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The dignity of the human person in Thomas Aquino

The human being is absolutely recognized as the center and end of law by almost all legal systems in the western world. Among several examples, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNITED NATIONS, 1948 p. 71 to 77) invokes, only in its general part, human dignity three times, which is why it is considered the interpretative matrix of this document.

From the perspective of Aristotelian-Thomist natural law, Law is not an end in itself. The Law from then on does not exist simply for the Law, nor for the Law. However, although this fundamentality is recognized by most researchers in the legal field, the great difficulty in finding the definition of the term is also recognized, that is, answering the question “what is the dignity of the human person”. In the current state of the art of legal research, the expression dignity of the human person often ends up seeming something completely empty, devoid of any content of axiological and ontological meaning. However, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas has a clear, objective and complete definition of what the dignity of the human person is.

Very well suited to the Thomist method, even before defining the dignity of the human person, it is necessary to discover the meaning of the term dignity itself and where it resides. The dignity of the person supposes that the human being has an ontological excellence or eminence, so that man has a superiority in Being. However, excellent or eminent is said absolutely and not relative. It means to say that there is in the being of man a very intense participation in the absolute Being, of a high level of greatness. This excellence or eminence, although it has a certain dimension of relativity, which may mean that man is more excellent or eminent than other earthly creatures, having a quality of being superior to them, in fact it is a matter of another order of being. In other words, according to this perspective, man is not an animal of a superior species, but belongs to another, different, higher and eminent order of being. Dignity, therefore, is something absolute that belonged to essence. (HERVADA, 2008, p. 309).

In the words of Hervada (2008, p. 309), dignity “lies in human nature; it is the perfection or intensity of being that belongs to human nature and is declared of the person, while this is the existential realization of human nature”. It is, therefore, a particular and inherent condition of the human being. However, the fact that it is absolute does not mean that it is something immanent and unrelated, therefore unlimited, according to the Kantian perspective. On the contrary, man has being by participation, being a created participation of the subsisting Being.

Considering, then, that man is absolutely worthy, however, by participation, this means that he does not have unlimited rights and autonomous duties imposed by himself. His rights and duties are regulated by norms inherent to his being. These, therefore, are received, as is their very being and their dignity. In this way, we can say that man’s rights and duties are limited by his being, which he possesses only through participation in the subsisting Being.

In relation to these rights and duties, it is important to emphasize the question of the purpose of man. This purpose is due to the intrinsic dignity of man. In fact, “the natural ends are present in the intrinsic constitution of the human being as an orientation towards the ends, in the form of natural inclinations” (HERVADA, 2008, p. 310). But there is a correct way of relating human dignity to the natural ends of men. In fact, it is a relationship that must be made, because the essence of the human being has a finalist constitution, that is, a final cause. From this perspective, ends are intrinsic factors of human dignity. The rights and duties inherent to human dignity would be formed in terms of such ends, but not exhausting them. Although they are part of the being as intrinsic constituents, such ends do not exhaust the dignity of the human person, as they do not exhaust their own being, as if the person had a dignity unrelated to any purpose. It follows, then, that the ends emanate from human dignity as their own expression, which constitute rights and duties inherent to the dignity of man. Such rights and duties are reflections and expression of human dignity (HERVADA, 2008, p. 311).

From the above, one can answer the question of what the dignity of the human person means in the perspective of Thomist natural law: human dignity consists in the eminence or excellence of the human being according to the intense participation in the subsisting Being, which constitutes him as a being endowed with debt and enforceability in relation to himself and to other men. In the words of Hervada (2008, p.311), “it is a being whose order of being comprises the order of the ought-to-be”.

Still, in accordance with the idea of ​​eminence or excellence exposed, dignity also implies the idea of ​​merit or worthiness and appropriate behavior. The fact that a person possesses dignity means that he or she deserves treatment that is appropriate to their ontological status, with behaviors that conform and do not conform to this status. This perspective indicates that the person contains in himself an objective rule of his own acts and also of the acts of others in relation to him. Ultimately, human dignity would be constituted as a rule of behavior with its foundation and origin in human nature itself, being therefore objective.


HERVADA, Javier. Lições propedêuticas de filosofia do direito. São Paulo: WMF Martins fontes, 2008.

NAÇÕES UNIDAS, Assembleia Geral das. Declaração Universal dos Direitos Humanos (DUDH). Resolução 217 A (III) da Assembleia Geral: Paris, 1948.

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