Alasdair MacIntyre on human dignity: Summary, analysis, and comments

I strongly sympathize with MacIntyre’s general theme that the notion of human dignity is more problematic and less interesting than many contemporary Catholics suppose, but I’m not convinced by some of the specific points MacIntyre makes.

The Scottish-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in a March 9, 2009 photo. (Sean O'Connor/Wikipedia)

Recently, Alasdair MacIntyre presented a talk on the theme “Human Dignity: A Puzzling and Possibly Dangerous Idea?” at the Fall Conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.  You can watch it on YouTube.  It has gotten a lot of attention even beyond academic circles, which is not surprising given MacIntyre’s stature together with the question he raises in the title.  What follows is a summary of the talk followed by my own comments.  I’m only going to cover MacIntyre’s main themes; there are various details (such as MacIntyre’s comments on specific historical examples) for which you’ll have to listen to his talk.

Whose dignity?  Which humans?

MacIntyre starts out by distinguishing between two conceptions of human dignity, one of which he evidently regards as unproblematic but which is not widely known today, and the other of which is widely appealed to today but, MacIntyre thinks, is problematic.  According to this latter conception, dignity is something that all human beings have, and their having it entails that we owe every human being respect.  Hence, according to this view of human dignity (and to use MacIntyre’s examples) we owe respect even to people who torture children, and to Goebbels and Stalin.  This, MacIntyre notes, is a puzzling idea.  But it is also vague exactly what this respect and dignity amount to.

MacIntyre says that this conception of human dignity became prevalent only after World War II, and that it is reflected in documents like the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in various post-war European constitutions.  And its vagueness, he suggests, was deliberate, because it was designed to secure rhetorical agreement among people who did not agree on substantive matters (Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists, conservatives, liberals, etc.).

A rival conception of human dignity is associated with Aquinas, and given exposition in the 20th century Thomist philosopher Charles De Koninck’s essay “The Primacy of the Common Good against the Personalists.”  There are four components to this conception:

  1. What distinguishes human beings from other creatures is the end toward which we are directed, which is to know and love God.The dignity of this end is what gives us our dignity.
  2. There are further ends associated with this end, most importantly the common good of the society of which we are parts.This entails a rejection of individualism.
  3. Whether we achieve these ends is up to us, given our powers as rational agents with free choice.
  4. Insofar as we fail to direct ourselves to these ends, we lose our dignity or worth, and no one any longer has reason to treat us as possessing it.

The Aquinas/De Koninck conception of human dignity differs from the post-war conception in three crucial ways.  First, the post-war conception was designed to secure agreement between people holding various different modern moral and political views, whereas Aquinas’s account is deeply at odds with those views.  Second, for Aquinas, individuals can and do lose their dignity, whereas for the post-war conception, no one ever loses it.  Third, the post-war conception holds that we have dignity simply by virtue of being human, whereas for Aquinas, it is not what we are that gives us dignity, but rather what we should became that gives it to us.

Three rival versions of inquiry into dignity

MacIntyre next notes that there are three basic alternative approaches one could take toward these rival accounts of human dignity.  First, one could reject both of them.  Second, one could reject what he calls the post-war conception.  Third, one could reject the Aquinas/De Koninck conception.  For the purposes of this talk, MacIntyre focuses on weighing the respective merits of the post-war and Aquinas/De Koninck accounts (rather than considering some third alternative or throwing out the notion of dignity altogether).

Why have many people found the post-war conception attractive?  MacIntyre suggests that there are six or seven reasons.  The view that all human beings have dignity rules out slavery.  It rules out other kinds of mistreatment of people.  It rules out killing the innocent.  It rules out insulting and humiliating people.  It rules out arbitrary discrimination against people.  It requires us to give other people’s views a fair hearing before judging them.  And it rules out lying to people (though MacIntyre says that people now seem to be widely abandoning the idea that it is wrong to lie).

But MacIntyre next asks: What gives us a rational justification for believing that all human beings really do have dignity in a sense that would rule out these things?  The two main contemporary justifications are contractarian and Kantian.  But these attempted justifications are at odds with one another, and the notion of human dignity has also been subjected to consequentialist objections by writers like Peter Singer.  The upshot is that attempts to justify the post-war conception of human dignity are no less controversial than that conception itself is.

So, the post-war conception is hard to justify.  But MacIntyre also suggests that it may, in addition, be positively harmful.  For it is an entirely negative conception, requiring of us only that we do not do certain things to people.  But in a sound morality, MacIntyre thinks, negative precepts have their importance only relative to positive ones.

