irrevocably and completely subordinated to the good of a whole by having to give his life up forever for the sake of retributive or restorative justice. Both seem to preclude, in Kant’s way of putting it, our ability to take the person as an end and not merely as a means to something else. Under such a restriction, capital punishment can only be defended as a sort of self-defense, but while self-defense can be plausibly justified through double-effect reasoning but CP cannot. We can defend ourselves against a threat without the death of the aggressor being a failure of our intention, but the same can’t be said of CP, and it is completely incoherent as an account of eternal punishment. So we seem stuck having to drop CP and hellfire or the dignity of persons as St. John Paul understood it along with all the conclusions we used the principle to explain and justify. To leave it at this makes it hard not to experience the tradition of the Church as a burden, and one looks about for a distinction that allows one to commute the either-or into a both-and.

One possibility is to see the common good as the person’s ultimate good, and so any orientation of the person to this good can never be contrary to seeing them as an end in themselves. Orienting someone to a common good like the (even restorative) justice of the state can never be seen as subordinating his individual good to the good of something else, even in the cases where he will necessarily die for the sake of that common good.

But it’s hard to see how this would keep the rest of St. John Paul’s philosophy in place. Why not see contraception (or even pornography) as falling under the common good in the same way?

St. Thomas might suggest that St. John Paul’s account of persons applies to persons to the extent that they are free from sin. Good persons must be dealt with as ends in themselves, while the evil as such can only be used, and to the extent that the evil becomes inveterate the only appropriate response is to use the person according to an irrevocable act. This solution is problematic too.




  1. John B. said,

    June 5, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    With respect to Thomas’s probable response, my guess is that you’re thinking in particular of ST II-II, Q. 64, Art. 2, ad. 1:

    “By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others.”

    I’m not the first to point out that this seems to prove way too much. In light of the ubiquity of sin, it seems only a half step from Trotsky’s attitude toward state killings: they can only be immoral if they don’t end up benefiting the common good of mankind after all. And, we might add, let the kulak who is without sin be the first to raise an objection.

    Thomas’s support for the in-principle legitimacy of capital punishment doesn’t stand or fall with this argument, but still I’d like to see a knowledgeable exponent of Thomas defend it. I never have, even when it has been raised directly.

  2. robalspaugh said,

    June 5, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    What would a common good argument in favor of pornography look like? I can see the contraception one, but not the pornography one.

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