02 | 28
2012

Human dignity and the idea of justice, part 1

Categories: Culture, Democracy, Equality, Human Rights, Law, Respect, Rule of Law, Shared humanity

by: Bakchos
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The idea of human dignity consists in recognizing that man is a being that has ends proper to himself, his own ends, to be freely complied with by himself. Or putting it in other words, maybe clearer, man ought not to be treated as a mere means for ends which are not his own, which are strange or alien to him for ends which do not belong to him. Although this formulation evokes some words of Kant, it is not necessarily tied to his philosophy. In defending human dignity, Kant did not express an especial idea of his own system, but presented in a clear and concise way an idea generally admitted since many centuries ago, an idea which appears in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, Genesis chapter 1, 26 and 27 we read that “man is created in God’s image and likeness” and that men ought to be treated equally, since they are all God’s children. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ appears as Redeemer of all men and as the origin of all of them, as well as their common destiny. For one who believes in Jesus Christ, there is no difference between Jews and Greeks, between slaves and free men, between men and women, because in the faith all are alike, identified with Christ. The idea of human dignity is a characteristic of Christian culture, however not exclusive to it. Such an idea appears also in old Chinese thought which attributed to man the uppermost importance.

In Plato and Aristotle we again find the idea of human dignity, albeit frustrated as to its consequences of freedom for all men. In fact, ancient Greeks as far as they underlined the primacy of reason, opened a way for humanistic ethics, though they did not succeed in drawing the consequences of such an ethical direction when they developed moral and legal philosophy. The ancient Greek’s recognised that man is not a thing submitted to blind causality, subordinated to strange ends or powers. On the contrary, they recognised that in virtue of his reason, man can reach the goal of a good life. Certainly man can degrade himself and submit to a mere animal passion, and subordinate himself to matter. However, he can live also in a divine way, in so far as he satisfies the requirements of his soul and acts according to his reason. The chariot of man’s soul is driven by all the forces of his nature. The triumphant man, however, is capable of checking and restraining the bestial forces. Thanks to his rational mind, man is capable of succeeding in the knowledge of the highest truths. These grants man his proper dignity and make him superior to all the other living beings on the Earth.

Notwithstanding these ideas that lead to the recognition of human dignity the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece did not formulate this principle with a universal dimension, since they held that there were some men with no rights at all – the slaves. Equal dignity and equal rights were reserved only to free Hellenic speaking persons, especially of the male sex. According to Aristotle, the different and inferior treatment of slaves, women and children was tentatively justified, because women and children had a lesser participation in reason than men, and because slaves had no participation in reason at all. In classical antiquity, only the stoic philosophers, patricianly the Roman Stoics, (Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) held a universal idea of mankind, recognising the essential equality of all human beings in terms of the dignity that that attaches to each as human beings.

Although it was Christianity that gave utmost importance to the idea of dignity of the human person, this idea has its transcription in the philosophical field. As a matter of fact what Kant did, when he formulated the idea of human dignity, was to give a philosophic foundation and expression to Christian thought. Post-modern thinking contributed paramount strength to this idea, stressing that man is the centre and the goal of all culture. Kant expressed that all things in this world have a price, that is, a relative or instrumental value, except man, who has no price because he has dignity, because he is the substratum for the realization of the supreme or moral values.

It seems to me that through the ways of purely philosophic meditation it is possible to establish the principle of the dignity of the human individual. This is what Kant achieved. A feat subsequently accomplished by other philosophers, such as, Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann, taking as their basis the theory of high moral values which the individual complies with by his free decision. These same philosophical justifications can be applied to humanism.

According to humanism, the state, the government (and consequently the law) as well as all culture, will have meaning and justification as a means put at the service of individual human persons, as an instrument for the realization of their ends. This may be expressed, to paraphrase some Biblical words relating to the Sabbath, “The State or Government was made for the sake of man and not vice versa.” On the contrary, anti-humanism, (for example totalitarianism) affirms that man embodies values only as he is part of the state or a vehicle for the objective products of culture; that is, that the individual man, as such, lacks any dignity of his own, and only acquires value when he serves as the effective means of some transpersonal end of the state (glory, power, conquest, etc.)According to anti-humanism, also known as transpersonalism, man is degraded to a pure mass of dough at the service of some supposed objective functions to be realised in state glory, in race, in proletarian class, that is, in transpersonal dimensions.

