What are the most distinctive and significant characteristics of human beings? What do these characteristics tell us about the origin, the purpose, and the final goal of human life? How are these characteristics brought to light or obscured in contemporary Western culture?
Some of the most important aspects of human beings are human dignity, the right to life and self consciousness. These characteristics tell us that we cannot provide an entirely sufficient explanation for our origins and we must delve into the transcendent to discover our purpose and destiny. These characteristics are increasingly obscured in Western culture, which has largely denied the right to life for the unborn.
i/ Human dignity
Human dignity is a principle that states that every single person is intrinsically valuable, a being that should be revered and respected from the very beginning of existence. This inalienable dignity is inviolable because it naturally belongs to every person. This is because man was created in the image of God and therefore humanity is sacred (cf. Gn 1:27). This dignity, inherent in human life and equal in every person, can be understood and seen first by reason. We all have equal dignity because God shows no favouritism. The incarnation made us all equally one in Christ Jesus. The belief and understanding of human dignity can make possible the common and personal growth of everyone (cf. Jas 2:1-9).
The intrinsic dignity of the human person is the foundation of every human right. This is because rights do not determine or grant our nature, it is our essence that gives us an ability to understand rights. The true source of human rights must therefore be in man himself and in God his creator. Human dignity is universal because it is present in all human beings. It is inalienable insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person… since this would do violence to their nature.” This dignity means that the human being “is a good toward which the only adequate response is love. It is the kind of good that does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use or a means to an end.” We did not personally create our own bodies and therefore we must be willing to be accountable for our lives and also to be grateful for our existence in the first place.
If we accept this principle of human dignity, we should also accept that we have dignity from conception and do not develop dignity as a gradual process. Psalm 139:11-18 describes the wonder of a God who created our inmost self and knit us together in the womb. Our dignity is present from the very first moment of our life at conception until natural death. As this principle is inherent and inviolable it is impossible to grant or rescind such a right. Therefore, we are encouraged to cherish the value of dignity and protect it in law. We must celebrate and pledge to defend the dignity of every human person. The declaration on religious freedom of the Second Vatican Council acknowledged that human dignity was one of the most important human values, which helps us to see the highest norm of human life as the divine law.
Human dignity has substantial statements about the origins of man. As it is based on the argument of imago dei, which shows us that God created man to be at the centre and summit of the created world. Human dignity demonstrates that we are profoundly related to God and that we have a capacity for God. Aquinas noted that man’s resemblance to God is shown in his intellect, because his relationship with the object of his knowledge is like God’s relationship with his creation. It is also because of the soul that the whole human person contains such great dignity, because the soul is created directly by God.
Human dignity shows that we can find fulfilment through intimacy and relationships. First we are called to be in relationship with God whom we naturally tend. Second, we are called to be in communion with fellow members of our race as we are social beings in need of others to develop our potential. Third we are called as responsible stewards of the world of plants and animals (Cf. Gn 2:20). Man is also in relationship with himself. Through this he can see what differentiates him from every other creature. Man cannot know the precise details of the origins of history because Scripture says “he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:11).
Human dignity demonstrates that the purpose of man is God and his plan of salvation. Man’s dignity also lies in observing the moral law by which he is judged. A human person should not be manipulated for goals that are contrary to that purpose. The human person should not be the means for carrying out unjust economic, social or political projects which are against his own freedom. Therefore careful guards and restrictions need to be placed on freedom to ensure that man is recognised as an active and responsible subject.
A just society will only exist if it bares some conformity and respect to the transcendent dignity of the human person. The ultimate end of society should be ordered towards the person. This is because the social order and its development should work towards the benefit of the human person and not the other way round. Therefore all areas of human life must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society.
The principle of human dignity is a foundational stone in the moral law. It is difficult to articulate into juridical, political and legal frameworks. However, the United Nations declaration of human rights states as its first point “All human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights.” It is therefore considered imperative in all countries that this value is upheld by government and culture in order to respect the value of the human person. Legislation in Western countries has tried to show that rights grant dignity, but in reality dignity is the moral basis for rights that are granted by the state.
