Biggar and the Kind of Human Dignity that Remains

Jennifer A. Herdt 

Photo by Konrad Ziemlewski on Unsplash.

This article is part of our “What’s Wrong with Rights?” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

Nigel Biggar is essentially right about rights. They are indeed paradigmatically legal. They are indeed conditional and limited. And it is indeed the case that they can neither be justly defined nor respected without attention to circumstances or without the virtues that enable agents properly to attend to the relevant circumstances. Biggar’s book What’s Wrong with Rights? establishes these points over the course of a wide-ranging discussion, sparkling with intelligence, that deserves to become the touchstone for further discussions of natural rights. While ample room exists for debate over particulars, this very fact reinforces the strength of Biggar’s overall argument. Since I take it that Biggar has made his case well, I wish to focus my attention elsewhere, on a topic that makes only cameo appearances in What’s Wrong with Rights?: the topic of human dignity. 

It is not immediately evident what Biggar means by “dignity” in this text. This is due in part to his having not dignity but natural rights in his cross-hairs, but also because when he does discuss dignity, it is most often through his interpreting the words of others. Dignity remains significantly related to his project, however. As he says at the outset of the book, it does not matter whether the views he defends are distinctively Christian; instead, “all that really matters is whether they are true and supportive of human dignity” (6). This suggests that dignity holds rather a significant place in Biggar’s thought. 

Since Biggar contests the coherence of natural rights but not of natural law or natural morality, it would be worthwhile to analyze the places where dignity appears in his discussion of these latter concepts. Biggar speaks sympathetically of the moral law as “generated by the ‘dignity’ that attaches to every being of human nature — that is, to every ‘image of God’, or moral agent, or person” (122). His affirmation that the moral law is generated by human dignity does not mean, however, that it is independent of God. We can affirm that the law of nature is “primordial” and “God-given” while at the same time recognize that “the status or dignity of the human individual generates a natural law comprising duties both to others and to the self” (160). 

If the natural law is God-given, in what sense is it “generated” by human dignity? I take it that Biggar here intends to affirm that the moral law, as he elsewhere puts it, “flows from” the dignity of human nature” (122) in the following sense. There is a “constant nature of the reality of human being” (7), which decisively shapes the moral quality of actions taken in response or relation to that reality. Since this reality is given by God in creation, so too are both human dignity and the natural law that flows from it. We might amplify this assertion by adding that God creates and affirms the goodness of creation. This goodness is thus to be respected by (it imposes duties on) those capable of recognizing this goodness. 

But Biggar appears to be saying something more specific and, importantly, different than this. A special status within creation attaches to every being of human nature. This special status is bound up with being made in the image of God, or being a moral agent, or being a person. If we think simply of the pluriform goodness of creation, and the ways in which moral agents ought to respond to these forms of goodness, we might find it natural to affirm that each instance of a natural kind has its own distinctive dignity. And indeed, “dignity” is used at times in this way, as when Thomas Aquinas speaks of dignity as “something’s goodness on account of itself” — that is, its intrinsic value.1 Scriptum super libros Sententiarium, bk. III, distinction 35, question 1, article 4, solution 1c, discussed insightfully by Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 16-17. We might at the same time think of this intrinsic value as being linked to the status that a particular individual thing has, insofar as it instantiates a specific “kind” that occupies a distinct rank among creaturely kinds. Such a thought has its most natural place in something like the image of the Great Chain of Being; creaturely kinds are not merely different from one another, but different by way of participating more or less fully in being. They are, hence, hierarchically graded.

Since human beings are responsible agents, living in a way suitable to the dignity of the human kind is bound up in part with the exercise of our own moral agency and with how we are treated by other moral agents, as well as with the circumstances of our lives.

What then becomes of the notion that affirmations of human dignity are bound up with affirmations of human equality? How is this notion of differential status within the ordered whole of creation to be reconciled with a vision of fundamentally equal worth or value? Within the inherited Christian understanding I am sketching here, equality of dignity is equality shared by members of a kind; human beings share equal intrinsic value as members of the human kind; just as (for instance) do sugar maples, as members of their kind. 

