“The two basic qualities on which our common life rests – good will, that is, the readiness to do for other people what they may expect of me – and reliability, that is, a responsible accord between my actions and my mind – have disappeared so completely that the basis of our common life has been removed.”
–Martin Buber in Good and Evil
In this age of inviolable individual choice and ever proliferating human rights, the very reasonable question that never seems to be asked in politically correct circles is what the philosophical or ethical justification for such rights might be. Inviolable individual choice and human rights presuppose a specific status in human beings that must inevitably shape our understanding of human community, and one wonders whether the suppression of the question is not perhaps linked with the leadership crisis evident in almost every headline on any given day.
So it was heartening to see the question articulately posed recently by someone as eminent as Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. In an essay entitled The Bearable Lightness of Dignity, Professor Glendon opens with a concise expression of the apparent dilemma: “It’s hard to imagine a decent politics that doesn’t depend on the notion of the dignity of the human person. It’s unfortunately also hard to specify how to anchor that notion in something beyond our earnest moral intuitions.”
She goes on to give a blow-by-blow account of the development of the concept of human dignity in modern times. The uncritical faith in science characteristic of the early 20th century led the German sociologist, Max Weber, to declare that the world had become “disenchanted”, and that “we are not ruled by mysterious, unpredictable forces, but that, on the contrary, we can, in principle, control everything by means of calculation”. This attitude inspired support for Social Darwinism and eugenics, and the repudiation of human dignity expressed in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s belief that the only possibility for human improvement would be some process of breeding a “selected race”.
The horrors of World War II shattered those comfortable delusions. For example, the Nazi extermination efforts had started with the forced sterilisation program modelled on the ideas of the American eugenics movement. And so the UN Charter affirmed “freedom and human rights” and “the dignity and worth of the human person”, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
Tellingly, dignity was never defined, prompting philosopher Jacques Maritain to quip: “We agree about rights, so long as no one asks us why.” It was clear that there would be difficulties ahead. The relatively peaceful demise of the totalitarian regimes of eastern Europe and apartheid in South Africa turned out to be smokescreens for the convulsions that have since occurred. And all, in one way or another, involve the question of human dignity – genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, the refugee crisis, illegal immigration, failure to assimilate, cultural conflict, terrorism, military aggression, economic imperialism, the drug trade, human trafficking, famine, poverty, unemployment, corporate fraud, bureaucratic malfeasance, political corruption, the assault on democracy, and much more.
The perpetrators of these injustices either reject the idea of human dignity or try to corrupt the meaning, e.g. at the 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, a European-driven coalition tried to have the word “dignity” expunged from the documents because it conflicted with their gender agenda. Many intellectuals actively fuel the contemporary assault on human dignity, either blind to or disdainful of the inevitable consequences. Stephen Pinker’s article, “The Stupidity of Dignity”, criticised the concept as not just meaningless but even harmful when used to oppose biological experiments that could enhance or lengthen human life. Biotechnology is, of course, supported by massively profitable global industries that require the destruction of unborn human life.
Euthanasia advocates adopted the slogan “death with dignity” to counter arguments in favour of the dignity of human life from conception until natural death. In keeping with the general thrust of the secular utilitarian worldview, they seek to restrict the meaning of human dignity to the rights of the autonomous individual, ignoring the human reality of millions of people whose autonomy is limited by age, mental health, illness, disability, lack of education, economic dislocation, and many other factors.
Glendon notes three sources for attempts to provide a foundation for the concept of human dignity, but neglects to mention the most compelling basis of all, and this results in her conclusion being disappointingly tentative, appealing to political consensus rather than philosophical rigour. Of the sources she mentions, Kant’s rejection of innate meaning and purpose seriously weakened his argument for dignity on the basis of human rationality, while Rousseau’s grounding of dignity in the empathy we feel for others fails because emotion is a notoriously unstable basis for morality.
The third moral justification for human dignity that Glendon refers to is the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are made in the image of God, but as she notes, this carries no water with non-believers. Accordingly, she concludes that “supplying the concept of dignity with philosophical foundations that are intelligible to believers and nonbelievers alike is still a work in progress”.
If Glendon is right, then the concept of human dignity will continue to be used and abused in laboratories and legislatures, boardrooms and bordellos while we wait for “a work in progress”, and the dignity of actual people will continue to be violated daily. And the age of misleadership will persist.
