Human beings emerge from nature as persons – free, emotive-rational, conscious subjects. As persons we possess a unique ontological dignity, an inherent value, and a sense of worth that is grounded in our very being and is not merited or earned.
What does it mean to assert that every human being is a person? The concept of person implies an independence of being and acting, echoing back to Roman law – persona est suri iuris et alteri incommunicabilis – a person is a being which belongs to itself and which does not share its being with another. Personhood implies subjectivity – we are not inert, passive objects in the world – we are centers of awareness (including self-awareness), action, and unrepeatable individuality.
To assert the inherent dignity of the human person is not speciesism or a denigration of other life forms. Every living being is unique and of value. Each being has dignity. Yet human self-awareness, reason, language, the engendering of culture, freedom, capacity for virtue (and vice) calls attention to the unique place of the human person within the ecosystem.
This sacred vision of humanity – expressed in many religious traditions as Imago Dei, B’tzelem Elohim, and that of God within each person – has its origins in the insight that humans possess certain abilities that reflect what are often deemed divine powers – creativity, the ability to love, freedom, reason, and so on.
This vision of human dignity owes it origins in part also to the pre-Christian, classical thinking – that humans occupy a lofty role within the natural order and have natural capacities of creativity, love, freedom, and reason that rise to the level of near divinity.
Has Western culture proven this claim of human dignity? Can such insights be demonstrated in a logically consistent manner? Returning to our earlier discussion on insights and moral reasoning, the answer is no, one cannot deductively prove human dignity. Rather, assertions of human dignity are based on collective insight – the shared view of a culture and tradition.
Still, the fact that humans have such potential for good and bad is also something of a statement of our metaphysical value, for a being capable of such good and such evil must have some sense of ontological gravitas.
Much of the Western Cultural tradition is grounded in the affirmation of human dignity, from democracy, social justice, human rights, aid to the needy, compassion, and freedom, to themes in art, religion, literature, style, cuisine, and architecture.
To reflect on human dignity is a gateway to moral understanding and the assertion of human rights and responsibilities that form our social order. Our dignity makes certain demands on us in terms of how we live, eat, dress, work, have sex, entertain ourselves – and how we relate to others, both humans and nonhumans, in the world around us.
The Human Soul
It seems a mistaken notion that we are immaterial souls trapped in bodies, or some sort of dualist hybrid of spirit and flesh. Yes, such language at times does help us make sense of certain human realities. But it is truer to say that we are unified self-aware flesh, that our existence melds material and immaterial realities, and that the exact relationship of the mind-soul to the body is a mystery.
Rather than speak of the human soul as some sort of ghost in the machine, it seems more accurate to speak of the soul in terms of individuation, identity, place, meaning, and purpose – the core reality of the human person – and fundamental themes in most religions. The soul is that locus of meaning and purpose within an individual.
The soul must find its meaning and purpose outside itself – in the world, in others, in objective values. Religious wisdom includes soulcraft, conveying the skills and insights needed in shaping the soul to find fulfillment with the world.
We deny the doctrine of Original Sin and other related notions of a cosmic gap, separation, or debt owed to God or the universe on the part of humanity.
Humans are limited, imperfect creatures living in a semi-chaotic, free-flowing world. Perfection, particularly moral perfection, is impossible – perfection remains only an ideal in a real, dynamic, and emergent world. Humans can obtain some measure of wholeness, but it is often illusive and incomplete.
No one needs to die for another to be whole. Human wholeness does not require bloodshed. Much of the Christian theology of original sin and substitutionary blood atonement is deeply flawed and contrary to basic notions of justice and necessity.
The Genesis accounts are, in part, mythic attempts to explain human limitation and the presence of evil in the world, not actual descriptions of events, attempts at scientific explanation, or historical narratives.
Our world, including all humans, is imperfect and limited. Humans have the potential for fostering beautiful goodness, as well as stunningly horrific evil. Thus is the capacity of humans. While moral goodness is a realistic goal, moral perfection is not obtainable. The past is unretrievable. No Cross, atonement, sacrifice, or reparations are possible. The future does not exist. It is our responsibility to do our best to master ourselves in virtue and strive for a just, compassionate social reality, worthy of our human dignity and the sacredness of life and the ecosystem.
Salvation is a metaphor for this reality of human actualization – individual and collective – the fullness of human thriving and wholeness. In this sense, salvation is a process, not a static status – it’s an ongoing dynamic of self-improvement, learning, and love – of becoming more fully human – of obtaining some sense of wholeness. No one can hand us our salvation, we must work it out for ourselves.
Humans experience the capacity of being “called” by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own nature calling us toward fulfillment.
Morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority. Rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
Our dignity and ontological status provides something of a given orientation. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
The above manner of moral reasoning derives from a tradition of Western ethics called natural law reasoning. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature to derive norms for behavior in relation to human flourishing, in Greek, Eudaimonia.
Natural law ethics engages in praxiological analysis of human action in relation to goods/values and their role in human flourishing. Yet, in the fullest sense, natural law reasoning also implies a given philosophical anthropology, or view of the human person, as well as an implied metaphysics of value and the good.
The word natural corresponds to human nature, a sense that there are essential characteristics common to all human persons that constitute them as such. Nature, in this sense, is a category beyond personality, bodily traits, or individual circumstances – nature is the essential, constitutive, aspects that make one human.
The word law corresponds to a developing body of wisdom concerning those goods and behaviors that aid in human flourishing. Therefore, natural law moral reasoning understands human morality as laws (principles, norms) of human nature – a moral law or moral order, that is engrained in and derived from a reasoned analysis of human nature itself, and the goals and end states we deem worth obtaining.
In the natural law tradition, all efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature.
It must be noted that natural law ethics provides a framework for conducting moral reasoning – it is a method of thinking about right and wrong. Natural law ethics does not provide a list of goods or actions that lead to human flourishing. Questions such as, “what does the natural law say? or “does such behavior violate the natural law?” are somewhat misplaced.
One does not consult the natural law as one would a text. Rather, it’s a method of analyzing human nature and gaining insights into human flourishing. The word insight is significant. Moral truth, strictly speaking, isn’t demonstrated or understood through deductive means. Moral reasoning relies more on inductive method, but also the mental function of insight, the human capacity to intuit or comprehend the nature of things, their essence, their core meaning.
Insights require elucidation if they are to be communicated to others. In reasoned conversation, one needs to show or convey the content of their insights to others, getting others to see what we see. This manner of reasoning requires skill and conversations based on such can require time. Insights are not shared by all people and not always immediately grasped.
Therefore, intelligent people can engage in proper natural law reasoning and reach different conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made using philosophical reasoning, empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help evaluate claims of flourishing and betterment.
Morality is an integral part of our natural circumstances and identity, and is thus proper to the methodology of both philosophy and the human sciences.
While not all forms of immorality yield clear empirically demonstrable effects, in general, it is expected that long term immoral conduct will have some noticeable results on the human person – be they affects of character, health, or mental health.
Certain religious groups will claim forms of spiritual harm for behavior deemed immoral. Spiritual well-being is admittedly a vague concept that eludes empirical verification. In general, the tendency of more philosophically based theological traditions is to speak of the spiritual as coexistent with the mental, psychological, and affective dimensions of the person.
Understanding moral truth is a function of reason, although our reasoning may be aided by the inspired writings and our religious traditions.
Life Beyond Death?
Human beings emerge from nature, our life supported and enmeshed in the ecosystem, and at the end of our life, we (or, perhaps, at least, our physical aspects) return to nature.
As for a life, awareness, or some manner of personal existence that continues after this life is over – one can’t deny such possibilities philosophically, but no one can offer any evidence for such either.
We miss the meaning of life if we live it only in reference to the future. We can experience only the now. The past is gone, and the future isn’t yet a reality. To live only for some distant, other worldly future is to miss the point of living. We should live our lives as if each day matters as much as the day to come. This doesn’t mean not to plan and sacrifice for the future – that’s prudence. It means not neglecting the joys and challenges of today for an uncertain, distant future.
Our earthly-bodily journey will end and no one knows what happens when we die. Yet we do know that wisdom lies in embracing the core spiritual truth that kenotic love opens us toward wholeness now – we need not wait for some sense of cosmic wholeness or salvation that occurs at our death.
Something of us transcends death, our love, our generosity, some of the lingering effects of our efforts – what else may endure remains a mystery.