Joe Chuman

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?

“But what about Hitler?” It is a question I have heard frequently from newcomers when I explain the philosophy that animates Ethical Culture. Hitler is the often invoked foil when the potential goodness of human nature is under discussion, or when conversation turns to how we need to treat others, if we are to be abiding Ethical Culturists.

The dilemma for us flows from the philosophical commitments that lie at the heart of Ethical Culture, set in motion by Felix Adler, our founder and principle philosophical luminary.

Adler’s philosophy was inspired by the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant, the great rational exponent of the European Enlightenment. Though Adler critiqued Kant’s ethics as not being social enough and excessively rule-bound, he ceded to Ethical Culture a philosophical orientation that remains essentially Kantian.

Among the particulars of that orientation is a two-fold way in which we can assess human beings—others as well as ourselves. We can appreciate others with regard to their social value, recognizing that some people make greater contributions to society than others, while others act in ways that detract from the social good. But both Kant and Adler asserted that the human being unlike, any other inanimate or animate entity, uniquely possess worth or dignity. Value is relative to behavior, but dignity is absolute. If we are to act ethically, we need to act toward others as possessors of dignity, which both Kant and Adler proclaim is inviolate.

For Kant, the highest expression of ethics applied to human relations is respect. For Adler, it is also respect, but Adler goes beyond respect to proclaim that we reverence the “best” in others and seek to elicit it. And when we do, because we spiritually and organically exist within a web of human relations, we thereby bring out the best in ourselves. Both Kant and Adler would agree that it is easy to act ethically toward those whom we like and love. But ethics does its most important work when we relate to those people whom we do not like, whom we hate, and whom we might even find disgusting. How are we to relate to the social malefactor, the criminal, the sociopath who has no regard for others? In other words how does respect for human dignity manifest itself in these very hard cases, noting that we do not have to go so far as to invoke Hitler. Indeed, we do not need to travel beyond daily experience.

To answer this question, it is probably best to separate human relations into two spheres—the public and the private. Dignity in the public sphere is most dramatically revealed through legal regimes legislated and enacted by governments. Respect for dignity does not negate punishment for those who break society’s laws and thereby exempt themselves from the rules the rest of us are at pains to maintain. Kant affirmed that human beings, who remain rational actors, and who harm society by violating its laws, would actually will to be punished in proportion to the infraction that they had committed. While the conclusion Kant asserts may overstate the power of reason in human deliberation, the reference to proportionality is the key point and finds a place in modern jurisprudence. In short, we do not murder the murderer. We do not rape the rapist. We do not burn down the house of the arsonist. This is vigilante justice, which judicial systems have sought to replace with civilizing standards intended to recognize the dignity of those society seeks to punish. In other words, a civilized standard of law recognizes the limits of the state. Modern law, however imperfect, strives to ensure that the punishment fits the crime and that it invokes civilized standards—due process, no torture, a modicum of freedom a systnd rights for those who are incarcerated.

These norms are most often not met and dignity is abused. Prisons are among the venues in which the degradation and abuse of human beings is brought into sharpest relief. And dignity is impugned when standards of fairness are violated; when punishment becomes racialized and incarceration African-Americans find themselves ensnared in the criminal justice system at rates far greater than those of whites. But here as elsewhere, dignity remains the norm and thereby becomes the basis for protest and positive change.

When considering the public realm, respect for dignity provides the loadstar for activism by private actors. This has been the inspiration for the social justice work of Ethical Culture. Recognizing that human dignity is oppressed all around, it becomes the mission of Ethical Culture and activists of similar spirit to strive to alter those oppressive conditions so that the dignity of those who are marginalized and disempowered will be restored and they can walk into the sunshine with their head held high.

It is the private realm, in the intimate relations of the life, where the problem at issue is the most difficult. How are we to personally relate to those whom we can’t stand? Neither Kant, nor Adler, who presents a somewhat softer ethic, asserts that ethics mandates that we love all others. But I think that it would be correct say that at least, as an initial stance, we attempt to approach other people in the spirit of benevolence. When this is no longer possible then I think we can endeavor to relate to others at least with a posture of formal respect, noting that expressions of bigotry are off the charts. Moreover, this requires that, at a minimum, we do not humiliate others, degrade, defame or ridicule others. Admittedly this is often very hard to do, given, especially, that satire does have a long and established place in our culture.

Finally, the recognition of the dignity of others, can, at a minimum, inspire us to reflect on those ethical values and behaviors that matter most. Reflection on the transcendent ideal of human dignity—ours and that of others—can help us refine our characters and edge us towards becoming the kinds of people we aspire to be. And that is not a small thing.


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