Ontological vs. Ethical Dignity: an untangler of knots

Dr. Susan Selner-Wright

Dr. Selner-Wright is Chair of the Philosophy Department at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and Director of the Pre-Theology Cycle there. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America, and before her current position, she taught undergraduates and seminarians at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She has produced a translation of Q. 3 of ’ De potentia Dei (On the Power of God), forthcoming from Catholic University of America Press. She has also worked extensively with ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), including writing a two part study guide on the thought of St. Thomas to be used in ENDOW’s small study group format. She is currently working on the second year of a four year curriculum for high school students, in bringing the wisdom of St. Thomas and the Western tradition to bear on the experience of young people in contemporary society.

[HTML Copy of Presentation]

In her presentation, Dr. Selner-Wright showed how, in the essays collected in Person and Community, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope ) makes a key distinction between two modes of human dignity. She pointed out that “ontological dignity, on the one hand, is rooted in each human being’s very existence as a human being, and is a feature of every human being regardless of his or her age, ability, social standing or sex. Ethical dignity, on the other hand, is something that human beings achieve over time: some human beings will never develop it and others lose it after having had it.” After examining Wojtyla’s development of this distinction, Dr. Selner Wright applied it “to look at some of the most contentious and seemingly contradictory statements St. Thomas Aquinas makes about the dignity of women.” Some of the “knots” Thomas ties, she claimed, “can be untangled if we see that his denial of ethical dignity to most women is rooted in his adherence to Aristotle’s abysmally inadequate biology, while Thomas has no hesitation in assigning the more fundamental ontological dignity to women. She concluded with a look at similar knots which characterize contemporary views of the unborn and disabled and suggest ways in which Woytyla’s distinction can be helpful in loosing the dangerous bonds made possible by those knots.

Handout for Presentation.
On Karol Wojtyla.
Dr. Selner-Wright’s vita.

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