An Idea That Counts

By Werner, Michael | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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An Idea That Counts


Werner, Michael, The Humanist


Growing up Catholic, I remember saying the Rosary as some sort of speed challenge. I never thought about the words but only saw them as a challenge to complete in record time. I was convinced that no one in the entire world could say a "Hail Mary" any faster than I could. I've no doubt the nuns would have had something to say about it if they knew.

Sometimes we liberals aren't so very different--we express our beliefs and convictions without really thinking about the meaning behind the words and without really integrating these ideas into our lives. We take them for granted, not understanding their origin, power, and influence.

Yet ideas matter and have real consequences. One particularly powerful idea--although we would do well not to repeat it as a type of liberal religious mantra--is "to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each individual," sometimes phrased as "equal worth and dignity."

What exactly does this mean? Does it mean that each of us is actually equal in some radical egalitarian notion? No. Common sense tells us we are indeed sometimes vastly different in ability, behavior, morality, and usefulness to each other--even in value to each other. If by worth we mean relative worth, the reality is that we judge each other by our own standards. We in fact do regard each other differently. From a totally relativistic perspective, one could claim that all judgments are relative and arbitrary. I don't make such a claim but do leave open as a possibility.

To think of the inherent worth and dignity of each person as something inherent in the world, as an objective truth and demonstrably true, would be a delusion. The origin of this humanist principle has its roots in the Enlightenment, when certain rights were given to people regardless of who they were. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant startled the people of his day by espousing that we should treat people as an end in themselves rather than as a means. This was a revolutionary concept in its day. It means, in effect, that how useful or valuable another person is to us isn't an appropriate measure for determining our behavior toward that person. Each person counts no matter what is her or his behavior or utility to society or ourselves. The implications are clear that all of us have some inherent worth regardless of who we are, and all people should enjoy some measure of dignity and rights no matter what.

When we talk of the inherent worth and dignity of each person, then, this idea should be interpreted as prescriptive not descriptive. Worth and dignity are things we are enjoined to give not because they are in some sense true but because a rational morality depends on it. It's something we find useful to do rather than something that is. We use this idea because it works in the real court of human affairs. This isn't a trivial difference of perspective.

The idea of equal worth and dignity asks us to "see" the other person as having the same value as ourself despite any difference in race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, ideology, morality, behavior--indeed anything. Without diminishing the importance of the very real differences between us, we acknowledge our common humanity, joys, hopes, desires, fears, and complex inner life. We realize that despite our differences we have a common core of human experience that when ignored leads to a world less capable of human moral action. The truth of this statement is written in rivers of blood throughout history.

There are four areas where the concept of equal worth and dignity in our lives takes place: the personal, the interpersonal, the societal, and the planetary, each of which carries a different perspective. Let's study these more closely.

The Personal

I suspect that at some point in our lives we each have seriously questioned our own worth. One study in the United States found that 70 percent of all neuroses are bound up in shame of some sort.

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