However, she is not right. Like too many academics today, she ignores the compelling philosophical justification of human dignity provided by the classical concept of Natural Law (there is also New Natural Law theory, but that need not detain us here). Natural Law is built on the idea that there is common ground among all human beings, regardless of culture, on which moral questions can be rationally settled. It identifies objective moral conclusions derived from the rational consideration of propositions that are not informed by any religious tradition or scriptural or ecclesiastical authority.
Natural Law is based on Aristotle’s metaphysics of formal and final causes, the understanding that things have immanent natures or essences that make them what they are, and that they are intrinsically oriented to certain natural ends. In other words, Natural Law recognizes the meaning and purpose of things, and works from there to establish what is good for them and what is bad for them.
Natural Law defines goodness or badness according to how well or badly a thing expresses its nature, and all things demonstrate their natures to some degree, indicating the kinds of things they are in reality. Our natural inclinations cannot be removed, and they will always express themselves somehow, even if defectively – rational misconceptions, irrational delusions, moral failure, physical deprivation, social dysfunction, and other factors can all pervert them in one way or another.
It is in the nature of human beings to be inclined to choose the good over the bad, to seek self-preservation, to desire sexual union and the rearing of children, to pursue truth, and to live in social groupings like family, community, and the nation, setting up institutions for the proper functioning of these relationships. So political authority does not stem from a social contract but rather from the very nature of what it means to be human, which precedes any political arrangements we may make. The social nature of humans cannot be explained by the herd instinct of non-rational animals, which do not have language, philosophy, moral accountability, science, and the arts that flow from intellect. On this understanding, the concept of human dignity is compelling indeed.
The secular worldview that now dominates western culture – through state education, the media, academia, and the corporate world – undermines this natural law understanding of human dignity, based as it is on a repudiation of inherent meaning and purpose in favour of will and technique. Its nominalist stance effectively rejects the very notion of human nature, having regard only for the human being as an individual, an autonomous ego, detached from all ties to family, religion, and community, free to choose his or her own meaning and purpose in life. Human freedom, seen this way, is reduced to using the world beyond the ego, and that includes the person’s own body, as raw material for self-gratification. The exponential increase in narcissism in recent decades should surprise no one.
This perverse understanding of what it means to be human has culminated in the bizarre notion that I can contradict common sense and science, and self-identify with whatever gender or race or life-form that I choose, confident that my psychological aberration will be aggressively defended by the ruling orthodoxy. The architects of this secular worldview are trying to create a technocratic utopia based on production and consumption in which people become units, consumers, human resources, or voters, when the manipulators want to preserve the illusion of democracy.
Though many people are entranced by this vision of a technocratic utopia of flux and fancy, and choose to ignore the obvious inherent contradictions, it has one fatal flaw, and that is its radical inability to explain human dignity and the justification for its own conveniently capricious interpretation of human rights. The rejection of meaning and purpose inherent in the nature of things logically entails the rejection of the very idea of human nature, and therefore of human rights of any kind. Either it means something to be human or it doesn’t; if it does, then we can rationally understand the basis of human dignity and human rights – if it doesn’t, we can’t.
The neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, knew all this better than most: “Confounding the dignity of man with mere usefulness arises from conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced back to the contemporary nihilism transmitted on many an academic campus and many an analytical couch.”
The etymology is from the 13th century Old French word, dignite, meaning “dignity, privilege, honour”, which derived from the Latin, dignus, denoting “worth”. If the idea of human dignity is “stupid” as Stephen Pinker declares, or “a work in progress” as Mary Ann Glendon worries, then a lot of things we take for granted fly out the window – justice, compassion, respect, mercy, philosophy, science and technology, environmental responsibility, concern for other species, democracy and human rights, and standards of excellence in literature, art, and architecture. Talk about empirical evidence.
And yes, the evidence for human depravity is there too, but why call it depravity if it isn’t a violation of human dignity in the first place? The fact is that we have high expectations for human beings, and condemn our every failure because we know we are not what we were intended to be. And those hypocrites who demand human accountability while measuring existential significance only in terms of physical proportions should remember that the cosmically tiny human being is nonetheless the part who can comprehend the whole.
It is patently obvious that if human dignity goes, then leadership – inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all – goes too, and the descent into darkness now well under way, will become a headlong plunge. The last word belongs to a man who knew precisely the civilizational moorings at risk:
“Bullies, oppressors and all men who do violence to the rights of others are guilty not only of their own crimes, but also of the corruption they bring into the hearts of their victims.”