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Human Dignity as a Foundation for a Free Society

What is human dignity? The right to the products of your own labor.
What is a free society? Individuals who share a common purpose.
What would a free society founded on human dignity look like?
Individuals using socio-economic exchange
to restore human dignity to the global poor.
Like Russian dolls and Chinese boxes, each word of the topic opened to a question, hiding another question. The authors cited, J. Budziszewski1 , Cardinal Avery Dulles2 , and Václav Havel3 , brought their own answer to fit inside the box, as they shaped it. Who had the right answer? They were each right, according to the shape of their question. My question was, who's shaping the right box? The answer is inherent in the question. By breaking open each question, each word, each hidden assumption, I tried to find a container fit for one grain of self-evident truth. From the grains, these meanings for human dignity and a free society have sprouted. What follows is the ground, or foundation, in which these answers have grown.

On Human Dignity

What is human dignity? The word dignity comes from the Latin dignus - worthy, proper, or fitting. What is fitting for a human? It depends on what we are.

J. Budziszewski presents Aristotle's view that "living excellently (is) living in the way our nature demands." The City "...exists for the sake of living well." Happiness is the highest human good, because it is sought for its own sake and all other things are sought for its sake. Pleasure and material comforts are sought for the sake of happiness, but so are honor and virtue. In other words, we do what serves our interest, either as an individual or a class. Pleasure and comfort serve us as individuals, honor and virtue give us status within the group. "The Case for Natural Law" in the subtitle is the law of the jungle - optimal survival. What seems to be selfless or egalitarian is merely a different way of gratifying desires, whether in base or noble form.

Cardinal Dulles speaks of a split nature, between our "base desires" and the "royal and exalted character" of our soul, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it. Pope John Paul II cites the martyrs as "supreme exemplars of freedom". Dulles writes "if we reject the true good, we inevitably yield to the passions and instincts of our lower nature and thereby undermine our authentic freedom"..." Wounded as we are by original sin, we often prefer limited and ephemeral goods to those that are pure and abiding." The perfection of the spirit is through control of the body and mind: "By education and exercise we develop the motivation and character that enables us to resist physical and especially psychological pressures. Some learn to go for long periods without sleep, to abstain from food, or to endure intense physical pain without abandoning their resolve. Such persons have greater freedom than others."

In Politics and Conscience, Václav Havel speaks of human nature as the "I" that "primordially attests to" and "personally certifies" a natural order through our own lived experience. "At the basis of this world are values which are simply there, perennially before we ever speak of them...It owes its internal coherence to...a 'pre-speculative' assumption that the world functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something beyond its horizon." His experiential evidence of this "I" is his boyhood response to the smokestacks soiling the sky, instinctively feeling the insult to a natural order.

A couple of years ago, around noon on a sweltering hot day, my family drove past an abandoned lot where two Latino men were digging a ditch. My 7-year old daughter said, "They must get paid a lot of money to be doing that." It was immediately apparent to a child that doing a hard, uncomfortable job that no one else wanted to do should be well-rewarded. Aristotle and John Paul II speak of human dignity in terms of "living excellently" on a material or spiritual plane. But neither addresses the human dignity of those whose physical labor provides this opportunity to the materially- and spiritually-enlightened. To define human dignity, it has to be logically possible without depriving other humans of their dignity. Can we define it by this rule? Here is an attempt:

Human dignity is the God-given/natural right to sustain our own life, and the lives of those in our care, through our own labor and an equitable share in the natural resources of our community. It includes the right to the products of our own labor and secure tenure on the land. It does not include the right to sell the land, spoil a shared resource, or profit at another's expense - i.e. loans, mining, water rights.

