Human Dignity and the Culture of Death

Something Rotten

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. This is the lament of the bard at the moral and political degradation of society and it is a lament that many proclaim about Western society. We see so many news items, political developments, international developments etc that we can’t help but be led to the conclusion that there is something rotten at the heart of our society and it needs fixed.

There are many diagnoses of what is happening in society and what has gone wrong over the years; indeed a very popular narrative is one that delineates various group identities and holds that society is broken because certain groups are privileged over others, and this creates a state of inequality, with the privileged acting as the de facto oppressors of those not so privileged. When we fix this oppression we will fix society.

The group identity diagnosis may have some appeal to it, but it overlooks a key element of any society, and this is the dignity of the individual person. The group identity narrative overlooks the dignity of the individual and subsumes the individual to the identity of the group. The individual’s dignity and all the rights and freedoms that flow from that don’t matter on this account, but the rights of the group and one attains these rights only when one identifies with the right group (

In order then to overcome this displacement of the individual by the group identity we have to come to terms with what is rotten in society by means of a focus on the person and how our society is so cultured that the person and his dignity have been overlooked. This personalist approach to human dignity was a key feature of the thinking of St John Paul II, and his thought stemming from this on the culture of death can help us to understand what is rotten in our society.

Human Dignity

In previous posts I have focussed on the issue of human dignity, and it will be worthwhile to reiterate the basic principles of dignity before connecting it to the culture of life and death in this post.

Human dignity is rooted in the nature of human beings. We humans are rational animals, and as rational we have intellects which can understand the world and a will by which we can engage and act in the world. Central to having intellect and will is the ability to see a choiceworthy end and to will it for ourselves. As rational beings, we humans are able to determine our ends for ourselves; cabbages or goldfish on the other hand cannot.

So far so good, but where is the moral dimension to this?

The moral dimension follows from the fact that insofar as we are able to determine our ends for ourselves, we ourselves cannot be treated as the means for some other’s end; to do that, i.e. to treat a person as a means and not an end in himself would be to treat him as less than human, as something with no more moral status than a goldfish or cabbage. Human dignity then is based on human nature and its ability to determine its end for itself; any violation of that nature is a violation of human dignity.

Violations of human dignity are easily found in numerous places; we see such violations in abortion, euthanasia, torture, abuse, slavery etc all of which subvert the being of one person to the ends or goals of another.

The Culture of Death

One may think that the culture of death refers to a situation wherein there are violations of human dignity the typical result of which is death, e.g. abortion and euthanasia. But this would be too simplistic an understanding of the culture of death. One could have a culture wherein there is no abortion or euthanasia and it could still be legitimately called a culture of death. And here is why.

We noted that when we violate human dignity, we make use of humans for our own purposes and do not respect their dignity as ends in themselves. Thus, human dignity is violated when humans have only a use but not a value. Now think of things that we use; things which have a use are made use of for the purpose of some goal, e.g. money is used to buy food which is used to preserve life. The means themselves have no value except for bringing us to the goal – the means have only instrumental value. Money and food are valued in this instance because they go to preserve life, whereas the life that is being preserved has a value in itself (otherwise we wouldn’t give up our money or use food in order to preserve it).

Things that are only of use but not of value are deemed valueless and only have value in the measure that they can lead to or preserve what we value. When we use things to achieve our ends we finish with them when our ends have been achieved; hence they are now valueless, dead. So for example, when food is taken to preserve our lives, we take from it what we need and the rest is waste; as waste it is of no value to us as food and is therefore valueless. A culture wherein everything is of use and nothing is of value is a culture of death; for once something has been used up, it no longer has any significance. A culture that does not respect human dignity, doesn’t value humans and has no problem with subverting their use to the ends of others. Once used, humans then are dead, valueless, to those who use them. So even though a culture may not adopt practices that result in the death of those that we use, it can still be a culture of death insofar as it envisages humans as things of use.

Promoting a Culture of Life

A culture of life is a culture which values human beings for the dignified creatures that they are. In being able to consider and determine choiceworthy ends, human beings resist being objects of use in their very nature. Humans are not usable things, and to make use of a human for one’s own end is to treat him as less than human. Hence, human nature resists being used. The only appropriate stance that one ought to take to a fellow human being is one of love.

Now, talk of promoting a culture of life is often taken as promoting the eradication of practices that undermine life, e.g. campaigning against abortion. What we are effectively doing in this regard is seeking to promote a culture wherein human beings are not seen as legitimate objects of use for others, but loved as ends in themselves. Unless a society can be formed in which human beings are treated as objects of love rather than of use there will always be something ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’. So we may not have practices such as abortion and euthanasia which lead to death, but we may still have a culture wherein people are worth nothing more than as instruments for the goals of others, e.g. when big business uses but does not value its lowest paid, when men and women use but do not value each other in sexual relations, when government uses but does not value its citizens. When such devaluation occurs, the people involved are dehumanised and not loved for the dignified beings that they are. Only when we love our fellow humans as they are meant to be loved will we have a genuine culture of life.

Dr Gaven Kerr