In various political agenda we call for a precise definition or at least description of what the dignity proper to any human being might be. This question has been a quarrelsome issue across the whole European tradition and its solution in terms of the human essence is by no means an easy task: what makes the human being a person? Is there anything that in principle protects against the fabrication of a similacrum resembling the person that might be considered the distinguishing feature. After abandoning the zeal of modernism that promised a solution based on rationality and that formerly had replaced the scholastic notion based on the divine image, we remain in a relativistic doubt about what might be a solid foundation for further political thinking. Acquaintance with the essential attributes of the human being is a condition for the development of the customary and legitimate framework necessary for the development of the whole of society.

In studying the essential traits of the human being particular attention is paid to innate human rights, and what can be derived therefrom, what must be recognized and what under certain conditions might be infringed upon;1 in other words: what is given by culture and what is given by nature as regards the rights of the human being? It is necessary to consider whether rights are ontological or historical. If we take into account evolution and tradition we are able to bring these approaches into some convergence, since the historical and ontological portions of human life are entangled together and any disposition can be twisted by a contract and any contract can ripen into a disposition of the human being. Thus, the nature of a person is the culture as such obtained through one’s heritage from one’s ancestors, while culture adds something to the nature with which a person is born. There is a mutual exchange between what is given, thesei, and what has physei or roots.2

This puzzle referring to the range of rights becomes urgent particularly in the realm of medicine with its duty to decide when to initiate and when to withdraw the administration of extremely expensive and exhaustive services. Yet not only health care alone, but also other spheres of the social life depend on the conception of inborn rights, among which the notion of justice as such holds a central position. Any lawyer dealing with justice, be it distributive or retributive, is compelled to draw line between ius naturale that must not be encroached upon and lex positiva that is amenable to changes (if any rule is to avoid emptiness it must be anchored in and adjusted to concrete experience). Yet we can deal with that frontier not as something that divides, but as binding together both sides: this dialectical approach is proposed here to establish the philosophical grasp of the enigmatic issue of human dignity.

Therefore we shall not pursue the simplifying, and still quite ordinary way, of rejecting one of two possible solutions, but shall undertake the complicated way which attempts to hold both poles together. The immediate result of this conception is the reverse of the classical position for it holds that human dignity is not a substance in itself, but a process in the relation between the two poles of mental life. Now we are challenged to account for both poles in their nature.


Some Basic Methodological Guidelines


A natural condition for any notion of dignity attached to the human being is that it must be essential and that everybody ought to have the same share in it. In contrast to this stipulation there is no trait of a person given by the senses which might be deemed as the same in all people. Of course, we must not neglect empirical data entirely. But experience is broader than that given merely by the senses. Beyond registering outer events we are aware of inner ones occurring in the mind, which can be inquired into by philosophy.

The merit of phenomenology is that it has enabled the mind to become a matter of research. Phenomenology has cultivated reflection so that it provides an efficient tool for the investigation of immediate experiences (Erlebnisse). Thus we shall start our ethical enterprise concerning human dignity with inquiry into our private world. What we meet there first is naturally our feelings,3 which represent both the utmost horizon of the mind and its proper matter as well. Everything happening in the mind including logical operations (operations of logical sort represent, after all, its formal side) is tinged by some kind of affect, which if reflected upon merges again into another affect, and so on.4 This important structure of mind deserves further discussion which is the aim of this chapter.

As we cannot scrutinize all the dimensions of feelings we therefore restrict ourselves to some relevant traits. These should help us to achieve a notion of the dignity attached to the human being and to construct on it an ethical framework for human behavior. We have selected two aspects of feelings that have special affinity to morality in order to explore them by phenomenological means.