Recent bioethical developments such as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning have led to new debates over the dignity of the human person. Such debates must involve the definition of personhood. Boethius considered a person an individual of rational nature, while Locke saw a person as a thinking, intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself. These debates also question the beginning of life.
The United Kingdom has some of the most permissive bioethical legislation in the world. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has granted licences for many research projects that involve experimentation on embryos in the first fourteen days of life. Such disrespect for the very first stages of human life has yielded no results: there is not one medical use as a result of embryonic stem cell research. These unprecedented moves have partly been encouraged by utilitarianism and financial incentives. The description of cloning into ‘reproductive’ and ‘therapeutic’ cloning is inaccurate because both involve the destruction of the human person. Such arguments have made presumptions about the ensoulment of the human person.
However, other legislative moves have affirmed and strengthened our concept of dignity in different areas. The recognition of a minimum wage in Britain in 1999 helped to recognise a minimum value of dignity in work and prevented financial exploitation. Legislation that has prevented sexual discrimination has helped to prevent injustice and bias against employees. Legislation that has made buildings more accessible (such as the disability discrimination act of 1995) has considered the dignity of all in society. This has helped those with mobility problems play a dignified role in society.
ii/ The right to life
The dignity of the person possessed by every person from conception to natural death is the basis for everyone’s right to life. In its broadest sense, the right to life respects the importance of human life. In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as “the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person.” The recognition of the right to life is an indicative sign of “man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu.”
As we have a right to life, it is important that we see the need to celebrate human life and all the gifts it entails. This very right provides the foundation for all other rights. The right implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia. It is essential that we protect human life in its most vulnerable forms, from conception to the very end of natural life, because the most vulnerable members of our society cannot protect themselves.
It is also important to be on our guard with the development of complex ethical questions that are concerned with our right to life. It is evident that God intended us to have life in abundance as our souls are the principle of life. If we are entitled to a position on God’s earth, it must be because he willed us into existence. On the surface, it appears that the final goal of human life can only end in death and non-existence. Yet our right to life points towards our desire and quest for eternal life. Our capacity to love, seek truth and have rights that are universal all point towards eternity because as ideas they make more sense when they are not contained within the bounds of time and human history.
Contemporary Western culture does not aspire to uphold the principle of the right to life with sufficient respect. The Universal Declaration of Human rights states in article 3 that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The United States declaration of independence declares the right to life to be one of the unalienable rights. The European Convention on Human Rights states almost immediately that “Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law.” In reality these documents have not prevented the denial of right to life in many countries.
In the U.S.A., The legalisation of abortion in 1973, through a constitutional amendment to the right of privacy, did not uphold the right to life. In the U.K. the partial legalisation of induced abortion in 1967 has created a situation today in which approximately 186,400 such abortions occur annually. From the European Union, only Malta, Portugal, Ireland and Poland still uphold the right to life with serious restrictions for induced abortions.
Overall the right to life for the unborn has been radically denied in Western culture as a result of the sexual revolution. The anti-natalist stance was encouraged by a promotion of sexual freedom in society, devoid of responsibility and consequences. Initially, concern about the dangers of illegal abortions, combined with compassion for women with babies with serious disabilities helped to provide a legal framework for the legalisation of abortion. But recently, the use of ultrasound has shown the humanity of the child in the womb, and many scientists are discovering the full extent of the physical and psychological damage of abortion.
In the last few years, there has been an attempt to deny life at the end of life. Oregon, Holland and Switzerland were among the first places to legalize voluntary euthanasia and to believe in a ‘right to die.’ This has had the consequence of diminishing palliative care, placing elderly patients in considerable danger, creating distrust between doctors and patients and recreating the role of the doctor in society as an agent of death. The Mental Capacity act 2005 in Britain has legalised euthanasia by omission by defining food as medical treatment. A bill to legalize voluntary euthanasia was narrowly defeated by the House of Lords in 2006 by 140 votes to 100. The Council of Europe has been defiant in recognizing the dangers of euthanasia in recent years. The renaming of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society to ‘dignity in dying’ shows us that the manipulative power of playing with terminology can leave words devoid of proper meaning.
