Developing Our Understanding of Human Dignity for the Digital Age

Paolo Carozza is a professor of law at Notre Dame Law School.

While the dignity of the human person is recognized to be “the foundation of all the other principles and content of the [Catholic] Church’s social doctrine,” this is not to say that there aren’t difficult and important disagreements internal to the tradition about the exact basis and meaning of human dignity, and about the implications of recognizing and respecting it in our social relations, especially in relation to the changing and contingent conditions of the material environment in which men and women live at any given time and place.

For that reason, one the most intriguing parts of Dignitas Infinita comes almost at its close, in two paragraphs that have attracted virtually no attention in the public commentary to date. At the end of a discussion of 13 distinct “grave violations of human dignity,” ranging from “the drama of poverty” to human trafficking to the marginalization of people with disabilities, the declaration turns to the problem of what it calls “digital violence” (paras. 61–62):

Although the advancement of digital technologies may offer many possibilities for promoting human dignity, it also increasingly tends toward the creation of a world in which exploitation, exclusion, and violence grow, extending even to the point of harming the dignity of the human person. . . .

. . . [I]f technology is to serve human dignity and not harm it, and if it is to promote peace rather than violence, then the human community must be proactive in addressing these trends with respect to human dignity and the promotion of the good.

Some of the more specific examples of harm referred to under this heading include “fake news and slander”; incitement of violence and cyberbullying; an environment of “loneliness, manipulation, [and] exploitation”; “the risk of addiction”; and the “gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.”

Although it would not be entirely correct to say that this is the first example of a magisterial text commenting on the possibilities and dangers presented by online communications systems—both the current pope and his predecessor made a variety of passing remarks on the topic—it is one of the only ones to address the topic very directly and the first to do so specifically and explicitly in relation to the broad Catholic understanding of human dignity. And thus, it invites some very interesting new reflections.

To understand that opening better, however, a more general observation about the development of Catholic social teaching (CST) needs to be fleshed out first. That tradition is not, and never has been, encompassed only in a static set of doctrines and precepts. New social, political, scientific, and technological contexts require existing teachings and doctrines to be filled in and extended, to take on new insights, to be given coherent shape again, and to be applied in new ways.

Social media and the digital information ecosystem generally have altered the daily realities of our lives and our communities, of societal dynamics and political authority, of identity and self. The transformations we are experiencing today are, to say the least, no less profound and pervasive than the social upheavals of nineteenth-century industrialization and wage labor that first catalyzed the formal articulation of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine (see Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor (1891)).

The development of CST is not just a question of applying a fixed concept or doctrine to a new situation. The principles themselves need further development in order to respond adequately to the new circumstances. Such is the case with our understanding of human dignity. We are in an era where the meaning and value of what it is to be human is being questioned and threatened in absolutely unprecedented ways, and the understandings of dignity gained in a radically different time are not by themselves sufficient to ground an adequate response. The “new things” of our digital era provoke us to bring out and emphasize new dimensions of human dignity.

In short, we need a development of our understanding of human dignity for the digital age. To be very clear, it is not that human dignity itself changes or is changeable. Dignitas Infinita makes that explicit, beginning with what it calls a “fundamental clarification” that distinguishes the concept of human dignity in its ontological sense from three other uses of the term—what it refers to as moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity (paras. 7–8). Dignity in the latter three senses can be gained or lost, subjectively felt or not, realized or damaged by the ways in which we exercise our own freedom or by the conditions of life imposed upon us. But as the declaration affirms,

The most important among these is the ontological dignity that belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves (para. 7).

Still, even dignity in this timeless and enduring ontological sense can be subject to our changing and deepening human capacity to grasp its meaning and its demands. Precisely because dignity refers to a God-granted quality of the human person that is—in the words of John Paul II from which Dignitas Infinita takes its title[1]—“infinite,” the number of dimensions to discover remains in some important way inexhaustible. It is always a mystery to be plumbed further.

Dignitas Infinita itself acknowledges this permanent need for growth and change in our understanding of dignity, referring to “the progress of humanity’s reflection on the concept of dignity” (para. 13) and noting that in history “the Church’s Magisterium progressively developed an ever-greater understanding of the meaning of human dignity, along with its demands and consequences” (para. 16).

Significantly, that development was not only produced by thinking “outward” from a set of a priori first principles of metaphysics or revealed dogmas within the tradition but also through the encounter and engagement with other perspectives outside of the tradition. The declaration points, for example, to the contributions of Descartes and Kant and to twentieth-century philosophical investigations of personal subjectivity (para. 13).

Dignity is thus what John Henry Newman referred to as a “living” idea, “an active principle . . . leading [minds] to an ever-new contemplation of itself, [and] to an application of it in various directions.”[2] Perhaps the clearest example of how the Church’s understanding of the dimensions and implications of human dignity have developed in time, and in relationship with other sources of reflection upon it, is expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, appropriately titled Dignitatis Humanae.

Crucially, our understanding of human dignity is not developed only within the mind as an idea but through our experience more broadly, by being enacted, by the practices of “doing” dignity and observing human reality. To borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s exhortation when he spoke about the importance of being able to walk in practice, “We want to walk, so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”[3] If we want to take forward our understanding of human dignity, our theory and reflection need also to be in constant contact with the rough ground of human experience. To do so we need to regard real people who live dignity and indignity in concrete contexts and not simply look at them as if they were epistemic objects, that is, types of people who have been removed from concrete circumstances. This sort of reflection on experience was instrumental to the Church’s developing thought on religious freedom in the twenthieth century that culminated in Dignitatis Humanae.

It is also worth emphasizing that this same dynamic has been present throughout the long history of human rights, at least as far back as the sixteenth century. It has frequently been the case that the most important and influential revolutions in thought about the dignity of human persons have come about through wrestling with the impact of our experience of its violation—whether in the conquest and subjugation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or the enslavement and commodification of Africans, or the genocide of Jews, or countless other examples of human dignity being eclipsed. Tragically but apparently inescapably in our fallen human condition, we often only become capable of recognizing more fully and universally the value of human beings by witnessing its wholesale denial.

Today, in the emerging digital age, this includes observing and reflecting on human dignity in careful, attentive engagement with the ways in which we can see human beings either flourishing or being oppressed and degraded by the new technologies that pervade their lives. There is no shortage today of situations in which the encounter between human beings and technology is palpably, visibly, not conducive to their wellbeing.[4] Let us begin reflecting there on how best to develop our awareness and understanding of human dignity for the digital age. This is what Dignitas Infinita seems to be trying to do in its inclusion of various manifestations of “digital violence” among the grave contemporary challenges to human dignity. It is a suggestive signpost pointing to fruitful fields of reflection in both method and substance, and we have much to learn from following the path it indicates.


[1] Introduction, Dignitas Infinita (citing John Paul II, Angelus in the Cathedral of Osnabrück (16 Nov. 1980) Insegnamenti III/2, at 1232 (1980)).

[2] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine 36 (Longmans, Green & Co. 1845).

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 107 (Blackwell 1967).

[4] For just one very recent discussion that has attracted a great deal of popular attention, see Jonathan Haidt, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (Penguin Press 2024).

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