How did dignity, though, come to be so attached to the human kind that it can come to be seen as utterly superfluous to specify that one is speaking of human dignity? Because dignity, in its original antique context, referred most often not simply to status but to high status, discussion of the dignity attaching to kinds similarly tended to focus on the dignity attaching to particularly elevated kinds. Cicero saw this shared high status as rooted in humankind’s rational nature; Christians, in terms of humankind’s creation in the image of God.2Cicero, De Officiis, I, 30. It was Kant, however, who most decisively cut the notion of human dignity off from its original connection with the varied forms of intrinsic value inherent in each and every creaturely kind. For Kant insists not merely that human beings have intrinsic value, or that they have intrinsic value that is particularly great or elevated, but that this value, as he writes in his Metaphysics of Morals, is unconditional and incomparable: an “absolute inner” worth. Human beings transcend the natural world because only they are capable of recognizing and legislating and conforming to the moral law. Nothing else, for Kant, possesses this sort of inner worth. Hence, human beings are importantly cut off from creation. And, since the freedom that respects the moral law is noumenal, human dignity is essentially hidden and so even further cut off from the phenomenal reality occupied by merely natural creatures.

From a Christian theological perspective, this Kantian understanding of human dignity should be problematic. It has also proven to be disastrous for non-human creation, which is thereby viewed as unproblematically open to being placed in service of human ends and interests. I do not think that it is possible on the basis of Biggar’s text to determine whether he understands human dignity in a pre-Kantian Christian sense, as the intrinsic value, and therefore the status within creation, of the particular creaturely kind made to the image of God; or in a Kantian sense, as participating in the only thing of “unconditional” and “incomparable” value, and therefore utterly transcending its natural, creaturely existence. 

While I think this is an important question to put to Biggar, I set it aside, since I take it to be undecidable on the basis of this text. I turn my attention instead to the question of whether human dignity is something that can be lost or forfeited. One of Biggar’s central sources of dissatisfaction with natural rights discourse is that it portrays rights as inalienable and unconditional, when they are not. It is therefore an intriguing question whether Biggar regards dignity as alienable. 

The possibility of giving up one’s human dignity hovers over Biggar’s discussion of torture. Discussing the permissibility of torture, Biggar remarks that “it is not clear to me exactly what kind of rational freedom remains in the likes of a Hitler or Pol Pot or fanatical agent of ‘Islamic State’, which ought not to be compelled” (171). He immediately goes on to suggest that “this is a doubt that even finds expression in Thomas Aquinas.” Aquinas, Biggar notes, insists that it is intrinsically evil to kill someone who retains (or remains in) his “natural dignity.” “Nevertheless,” continues Biggar, “while Aquinas does attribute to human life a certain objective goodness, he does not consistently think it inalienable.” “A sinner,” as Biggar cites from Aquinas, “may lose his ‘human dignity’ and lapse into bestial servitude, so as to serve the purposes of others.” 

But we must never cease, in reflecting on precisely what is justified in these circumstances, from seeking to respect the dignity of this evil-doer simply as a human being, a member of this creaturely kind, loved into existence by God and cherished despite its sinful character.

This is a puzzling passage, given its apparent equation of the “natural goodness” of human life with “rational freedom,” and both of these with “human dignity.” The puzzles here are not confined to Biggar but are deeply embedded in the Western tradition of dignity talk. On the one hand, dignity has been understood as intrinsic value associated with mere membership in a particular natural kind. On the other hand, it has been understood in terms of what it means to be perfected, or to flourish, as a member of that natural kind. A living creature can flourish or fail to flourish, succeed in living in a way suitable to the dignity of its kind, or not. Since human beings are responsible agents, living in a way suitable to the dignity of the human kind is bound up in part with the exercise of our own moral agency and with how we are treated by other moral agents, as well as with the circumstances of our lives. So we possess dignity, as the intrinsic value associated with membership in the human kind, simply by virtue of being human. But we may or may not be treated in ways appropriate to the dignity of our kind; we often speak of having been robbed of our dignity, when we mean that our intrinsic dignity has been disrespected. Similarly, we can fail ourselves to act in ways appropriate to the dignity of our kind, and often speak loosely of having lost or forfeited our dignity when we do.