Although philosophic idealism has been superseded by the philosophy of human life or existence, it preserved as a firm truth that my consciousness constitutes the centre, support, and proof of all the other realities. The consciousness is inescapably and necessarily the born centre of the universe; since its vision or conception is articulated in a perspective which converges in a necessary way on the mental pupil of my mind which contemplates it. I am not a thing among other things, for I am the witness of everything else. The perspective created by individuality is inescapable and necessary; it constitutes one of the components of reality.

The universe is my universe. The world appears as a correlative of the “I”, as my world. And if I disappear, with me there disappears also my world. It will perhaps be said, that the world will continue to exist for others after I have disappeared. This is correct, but it happens that this affirmation is a theory which I have fabricated and, consequently a part of my world.

Human life (the individual life, my life) constitutes the primary and basic reality, as co-present and inescapable correlate between the “I” and my world, between the subject and the objects. To live is to be occupied with a world in which I find myself necessarily. We meet each other, forcibly joined, in inexorable company. Therefore my life requires these two essential ingredients – the world and I, like inseparable twins. But the objects of the world, the same as I, occur solely in the reality of my life, which is the indubitable reality, and which is also the reality which sustains and conditions all of the other realities.

Now, if all that is beyond me obtains expression only in my life, which is the individual life; if all the other things depend on me – although it is also true that I depend on them; if all the other things occur solely in the reality of my life, it is evident that the primacy in a conception of the universe belongs to my life. From this it follows necessarily that the realization of values has meaning only in my life, which is the individual life.

So called culture; religion, philosophy, science, arts, morals, law, state, government, technology, economics, etc… is an aggregate of things and works which man makes in his life. Consequently they have meaning only in his life and for his life. Culture consists of human acts and works which aspire to realise ideas of value. It is integrated by actions and products which try to embody truth, the philosophic and scientific knowledge of the universe; to give sensible form to beauty, in art; to obtain the fulfilment of good in conduct, by morals; to obtain the reign of justice in society, by the law; to utilize nature and overcome its resistances, thanks to the technology, etc… Culture, then, as an intention of approaching the values of truth, goodness, justice, beauty, utility, power, etc…has meaning only for man, who does not possess such values in full measure, and who, nevertheless, feels the need of striving to achieve them. Therefore culture has no meaning for unconscious nature, nor for animals; nor has it either for God, who is by essence, absolute wisdom and truth, total good, supreme justice, complete beauty, infinite power. What need has God of science, if he knows everything in eternal actuality; of morals, if He is pure good; and of the law, if He is supreme justice; and of art, if He is perfect beauty, and of theology, if He is omnipotent?

On the other hand, culture seems to us filled with meaning, so far as we regard it as a human function and work. Because man does not know, but needs to know, science has been constructed. Because man, who does not shelter within himself pure beauty, nevertheless desires it, art is created. Because man is a sinner, he longs for redemption, we have ethics and religion. Because society must be organised according to justice, law is elaborated. Because man is helpless, but desires to dominate his environment, technology is produced. Therefore, man is necessarily the born centre of all culture and its point of final gravitation. As the supreme values that van be referred to man are the ethical ones, hence the idea of personal dignity must rule always above all his other tasks.

Miguel de Unamuno, in true exaltation of the value of the human wrote: “who are you? You ask me, and with Obermann I answer: For the Universe, nothing, for me everything. I am the centre of my universe, the centre of the Universe, and in my supreme anguishes, I cry with Michelet: my ‘I’, they will take it away from me! Egoism, do you say? There is nothing more universal than the individual, since what it is of each it is of all; and then it is of no use to sacrifice each one to all, but rather sacrifice all too each one. That which you call egoism is the principle of psychic gravity, the necessary postulate. I shall never deliver myself willingly and granting my confidence to any leader of peoples who had not learned in leading a people he is leading men, men of flesh and blood, men who are born, suffer, and will die, although they do not wish to die; men who are ends in themselves, not only means; men who have to be what they are and not otherwise. It is inhuman, for example, to sacrifice one generation of men to the generation which follows, when there is no feeling of destiny for the sacrificed.[1]

If our life, the individual life of each one is the basic reality; if values, although objective, occur in our life, as all the other lives in the universe, and we have an intravital dimension; if the agent of the realization of values is man, alone capable of understanding them and devoting himself to their call, it follows that the realization of values has meaning only for man. Things in which values dwell, among them society, which is a mechanism, an instrument, constitute goods, only in the measure in which they represent apparatus serviceable for man, in the measure in which they are conditioned for both his consciousness and conscience being able to employ the supreme values, which are those destined for the individual as such. This is not to deny that in the collectivity there may be and are values in so far as they constitute instruments or conditions for the realization of the values proper to the individual.