Experience with Reality through Force Expressing Power


In the first moment feeling renders an encounter with reality.5 Here reality is perceived due to some kind of affect inasmuch as every affect is an expression of resistance exerted by the hardness of things.6 Ordinarily we get a plausible proof of the stone and discern it from a mere dream about a stone by the pain that ensues from kicking it. Indeed this proof is still an experiential one and lacks absolute validity since it is possible that pain is a result of anticipation that in some way lacks satisfaction. We are hungary due to withheld food and this hunger might even resemble pain in its outcome. On the other hand, if all our expectations were fulfilled, there would be no awareness of them, for then all the feelings would have melted away. The feeling underlying everything else therefore must be the feeling of incongruence between physical and psychic forces known as astonishment (thauma) in Greek terms, and even dread (jirrat) in Hebrew.7 The bulk of biological facts demonstrate this.8

Having recognized that reality is perceived through an affect and having defined affect as a product of mismatch between expectation and reality, we are obliged to correct our grasp of reality and the ontological scheme as well. The fact that there is something at all (uberhaupt etwas und nicht vielmehr nichts) is not merely an objective datum, but is shaped by a subjective component as well. Human subjectivity has two strictly separate roots: the unconscious one explored above and the classical conscious one; the confusion of both has triggered great confusion in philosophy.9 It must be stressed that this contribution of subjectivity to objectivity is surprisingly influential, not if it is in accord, but if it is in discord with the thing. Thus the hyletic principle behind appearance acquires a totally different meaning.

On the basis of these reflections we proceed to note that since the experience of our own affect betrays a kind of resistance exerted by the hardness of things, we can conceive of that affect also from the other side as a manifestation of power, which power is either of psychic forces over physical ones or of physical forces over psychic ones. At this point we are close to the ethical consequences of the above: the encounter with reality is shaped as feeling, which must always be regarded as feeling of power that is either beyond or below us (to be aware of this latter power requires more refined reflection and more mature morality than the former10). If those forces are strong enough and if we are able to take control over those forces by giving preference to one of them (tun und lassen) we have legitimate responsibility for our deeds, whereas conversely whenever those forces drag us about we are exculpated from responsibility no matter what the outcomes of those forces would be. The question of what the proper control might be will be postponed for now.


Experience with Liberty through Value Judgements


The second moment of feeling blends with the first and is an appraisal as to its value for the person involved: since some mis-matched estimation of this kind brings about a feeling which only with difficulty is discernable from the original one. Yet this distinction must be made: the feeling itself and its value are so different in their nature that any affect that is at some time positive can acquire in other conditions a negative weight, and vice versa.11 The alternative, either of evil or of good in itself is not a biological one. The argument is quite plain: animals are totally governed by their pleasant affects whereas humans often eschew the pleasant for the sake of other goods. Even as they apply good to what is actually pleasant this application is due to an appraisal, and is therefore an addition. Pleasantness as such is for humans deeply alien to that of animals and quite often is estimated as evil. In philosophical terms we can articulate this fact by categories of means and goals: goals give their value to means, but need not necessarily be absolute.12

We evaluate any affect (different from pleasantness) by our judgement, and any judgement beyond its explicit meaning has an implicit one. If I assert that something would be bad, in consequence I must admit it might have been better and conversely. Values are not independent entities, but merely a product of the valuation of things. This cannot be escaped, for any determinist who is consistent enough cannot but depict soberly an order of events, while judgement on their value must be put in brackets.13 For determinism nothing is either bad or good; everything is merely being. If, on the other hand, I pass a judgement about value the consequence is that willy-nilly I reckon with a free agent who sometimes and somewhere has caused the outcomes; this is the argument for liberty from private feelings. Of course another task is to find the location of the author of the either bad or good thing. At first approach there is no proof of the actuality of liberty and we are never certain about who should be treated as a free being; we can merely be sure that someone has been free.14

Our judgement about the value of an affect conveys our recognition of liberty and our confession that we are convinced about it, wherever or whenever. This proof of liberty is still quite poor as it shows merely that someone could have acted otherwise and that she/he is capable of decision making of a yes/no kind. Since there is no other dualism of yes/no besides this one, such a notion of liberty must be identical in all who are acknowledged as people, be they children, elderly or mentally handicapped. The sole decision we are able to make again has a yes/no shape as to whether someone would be acknowledged to possess the ability of choosing between yes/no. In this ability there is necessarily a perfect equivalence of all the people while this equivalence is something that is not, but that ought to be. We can merely take for granted that since judgement is built on them decisions of the yes/no kind in regard to one’s feelings have proper control over the forces coming from either outside or inside and the art to change them.

