Friday, January 25, 2013
Integrity, Dignity, and Aristocrats--Dignity
Integrity, Dignity, and Aristocrats
A Sermon Series on Economy
In this year of westward expansion of thought--what we are calling pioneering--not only are we looking at the capacity for opposites to come together for good, but also taking a radical approach to concepts. A radical approach looks at the root (the literal meaning of the word radical is "root", thus the word radish) of a word and concept, how the word has been used, and the outcome of that usage. I want to apply the radical approach to the word dignity.
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This is the slogan of a publication out of the University of Virginia called The Hedgehog Review. In the review, Michael Zuckart unpacks the word dignity.
The Latin root of the word dignity, dignities, means distinction, special merit. Most times, the concept was applied to aristocracy. An aristocrat carries him or herself with an air of distinction. Zuckart writes that dignity is an aristocratic notion, not a democratic one.
Foundational to our nation are the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Frequently, Zuckart writes, the right to property is added to the list. American citizens will consent to a government that exists to protect these rights their its laws. The laws of a government that protect these rights are what Zuckart calls "negative laws." Negative laws are laws that make any action that impedes upon the rights of another as illegal. For example, I am not breaking the laws of the nation unless I take your life, or impede your life in such a way that you cannot survive.
Starting at the end of World War 2, after seeing horrific violations of the integrity of others in Germany, international documents were drafted in which the word dignity started to appear. With the use of the word dignity, also came the mention that there were certain goods that were to be mandated for all people, such as social security, holidays, time for rest.
Zuckart states that mandating goods--that which is perceived to be good, is not the customary negative law as mentioned above, but are positive laws. It becomes the mandate of the government to provide that which is good or good for a person.
The use of the word dignity brings the government into the central role of authority in human life. We have seen a shift from an economically driven country to a government driven country since the Great Depression. Government has been placed at the center of authority without any parallel institution to challenges its assumptions. We lose sight of the reality that the decisions a government makes will be a functional decision, supported by a majority of people, that may or may not be moral.
There is no common definition of what makes something good. We, at this time in the history of our nation, do not have a common set of criteria to determine what is good. Personally, I think this is at the root of our national divide. The foundational rights are in place, yet the definitions of the criteria for good are as diverse as the ideologies espousing them.
This is where the notion of aristocracy connected with dignity returns. It was Marie Antoinette, when confronted with the hunger of her subjects, who stated, "Let them eat cake." The trap of aristocracy is to draw the conclusion, "If people would just like me, and do what I do, and follow my lead, they would be better off."
This may be the end result of the use of the word dignity, and the reason why I believe that the use of the word integrity is better for our conversation on economy. Integrity, among other things, indicates that I know where I stop and your start, where my needs come to an end and where your needs start. Integrity challenges me to refrain from violating our integrity and calls me to be responsible to challenge and possibly restrain those who would violate the integrity of those who cannot defend themselves. Integrity calls me to clearly define myself, and to be in the world a presence that strives to honor the integrity of others.