Our world is beset by callousness and brutality.
The death toll grows each day from the cruel violence of Boko Haram, Daesh/ISIS, Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Quds Force, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups, all of whom frequently target even defenseless women and children. President Assad and his Russian allies indiscriminately attack areas thickly populated by Syrian civilians, and the fighting roils on in Iraq, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan. We’ve become numb to the incessant news reports of yet more civilians suffering grievous harm, adversity, or death, and there’s no reasoning with those who place scant value on destroying human lives except as instrumental statements on their unyielding ideological trajectories.
In this context, what are we to make of the opening line of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”? After all, there are no qualifying clauses to cover the significance of human dignity in the eventuality of death by violent extremism. For far too many “free and equal” members of humanity, threats of violence, brutality, exclusion, subjugation, and death itself appear to have rendered our global moment of idealism when that Declaration was signed back in December of 1948 as, at best, a curious historical anomaly.
Is the notion of universal human dignity not sheer folly in 2016?
It’s worth noting from the outset that “human dignity” has several meanings. My first assignment for the students of my new graduate-level course on Human Dignity was to read a short opinion piece – “In Search of Dignity” – that conservative cultural commentator David Brooks had written in the New York Times back in July of 2009. Brooks described a “dignity code” as a set of rules and civic virtues, and it was his contention that this dignity code was exemplified by George Washington. According to Brooks, Washington subordinated his personal interests to national interests and duty. Brooks’ message however was not sanguine, as he concluded that “…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone”. And while Brooks did allow that “Americans still admire dignity”, he asserts that there is no longer any popular consensus on, or practice of, the ethical standards that constitute such dignified convictions and behavior in the United States.
The concept of human dignity however is much more ambitious than seeking widespread consensus on rules of conduct, or on matters of deportment. Yes, for someone to sacrifice perceived self-interests for the greater good is refreshing, and we all know of examples of that taking place (starting with parenting). And human dignity is certainly more than just a reflection of social status or bearing, although that more limited definition of dignity still has its place in certain contexts. So while I applaud David Brooks for his pondering on one dimension of human dignity, I am arguing that in the context of the exceptionally violent world of 2016 we ought to refocus our sights on that most ambitious interpretation of the human dignity concept: that “being human” means that we are each unique and valuable, and that we are each as valuable as any other person on the planet.
That’s a very large statement, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the way in which humanity conducts itself on this planet. Or, as stated most poignantly by Princeton University’s emeritus professor of politics, George Kateb: “The pathetic fact is that the only enemies of human dignity are human beings.” What is it that drives so many who are in positions of economic, military, political, social, or governance power to erode the shared basis that all of us – each and every human being on this planet – depend upon as the moral and ethical foundation for all human rights, all laws, and any sense of justice: human dignity? Continue reading The folly – and necessity – of human dignity