At the recent 21st annual Fall Conference held by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, the esteemed philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre presented a talk titled, “Human Dignity: A Puzzling and Possibly Dangerous Idea?” In the talk, MacIntyre critiqued the use of “human dignity” in discussions that he believed more properly belonged to issues of justice. The talk is rich and learned, and hence defies easy summary; however, one of his major conclusions is that the term “human dignity” serves too often as a term for negative rights of the individual against coercion instead of a more comprehensive sense of a person who also has duties to serve the common good. For this reason, MacIntyre invokes St. Thomas Aquinas and Charles De Koninck’s On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists to affirm with De Koninck the greater importance of our duties to the common good against individual claims of right. The specific issue for MacIntyre was the apparent failure of governments to provide for the full welfare of citizens by way of entitlements like medical care for all.

As one might expect, for some, MacIntyre’s proposition to retire the concept of human dignity rang some alarm bells. One of the questioners, University of Chicago philosophy graduate student Ben Conroy, inquired if MacIntyre’s invocation of St. Thomas Aquinas on matters of justice did not necessarily entail some of Aquinas’s perhaps less-savory recommendations, such as the death and persecution of heretics. MacIntyre’s response was unusual. It had two parts.

The first was that Aquinas did not use the idea of dignity in his discussion of handling heretics; hence, he did not take the claim “seriously.” This reply seems to miss the point; Conroy raised the issue of human dignity precisely because the Catholic Church uses it in Dignitatis humanae as the foundation for religious liberty. Hence, whether Aquinas does or does not use the term is beside the point—the Church does precisely because the development of doctrine on religious liberty rests in the language of Dignitatis humanae:

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.


…the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

The Church, in other words, has moved past the Thomistic view of coercion of heretics on the basis of human dignity. The language of the “just public order” refers to the responsibility of a government. Its action:

is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order. These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.

Good order, true justice, and public morality are common goods proper to government. Both citizens and governments must serve these common goods to ensure the proper defense of human dignity, meaning that no claim to religious liberty can ever contradict them. For this reason, MacIntyre’s dismissal of Conroy seems odd, as all Conroy did was raise an issue on which the Council Fathers agreed with Conroy’s concern and affirmed a personal right against coercion of conscience. That Aquinas does not use the term in his treatment of heresy should surprise no one, given that he beheld no human dignity worth observing among the Jews of Brabant. Aquinas was a great theologian and certainly a saint, but that does not mean he was always right.

MacIntyre’s second half of his response was to say that Conroy’s question was the motivation for his talk. To explain, he contrasts his own view of justice against that of John Rawls, who defines a general concept of justice and applies it to various political or ethical problems. MacIntyre described his own concept of justice as Aristotelian. He then asks the question:

For a Church in a society in which it is dominant to deal with heretics, where are they to get their conception of how to deal justly with heretics? And this is something which in the bad treatments of heretics, notably, at some points in the Middle Ages and at some points in the Reformation Wars, we can get plenty of bad examples, there is no conception at all of what it is to act justly towards heretics in the situation.

That conception of justice is, as it turns out, one derived from human dignity, as the Council Fathers indicated. It is therefore unclear what MacIntyre’s objection to Conroy was. The duty of citizens and governments is “to give each their due” as persons imprinted with the imago Dei not to violate religious liberty unless the person or persons invoking religious liberty do so to create social chaos, perpetuate injustice, or insist on some kind of immorality.

In The Postliberal Order newsletter, theologian Chad Pecknold ties the decline of justice in favor of human dignity to the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a young man subject to Kenosha County prosecution for reckless homicide and endangerment with a deadly weapon. Rittenhouse has mounted a defense that he used his weapon in self-defense. Pecknold argues:

The troubling reality that begins to dawn is that our trials, whether they happen in the law courts or the court of public opinion, now regularly lack the “presumption of innocence,” a bedrock concept in the classical legal tradition which depends on inferences to truths which are prior to law. We have arrived at an order which disorders, which does not and cannot “render to each his due,” which lacks a transcendent standard for both morality and religion, and which has thus, paradoxically, lost both dignitas and auctoritas. This is as clear a sign as any that the liberal order no longer has power—it’s spent, and it’s never coming back.

