Given that respect for human dignity is arguably the central value of Ethical Culture, how do we express that dignity in concrete ways towards people whom we do not like or are socially destructive?
Expressing Respect in Difficult Situations
It’s appropriate that our first journal topic is about how to express respect for human dignity in concrete ways towards people who are socially destructive or whom we do not like. This topic directs us towards the core value of Ethical Culture—inherent worth. It challenges us to honor it in difficult situations. It’s easy to treat people well when they are constructive and likeable. When they are not, however, our own integrity is tested.
I will use the term “inherent worth” rather than “human dignity” because the former has a greater footprint in Ethical Culture history. Also, I think it is important that “inherent” implies that worth is an essential part of what it is to be human. Beyond that, I do not find any substantial difference between the terms.
I strive to live up to the core value of Ethical Culture: respecting and protecting the inherent worth of every person. What is fundamental to this value is that it is active: respecting and protecting are actions, not beliefs or static statements about ideals. As I pragmatist, I think that respecting and protecting worth means little if they are not done concretely.
I see much empirical evidence for believing in inherent worth. Through leaps of intuition and empathy, I am convinced that other human beings are beautiful, unique, and deserving respect. Adler believed people have worth because he saw them as part of the ideal web of relationships he called the “ethical manifold.”
I believe, however, that contemporary Ethical Culture does not ground worth through a discovery process, whether that discovery comes through empiricism or idealism or some other method. Today Ethical Culture’s relation to inherent worth is not a matter of discovering the worth in others. Ethical Societies don’t focus on convincing ourselves, or others, about inherent worth. It’s not about rational assent to a proposition. It’s about choosing to act.
I will first distinguish respecting the worth of those who are destructive from respecting the worth of those we “don’t like.” When someone is socially destructive, most likely what makes them socially destructive is that they are violating the worth of others. In this case, respect for inherent worth requires that we intervene to limit the damage.
Limiting the damage would best be done in a way that respects the worth of the person engaging in destructive actions. For example, if a police officer stops someone from harming an innocent bystander, I hope the officer focuses on stopping the harm, not on exacting retribution. The arrest should not humiliate the perpetrator, as often happens today unfortunately.
More substantially, however, stopping a would-be perpetrator from harming others protects the would-be perpetrator from two negative outcomes. First, obviously, it limits the extent of any punitive sanction society might impose. Second, it stops those being socially destructive from violating a fundamental value central to living a good life. I believe that the most rewarding life for anyone to live is one that respects inherent worth. I want such reward extended to all. In limiting damage, I have the best chance of bringing out the best in others, even destructive people.
When dealing with those people I simply don’t like, I examine myself more than others. As long as someone is not being socially destructive, I ask myself, “Where’s the problem?” The answer is that the problem usually is in me, in my own attitudes and preferences. In these cases I recommend candid self-assessment.
I try to understand the reasons why I dislike someone. Being ignorant of my feelings, or repressing them, does not keep them from arising in my behavior. More often than not, self-exploration brings wisdom and greater self-control. Appreciating why I dislike someone may help me become more conscious of “triggers” in my life. Placed in the context of greater self-awareness, self-assessment can lead me to acknowledge my emotions more and to choose more effectively whether to act on them or not.
If I am unable to understand the psychological origin for my negative attitudes toward someone, I can try some simple meditation techniques derived from Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh. I bring the person I dislike into my mind, allowing myself to feel the repulsion but breathing slowly and deeply. I challenge myself to find compassion for the person.
I then guide my thoughts into imagining this person as an infant. I bring to mind the beauty and fragility of an infant, and let that mix with, and dissipate, the negative emotions. I then try to imagine all that must have happened to turn this person from an innocent infant into an unpleasant person. They probably did not choose to develop what I consider unpleasant characteristics. Besides, if the same things had happened to me, I would probably have turned out much like them. I like to say, “There but for the grace of goodness go I.”
To conclude, it’s not easy to overcome dislike of people. Felix Adler admitted how hard it was to accept, “the existence of repulsive traits in human beings, such as sly cunning, deceit, falsehood, grossness, [and] cruelty….” (EPL, 91) Additionally, our lives may be too short to bring out the best in some dangerous and twisted individuals. This realistic and humbling realization need not reduce others to creatures without worth. I honor the heart of my commitment to Ethical Culture by honoring inherent worth over my personal, subjective feelings.
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