While this casual talk of loss of dignity can be perfectly intelligible when it is unpacked in this way, it leads to a great deal of confusion. For it is often taken to mean that the intrinsic goodness associated simply with instantiating a particular kind of being, i.e., with being human, can be lost or taken away. We see this in the notion, which Biggar finds in Aquinas, that the “objective goodness” of existing as a human is alienable, that an evildoer may lose their human dignity, the status pertaining to the human form of life, such that their dignity is no longer disrespected if they are treated like beasts, made into mere instruments of the will of others. Space does not permit me to explore whether this adequately captures Aquinas’s understanding of human dignity. But I would think that Biggar would want to reject it. Doing so would, I think, strengthen the argument that he seeks to make concerning torture. 

Here, then, is what I think Biggar should say about dignity, to be consistent with his stance on the one hand toward natural law and on the other hand toward natural rights. He should deny that human dignity — the objective goodness or intrinsic value of existing as an instance of the human kind — can be either lost or taken away. This intrinsic value makes demands on moral agents; it is to be respected both by others and by ourselves. We can, of course, fail to act in ways consistent with our human dignity, and we can fail to treat others in ways consistent with their human dignity. When it comes to the evaluation of torture, then, we are no longer confronted with the morally perilous question of whether it might potentially be permissible to do all sorts of things to a creature that has voluntarily forfeited its objective goodness as human, thereby rendering itself nothing more a suitable tool for the purposes of others. We are, rather, addressing the question of what it is permissible to do to a fellow creature, who shares with us the intrinsic value and associated equal moral status of humanhood, but who at the same time has acted in ways that fail to comport with that dignity in both self and others. 

But Biggar does not unambiguously embrace this position. He happily concedes that insofar as torture is defined as deliberate pain infliction vitiated by sadism or the like, it is absolutely prohibited (188). It ought to be absolutely prohibited because its wrongness is here built into its definition. But with that question settled, attention naturally shifts to what particular actions, with which motives, intentions, and circumstances, count as torture. Here Biggar argues that it is not the case that any act “that deliberately chooses to inflict pain for some ulterior purpose is intrinsically immoral” (170). This is clearly correct. It is also the case that “there are malicious commitments of the will that deserve to be broken or shattered or subverted,” and in this sense that we may permissibly seek to attack a person’s integrity, if integrity is understood as a matter of some sort of (evil) consistent personal commitment. But we must never cease, in reflecting on precisely what is justified in these circumstances, from seeking to respect the dignity of this evil-doer simply as a human being, a member of this creaturely kind, loved into existence by God and cherished despite its sinful character. Biggar acknowledges this, insofar as he notes that deep regret is owed at the infliction even of pain one is morally obliged to inflict, and that this regret is an expression of respect toward the recipient of this pain (188). But when Biggar concedes that he “strain[s] to understand what kind of dignity might remain” in a Hitler or Pol Pot (17), he comes worrisomely close to relinquishing that core insight. Insofar as he does, he jeopardizes the commitment he makes at the start of the book, where he insists that the one thing that really matters about the views he defends is “whether they are true and supportive of human dignity” (6). ♦

Jennifer A. Herdt is Gilbert Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School and author most recently of Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition (Chicago, 2020). She is a senior member of the research team for Collaborative Inquiries in Theological Anthropology, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Recommended Citation

Herdt, Jennifer A. “Biggar and the Kind of Human Dignity that Remains” Canopy Forum, January 22, 2021,