This being Memorial Day, there are few topics worthy of such a sacred occasion. But recently, I read a book that dealt exclusively with one such topic. I didn’t agree with everything the book said, but the author made me think, and for that I am appreciative.
I wrote a short piece in response to that book and delivered it at the final session of this season’s Washington Spinoza Society meeting last Monday. Here’s a transcript of my talk:
Shameless hypocrites. Pathological liars. Fraudsters. Robbers. Bullies. Serial rapists. Natural born killers. Agents of genocide. Deniers of genocide.
Those are just a smattering of the type of people out there who make my topic such a spicy area of interest among political philosophers. In his recent book entitled Human Dignity, Princeton Professor George Kateb claims that, notwithstanding the variety of people’s behavior and characters, human dignity “turns out to mean in its most common use the equal dignity of every person.” According to Kateb, “the dignity of every individual is equal to that of every other; which is to say that every human being has a status equal to that of all others.” Kateb then goes on to say that “[T]he core idea of human dignity is that on earth, humanity is the greatest type of being … and that every member deserves to be treated in a manner consonant with the high worth of the species.” For Kateb, one doesn’t have to resort to theology to conclude that humanity transcends nature, for humanity alone is capable of: free agency, moral agency, written language, and self-consciousness. Human existence and only human existence, Kateb argues, is inward looking and able to create a sense of meaning in life. To recognize these unique capabilities is to understand that, in Kateb’s words, that “humanity is not only natural, whereas all other other species are only natural,” and “the reasons for this assertion … [have] nothing to do with theology or religion.” Humanity is so uniquely great, in fact, that all enlightened societies would ground themselves on a system of human rights, which in turn rests on the notion of equal dignity for all. Or so argues Professor Kateb.
There is much that attracts me to Kateb’s line of thinking. But there are also elements that put me off. For one thing, I find it ridiculous that we have to tie our notions of human dignity to the degree of speciesism that Kateb adopts. I’m no animal biologist, but the idea that humans transcend nature, whereas whales and apes do not, strikes me as bad theology and even worse science. More to the point, we don’t need to denigrate the great apes or sea mammals in order to elevate the importance of human dignity. In fact, we don’t even need to assert our superiority over the other residents of this planet – the ones that aren’t threatening climate change and aren’t responsible for threatening the extinction of certain mammals.
Relative to the way he compares humans to animals, Kateb’s statements about the equal dignity of all human beings are much more compelling. But they still strike me as a bit simplistic. Let’s take the serial rapists, genocidal maniacs – and the garden-variety politicians I referenced before. As Kateb acknowledges at one point in his book, when you’re talking about individuals, human dignity can be destroyed based on their conduct. Hitler is anything but dignified. To compare him, say, to Heschel in terms of dignity seems to be at least as absurd as any comparison that can be made between a human being and an ape or whale. I would dare say that as individuals are concerned, the ape or whale would be deemed much more beautiful, less heinous, and in a very colloquial sense of the word, more “dignified” than Hitler, or his Auschwitz henchmen.
In analyzing human dignity, I think it’s important to differentiate between our focus on the individual and our focus on the species. It may be fair to say that when we look at the species, we see all sorts of qualities that we deem to be exemplary. And whenever we see an individual, even if we know nothing about that individual, we intuitively recognize his or her potential to manifest those qualities. We’ve already mentioned a few of them – moral agency, written language, inwardness -- and may I add that human beings are capable of love, compassion, altruism, great feats of scientific and literary prowess. The list goes on.
But when we reflect on individuals with whom we’re familiar, it is clear that the reality may be very different. Not only are human individuals capable of the most heinous crimes, but many aren’t capable of much of any mental activity. Perhaps they’re in a coma. Perhaps they’ve had a lobotomy. Perhaps they were born as dull in the head as Mozart was born brilliant.
Still, we feel compelled to treat them with dignity. And the question is, why? If they have behaved immorally, or if they manifest far fewer mental or physical skills than the typical chimp, why does their membership in our species nevertheless entitle them to rights that we wouldn’t extend to members of other species? Why do we view mental vegetables and serial killers as deserving of our respect and compassion merely by virtue of their species?
For one thing, we all appreciate very vividly what happens when a society makes a practice of ignoring human dignity for a substantial portion of the population. The resulting acts of ugliness and immorality are forever etched in our brains. What’s more, even when we focus on the individual level, and not on the societal or species level, we recognize that when a person is treated as lacking dignity, that person could very well be us – minus a little luck. In the immortal words of Phil Ochs, “Show me a prison, show me a jail, show me a pris’ner whose face has grown pale, and I’ll show you a young man with many reasons why, there but for fortune go you and go I.”
But what truly drums in the notion of human dignity is to change the focus – away from the slave owner or heartless bureaucrat who ignore this concept, or for that matter the criminal or homeless person who are being denied its protections. No, what if we consider this concept instead from the standpoint of the privileged jurist or cleric, or for that matter, the aristocratic poet or ingenou. These are individuals upon whom fortune has smiled. Consider now that they are being asked to reflect on what kind of society they wish to live in and in particular what it means to be human in such a society. Clearly, they will look at the matter from all angles – that of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and hideous.
Which perspective dominates their thought, no less than which conclusion they draw, will depend on the person. But for me, I opt for the aesthetic perspective and what it impels me to do is bestow an inordinate amount of honor on all human beings, even those who don’t deserve it on strictly moral grounds. You see, I believe that it confers beauty and nobility on our species when we act as trustees for the animals of our planet, regardless of whether they spend their days as hunters or gatherers. Similarly, I believe it confers beauty and nobility on ourselves and our societies when we elevate what it means to human, regardless of whether the humans we are elevating are gathering what is their due or hunting those who are innocent. To make laws based on the notion of universal dignity is to honor human potential, human achievement, and human morality – which is frankly the only morality known to me. I would oppose capital punishment even for those who would relish the opportunity to capitally punish others. But I would do on the grounds that to uphold that human life is to honor the sacred importance of life generally and human life in particular. It’s the same reason why I believe that even the laziest among us are entitled to a significant amount of social welfare. Not just for the sake of them as individuals, but for the sake of our species – for what we represent as creatures who are capable of tremendous joy or suffering, not to mention the freedom of choice. You see, we are not merely the sum of our past conduct and present character – we are each combinations of person stage (past, present and future), and the lazy bum you see one day can become a constructive member of society at some point down the road. That assumes, of course, that our society cultivates the dignity that this so-called “bum” possesses throughout his life.
Ultimately, human dignity is about recognizing all that we have in common – where we come from, where we’re headed, what we look like, what we’re made of, how we experience consciousness … the list is endless. Some of us are fortunate. Others aren’t. But let us not allow that fortune to cause us to rank one another when it comes to what it truly most fundamental. Just as we have no business ranking ourselves vis a vis the birds that fly and the fish that swim, nor is it our place to decide that smart, industrious people are somehow deserving of life, liberty and happiness, whereas the others – well, let ‘em eat cake.
That perspective is beneath us. It is one thing to respect individualism as a principle of ethical and political thought. It’s another to forget that beyond our sense of uniqueness as men or women we have an honored place as members of a species or as expressions of the one God. You see, Professor Kateb might think that he can derive all of his philosophical beliefs from completely secular, areligious principles. But I have neither such delusions nor such desires.