An awareness of human dignity, by this definition, is an awareness of the human whose hands made the product we use or consume. It's an awareness of the false right of our money in relationship to their true right to the product of their labor and the resources of their community. It's an awareness that freedom starts with land rights, and our freedom from labor depends on their deprivation of land. "The most pressing cause of the abject poverty which millions of people in the world endure is that a mere 2.5% of landowners with more than 100 hectares control nearly three quarters of all the land in the world - with the top 0.23% controlling over half."4 In a lecture, John Dominic Crossan stated that social justice is misnamed: all justice is divine justice. This is also Havel's view, substituting natural for divine. We aren't imposing justice over chaos, we're either acting in accordance with a higher law, or in defiance of it, mocking the inevitable consequences in this world. Havel is right that "the salvation of us all...equally" is at stake. "Does not their misery presuppose ours?"

What is authentic liberty? John Paul II said it best: "The human being...cannot attain its full identity except through a disinterested gift of self." To give life back to our Self, in our full identity as humanity, is the only free act we're capable of. If our true nature is as One, and we know our true nature, nothing else is worth our time. Every other act is driven by fear, and finding our safety as exceptions to humanity's misery. Our single act of strength is the gift. By acting according to our true nature, we recognize the same nature in everyone, finding safety in our commonality.

On Free Society

What is a society? A society is defined as an organized group with a common interest or purpose. What is the purpose of our societies?

Aristotle defines The City as "a particular group of human beings, separate from others," joined in a partnership in justice, mutual security and the perfection of their members. In other words, joined in self-interest. Cardinal Dulles posits, "If my motives could never transcend my individual self-interest or the collective self-interest of my group, I could never be truly free." (italics added) Václav Havel favors "politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans." The care for fellow humans extends beyond the members of the group.

The only valid purpose of any society with arbitrary citizenship - determined by birth or geography - is mutual self-interest. A democracy or republic is only the start to a free society. Do millions of people each voting in their own self-interest add up to the common good? Only when they individually choose to take responsibility for the common good, within and without their borders. Democracy is no better than our choices, as Dulles quotes John Courtney Murray: "Democracy is more than a political experiment. It is a spiritual and moral enterprise, depending for its success upon the virtue of the citizens."

A free society based on inclusive human dignity can only be formed by individuals choosing a higher law than mutual self-interest. The society that practices Havel's politics - does it exist? Could there be a socio-economic community joined in restoring the lives of the global poor? Could a charitable motive replace the profit motive in commercial, financial or service exchange, if members of the society joined in purpose?

A Free Society Founded on Human Dignity

Historically, has there ever been a society founded on human dignity, defined as the right to provide for one's self? The Sinai Covenant - in its full text, not the Ten Commandments - is a brilliant socio-economic system of decentralized power, inhibition of compounded wealth, protection from degenerative poverty, self-help welfare, and a gradual pull towards mutual prosperity without exploitation. Division of the land was agreed upon prior to throwing lots for it - as fair a system as any parent since has devised. Every seventh day or year renewed a radical trust in "that which lies beyond (our) horizon, that before which we should bow down humbly because of the mystery about it," as Havel says. A year without planting, pruning or harvesting wasn't an exercise in deprivation, as Cardinal Dulles' freedom, but the receiving of a gift they had done nothing to earn. As a sustainable society founded on human dignity for its self-contained membership, no political system has been better designed than the Sinai Covenant.

This system had been irreversibly corrupted by the time of Yeshua the Nazarene - a name significant in Judaism as Moses' successor, who parted the Jordan with the Sinai Covenant. The later Yeshua, Jesus, demonstrated a way in which a covert society could achieve all the same ends as the Covenant, right under the Roman noses of the empire. The New Covenant could create inclusive justice without the cooperation of a just regime. As a subversive movement, Christianity flourished. The more that it was oppressed, the stronger it became. What happened? The empire adopted a tactic still in use today - if you can't beat them, buy them.

Was the Christianity that Constantine bought, with his Mafia-like protection and lavish gifts, the same as before? Yes and no. The Roman empire couldn't assimilate another socio-economic system without changing the way they did business - so it spit out the Sinai Covenant, keeping only the code of individual ethics on the stone tablets. Removed from the Judaic roots in the ground of distributive justice, the airy concepts of faith and belief were superimposed on Roman imperialism, substituting Jesus for Caesar. What it has left is a schizophrenic Christianity, trying to reconcile the fundamentally opposed concepts of empire and covenant, hierarchy and equality, entitlement and inherent human dignity.

