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Dignity, Equality, and Solidarity: A Catholic Alternative to D.E.I.

February 15, 2023


In a prior article, I argued that government, corporate, and academic D.E.I. initiatives—standing for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” though more accurately ordered as D.I.E. (Diversity, Inclusion, Equity)—wrongly erase moral distinctions among individuals and unfairly assign organizational benefits based on group identity. In addition to the examples provided previously, these documents from racially segregated trainings given to Seattle city employees illustrate D.I.E. ideology in action. Whatever their intentions, these programs, like all policies based solely on group identity, are unjust.

The Catholic Social Thought tradition offers an alternative, one that takes the putative concerns of D.E.I. initiatives seriously (e.g., ensuring justice within and among organizations) while fixing its gravely immoral shortcomings. We could call it “D.E.S.,” standing for “Dignity,” “Equality,” and “Solidarity.” Dignity addresses the concerns of Diversity, Equality the concerns of Equity, and Solidarity the concerns of Inclusion. (It is important to note that, though these principles have greater political and societal resonance, I am addressing them specifically as they apply to an employment context here.)

Like D.E.I.’s notion of diversity, the Catholic conception of dignity recognizes that human beings are profoundly different from each other, including differences of immutable characteristics (i.e., external physical features over which we have no control). The Catholic conception of dignity recognizes these characteristics as embedded within the moral meaning of being human. As a unity of body and soul (more on the latter below), each individual is not a generic permutation of an otherwise undifferentiated mass of “humanity.” Rather, each person is corporeally unique and has value, in part, because of this distinctiveness. Physical diversity is thus part of who we are. Consequently, Catholicism affirms that excluding or mistreating any individual solely on the basis of her or his immutable characteristics is a grave violation of dignity. In this sense, diversity and dignity share common cause: so long as individuals have the capacity to do the job, the particularities of human beings as they pertain to immutable characteristics should never be “counted against” someone in the workplace. An organization that discriminates only on the basis of these characteristics is profoundly unjust.1 

. . . everyone deserves the same basic moral regard, independently of their particularities. 

Unlike D.E.I.’s construal of diversity, however, the Catholic conception of dignity rejects defining individual worth based solely, or even primarily, on one’s immutable characteristics. The reason is because being human entails existing as a unity of body and rational soul; and while there is great diversity among human bodies, the rational soul, in an ontological sense (meaning its fundamental nature), is individuated yet otherwise radically the same in every human being. The biblical tradition calls this constituent feature of human beings the imago Dei or the image of God. The idea is that each individual bears an irreducibly unique stamp of moral worth because he or she has a spiritual nature that God wills to create and love for all eternity. It is this deeper anthropological reality that most fundamentally defines each one of us. The consequence of this fact is that every individual has irreducibly equal value and thus must be treated with equal respect because each individual’s existence is grounded in God, the source of all worth. 

What this means specifically within an employment context is that, beyond recognizing the constitutive goodness of humanity’s physical diversity,2 an individual’s immutable characteristics are ultimately irrelevant to making evaluative judgments, either negatively or positively. Whether you are a woman or a man, dark-skinned or pale-skinned, born within one ethnic group or another—what most fundamentally makes us morally human is that we are ensouled individuals, not representatives of any biological or, even less, sociological category. This is the foundational unity that grounds all forms of diversity. And because of it, everyone deserves the same basic moral regard, independently of their particularities. 

On what basis, then, are we permitted to make evaluative judgements? This question points to the next foundational value in the Catholic alternative to D.E.I.: Equality. Like equity, the value of equality is concerned with ensuring that each individual receives her or his just due within an organization. Yet unlike equity, equality does not distribute organizational benefits (or umbrage) according to an individual’s membership within a biological or sociological category.

The Catholic conception of equality has two functions: (1) as a consequence of human dignity, it dictates that organizations show equal respect to all employees (that is, organizations must treat everyone identically); yet (2) recognizing that the diversity among individuals also includes diversities of talent and virtue (what we could call mutable characteristics or potentialities that individuals can choose to develop), the principle of equality also establishes a moral framework for justifiably treating individuals differently. The adjudicating principle in the second sense of equality pertains not to the individual’s humanity but rather to his or her actions and, in particular, how those actions relate to the good of the organization: to wit, an organization is morally justified in rewarding actions that more greatly contribute to its good, and rewarding less (or sanctioning) actions that contribute less to its good. Thus, for example, the principle of equality authorizes companies to pay some employees more so long as those employees’ actions advance the company’s good more than their colleagues’ actions. Likewise, companies can justifiably give some people greater prominence in, say, board meetings because they have a greater responsibility for the corporate wellbeing. In short, the “equality” in the value of equality, in this second sense, pertains to the establishment of equal standards that are equally applied to all individual actions or failures to act. Thus, unlike equity, equality categorically rejects divvying up the community’s benefits based upon group membership or any other criterion that is not directly tied to individual behavior and performance. The principles of equality ensure that no one is rewarded or punished for what they, individually, are not responsible for. 

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The charge can be made, however, that the principles of dignity and equality fail to account for the obstacles that some individuals face because of physical (e.g., having a disability), historical (e.g., a legacy of racial injustice), and/or contextual (e.g., being born into a poor, single-parent household) challenges. These obstacles can prevent them from both (a) being hired, or (b) if they are employed, flourishing at the same level as their colleagues. Moreover, “dignity” and “equality” may, taken by themselves, sound overly individualistic and produce a workplace that places personal ambition above the organization’s common good. 

This is where the Catholic conception of solidarity acts as an essential moral balance. Like D.E.I.’s value of “inclusion,” the Catholic conception of solidarity responds to the fact that circumstances beyond individuals’ control can unfairly prevent them from accessing and flourishing within organizations. However, solidarity, unlike, inclusion, seeks to maximize the inclusiveness of the organization without violating the principles of dignity and equality. The principle of solidarity, for example, could (and should) animate a company to recruit employees in poor or otherwise underprivileged areas, actively looking for talent where it may not otherwise be discovered. It could (and should) spur companies to offer additional training to employees who feel they will benefit from it (that is, training open to all) so that they can operate on a level playing field with all colleagues. It could (and should) motivate the company to offer resources that help employees weather the vicissitudes of life, which tend to be more detrimental for those who come from poorer backgrounds. These kinds of initiatives signal to employees, and society more broadly that, to rehabilitate a once noble slogan, “We’re all in this together.” Solidarity seeks and celebrates the authentic good of all and invites everyone to find concrete ways to help each other succeed, especially those who are most vulnerable. 

Note, however, what solidarity does not call for: (1) it does not, unlike diversity and inclusion, pedestal members of specific identity categories as more worthy of care and concern than others, which would be a violation of individual dignity and equality (though every individual may not need or want additional training or assistance or outreach, it is made available to all); (2) in addressing injustice both inside and outside the company, it does not, unlike equity, hold individuals responsible for outcomes and circumstances that they are not directly contributing to; in other words, solidarity, consonant with the principle of individual dignity, categorically rejects “group guilt” (and its correlative, “group innocence”) in both its assessment of, and attempts to rectify, injustice; (3) whatever initiatives it may inspire with the goal of creating a maximally just organization, the principle of solidarity—precisely because of its universal scope (it is not only limited to specific organizations)—never pursues “internal justice” at the expense of “external justice.” For example, if an effort to create a more inclusive workforce leads to the lowering of the quality of the product and/or service that a company provides for society (think, for example, of surgeons, airline pilots, police officers, oxygen tank manufacturers, electrical grid operators, etc.) then the principle of solidarity would stand against such initiatives on the grounds that it would be a violation of the societal common good. (Such lowering of standards would also discourage and even prevent individuals within the company from attaining their highest potential, which would be a violation of the principles of dignity and equality as well.)

To be sure, there is much more to say about the meaning and application of D.E.S. principles. Yet as D.I.E ideology continues to metastasize within and across secular and, lamentably, religious institutions, it is more urgent than ever to define and implement an alternative. The Catholic social thought tradition has the resources to do that. And it’s high time we used them. 

1 The Catholic belief that only men can be priests and deacons is not an example of discriminating against women because they are women. Rather, it is recognizing and respecting an ontological distinction—a distinction having to do with the nature of reality as created and sustained by God—between men and women. From this perspective, the reason women cannot become priests is analogous to the reason that men cannot become mothers. Reality, whatever one’s feelings about it, is set up that way. In both examples, however, it is crucial to recognize that there is no moral distinction between men and women—only an anthropological one.

2 Though beyond the scope of this article, it is important to establish a normative definition of “nature” when identifying what constitutes an “immutable characteristic.” For example, there is a morally relevant difference between (a) what occurs in nature and (b) what is natural. Cancer, for example, occurs in nature, but because we rightly see it as attacking a human body’s normative function, we do not call it “natural.” Another way to make this point is to differentiate between (a) what God wills in creation vs. (b) what God permits in creation. For example, God wills that human beings have rational souls, which includes the capacity for free action; God permits—but does not will—that we employ that freedom to sin. The point is that just because we have something “inside us” does not mean that it is necessarily natural in a normative sense and thus justifiably construed as an “immutable characteristic.”