Sports and Human Dignity

Basketball hoop in front of grey sky

Introduction

For as long as I can remember my family has always been into sports. Destiny deemed it so. My mom was a high school cheerleader and my dad was a high school football player. They took me to college basketball games in an infant carrier. My dad coached little league football and dragged me to those football games. As my brother grew up, My parents would drag me to his baseball games. I never played organized sports due to my disability. My parents still instilled in me a deep appreciation for sports. Some of my favorite moments in college basketball involve a good Cinderella story. I remember my dad and I watching the George Mason versus UConn game on March 26, 2006. We ripped up our very wrong brackets and rooted for George Mason all the way until their loss to Florida. The most memorable moment has got to be the VCU final four run in 2011. My parents are VCU alumni. They attend all the home games and took my brother and me with them. Thus my parents had traveled to Texas to watch VCU play. I remember the Florida State game, which set VCU up to face Kansas. At the time of the game, I was in the hospital alone. I had been suffering from back pain and numbness in my hands. Nobody could find out what was wrong with me. As I watch VCU play Florida state, It reminded me of humanity’s capacity to fight. I believe the appeal of sports touches our innermost belief that we can conquer all obstacles. We are obsessed with a good underdog story. This shows that we desire to see the little guy take on Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot and three stones. Sports remind us of human dignity.

What is Dignity

I have argued that the concept of dignity is multifaceted. Humans have inherent dignity by virtue of being members of Homo sapiens. Yet they also have a fuller dignity. This dignity comes from not who we are, but what we do. People refer to this definition when they say, “The person is behaving in a dignified way.” The Catholic Church agrees with me. The Catechism of The Catholic Church states,

The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2).

Humanity has dignity because humanity has God-likeness in them. Humanity receives their being directly from God,

then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7 NABre).

God gave humanity his breath of Life. This means that we receive our being directly from God. Yet dignity is not inherently a religious concept, but a philosophical one.

A person can derive at the concept of dignity by asking what is the measure of a human being? At first, we refer to Aristotle and say that humanity is different due to our rational soul. However, we still consider vegetative persons human. Most people would concede that even babies born without rational capacity deserve respect. This respect forms the basis for our inherent dignity. Yet people also recognize that we lose something when we lose our ability to reason. What a person loses is the ability to fulfill their potential as human beings. This is what I mean by the term fuller dignity.

Is Autonomy enough

Steven Pinker in the article The Stupidity of Dignity wants to eliminate dignity all together in favor of autonomy. He says, “ because it [dignity] amounts to treating people in the way that they wish to be treated, ultimately it’s just another application of the principle of autonomy.”[^1] Pinker sees no difference between autonomy and dignity. I purpose the following thought experiment.

Imagine a world where every athlete has the option to take a drug that will make them stronger and faster. There are no side effects. They get put in a special league for people on the drug. Thus the competition is fair. Would you watch these sporting events?

Most people would not watch the league of super people because when it comes to sports we want to see human achievement. We want to see raw talent unaided by chemical processes. We intuitively feel there is something wrong with the special league of super people. Yet autonomy is never violated in the above scenario. Thus we need something more than autonomy to protect against unnatural enhancements. The concept we need is dignity.

One potential objection is that the drug is no different then external equipment. Yet in certain sports like swimming, the equipment is already regulated. Elite swimmer, Michael Phelps has spoken against whole-body polyurethane swimsuits because these swimsuits are, “distorting the sport.”[^2] Sports become distorted when it becomes more about equipment and less about human achievement.

Conclusion

Sports teach important life lessons. It teaches teamwork, good sportsmanship, and how to face defeat. More importantly, it shows us what humans endowed by their creator can achieve. We watch sports to see the capacity of humans. Human capacity matters because there exists something special about human nature. Catholics know that this specialness comes directly from God. We look up to athletes. They remind us that humans are amazing creatures destined for something greater. They remind us that every so often David can defeat Goliath. The next time you watch sports, let it remind you of the capacity for greatness that we all share.

[^1]: Pinker, Steven, “The Stupidity of Dignity” The New Republic (May 28, 2008), https://newrepublic.com/article/64674/the-stupidity-dignity

[^2]: Barrow, John D, “Why Ban Full-Body Olympics Swimsuits? A Scientist Explains Polyurethane” Daily Beast (July 25th, 2012), https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-ban-full-body-olympics-swimsuits-a-scientist-explains-polyurethane?ref=scroll

Let's talk about dignity!