A clear feature of human beings is self-consciousness. This characteristic is a clear and unexplainable boundary in the difference between humans and other animals. Man is the only creature willed by God for itself, especially so that man may be “under the control of his own decisions.” (Sir 15:14). Through this gift we are fully aware of our surroundings and that one exists as a being. Man exists as a unique and unrepeatable being, which has the capacity for self-understanding, self possession and self determination. As man is conscious and intelligent, he can determine and reflect on himself and his actions. However, even if man did not have self-consciousness he would still be defined as a person, because it is the person who is the basis of the acts of intellect, consciousness and freedom. Our conscience is a clear indicator of the depth of our self-consciousness, because we are aware of our own actions and their consequences in the moral sphere.
Self-consciousness is an experience that can only be fully grasped and analyzed through philosophical reflection. It shows the mystery of the origin of man because any purely scientific explanation is radically incomplete. The fact that we cannot account for self-consciousness by science alone has damaging implications for the materialist version of evolution. The fact we are aware of ourselves provides us with an insurmountable and unfathomable barrier between mankind and the rest of the animal kingdom. Our reason alone encourages us to believe that only God could grant us such a gift. It is important to recognise that this is not a fault line between science and religion and that in fact there is no conflict between the Catholic faith and evolution provided we do not lose sight of certain points.
“The concept of original solitude includes both self-consciousness and self determination.” Self-consciousness is one of the most important parts of the account of Genesis. It shows us that man gave us the responsibility of tilling the earth and to be capable, free conscious agents. Through conscience and self awareness man is capable of choosing between good and evil, life and death. This self awareness arises through having a body and realising that man in the beginning was alone.
Self-consciousness is almost universally accepted in Western contemporary culture but frequently forgotten about. The self reflective question of ‘Who am I?’ can be most satisfactorily answered by the gift of self. A sense of awe, wonder and humility is often the response of philosophers who fully recognise this feature of humanity. This phenomenon allows us to step back from concrete situations in front of us and even see ourselves thinking.
Self-consciousness is mostly accepted as connected to reason. Our intellect is more open to free will, understanding and conscience. The contemporary account of evolution that denies a position for the creator cannot fully explain or rationalise self-consciousness, and instead must presume that it is a force that has naturally developed. Such an interpretation assumes the human person to be a meaningless product of evolution.
 Cf. Acts 10:34, Rm 2:11, Gal 2:6, Eph 6:9.
 Cf. Gal 3:28, Rm 10:12, 1 Cor 12:13, Col 3:11.
 John Paul II, Message for the 1999 World Day of Peace, 3: AAS 91 (1999), 379.
 Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, trans. H. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981; reprinted, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), p. 41.
 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dignitatis Humanae, n.1.
 Summa Theologica I-II, q 3, a 5, ad 1.
 Pius XII, Encyclical Letter, Humani Generis, n. 36.
 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 16: AAS 58 (166), 1046-1047.
 Ibid. no.26.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2235.
 Ibid. 1706.
 Pius XII, Radio Message of 24 December 1944, 5: AAS 37 (1945), 12.
 John Paul II, Encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, 47: AAS 83 (1991), 851-852: cf. also Address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations (2 October 1979), 13: AAS 71 (1979) 1152-1153.
 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis, 17, AAS 55 (1963), 259-264.
 Section 1, article 2, http://www.hri.org/docs/ECHR50.html#Convention.
 Scientists such as Joel Brind have shown the link between abortion and breast cancer.
 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes 24: AAS 58 (1966), 1045; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27,356 and 358.
 Pius XII, Encyclical Letter, Humani Generis, n. 36.
 John Paul II, The Theology of the Body, Man’s awareness of being a person (General Audience, Wed 24th Oct 1979), p37, Boston, Pauline Books and Media, 1997.