Human Dignity and the Image of God

On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech that became a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memori­al in Washington, D.C., he proclaimed:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’[1]

The words of this celebrated speech are com­memorated year after year, and we continue to be moved by the vi­sion it presents: all individuals created equal and, by virtue of their shared humani­ty, tied to one an­other as brothers regardless of skin color. We still hold dear to Dr. King’s vision, that of be­ing caught in an “inescapable network of mutuality” and “tied in a single garment of destiny,”[2] equal in worth and splendor, and bound to “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”[3]

There seems to be a feeling common to most humans that we are more than the sum of our parts. We believe that human beings possess in­trinsic worth, are valuable in and of themselves, and are entitled to certain unalienable rights and a measure of ethical treatment. Discourse concerning morality, rights, and the law refer to this sentiment as the concept of “human digni­ty.” Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, did not take this dignity for granted; he found it in a world­view that made it reasonable to hold that belief.

I am interested in the connection between materialism and human dignity, particularly whether the former can provide a firm founda­tion for belief in the latter. Materialism asserts that everything can be explained in relation to matter. If we can be fully defined in terms of our material constitution, I struggle to see how we can arrive at human dignity, which seems to me a rather ethereal notion. If we do not believe that there are holistic properties within the com­plex system of the human person, we should be suspicious of references to shared “humanity,” as if it were an essential quality.

From the materialist’s standpoint, Dr. King’s language of objectivity, absoluteness and essence simply do not make sense. One might arrive at the same conclusion, but such argument must be based on of pragmatism and convention, which I think are weaker foundations. He did not sug­gest that we must cooperate for the purpose of mutual benefit or increased total happiness; his was language of transcendence, and recourse to the divine is essential for this radical call to Love one another to make sense.

I suggest that a worldview that allows only for the existence of matter and nat­ural processes while excluding a supernatural cre­ator or a divine reality is unsuc­cessful in giving a well-founded picture of intrinsic human dignity. It leaves us with at best, either a ca­pacities-based form of dignity or a utilitarian form rooted in convention rather than meta­physical reality. I think that the Judeo-Chris­tian worldview gives us reasonable grounds to believe in human dignity, primarily through the doctrine of Image of God and the Incarnation of Christ, although I will refer only on the former.

The notion of dignity is often claimed to be a universal value and has been been adopted into the extensive body of human rights, as well as a humanistic “doctrine of man.” Claims made in defense of human rights suggest that they are universal or that they exist independently of le­gal enactments as justified moral norms. These claims have elicited skepticism, and with good reason because they take for granted the origins of and the grounds for belief in human dignity. They often come without a sufficient correspond­ing account of what it means to be a human be­ing, as well as a lack of adequate justification for belief in the sanctity of human life.

During the 20th century when several new human rights became recognized and codified, the word “dignity” appeared frequently in legal and constitutional discourse. Several countries including South Africa, Japan, Finland, Spain, West Germany, Ireland, Cuba, and Israel draft­ed constitutions (or declarations of indepen­dence), which assumed dignity to be inherent in man. Constitutional Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court and several international trea­ties, re-affirmed these documents that suggested certain rights were inalienable and that political authorities must reliably defend them. These proclamations upheld that the rights prescribed were exclusive to human beings and would not be withheld based on “religion, race, sex, lan­guage, political or other opinion, nationality, social or any other status.”[4] Perhaps the most important of these, the United Nations Declara­tion of Human Rights of 1948, asserts that hu­mans are born “free and equal in dignity and rights” and are “endowed with rea­son and conscience” and should treat one another in a “spirit of brotherhood.”[5]

When we consid­er not only our lives, but also those of oth­ers as valuable, our language betrays the fact that we believe our worth and dig­nity to be inherently and objectively true. The preamble of the UNDHR claims that by our membership in the “human family,” we are endowed with dignity unlike that of any other creature, both in kind and in degree.[6]

However, there are those who are disturbed by philosophical and theological appeals to the transcendent as a means to validate dignity and rights, and they have objected to this unempiri­cal method. In an attempt to ground their prop­ositions in “objective” knowledge, some have argued that it is possible to present a material basis for morality in “material or imaginable en­tities” and by extension, dignity.[7] For instance, biologist E.O. Simpson contends that the moral precepts and transcendent laws, which seeming­ly impart inherent worth onto the human, are simply beliefs we have evolved to accept and fervently defend. Our behavior is the outcome of autonomous genetic evolution, which has passed on genes that predispose us toward moral sen­timents, which exist presumably because they initially contributed to survival.

According to this view, humans require an “evolutionary epic”—a narrative that blends religious and scientific views in a mythological manner—to substitute our primal need to be a part of something greater. This desire has been hitherto satisfied by religious epics, and biolo­gist Edward Wilson argues that a “sublime” ac­count of the universe based in empirical knowl­edge that would ennoble mankind.[8]

Simpson tries to outline the objective ethical precepts as real and binding. Simpson holds that society’s moral commandments, which oblige us not to kill and to treat each other as we would like to be treated, are simply “principles… hardened into rules and dictates.” Our beliefs about morali­ty are codes that peo­ple “fervently wish others to follow,” which are eventu­ally canonized into law and religion as “sacred and unalter­able.”[9] He does not favor the view that humans are essen­tially unique; our quality of humanness does not warrant “in­alienable rights” and values. As a result, there is a degree of dissonance between our language and our knowledge. Our words suggest that we believe in the inherent dignity of human beings, but our scientific knowledge of reality points to purpose­less existence. We must simply ignore, or learn to live with this discomforting fact for the sake of pragmatism.

