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On Human Dignity



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I have had multiple occasions in recent weeks to consider the question of human dignity. In November I was privileged to moderate a panel of scholars reflecting on the film Eichmann in Jerusalem, which portrays Hannah Arendt’s famous narrative of that trial and her struggle to understand how Adolf Eichmann could daily and meticulously work to ensure the slaughter of millions of innocents. That dialogue and the movie that occasioned it raised afresh for me the question of whether one can regard such an individual as human. I wrote about the issue, too, in my January 6 Soundings commentary as I reflected on a holiday gathering of a number of disabled individuals. I have also lately been rereading the Diary of Anne Frank and could not fail to contemplate the matter of how whoever it was that gave up the family in what Anne had dubbed the ‘Secret Annexe’–the Dutch government found formally in 1983 after an exhaustive investigation that it could not conclusively establish the perpetrator–could do so knowing he or she was consigning eight individuals to almost certain and needless death? Their betrayal, the “wound,” as Elie Weisel has so evocatively labeled the deep pain and loss felt by millions reacting to that signal event who have read Frank’s unforgettable diary, raises the question of how to regard the person who somehow rationalized deliberately consigning a 15-year-old girl and her family and a small group of their friends to likely death. I have also in recent days reflected on Nelson Mandela’s choice not to seek revenge against those who had so viciously mistreated him. He once told President Bill Clinton that he proceeded as he had on the basis of a considered judgment that evil and hatred were mimetic. Once one succumbed to the call of malevolence, Mandela argued, one literally became no better than one’s adversary. And yet, how remarkable when an individual can rein in such deep and righteous fury in the name of the broader claim of freedom and while recognizing the humanity of the hated other.

As I have contemplated the question of how to regard Anne Frank’s betrayer and the representatives of the regime, such as Eichmann, who assured her death, and the bigots of South Africa’s brutal apartheid government who so feared Mandela they imprisoned him for a major part of his life, I have thought, too, of those among our own elected leaders today who publicly and proudly proclaim that those who are poor or vulnerable are also morally unworthy. In each instance, I have come to the same confounding concern, despite differences in the relative degree of their depravity, of whether, in principle, these pitiless persecutors deserve to be accorded dignity, irrespective of their actions or behavior, simply because they are human beings. And, if so, as Mandela knew so deeply because he had wrestled with the matter for so long, how one might be able to justify such a position.

Pondering this concern I was reminded of a passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan shared the following tale of unspeakable cruelty with his brother Alyosha to test his faith,

One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general's favorite hound. ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog's paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It's a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry.... ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs.... ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother's eyes!... Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”

“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.

( [p.266].)

One might interpret Alyosha’s response as a descent into dehumanizing the General and therefore an indication of his inability to see God in this other human being (Ivan’s point and the Christian argument for human dignity), or one might instead imagine that he was calling for a just punishment of a monstrous act. The difference matters, as the first option finds one imitating or becoming, as Mandela might have said, the evil of the villain of Ivan’s narrative, while the second alternative preserves the principle that the General also deserves to be regarded as human, despite his utter wickedness. But obviously, were one a witness to this travesty, or worse, the mother of the victim, giving the General such status, even to accord him an ordered process of judgment before a sentence was cast, may not seem possible, let alone appropriate. Nevertheless, it is just such cases that test whether a principle can be made robust, even if the psychological and emotional costs of doing so are high.

So the question becomes what is the price of not according the Franks’ betrayer, South Africa’s apartheid leaders and Eichmann standing as human beings despite their egregiously immoral behavior? It seems to me that what is lost if one dismisses them as inhuman is the capacity to develop any standard of justice beyond an immediate retribution predicated not on deliberation, but on unbridled vengeance. And if such occurs, both the individual and the society adopting that perspective and standard can quickly become as reprehensible and morally vacuous as those whose actions precipitated their response. In short, unless one can find ways and means to regard these individuals as morally recognizable agents, one runs the risk of “becoming” them. While I do not know whether Mandela read Friedrich Nietzcshe, although I imagine he did, that philosopher once warned, in terms that echo the South African leader’s comments to President Clinton, that, “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you” (Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufmann, 1989, 89).

Heeding Nietzcshe’s wise counsel demands a steely determination to accord rights and justice central place in the face of the acts perpetrated by those in the examples I have considered here. It is also clear that this view is nothing like an often adopted utilitarian claim in our culture, most recently offered in a new book by the former operations chief of the CIA responsible for the “harsh interrogation methods,” read torture, practiced during the George W. Bush administration. In this understanding, one must only weigh consequences and one may sacrifice the rights and justice for some for the supposed benefit of all, in the case of the torture claim, even without knowing whether they produced a calculable benefit. Justice and rights are not central in this perspective, but ancillary claims of one’s decision calculus, a position I find easy to dismiss and morally repugnant, despite its current popularity, for just that reason.

All of this leads me to continued reflection on where our own nation’s population now is concerning this vital concern. Given the Bush administration’s actions related to torture and the rhetoric of many of our current elected leaders, one might despair that we are losing our collective will to ensure human dignity as a lodestone of our democracy. But I am heartened by the robust and continuing criticism of these indefensible positions and by the attention that the problematique of human dignity continues to receive in our serious press and the philosophic community. It seems to me, as Nelson Mandela learned from his terrible experience, that no concern is more central to the preservation of the possibility of human freedom.

Publication Date

January 19, 2014