For example, suppose we free a group of slaves, but leave it at that, and do nothing positively to improve the unhappy condition slavery has reduced them to.  Or suppose we outlaw abortion, but do nothing to remedy a situation in which the children who are born are not sufficiently provided for.  It is not plausible to suppose that respect for the dignity of the slaves or the children requires only the negative duty of not enslaving or aborting them, with no positive obligations to them beyond that.

MacIntyre then revisits the Aquinas/De Koninck conception of human dignity.  He notes that it distinguishes between dignity and utility, where the latter involves having value only as a means and the former involves having value as an end.  And again, it holds that our dignity derives from our having the end of knowing and loving God.  This end in turn derives from our nature as rational agents.  The reason is that the highest realization of our rationality is having the fullest possible understanding of things, and that entails knowing God as first cause.  And the highest realization of our having wills is to love the most perfect object of desire, and that is God.  Our dignity thus derives not from what we are actually, but what we are potentially, i.e. knowers and lovers of God.

Again, he notes that on the Aquinas/De Koninck conception, another of our ends is contributing to the common good, and that this entails rejecting individualism.  This implies in turn various positive obligations rather than a mere negative duty not to do certain things.  And MacIntyre suggests (acknowledging that this is his own inference rather than De Koninck’s) that among the things this would entail is provision of adequate childcare services for all, education for all, employment for all, and so on.

After dignity

MacIntyre then reiterates the point that on the Aquinas/De Koninck conception of human dignity, unlike the post-war conception, our dignity can be lost by sinning and turning away from God.  He notes that for Aquinas, a human being who does this is worse than a beast and that Aquinas links this to the legitimacy of the death penalty.

Does this mean that we do not owe such sinful human beings justice and charity?  MacIntyre says that that does not follow.  However, he notes that any appeal to justice necessarily presupposes a shared account of what it is to be a member of a flourishing social order (family, larger political community, etc.).  As long as there is no agreement on that, appeals to justice will not be effective.

Relatedly, he notes at the end of his talk, in recent years Catholics have often supposed that when dealing with a secular audience, they can appeal to the notion of human dignity in order to justify the Church’s teaching on various moral issues.  But this is a mistake, because there is no agreement between Catholics and the secular world on the rival background assumptions that are necessary to give the notion of dignity content.

During the Q and A period, MacIntyre elaborated on some of these points.  John O’Callaghan suggested that we need to distinguish between losing one’s dignity, and failing to live up to it.  Why, he asks, can’t we say merely that a sinner has failed to live up to it?  Why say that the sinner loses his dignity?  Furthermore, if a Hitler or a Goebbels loses his dignity, does this entail that we could torture them?  If not, why not?

In response, MacIntyre says, first, that we should not torture such people, but not because they have dignity.  Rather, we should not do so because it would be contrary to justice to do so.  He also claims that at least for Aquinas, it’s not merely that a sinner has turned away from the end of knowing and loving God, but that, even if only temporarily, he is no longer directed to that end.

MacIntyre here also makes a couple of interesting side remarks.  He says that the Laval Thomism associated with De Koninck was the most important strain of Thomism in the twentieth century, and that Ralph McInerny, who was the foremost exponent of Laval Thomism after De Koninck, was the most important philosopher ever to teach at the University of Notre Dame.  MacIntyre says that other Notre Dame philosophers wouldn’t agree with him about this, but that that simply reflects ignorance.

Melissa Moschella then suggested that the notion of human dignity does more philosophical work than MacIntyre gives it credit for.  For example, in bioethics it provides a way of grounding the idea that all human beings (unlike non-human animals) share common membership of the moral community.  In reply, MacIntyre says that the concept of justice is independent of and prior to the notion of dignity, so that we don’t need the notion of dignity in order to do the work in question.

Ben Conroy then suggested that the Thomistic conception of dignity that MacIntyre favors might be accused of having had some bad consequences, just as the modern conception of dignity has.  His example is excessively harsh treatment of heretics during the Middle Ages.  In reply, MacIntyre says, first, that as a matter of history, there is no reason to think that Aquinas’s conception of dignity, specifically, influenced the way heretics were treated.  Second, he says that when we consider how heretics ought to be treated, it is really the concept of justice that is doing the work, rather than the concept of human dignity.

He notes that on an Aristotelian conception of justice (unlike, say, John Rawls’s conception) treating someone justly by giving him his due requires knowing what it is to be a member of a flourishing family, workplace, or other social community.  And in the case of the Church’s dealing with heretics, he says, the problem was that the Church did not have an adequate understanding of what dealing with them justly requires.

