Persons with Dignity

As the Supreme Court wound through oral arguments about same-sex marriage this past Tuesday (Obergefell v. Hodges), I was struck by the way debates over what it is to be a “person before the law” have pervaded recent judicial cases.

In my graduate school studies some fifty(!) years ago, I focused my dissertation research on the question of our use of “body” to speak, with great emotional impact, of the Church, of organizations, of political orders and even of the Body of Knowledge. In the course of that research I stumbled on the long and winding history of the word “person,” derived from the Latin word persona.

After the Citizens United case (2010) I wrote about how this ancient word had evolved in that decision to give business corporations the rights to free speech (meaning expenditure of funds) originally attributed to individuals in public debate. I found this development profoundly troubling for the life of a republic rooted in the rights of individuals to participate in public life.

But “personhood” debates have also taken us in other directions as well. One, of course, is the intractable debate over the personhood of the human fetus, which requires attributing the rights of living individuals to this emerging human being.

In this regard our continually developing notion of “personhood” has led most of us to a more nuanced understanding of the solicitous care and protection to be given to this developing self, posing legal and moral quandaries that defy even the Wisdom of Solomon.

The same-sex marriage case, with its appeal to the “dignity” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity brings into clearer focus yet another attribute of the person. Dignity (Latin: dignitas) itself is another term originally attributed to the gods and to leading men in a patriarchal society who conducted affairs of government and war. This attribute is now extended increasingly to all individuals as persons.

Just today an article by Jeffery Rosen on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s use of this term in gay rights cases has appeared in the Atlantic. Not only is personhood being applied ever more expansively, but it has intensified its attributes of autonomy, legal status, liberty, and economic freedom.

It is not only a matter of protecting an individual “person” from government intrusions, it is a matter of enhancing and supporting that person’s access to a public life, in this case, the public life and status of marriage.

As a matter of extending personhood to individuals, this is a development to be applauded and nurtured. I hope this view prevails in the Supreme Court. However, like Rosen, I have some concerns about its wider impact. In particular, the application of personhood (itself a legal construct derived from ancient philosophy and theology) to the corporate “bodies” (also legal fictions) that dominate our economic and political life.

Will we also see an expansion of the Citizens United doctrine to expand the public rights of corporations even further? The first development, now before the Court, enhances our republic’s life. The second, I fear, can sink it.

One of the torpedoes that can sink it might come from the infamous District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008 that eviscerated the Founders’ concept of “people,” replacing it with a disconnected group of individuals who now had the right, as individuals, to act like a militia that “the people” had originally formed as states.

The proliferation of guns on the waves of fear in a time of social turmoil and change could indeed render us incapable of engaging in the unhindered free speech and reasonable debate that persons of dignity conduct as citizens of a flourishing republic.

2 thoughts on “Persons with Dignity”

  1. Very helpful piece, Bill. I wish that our politicians and our lawmakers have the intellect to catch the nuances of meaning in words that we so often take for granted. Yours is timely reminder to take words seriously.

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