The great error committed by anti-humanism or transpersonalism if the following: It does not take in to account that the collectivity has no substantive reality that it does not have a being for itself independent of the being of the individuals who compose it. On the other hand, the being of the individual consists of a being for itself, of an autonomous and independent being. On this account the collectivity ought to respect the individual, in the mode of being peculiar to him, in the values which are destined for him, and to recognise his autonomy.

The individual is not simply and purely a part of the whole. Although he must of course be a member of society, he is at one and the same time superior to it. He is superior to the collectivity, because he is a person in the fullest and most authentic sense of the idea, which society can never be. The collectivity would lack meaning if it did not affirm itself as a medium for the individuals.

What has been argued above while open to misrepresentation by the narrow minded and prejudiced should be considered before we let our prejudices gain sway. It is not denied that in the collectivity there can and ought to be embodied values, nor is it being argued that society is purely fortuitous. The individual is essentially social; even to the point that the isolated individual is not anything real, not even possible, but a pure abstraction. The individual exists only in society, he lives on its historic level, supporting himself on it and making use of the goods he finds in it. Both the anchorite and Robinson Crusoe carry the collectivity within themselves and continue to live on its historic foundations. The individual rests on the values realised through history and transmitted to him by the collectivity; and almost everything which he does rests upon those communal goods; and sometimes he succeeds at last in raising himself above the historic level of those goods which the collectivity has transmitted to him.

Even though the social is something essential to man, the goods which are realised in the collectivity are goods only of an instrumental character. They are means for the realisation of higher values, which belong only to the individual. Of course, without society there is no man. Man understood as the individual man, who is the only one who constitutes a basic and substantive reality is axiologically superior to society. For society is something made by him for him. Man has both consciousness and conscience, which society can never have.

A good example of the projections which the idea of dignity has on judicial axiology are the maxims set up by Rudolf Stammler[2] as auxiliary help for producing just a law. Stammler developed a purely formalistic judicial axiology. He said that, in relation to the law, the only values with an absolute dimension, that is, universal and necessary, is the idea of justice. According to him, the idea of justice is a formalistic method to order and organise the social ends and means. The idea of justice cosists in the idea of absolute harmony. Stammler then established some maxims or principles to help in the elaboration of just law. In doing so he impliedly gave up on his formalism, for he had recourse to the idea of human dignity.

I’ll look at Stammler’s principles in an upcoming post.



[1] Umamuno, Miguel de, DEL SENTIMIENTO TRAGICO DE LA VIDA EN LOS HOMBRES Y EN LOS PUEBLOS, Coleccion Austral, Espana-Calpe Argentina, Buenos Aires, Mixico, Cuarta Edicion, 1941.

[2] Stammler, Rudolf, LEHRBUCH DERRECHTSPHILOSOPHIE 199-216, 3rd edition, Walter Gruyter, Berlin und Leipzig, 1928.

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5 Comments

  1. The idea of justice might well consist in the idea of absolute harmony, but when have we as a species ever experienced this harmony. Remember your quote on the Jayapura Five about the Demon to the Swordsman? “The Demon said to the swordsman, “Fundamentally, man’s mind is without good. It is simply that from the moment he has life, he is always being brought up with perversity. Thus having no idea that he has gotten used to being soaked in it, he harms his self-nature and falls into evil. Human desire is the root of all perversity.” Sadly the Demon was speaking the truth and that’s why there never will be harmony, let alone absolute harmony!

  2. Wasn’t that the whole point of Robinson Crusoe, because he was civilized he was able to transcend and then mould his environment and create a colony, thus proving the superiority of European civilization over the indigenous people of the Pacific? Yes he certainly took the European collectivity with him.

  3. Anne Shiny via Facebook says:

    If the state exists only as a collective concept to serve the human dignity of the individual and each man must of himself do only that which serves to extend his own human dignity, not those of another (including the state, which has no independent being capable of independent thought separate from the collective), then justice must have a personal and individual basis, bound by the concepts that form the dignity of the self. Justice must be at a level, an individual responsibility. How few people are prepared to step apart from the collective and expound a concept of justice (or injustice) that is contrary to that of the disembodied state? Very few indeed.

  4. Anne Shiny via Facebook says:

    If the state exists only as a collective concept to serve the human dignity of the individual and each man must of himself do only that which serves to extend his own human dignity, not impinge upon those of another (including the state, which has no independent being capable of independent thought separate from the collective), then justice must have a personal and individual basis, bound by the concepts that form the dignity of the self. Justice must be at a level, an individual responsibility. How few people are prepared to step apart from the collective and expound a concept of justice (or injustice) that is contrary to that of the disembodied state? Very few indeed.

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