Pecknold reaches this conclusion by insisting that Rittenhouse faces unjust trial because of “the fact that the civic religion upon which our legal and political existence rests has utterly crumbled.” He then supports this notion by briefly working through the Fustel de Coulanges’s The Ancient City, in which Coulganges outlines how ancient civilizations rested their political life on a coherent religious vision without which those civilizations collapsed.

Pecknold seems to be using MacIntyre’s position in ways that MacIntyre did not intend. The problem for MacIntyre is not that there is a “liberal order” untethered to a religious worldview. In fact, his second part of the reply indicates that one can have a dominant religious view, as certainly the Middle Ages did, and still have acts of profound injustice, as MacIntyre affirms the execution and persecution of heretics certainly was. For Pecknold’s application of MacIntyre’s view to hold requires either ascribing to the Middle Ages that it was itself a liberal order or one where the civic religion had crumbled and thereby led to the eventual horrors of the Reformation Wars. Therefore, a coherent religious vision seems not to be the safeguard Pecknold wants it to be—or at least MacIntyre does not suppose it is.

Pecknold’s broader thesis, that there needs to be a resuscitation of a Christian worldview in America, is certainly correct. However, a Christian worldview is no guarantee of justice, and the very lacuna that the Council Fathers found in Catholic understanding of justice needed filling with an appeal to human dignity. Indeed, the Rittenhouse trial seems still rooted in the legal framework that takes human dignity seriously. Rittenhouse is undergoing a trial for killing two people and injuring another. Whatever their motivation for attacking Rittenhouse did not dispel their human dignity and the demand of the state to determine the justice of Rittenhouse’s attack. Rittenhouse, as a person with dignity, deserves a fair trial, which he seems to be having. Pecknold, in his private opinion, seems to believe Rittenhouse innocent, but a just constitutional system requires a trial to determine innocence or guilt.

Indeed, so affected is Pecknold by the trial that he hangs the fate of “the liberal order” not even on its outcome but that Rittenhouse faces trial at all. It seems odd that Pecknold would prefer Rittenhouse over the dead and wounded. Such a preference is a strange kind of justice, one very unlikely to find a home in a Christian society. After all, Aquinas would likely have no problem with a jury trial over a positive law intended to preserve order and pursue justice. Again, to use the language of the Council Fathers, Kenosha County is following “juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order” intended “for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice.” Pecknold may object to the legal regime in Wisconsin, but he dramatically overstates the stakes, given that the case has proceeded normally thus far.

As for the “liberal order” itself, MacIntyre disapproves, at least insofar as he sees Rawls as its representative. Leaving aside the Rittenhouse trial, the attempt to substitute Rawlsian legal principles for classical and Christian ones has indeed led to a “tattered city,” hence why I share Pecknold’s desire to find “the thing which would make us coherent again.” That end, however, is not helped by discarding the concept of human dignity. If the, well, incoherence of MacIntyre’s response to Conroy is not evidence enough, consider the other speakers at the conference who invoked human dignity, such as Dr. Jacqueline Rivers who spoke on racial justice and the powerful response from Dr. Monique Chireau Wubbenhorst. Consult also Prof. Elizabeth Schlitz’s moving appeal to the human dignity of the disabled, one echoed in the response from Dr. Mary O’Callaghan. These presentations demonstrated how the recognition of human dignity is not something taken for granted but has required centuries of struggle with still more struggle ahead of us. Certainly, matters of justice are bound up in these struggles, as these speakers indicated, but, as the Council Fathers demonstrated on religious liberty, the concept of human dignity supports our understanding of what African Americans and the disabled are truly due. As Pope St. John Paul the Great said in Evangelicum vitae:

A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace.

There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights.