It has become acceptable in some circles to speak of homo sapiens as nothing more than highly developed animals with no metaphysical identity, no purpose and no inherent value. For the rest of us, a concept of human dignity transcends a great variety of disagreements. Left or right, rich or poor, the idea that every person deserves a certain level of respect and grace has motivated our common cause.

What is not common is our definition of human dignity and the implications this has for public policy. We have used the concept to draw dramatically different conclusions. One side defines it as the right to be free and the freedom to do right. The other side sees it as society’s obligation to ensure equal social and economic status—or at least to minimize these differences.

In a memorable scene from Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch is tasked with providing legal defense for a black man in a predominantly white Alabama town. The man had been charged with a capital offense for which the evidence offers more than a reasonable doubt, but faced with a biased jury, a conviction was all but guaranteed.

Understanding his predicament, Atticus uses his closing remarks to appeal to the jury’s sense of higher purpose, calling on them to see past social conventions and fulfill a sacred duty to their community, to democracy and to humanity. For full effect, it must be quoted at length:

One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

In this excerpt, we are treated to a view of equality that respects what is true and consistent among humans: not money, intellect, race or status, but dignity. This means that we recognize the value that every person has in the eyes of God, and the contribution each person is capable of making to the world. It is no wonder that human rights have tended to become increasingly recognized in every region where Christianity has become a dominant influence on culture.

This understanding of dignity demands that innocent people should never suffer punishment unjustly. Thus, the most coercive institution known to man—the state—ought to restrain the exercise of its judgment and become blind to the kind of prejudices that often intervene in social life. The lowest among us should get an honest shot at fulfilling their dreams without the state dealing the cards or changing the rules.

Another type of appeal to human dignity takes us in an altogether different direction. Many public figures call for policies designed to redistribute wealth and opportunity for an ostensibly more “fair” system. Our inherent equality, they argue, should result in more equal outcomes and few social divisions. The presence of social and economic inequality is therefore a product of oppression and the denial of human dignity.

Yet, their prescription for society hardly recognizes human dignity. They require the state to treat people differently according to a set of goals determined not by the individuals, but by legislators and agencies. Those who strive to maximize their potential are told that a certain level of success is unjust; a greater share of the fruits of their labor will be confiscated. Those who are born into a struggling family are told—implicitly or explicitly—that they are incapable of self-sufficiency; that society will never value them enough to pay a decent wage, and that the responsibility of taking care of oneself and one’s family rests on the government, or on “society.”

A proper respect for human dignity should recognize and encourage personal industry and responsibility—for it is this freedom that enables people to flourish and realize their human potential. But socialistic policies do just the reverse. By attempting to level out society they disconnect work from reward, segregate people into groups of this or that characteristic (privileged or not), turn them against one another, and make people into victims of a system, rather than capable and valuable citizens.