Sunday, 12 August 2018

Human Dignity: Recent Developments

by James Beauregard
Human Dignity continues to be a topic of debate, and there are a range of opinions about it, from the need to defend it to arguments that there is no such thing. As personalists are typically concerned with the issue of human dignity – see, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on personalism – this is worth pausing to consider. 
Recently, the Catholic Church at the direction of Pope Francis, made an official change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty, and human dignity loomed large in the official change in church teaching.  The Catechism has in the past acknowledged that the state has the right, in principle to utilize in capital punishment for the protection of public order.  This is acknowledged in the new nitration of article 2267 of the Catechism: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”[1]
This same article acknowledges that, “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” In light of the dignity of persons, the Church has changed its official teaching on the death penalty to state:
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
In a letter to the bishops of the Catholic church in February[2], the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes frequent reference to one of the twentieth century’s most widely known personalists, Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II, who, during his papacy commented multiple times on the death penalty, most notably in the Encyclical Evangelium vitae, where he wrote, “a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defence’ on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”[3]
The new teaching on the death penalty immediately has two broad implications.  First, it can no longer be argued that the church supports capital punishment, if only in the most limited circumstances.  Second, it commits the church to working worldwide for the abolition of the death penalty. 
Newspaper accounts in the United States have been reporting on this daily for the past week, as the United States is one of the few western democracies that still allows the death penalty for capital crimes. The reporting has focused in particular on Republican politicians, who as a group tend to favour the death penalty as part of their law and order position.  Democrats, on the other hand, are traditionally opposed to capital punishment.  It will be interesting to see how this new debate plays out, because it will place in the public consciousness once again the issue of Republican Catholic politicians having to take a stand for or against the church’s teaching.  One American governor, himself a Catholic, has already publicly stated that an execution scheduled in his state will be carried out as planned.  To date, criticism of Catholic politicians taking positions contrary to church teaching has fallen mostly on Democratic politicians favouring abortion. 
The thread of dignity runs throughout these conversations.  Dignity is fairly straightforward to assert from a religious perspective in terms of the Imago Dei.  We are created in the image of God, and herein lies the source and guarantor of human dignity.  It has a source beyond this world and cannot be either given or retracted by any institution.  When one approaches the question of dignity from the perspective of philosophy, grounded as it is in the resources of reason rather than faith, the task becomes more difficulty.  This can be seen historically in the human rights documents that emerged subsequent to the Second World War such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acknowledge human dignity as foundational for human rights, but did not seek to define what specifically dignity is.[4]  This was left to subsequent generations, and no satisfactory or universally acceptable understanding of human rights has yet emerged. 
What might a personalist understanding of human dignity need to consider? In conclusion I would pose some questions for personalist philosophers and any other interested parties on what might need to be considered in order to develop an adequate understanding of and foundation for human dignity.
What do we mean when we say the word “dignity” (some working definition or description)
What understanding/description of persons ought to be operative in considering the question of dignity?
How closed or open-ended should an understanding of dignity be, given the open-ended nature of persons? (Neither too narrow as to rule out some persons, nor too broad so as to be meaningless).
Is there a transcendental basis for human dignity, and if so, what might it be? (on the grounds of reason, can an argument for aspects of the human person that are transcendent be made, and if so how?).
What might be the proper relationship between an understanding of human dignity and the various political structures of our world? (Can the state grant or deprive one of dignity, or does the state have an essential role in pro90moting and protecting human dignity?)

[1] Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5. Both this document and the letter to the bishops cited below are available on the Vatican website,
[2] Letter to the Bishops regarding the new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 02.08.2018. 
[4] Of note in this regard, personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who served for several years as the French ambassador to the Vatican, had a role in crafting this document. 

Friday, 10 August 2018

Speaking of Liberal Values....

