Spaemann on Human Dignity: Kant or St. Thomas?

About a week ago I was in Vienna for a lecture by German philosopher Robert Spaemann. The English speaking world’s closest equivalent to Spaemann would perhaps be Roger Scruton; a top-notch academic philosopher who has not capitulated to nihilism and happens to be a devout Christian. Like Scruton, Spaemann has been influenced a lot by the perennial philosophy, but also has a worrisome way of referring to German idealists. Now, I haven’t read any of Spaemann’s books yet, and only a few of his articles, so I was not sure exactly what to expect. I was particularly interested to see where he would come down on the crucial question of the primacy of the common good. (The more I think about it the more I begin to see just how well Charles De Koninck shows this to be the key question for ethics and politics in his book on the common good). Spaemann’s blurb from the upcoming von Hildebrand Conference gave me high hopes:

His 1989 seminal work Glück und Wohlwollen (Happiness and Benevolence) sets forth a thesis that happiness is derived from benevolent acting: that we are created by God as social beings to help one another find truth and meaning in an often confused and disordered world.

The connection of happiness with benevolence and social being seemed to promise much.

Spaemann Messner

Spaemann’s talk (which was organized by the highly praise-worthy Johannes Messner Gesellschaft) was on human dignity. The argumentation was brilliant – examples and enthymemes as crisp and hard-hitting as possible. It was beautiful the way he destroyed much of contemporary nonsense in just a few pointed sentences.

His initial account of dignity in terms of reason and free-will sounded a bit Kantian, but could still be given a Thomist interpretation. He proceeded to modify the initial account quite a bit away from Kant. He very impressively brought in the concept of (bodily) nature. Showing how Kant’s account fails to explain, for instance, why inflicting bodily pain on someone should be seen as contrary to their dignity.

It wasn’t clear to me yet though whether he was understanding his account of dignity in a more Kantian way (denying the primacy of the common good) or in a more Thomist way. He confusingly equated Kant’s “personalistic norm” (“Act in such a way that at all times you treat human nature in your own person as well as in the person of every other human being simultaneously as a purpose, never as a mere means.”) with St. Thomist dictum liberum est quod causa sui est, but I was initially unsure as to whether this confusion resulted from a Kantian misunderstanding of Thomas, a Thomist misunderstanding of Kant, or a Spaemannian misunderstanding of both.

That he didn’t quite get Thomas became clear when he brought up the magnificent ad tertium of IIaIIae 64,3:

By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. This is expressed in Psalm 48:21: “Man, when he was in honor, did not understand; he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them,” and Proverbs 11:29: “The fool shall serve the wise.” Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6).

He said that he didn’t understand why Thomas thought that human dignity was alienable in this way – after all the criminal is still created according to the likeness of God even if he has lost the image. I think he really meant that he didn’t understand. He had interpreted Thomas on dignity in to Kantian a fashion – making dignity an absolute, and failed to see how radically dignity is tied to the common good. How much different is De Koninck’s reading of Thomas on dignity! Here on Liberum est causa sui:

To the second part of the objection we reply that the proposition “liberum est quod causa sui est” must be understood not as meaning that the free agent is the cause of himself, or that he is, as such, the perfection for which he acts, but as meaning rather that he is himself, by his intellect and will, the cause of his act for the end to which he is ordered. One could also say that he is cause of himself in the line of final cause, insofar as he bears himself towards the end to which he is called as an intelligent and free agent, that is according to the principles themselves of his nature. But this end consists principally in the common good. The agent will be so much the more free and noble as he orders himself more perfectly to the common good. Hence one sees how the latter is the first principle of our free condition. The free agent would place himself in the condition of a slave if by himself he could not or would not act except for the singular good of his person. Man retains no less his free state when, by his own reason and will he submits himself to a reason and will which are superior. Thus it is that citizen subjects can act as free men, for the common good.

And again on the fallibility of human dignity:

Consider now the intelligent creature in its perfection as a free agent. The perfection of nature which is the root of liberty only has the notion of an end in God. God, moreover, is only said to be free in relation to things which are inferior to Him. Liberty is not concerned with the end as such, but with means; when it is concerned with an end, it is because this end is a subordinate one and thus takes upon itself the character of a means. God is necessarily the end of all things He freely makes, and His liberty only pertains to what He makes in view of this end which is the highest good. God’s dignity is the only dignity which is identical to his Being, and hence infallible. Because no other agent is its own ultimate end, and because the proper end of all other beings can be ordered to a higher end, the rational creature is fallible and can lose its dignity; its dignity is not assured except insofar as it remains in the order of the whole and acts according to this order. Unlike irrational creatures, the rational creature must keep itself in the order which is established independently of itself; but to remain in this order is to submit oneself to it and allow oneself to be measured by it; dignity is thus connected to order, and to place oneself outside of it is to fail of one’s dignity. If dignity belonged absolutely to rational creatures, if it were assured by liberty of contradiction, it would be infallible by reason of our mere ability to submit to order or not to submit. The excellence of the rational creature does not consist in the ability to set oneself outside the order of the whole, but in the ability to will oneself this order in which one must remain; one does not have the right to wander from it.

In any case, it was a very thought-provoking lecture. The Johannes Messner Gesellschaft deserves κῦδος for getting Spaemann, and (incidentally) for providing a really excellent buffet; one niederösterreichischer Prälat was heard to remark that he was going to join the JMG just for the food…

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