Dignity is a word that you hear a lot. You hear it on the news and you hear it in the pews, but what is it? It seems like dignity is such a slippery concept. We hear about Death With Dignity, which argues that people in intense suffering deserve to die either at the hands of their physician or be provided the means to die usually by overdosing on drugs. Yet the Catholic Church also uses dignity to argue against euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.  How can the same concept be used by two different parties to mean two different things? More importantly, how can we talk intelligently about the dignity of LGBTQ people and still maintain that the homosexual act is inherently disordered or undignified? These questions are important, but in order to answer them, we must first ask, where does dignity come from?
During the summer, I spent a lot of time contemplating the concept of dignity. It first came up in my religious reasoning class but followed me around like a ghost. It came up in Sunday’s homily and again in the case of Charlie Gard. This led me to investigate the concept of dignity.
In short, dignity is the idea that human beings possess value. The problem is that society has forgotten the root of the value. This value comes from God-likeness. This means two things: 1 we are not God, and 2. we have characteristics of God. We are embodied creatures, which means that unlike God, we are tied to our biological makeup. However, that is okay, because our dignity is being like God, not being God. Dignity; therefore, entails both the soul and the body in unity. If dignity is found in the body then we have dignity by virtue of being members of homo sapiens. Thus we all have inherent dignity in our bodies that is worthy of respect and protection; however, there is more. We are not merely bodily creatures, for there are certain characteristics that separate man from animal.  It is in the exercising these higher characteristics that help men achieve fuller dignity.   It is here that we can measure whether an action is dignified in so far as it is an action consistent with the character of God.  There is more that could be said about the characteristics of God, but for this post, I will use the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness gentleness, and self-control.
Most disputes revolving around dignity tend to emphasize one side of the coin or the other. It is not inherent dignity or fuller dignity, but rather inherent dignity  and fuller dignity working together,
This can be seen in the death with dignity controversy. Those in favor of mercy killing emphasize the fact that it is undignified to live a life, where one is unable to experience love or joy due to extreme suffering. Those against mercy killing argue that the killing a person, no matter the reason, destroys the inherent dignity that person possesses. However, neither camp appeals to both strains of dignity in a cohesive way. Such an outlook would have to admit that it is undignified to lose one’s rational capacities, but it is also fundamentally unfair to deny the person’s intrinsic dignity that they possess regardless of their mental capacity. Under this outlook
However, neither camp appeals to both strains of dignity in a cohesive way. Such an outlook would have to admit that it is undignified to lose one’s rational capacities, but it is also fundamentally unfair to deny the person’s intrinsic dignity that they possess regardless of their mental capacity. Under this outlook, it would be wrong to kill a person simply because they have lost their rational mind, but there would be nothing wrong with letting the person die and making them comfortable.
Currently, there is a tension between the LGBTQ and the church. This tension exists primarily because the church wants to rightly uphold the inherent dignity of LGBTQ people especially those who are baptized. Yet, the church teaches that the inclination to be sexually attracted to the same sex is inherently disordered. How can a person have inherent dignity and yet the core of who they believe to be is inherently disordered?
To answer this question, we must remember that dignity is more than just the value placed on our biological makeup; it also entails exercising the characteristics that make us God-like provided that we have the capacity to do so. Two characteristics stand out to me: patience and self-control. Thus, in the eyes of the church, their job is to not just respect the inherent dignity of every person but to challenge people to achieve a fuller dignity. To water down this message, in turn, reflects negatively on the church’s perspective on the LGBT community. It says that the church must treat the LGBT community differently or have different expectations for them. If the church does this, ultimately, we are admitting that we do not believe that LGBT community can achieve a fuller dignity. Lastly, it is important to remember that one’s sexual attraction is not where dignity comes from, rather it comes from the belief that we are more than our biological urges
Whether you are facing a terminal illness, a painful debilitating disease, or same sex sexual attraction, it can be hard to find a balance between the idea that you are loved and have dignity and the idea that you are called to act in a different way in order to achieve something greater. However, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You have inherent dignity precisely because you are made in God’s likeness, which in turn places certain expectations.
Hence it is not that dignity is an ambiguous concept rather the two strands of dignity are hard to balance.