An Attempted Synthesis Regarding Human Dignity


From these preliminary considerations we come to the question of dignity itself. It has been mentioned that dignity is not a substance but process; this movement will now be sketched out. It has two focuses: interpretation of one’s behavior and assignment to the self. We can suggest in advance that this movement is hermeneutic in character.

By assignment we acknowledge that some appearance, either the body with its deeds or the resulting work, is a manifestation of the core of the other, which core itself allows for only a sheer yes/no choice. As to this choice we know almost nothing except that, although despite the equality of all people (it is amazing that small individual differences are smoothed over), it depends on the customs of the community in which we live: this assignment thus has a historical background. Yet if it lacks ontological anchoring that assignment might be a mistake. The trouble is that decision making is always a unique thing in itself (Ding an sich) and as such eludes any conceptual conceivement. Anticipation of the yes/no choice is in principle infeasible (due to the lack of any regularity there) and thus this choice with its responsibility is an obscure secret for our thinking. The sole way of penetrating through appearance to the core of the other is indirect, namely, by interpretation of his or her behaviour.

Regarding interpretation we have to make several remarks: interpretation does not offer recognition, but opens up comprehension of one’s neighbor.15 This comprehension is the way we grasp the uniqueness of the human being. In any appearance we assess its power. Since power is a mirror of reality a pure immanence can be recognized and compared through measurement with others. This is the onset of the proper hermeneutic enterprise which comprises two steps.

The first step concerns the question of forces as something that we assume in coming across power. For us power as such is a result of interaction between outer and inner forces. By the forces coming from within ordinarily we mean ours; however, the forces coming from outside might still represent power as a result of interaction between outer and inner forces while the forces coming from within we now impute to the neighbor. This suggestion of foreign inherent forces (unconscious drives) overcomes the classical homogenous notion of phenomena and allows "slots" for the yes/no choice through the judgement of the other. That keeps control of the power, but escapes a positive grasp. What we can do is merely assess it in a negative way from its environment.16 This is the second step.

Thus the sole thing we can rely on is the evaluation at two levels, allotting the judgment of a neighbor as either good or evil and whether that judgement influenced the direction of the operating power (either inner or outer). The next moment requires us to correct our mistakes starting the same process again: this is the elementary hermeneutic circle.

In these terms the elementary hermeneutic circle might be articulated also between the power and the judgement, between the freely developed framework and the true will of a neighbor, between free creation and the interpretation of the reality that is the behavior. All these alternatives take us round the elementary hermeneutic circle of understanding. This circle penetrates the veil of the phenomenal world amenable to recognition, while bridging to the noumenal17 world that is attained merely by comprehension and the theomenal18 world that is proposed solely by our deliberation towards the neighbor.

Having prepared the mould we can now summarize what dignity is. The dignity closely related to the feelings of any human being has two poles: the pole of judgment as something that is properly free and the pole of will that exerts some power over things. The latter pole is rather an ontological one whereas the former pole depends on the historical background, The two poles are divided by the sensual veil between them. Both these poles are then closely connected with each other through the elementary hermeneutic circle. Only through this process can we honor the dignity of other people.

At this point the elementary hermeneutic circle can broaden into the general one: there is the behavior not only of the other, but also of ourselves, which brings a new dimension into our thinking. After the first interpretation we can identify the conjecture of power with the judgement it included and its direct experience (Erlebnis). This opens up the complexity of our own free will, and of the same structure we can expect in the other. Therefore the general hermeneutic circle moves between the free will in others and in us: from the decision making in us to the decision making in the other and back. This is the hermeneutic movement and process that establishes the dignity of the other: we are moral and treat people as human beings only if we are prepared to be empathic in understanding free will through ours and our free will through theirs.




