Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Human Dignity Matters in Economic Development (and Beyond)

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aimthesolution“You have never met a mere mortal.” – C.S. Lewis

God has called each of us to redemptive stewardship, crafting us in his own image that we might assume this calling in boldness and love. Thus, as we approach complex issues of poverty alleviation and seek to empower others on this path, we must be careful that our efforts affirm the dignity and destiny of the human person.

As noted in the Acton Institute’s core principles, “the human person, created in the image of God, is individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, and a co-creator,” possessing “intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties both for himself and other persons.” A brief perusal of Genesis 1 will confirm as much, yet far too often we distort and confuse this framework, defining those in severe need according to their present station and developing our “solutions” in turn.

Such attitudes can manifest subtly (our vocabulary) or severely (coercive measures), even or especially among the boots on the ground and the “experts” that fuel them. “Anti-poverty(!)” programs and policies may indeed abound (even the Millennium Development Goals nod to “human dignity”), but little of that matters if the promoters or measures themselves treat others as inferior, incapable, or altogether dispensable.

As development economist Carroll Ríos de Rodríguez explains in the PovertyCure series, using population control as an acute example of the extreme, our views about the human person have a profound influence over all areas of society — in the family and community, yes, but also in the economic sphere.

Indeed, as economist Julian Simon famously put it, humans are the “ultimate resource” to a nation’s economy. Yet even this simple statement means far more and stretches far wider than even Simon foresaw.

People are producers, to be sure — of love, money, culture, and many other things — but the spiritual dimension of all this connects the dots to something more profound than economic growth. When the human person is protected, defended, and granted basic liberties, we open doors to new levels and forms of relationship, collaboration, service, innovation, and love, unlocking and sharing in the loads of spiritual capital that come along with it.

As we contemplate “solutions,” then, let us continue to remind ourselves that human persons are not mere consumer bots or numbers in an economic planner’s spreadsheet, defined by their station, surroundings, or supposed life trajectory. Each person, rich or poor, represents a lover, creator, and dreamer, a unique and precious person born for relationship, collaboration, and creativity with God and man.

As Rodriguez concludes, the solution to poverty is not patting, diminishing, or eliminating those trapped under its weight, but rather, freeing and empowering those same people to further realize their God-given potential and maximize their service and stewardship alongside others.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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