by Simon Smith

By and large, I try to avoid using this space to vent spleen on current events. There are good reasons for this. For one, it perpetuates the media-myth that those events over which we are all encouraged to lose our fruit are of fundamental importance or interest instead of being a sideshow designed largely to distract. For another, there are more than enough idiots spouting off about such matters and I have little desire to join them. Perhaps more importantly, once one starts down this road, where does it end? There’s so much to choose from in this tired old world, after all. Should we discuss the latest doings of the Commander of Cheese himself, his numerous efforts to denigrate and utterly undermine our humanity? But what an embarras de richesses we face if we do. Shall we talk about the caging of Mexican children – surely an attempt at battery-farming – or perhaps return to the heady days of his campaign when he voiced his support for sexual assault? It’s quite the de-humanizing menu.
For these reasons, among others, I prefer to avoid the detritus which floats atop the eternal sea, poisoning all the little fishies therein, and stick to philosophy, which is at least sufficiently abstract to enable one to avoid thinking about the end of the world. But then, once in a while, someone says a thing utterly stupid that it gets right up my Personalist pipe. And since those about me no longer wish to listen to me thumping on, I felt now would be a good time to share. 
As I write this, the news is filled with chatter about the latest demonstration of just what our species is capable of when it puts half a mind – if that’s not too much of an overstatement – to it. I speak, of course, of comments on the subject of Islamic dress made by a leading political figure in the UK. I shall not name him, since he does not deserve the oxygen of publicity, which was, quite obviously, his prime motivation in making these comments. Indeed, if I may borrow from the late and truly great Linda Smith, we may even wish to consider depriving him of the oxygen of oxygen. It would not, I think, be unjust.
I do not, as it happens, count myself among the fans of the burka or any other kind of full-body shroud designed to completely conceal a person thereby, not only silencing them, but effectively erasing them from society altogether, making them unseeable and therefore unseen. Apart, that is, from a general feeling that people ought to be able to wear more or less whatever they like. I discount both cargo pants and sandals from that, obviously. My principle reason for not being a fan is that, as far as I can see, this sartorial disappearing trick is a disturbing manifestation of misogyny masquerading as religious and cultural practice. But here’s the thing: I’ve managed to discuss this issue and my perspective on it perfectly calmly with people who disagree. Indeed, those conversations were frequently both interesting and informative. Some of those people are themselves Muslim: my students, for example, when I taught in Oman. They would cheerfully discuss Islamic dress-codes, often comparing them with Western fashions to devastating effect. When someone cites the example of a T-shirt marketed at young women, which has the words “Porn star in training” emblazoned across the front, it’s difficult not to feel the moral high ground slipping just a bit. And yet, curiously enough, the conversation never actually descended into infantile name-calling or mockery. Odd that. It’s almost as though people who disagree with us and do things differently to us are capable of having a sensible conversation without everyone being abusive or acting like sleep-deprived four-year old.
So, here’s my first problem with this whole sad affair: if you want to insult people because of the way they dress, if you want, in other words, to demonstrate your ignorance and appalling lack of manners, fine, go ahead. But at least have the balls to be honest about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Do not try to dress it up as part of a supposedly “serious conversation” about multiculturalism or security or what have you. Be honest, say, “I am going to insult these people and their culture because I want to draw attention to myself and mummy and daddy don’t react when I swear anymore. Oh, and I’m clearly a bit of a ****.” At least then we’ll all know where we stand.
More importantly, perhaps, and in spite of not being much of a burka kind of chap myself, I object even more to the comments about burkas because it amounts to bullying, and a very nasty kind of bullying at that. Let us be clear, the burka and other forms of traditional Islamic dress are not like a crucifix worn around the neck and frequently tucked in where no one can see it. They are not like that because a) a burka is not something you can wear under your ordinary clothes; and b) because it is not at all clear that the decision to wear a burka is the simple, frequently causal, often even meaninglessly self-decorative, decision that wearing a piece of jewellery is. Yes, I am well aware that many Muslim women choose to wear traditional Islamic dress in its various forms; and I would, under no circumstances, deny their right to do so. I merely note that social and cultural conditioning are subtle and powerful forces, and we are none of us entirely free from their influence; nor, for that matter, are we always aware of the hold such forces may have over us. And I do mean “we” here. In western cultures, boys are frequently conditioned to supress their emotions – except anger, of course – and to sexually objectify women; equally, I do not know how many women wearing high-heels have given much thought to the ways in which their footwear is specifically designed to emphasise their secondary sexual characteristics and so participate in that objectification; I’m sure it’s all of them.
The point is that none of us are entirely free to choose: not me, not you, and not Muslim women. Given this, it rather looks as though, in making jokes about women who wear the burka, we’re basically making fun of the very people over whom this particular form of misogyny is manifesting itself. That’s nice. And, I’m sure, a very valid thing to do in any serious conversation about multiculturalism, or nationalism, or whatever it is.
Actually, this is fine, if you also like jokes about, say, rape and sexual assault, the appalling conviction rates for rape and sexual assault, and other forms of institutionalised violence directed towards women. Or perhaps jokes about slaves, whether formerly here or in the US, or perhaps the ones who built places like Dubai. Yes, burkas are funny, but so are those crazy chains which African slaves used to wear: I mean, what were they thinking? They looked like – well, slaves. Cue hi-hat.
This may be why I was never able to secure a position as joke writer for the Chuckle Brothers (God rest Barry Chuckle, he will be missed). As it happens, I don’t generally find such things as sexual violence and slavery all that funny. But I suppose as long we’re making fun of them and their victims in the name of Allegedly Defending Liberal Values and Free Speech (a.k.a, being a self-aggrandising, publicity-seeking, bullying little **** hiding behind so-called liberal values in order push an agenda which is anything but liberal) it’s probably fine.
Although, if it is fine and we do want to laugh at those subject to oppression in its many and various forms, we might want to get better jokes. A burka does not make someone look like a letter box; it just doesn’t. To get the effect, you would have to stick one of those mad North Korea General hats on top and paint the poor woman red. I may not be an expert in comedy, but I’m quite sure that:
Hey, have you noticed how women who wear the burka look like letter boxes – if you make them wear a big North Korean General hat and paint them red? What’s up with that?
needs more time in the workshop.
                                                    Cue hi-hat