1. This question has been studied particularly in the classical figures of liberalism and is reflected for example by Hayek. F. von Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1973), ch.: I/4 and II/8.

2. Here we employ the notion of Heidegger and other thinkers, who emphasize that we are to dispose of, and be responsible for, our own human essence; the human being comprises both "Entwurf" and "Geworfenhei." M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer, 1979), pp. 336-346.

3. In the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl little attention is paid to affectivity, whereas some of his pupils attached to it a great meaning; among them particularly Scheler, [Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materielle Wertethik (Bern: Francke, 1966), pp. 331-345] pointing out that feelings offer intuitive recognition of values and Heidegger [Was Its Metaphysics (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1949)] who claims that the mood (Stimmung) is a revelation of being.

4. We can find a conception of consciousness as affectivity for example in Sartre, Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, tr., Ph. Mairet (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. 23-28, and 91.

5. Apprehension of reality through affects also has been argued (ibid., pp. 56-63).

6. Our approach as regards resistance (Widerstandigkeit) is close to that of Scheler, Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materielle Wertethik (Bern: Francke, 1966), pp. 149-156. Yet we counterpoise not volition on the whole and reality, but unconscious internal and external forces.

7. Wonder is the simplest affect according to the phenomenological inquiry of P. Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature, tr., E.V. Kohak (New York: Northwestern University Press, 1966), pp. 253-267.

8. A notion of affects as a mismatch has been recently accepted by N.H. Frijda, The Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 256-257 and 333.

9. The difference between postmodern and modern ways of thinking is probably given by the notion of subjectivity which is conceived of not as a simple referential point, but as composed of the complicated level of unconsciousness, with consciousness being something else merely grafted to it. This is a departure from the former philosophy pursued particularly by German Romantism, which proposed an absolute mind (Geist) that is identical with being and that governs all historical events. Achievements of independent individuals are therefore creative merely in illusion and owe their originality totally to the decisive influence of the spontaneity of single people. This approach is represented particularly by Hegel, Vorlesungen uber die Geschichte der Philosophie I, ed. K.L. Michelet (Berlin, 1840), ch., B/1/c.

10. This is the psychoanalytical skill to explain unconscious influences as stated for example by Jung, "Approaching the Unconscious" in Man and His Symbols (London: Aldus Books, 1964), pp. 3-17.

11. Of course there might be a dispute whether the two affects can be the same at all; this question was treated first by Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr., G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), pars., 256-270

12. This distinction between agathon auton and pros "has been raised by Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics, tr. J.E.C. Welldon (New York: MacMillan, 1906), ch., I/4:1096b.

13. The question is whether any single judgment might be quit of value and valuation at all; some thinkers deny it seriously, as for example, R.M. Hare, The Language of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), ch., 1/I and 5/II.

14. There is also a deterministic notion of the world where the sole free agent is the god at the beginning who determined all its events. Such a god might even be wicked as is the case of the "demiurgos" in gnosticism, particularly by the prominent Basileides. Iranalus, Adversus haereticorum, ed. W. Harvey (Cambridge, 1857), ch., I/25.

15. Stress upon the aim of comprehending the intentions of the neighbor reflects the founder of the modern hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who asserted that "the ultimate aim of hermeneutics is to understand the author better than he understands himself." P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, tr., J.B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 153.

16. It is an achievement of thinkers like Plotinos, Dionysos Aeropagita, Scott Eriugena and Cusanus. Nicolaus Cusanus, De deo abscondito, in Opera omnia, ed. E. Hoffmann and R. Kalibanski (Leipzig, 1444/1932) that employs "apophatic" attributes of the transcendent being: that God is not. . . . Here the transcendence of God is a model for the transcendence of judgement in itself that still is "behind a curtain".

17. While preserving their original sense we have borrowed the words "phenomenal" and "noumenal" from Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, ed., J.H. von Kirchmann (Deidelberg: Georg Weisss delberg); ch., II/3, pp. 249-268.

18. We use the word, "theomena" and "theomenal" derived not from the word "theos" as it would seem, but from the words "titheo" and "thema" that mean to "appoint" and "assign".