Six Principles of Individual Dignity and Rights

Ever been in an ethics related argument with someone where you cannot seem to find any common ground?  Scholars recognize that it does little good to debate issues such as slavery and abortion without foundational principles to justify which position is better or worse.

In this illuminating article, Fr. Spitzer gives us six principles that form the rational and moral basis for ethical decision making. You’ll see that it was reasoning based on these principles that led to the end of slavery and other injustices in Europe and the Americas.

Throughout 1,500 years of history, the Catholic Church developed six major principles of individual dignity and rights now accepted (but not always lived-up to) by the majority of secular societies. In addition to Jesus, five major thinkers were involved in these important developments:

  1. Saint Paul – particularly the development of the notion of conscience (integral to the natural law).
  2. Saint Augustine – particularly the subordination of the positive (codified) law to justice.
  3. Saint Thomas Aquinas – particularly the development of the natural law.
  4. Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P., particularly the assertion of universal personhood of all human kind.
  5. Francisco Suarez, S.J., particularly the doctrine of inalienable rights and the prioritization of rights (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and property).

The six principles they developed are universal, justifiable through natural reason, and ground the legitimacy of all forms of government. If any government intentionally violates these principles and rights, they lose their legitimacy until the violation is corrected. They are as follows:

  1. The principle of non-maleficence (Section I)
  2. The principle of universal personhood (Section II)
  3. The principle of unjust laws (Section III)
  4. The principle of inalienable rights (Section IV)
  5. The principle of the necessary hierarchy of rights (Section V)
  6. The principle of the intrinsic limits of human freedom (Section VI)

By reading this article you’ll not only better understand the justifications for the inviolable dignity of the human person, but you’ll be better equipped to discuss social and moral issues that deny that dignity.

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