Many extraordinary, free-thinking humans are deep in the heart of Roman Catholicism and Christianity. However, Aristotle's slogan that "living excellently (is) living in the way our nature demands" could be an ad for our consumer culture. Our societies are Christian in name, and Christian in tribute, but the fruits of the tree are of empire and entitlement. Something has gone wrong.

Politics and the Spirit

Havel describes the family farm as "a generally satisfactory economic and ecological system, within which everything was bound together by a thousand threads of mutual and meaningful connection, guaranteeing its stability..." It is the same 'Grund', ground or foundation, as the Sinai Covenant - agrarian, communal self-sufficiency. Like Yeshua, he doesn't call for revolution to go back and redistribute land. He calls us to "be guided by our own reason and serve the truth under all circumstances as our own essential experience."

Where Havel uses the word 'conscience', it could be translated to 'the Holy Spirit' with equal meaning: "We must trust the voice of (the Spirit) more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent responsibilities other than the one to which the voice calls us." In his introductory essay to Sharif Abdullah's Creating a World That Works for All5 , he specifically uses both: "It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience." Curiously, the same substitution doesn't work for Dulles: "(The Spirit) impels one to seek authoritative direction." To what authority should we give precedence over the voice of the Spirit? The word totalitarian comes from the mergence of total and authority. When does authority step over the line to become totalitarian? It seems that Havel is saying that we should never give over our subjective, experiential knowledge to any authority. He explicitly includes the spiritual realm: "The best resistance to totalitarianism is simply to drive it out of our own souls." But both meanings and authors agree, however, in Dulles' assertion: "Conscience (the Spirit) is in no way opposed to the use of external sources of traditional and revealed wisdom."

Authority and Responsibility

In the wake of the Presidential election, listening hard to the Spirit is critically relevant. Neither side represented the truth. As a consumer society, wedded to the false right of money, we are committed to a foreign policy that disrupts self-sufficiency. With the economy as the Holy Grail of politics, we must make Iraq an example to OPEC, should anyone else consider changing the petrodollar to the euro. Perhaps it's better to know what we're dealing with, and not be seduced into handing over the authority for our political souls. Havel states, "What is most dangerous to (impersonal power) is...a return of humans to themselves and to their responsibility to the world." Only an individual can take responsibility, not a better-or-worse puppet of institutional power. Our democracy is a society joined for competitive advantage, collectively ignoring the rights of those our survival depends on. A politician who speaks this truth doesn't stand a chance - it's up to us to speak it to each other, without the blinders of blame and guilt.

"The human soul is an engine for coming to reasonable conclusions and acting upon them," according to Aristotle. John Paul II warns us "to avoid every illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about (humanity) and the world." Seeing the whole truth is the prerequisite for coming to reasonable conclusions, and deciding on a course of action. We need to share the voice of our conscience in conversation, let ourselves be shaken by the circumstance of strangers, and form a society around the truth.

"It surely makes much more sense to operate in the sphere of causes than simply to respond to their effect," says Havel. If the method of empire is to disrupt self-sufficiency, the method of covenant must be to restore it. Family to family, in 'humanly measured care', buying back human dignity for the global poor. When one by one, we join as a free society in this single purpose, we will change the world.

1 J. Budziszewski. "Politics and the Human Good" , from "Written on the Heart" 1997. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grover, IL 60515-1426.
2 Dulles, Avery, S.J. Truth as the Ground of Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II. Online publication at
3 Havel, Václav. "Politics and Conscience" from Open Letters. Vintage Books USA; 1992.
4 George, Susan. How the Other Half Dies. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
5 Abdullah, Sharif. Creating a World That Works for All. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Pulishers, Inc. 1999.