I consider such view of dignity as one based in convention and pragmatism. If science indeed only makes statements of fact and not of judg­ment, statements regarding meaning and value are outside the sphere of science. As such, an “evolutionary epic” is ennobling in the same way the knowledge of the properties of manganese is inspirational. Dignity here is an assumption that we simply cannot make.

Alternatively, there are people who have sug­gested that human dignity lies in the capacity of an individual. In this line of argument only some human beings possess full moral worth “because of their possession of certain characteristics in addition to their humanity,” such as an immedi­ately exercisable capacity for self-consciousness or for rational deliberation.[10] An individual’s good moral standing or their ability to contrib­ute to the flourishing of a community may also warrant dignity. This would mean, however, that humans are not equal in fundamental dig­nity. Such a view does not consider the “decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of use­fulness.”[11] It disregards the value of those who have lost their social usefulness due to old age, mental, or physical handicaps. This has poten­tially dangerous consequences.

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust, deeply understood the risks of making man less than he is, robbing him of his splendor. He writes,

The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ulti­mate consequence of the theory that man is noth­ing but the product of heredity and environment– or, as the Nazis liked to say, “of blood and soil.” I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ul­timately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.[12]

Frankl suggests that the evil done against him and millions of others was, in part, the re­sult of the desacralization of man, which iden­tified his worth in physical and racial qualities. According to a capacities-based approach, the concept of equal rights to dignity would be a lie that defiles the human species and opposes the cultivation of superior individuals.

We encounter a different vision of the hu­man person in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Hu­man beings are created by and in the image of an all-powerful, wholly good God. Therefore, it is possible to argue that we have value because of our origin. One of the most famous passag­es from Genesis states: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…’So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”[13]

The challenge here is that Genesis offers a glimpse into human dignity by referring to the divine image without precisely defining it. We can glean that dignity includes man’s special rank in the creative hierarchy, and it confers a special worth onto human life. There are only a few references to the Imago Dei the Old and New Testaments, and in none of the accounts is human dignity equated with specific traits, such as rationality, moral agency or the immortality of the soul.

This is probably to convey that a set of attri­butes does not confer human dignity. Rather, hu­man dignity and the duties implied in it (such as the command to love one another), are ground­ed in God’s mysterious love for man above all creatures. This love gives every person inherent dignity that is independent of physical or mental traits. This “broadens the meaning of humani­ty and extends the concept of the soul beyond rational consciousness to include the mysterious divine image.”[14] In this perspective, human dig­nity is not reducible to respect for autonomy, for it places moral duties and obligations on the in­dividual vis-à-vis other persons.

If we would conceive of ourselves as created beings then our worth is not extrinsic. Our value is determined neither by fiat nor by benevolent constitution, and it cannot be renounced by ma­levolent rulers. When we invoke our “shared hu­manity,” we are in fact referring to an essential fact about human nature—that we are not only uniquely purposed by God, but also remarkably loved.

To suggest “all human beings, regardless of age, size, stage of development, or immediately exercisable capacities, have equal fundamental dignity”[15] requires a firmer ground than scien­tific materialism. Furthermore, to obligate in­dividuals to act altruistically towards one an­other in a spirit of universal benevolence and self-sacrificial love—feeding the hungry, look after the weak and forgiving those who wrong us others—for reasons other than utility does not sit squarely with a worldview that perceives the greatest human good merely as survival and material flourishing.

Can we continue to proclaim the sanctity of human life when we no longer believe in the sa­cred? Or can we believe in the inherent dignity of a person when speaking of essential qualities as anachronistic? A naturalistic conception of reality that holds on to ethereal conceptions of the individual cannot give an account for human dignity and worth.

While I do not believe that the idea of human dignity proves or necessarily supports an ar­gument for the existence for God, it does pose a challenge to a purely materialistic interpreta­tion of the world. Such an interpretation fails to affirm fundamental equality and justify moral duties; perhaps we must look to the transcen­dental.


1 King, Martin L., Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. 08/28/1963
2 King, Martin L.,Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. 04/16/1963
3 King, Martin L., Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. 08/28/1963
4 UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III). Article 2
5 UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III). Article 1
6 UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III). Preamble
7 Edward O. Simpson. “The Biological Basis for Morality”. April 1998
8 Edward O. Wilson, Foreword of Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution By Loyal
D. Rue. SUNY Press, 1999. pg ix and x
9 Edward O. Simpson. “The Biological Basis for Morality”. April 1998
10 Lee, Patrick and George, Robert. Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics. CH 16: The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity
11 Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning
12 Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. Second Vintage
books, pg xii
13 Genesis 1:26-27
14 Kraynak, Robert. Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s
Council on Bioethics. CH 4: Human dignity and the mystery of the human soul
15 Lee, Patrick and George, Robert. Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the
President’s Council on Bioethics. CH 16: The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity

Mwangi Thuita is a Junior in Arts and Sciences majoring in Government, with minors in History and Philosophy. He hails from Kenya, the most beautiful country in the world.

UCBerkeley Bon Jin Koo Hand small sq

Image: Bon Jin Koo – UCBerkeley TAUG, Spring 2015.

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