Human Dignity




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Human Dignity

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Human Social Nature

The civic humanism of Reniassance Florence spread to the rest of Europe, facilitated by the invention of the printing press. Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540)  was born in Valencia, Spain, and he studied at the University of Paris and at Louvain, Belgium, and he taught at Paris and at Oxford. He characterizes an important aspect of human nature, its social interdependnece beginning at childhood:


He is fed by the mercy of the parents and nurses, raised by external help, does not come with anything that is his, everything is received form others... To these needs we can add that the strongest and bravest man can be brought down by a slight fever, so that he needs the help of  many... And for the healthy, many works are needed for  the daily needs! From the farmer, the herder, the weaver, the mason, the sailor, the cart driver, and from others according to the occupation and the lifestyle of each one.[1]


The Dignity of Work

One of the fundamental elements of human dignity is the appreciation of human work in the development of self respect and social awareness. Thus, any social system must give priority to facilitating that every capable individual be able to contribute to his or her personal needs and the needs of society through appropriate work. Perhaps the first thinker to propose practical means in this regards was Juan Luis Vives in his essay On Assistance to the Poor, dedicated to the officials of the city of Bruges, Belgium:



Juan Luis Vives
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(public domain)

[The poor without a trade] should be taught the one to which they are most strongly attracted, provided that it is practical, or else a similar or related occupation... Public authority should authorize a certain number of laborers who cannot find work by themselves to be assigned to one director of a workshop. When such a worker has progressed far enough in his craft, he should open his own workshop. To these, as well as to those to whom the magistrates had assigned apprentices, contracts should be given for manufacturing the numerous items which the state uses for public purposes, such as portraits, statues, robes, sewers, ditches, buildings, and supplies required by the hospitals.[2]



The Scottish Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment is a term used to describe a phase in the history of Western civilization, during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries,  that emphasized rational thought and empirical observation. The path of development of social thought from the roots described in the previous page has been complex, but there is general agreement that the sociopolitical view that has held until modern times was largely constructed during this period. This was particularly true of the Scottish Enlightenment, since it had a direct influence in the democratic thought of the United States,[3] and from there this influence spread to the other democracies in the Western hemisphere.


Moral philosophy has been part of Western thought since Aristotle. The Scottish philosophers made an important update to the moral philosophy heritage in the courses that they taught. Francis Hutcheson  (1694-1746) taught moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1730 to 1746. Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) taught moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1764 to 1785. In a sense, these courses taught how to live in a civil society.



University of Edinburgh  Photo Source: © Wikipedia, Author: Kim Traynor

Personal Development

Moral philosophy courses begin with an analysis of human nature. Adam Ferguson highlights the uniqueness of the human species: "There is a principle, in respect to which man differs from the other animals, not only in measure or degree, but totally, and in kind. This principle we term his intelligence or mind, intimately conscious of itself, as it exists in thought, discernment, and will.[3] This ability of self-consciousness allows an individual to take charge of his or her life, and to be responsibility for its direction and improvement: "Man is endowed with a power of discerning what is amiss or defective in the actual state of his own inclinations of faculties [and] to apprehend a perfection far beyond his actual attainments."[4]


A natural consequence of this ability is a fundamental right to make individual life choices, as Hutcheson points out, a human being has "a natural right to exert his power, according to his own judgement and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods."[5] The consideration of the needs of others is another  fundamental issue of social philosophy.



Adam Ferguson
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(public domain)

Social Responsibility and Human Rights

An area in which human beings use their reason is in the development of social and political institutions. The Scottish moral philosophers saw human society and institutions as essential and natural elements of the human species. Hutcheson reminds citizens in a civil society that:


In any tolerable constitution, he and his fellow-subjects owe innumerable advantages to the civil policy, to the laws, and to the whole body; even all their civilized education, their safety, their continual protection from innumerable injuries, and almost all accommodations and pleasures of life. They ought therefore to study the preservation and improvement of this constitution, and the general interest of this body, of which Divine Providence has made them a part, and recommended it to their zeal by all the generous principles in their soul.[6]


And for a society to function, there are some fundamental rights that need to be respected for each individual. We owe to Hutcheson one of the clearest early statements of the basic human rights:


...such as every innocent man has to his life; to a good name; to the integrity and soundness of his body; to the acquisitions of his honest industry; to act according to his own choice within the limits of the law of nature; this right we call natural liberty, of which liberty of conscience is not only an essential but an unalienable branch... Society cannot subsist unless these rights are sacred... For the ultimate notion of right is that which tends to the universal good. [7]


Francis Hutcheson
Photo source:  Wikipedia
(public domain)

The Common Good

Since human beings need to live in society, they need to foster the good of society. This issue has long being a consideration as we saw in our Introduction, and it is usually termed the common good. Hutcheson expresses this idea as a fundamental duty, derived from the human  social nature: "We should always repute it as our business in the world, the end and purpose of our being, our duty to our kind, the natural use of the powers we enjoy... to contribute something to the general good, to the common fund of happiness to our species."[8] So in addition to the duties that a person has to take care of his or her own welfare, there is also a responsibility for individual actions to preserve or advance the common good.


[1] Juan Luis Vives, "Concordia et Discordia" [Spanish translation from the Latin original, my translation to English] in Luis Vives- Obras Politicas y Pacifistas, Francisco Calero et al, ed. (Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1999), 130-134.

[2] Juan Luis Vives, On Assistance to the Poor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 39-41.

[3] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 122-138.

[4] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792), Vol 1, 48.

[5] Ibid., 225.

[6] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Vol.2, 376.

[7] Ibid., Vol.1, 257-258, 266.

[8] Ibid., Vol.2, 116.