Finally, Chris Wolfe asked whether, on Aquinas’s view as interpreted by De Koninck, the nation state, and not just the local community, can be said to have a common good.  MacIntyre’s answer is that the modern state is problematic as an institution, but that it is nevertheless there, so that we have to work within its organizational framework in order to achieve common goods.  It isn’t itself really an instrument of the common good, but it does afford resources and obstacles vis-à-vis the common good.  An example he gives of a resource that it makes possible is maternity leave.

Some comments on MacIntyre on dignity

Again, that’s all just a summary of the main thread of MacIntyre’s talk, which I thought I’d write up to help organize my own thoughts and give context for the comments to follow.  It also seems to me that some other people who have commented on MacIntyre’s talk have cherry-picked certain remarks that are of special interest to them, but which could give a distorted picture of the talk’s overall theme to someone who hasn’t heard it.  So, a summary seemed worthwhile.  I have tried simply to report what he said, but if any reader thinks I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented him in any way, let me know.

Here are my own comments.  First, I strongly sympathize with MacIntyre’s general theme that the notion of human dignity is more problematic and less interesting than many contemporary Catholics suppose.  Indeed, I’ve made the point myself several times over the years (e.g. here and here).  Shouting “human dignity!” does exactly zero work in justifying claims about abortion, euthanasia, etc. because what human dignity amounts to and what it entails are themselves no less contested than those issues are.  In order to show that respect for human dignity rules out those things, you need to do the hard work of setting out the natural law reasoning that shows that they are intrinsically evil.  But once you’ve done that, talk of “human dignity” drops away as otiose.

Having said that, I’m not convinced by some of the specific points MacIntyre makes.  For example, it doesn’t seem to me to be correct to say that what he calls the post-war conception of human dignity amounts merely to a set of negative requirements.  For some people, such as libertarians, it might, but that is because they’re libertarians, not because they’re appealing to human dignity.  A Rawlsian liberal, a social democrat, or a socialist might claim that human dignity does require various positive obligations, rather than merely negative duties to avoid certain ways of treating people.

MacIntyre might respond that these positive obligations really follow from the views about justice that these theorists have, and not from the notion of dignity.  But says who?  Precisely because the notion of dignity is so vague (as MacIntyre also complains), it’s not clear why it would have to entail only a set of negative requirements.

In this way, two of MacIntyre’s points seem to me to be in tension with one another.  On the one hand, he says that the post-war notion of dignity is too vague, but on the other hand he also suggests that it may entail only negative obligations.  Well, if it really does allow for only negative obligations, then it’s not that vague after all.  But if the post-war conception of dignity is vague – as I agree it is – then it doesn’t clearly rule out positive obligations, because it doesn’t clearly rule out much at all.  (Indeed, it doesn’t by itself even entail all negative obligations – for example, some people think it doesn’t rule out abortion and euthanasia.)  Hence, it seems to me that MacIntyre should have just stuck with the objection that the post-war conception is too vague, and not bothered with the claim that it entails only negative obligations.

A second problem is that I don’t think MacIntyre’s response to John O’Callaghan’s point really works.  After all, a sinning human being is still a human being, and thus still has a human nature, and thus still has the end entailed by having the nature, which is knowing God (albeit not the intimate knowledge of the divine essence entailed by the beatific vision).  And if the sinner is baptized, he remains baptized after sinning and thus still has the same supernatural end of the beatific vision (even if he has frustrated the realization of this end).  The problem is not that he has lost the ends in question, but that he is not doing what is necessary to realize them.  Hence it seems more apt to say, as John suggests, that he is not living up to the demands of his dignity, rather than that he has lost his dignity.  (In general, the failure clearly to distinguish and relate what is true of us by nature and what is true of us by virtue of grace may pose problems for MacIntyre’s treatment of Aquinas.)

A way to reconcile MacIntyre’s and John’s views is to appeal to a distinction emphasized by Steven Long (who was also influenced by De Koninck), between the “substantive dignity” that follows simply upon having a certain nature and the “acquired dignity” of someone who has obeyed the divine law.  The sinner loses the second (which is perhaps what MacIntyre wants to emphasize) while retaining the first (which is perhaps what John O’Callaghan wants to emphasize).

I am strongly sympathetic to MacIntyre’s emphasis on the common good and criticism of individualism.  But I am not so keen on the examples he gives of how to secure the former, such as maternity leave, childcare, and the like.  To be sure, MacIntyre only mentions such examples briefly and in passing and doesn’t elaborate on exactly what he has in mind.  But the problem with simply citing such examples without elaborating on them is that they cannot properly be understood without factoring in the principle of subsidiarity, which is crucial to understanding the Thomistic conception of the common good.

Take child care.  Is the provision of adequate child care essential to a just society ordered toward the common good?  Of course. But exactly who is to provide for it?  For example, who is responsible for providing child care for my children?  The answer is that am.  What if I am unable to do it?  The answer is that the primary responsibility for assisting me lies with my extended family.  What if they are unable to do it?  The answer is that the local Church and local community more generally ought to offer assistance.  Is there a role for more centralized authorities, such as the state or federal government?  Yes, but only to the extent that the sources of aid closer to those who need it are not sufficient.

Hence while Thomistic natural law theory (and Catholic social teaching, which was developed in light of it) rule out libertarianism, they also rule out socialism, as well as (I would argue) social democracy and Rawlsian egalitarian liberalism.  Now, under the influence of these latter doctrines, most people today, when they think of aspects of the common good like the ones MacIntyre cites, tend reflexively to think of centralized government as the agency that ought to provide them.  And that is contrary to the principle of subsidiarity, which, while it requires larger-scale levels of society (such as centralized government) to aid lower-level ones (like the family) when strictly necessary, at the same time and as a matter of justice forbids the larger-scale levels from doing so where it is not necessary.  In other words, whereas modern egalitarians think of central government as the provider of first resort, the natural law tradition and Catholic social teaching think of it as the provider of last resort.  (It is still a provider in that case, though, contrary to libertarianism.)

The point of this is to safeguard the independence of the family and local communities, which are the primary context within which we manifest our social nature and realize the common good.  Without an accent on the family and subsidiarity, MacIntyre’s pitting of the common good against individualism – with which, again, I strongly agree – could be understood in a way that reflects, not Thomistic natural law, but rather modern egalitarian doctrines which Thomists ought to resist just as they resist individualism.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with his kind permission.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Edward Feser 46 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


  1. Here we have the old Marxist Chestnut of “The Common Good” run up the flagpole with all its It takes a Village to Raise a Child.Unless of course you’re Killing the child in the womb.Then the Village is AWOL,and in fact is aiding and abetting the
    killing of the child.

  2. Hence, according to this view of human dignity we owe respect even to people who torture children, and to Goebbels and Stalin. This, MacIntyre notes, is a puzzling idea. But it is also vague exactly what this respect and dignity amount to (Dr Feser). First, must there be some amount of respect? Yes. Although Aquinas is correct, that we can lose our human dignity. Does that loss, which must be considered by degree, ultimately mean total and absolute, irretrievable loss? No. A principle indisputable that remains ad infinitum, regardless of whatever evil we are responsible, is that Man is created in God’s image. That is never lost. For examples, a priest is ordained a priest forever and remains such whether ending in Heaven or Hell. Similarly with the indelibility of baptism. Undergirding that is our creation in the Lord’s image increased by the sacraments conferred. Historically, just law provides for a humane degree of treatment of the heinous criminal whatever the crime. That is why it’s sinful to desecrate, mutilate the human body, or torture criminals. That is not simply due to the sin of the perpetrator of torture and mutilation, rather it’s due to the desecrated sacred image that the perpetrator sins. Even condemned to Hell that image remains, the soul irreparably evil, although because of its nature not subject to extinction, deserving of divine wrath. As such, there is agreement with Feser’s thought, that “A way to reconcile MacIntyre’s and John’s views is to appeal to a distinction emphasized by Steven Long [who was also influenced by De Koninck], between the substantive dignity that follows simply upon having a certain nature and the acquired dignity”.

  3. Thank you for all of the above. And particularly for leavening common-good solidarity with subsidiarity…

    It strikes me that all of the elements of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) come in complementary or binary pairs: (1) the transcendent person and the family always together; (2) wider solidarity and subsidiarity always together; (3) rights and responsibilities always together; (4) informed conscience and faithful citizenship always together; (5) the option for the poor and the dignity of work always together; (6) and sustainable care for God’s creation and solidarity/subsidiarity, always together.

    Even spirited and respectful disagreement over what these things mean in particular cases is part of the common good. The CST is the negation of (simplifying) ideology, and instead is achieved through the moral virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and courage. But ours is a culture of slogans, and a mindset that rejects everything complementary or binary, even human sexuality.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Alasdair MacIntyre on human dignity: Summary, analysis, and comments – Via Nova Media
  2. Alasdair MacIntyre on human dignity: Summary, analysis, and comments – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.