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Value of human dignity - André DeBattista

States and governments can commit atrocious injustices. The past century reminds us that, if power is not restrained, governments become perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.

The Shoah, planned and executed by Nazi Germany, was responsible for the death of approximately two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe. Other victims included ethnic Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholics who opposed the murderous Nazi regime.

Other victims of state crimes are not commemorated. Communism and its offshoot ideologies are also responsible for the deaths of millions. For 80 years, those representing this form of socialism created gulags and death camps. They were responsible for appalling economic mismanagement which resulted in widespread famine and death.

Individualism is often seen as the antidote to the use of absolute power by the state. As a result, individual choice has become a quasi-religion and a guiding principle of public policy.

In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand sums up the prevailing attitude. She views man as “a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”. Inadvertently, Rand creates novels which are dystopic and devoid of humanity. They aimed to inspire. Alas, they read like a cry for help.

Selfishness is elevated to the status of a virtue; society is a tool for subjugation, the community is a destructive force, the non-productive man is useless, and the natural environment serves no purpose for it fails to showcase man’s ‘creative genius’. In one devastating review, Whittaker Chambers famously wrote that, from every page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice could be heard commanding: “To a gas chamber – go!”

The antidote to an all-encompassing state and rampant individualism is to think the concept of both individual and state afresh.

Contemporary mainstream political discourse often packages policy options as consumer products.

All decisions – from something as ordinary as choosing your favourite tub of butter to life-altering bioethical decisions and voting in elections – are reduced to mere consumer choices.

Thinking of ourselves as emancipated individuals with unlimited choice was meant to free us from the shackles of an all-encompassing state. Regrettably, it chained us to soulless, cynical materialism.

The human person is not a mere consumer. Nor is his worth limited to productive output. By viewing individuals as persons, we acknowledge the more complex aspects of human nature – the emotive needs for family and community, their intelligence and free will, their artistic sensibilities and need for beauty, their foibles and weaknesses and their capacity for altruism. Respecting these aspects and meeting these needs should be as important to policymakers as productivity and consumption.

Choices that do not take into account ethical and moral dimensions are a source of division and injustice

Nor are the choices of individuals devoid of social consequences. Choices that do not take into account ethical and moral dimensions are a source of division and injustice. Moreover, the social context shapes how we make decisions and what criteria we adopt when making our choices.

Governments cannot micromanage nor should they adopt a laissez-faire attitude on matters of common concern. Neither can the state be an enabling institution which encourages dependent client-patron relationships between politician and citizen.

The role of public policy should primarily encourage and respect the value of every human person while being mindful of the common good. When considerations, other than human dignity, take over, there can be no peace and no equity and, thus, no justice.

Peace, when understood solely as the preservation of a balance of powers, becomes subject to geopolitical considerations, economic concerns and trade interests. This may derail it from its primary aim – that of protecting the safety and welfare of the human person.

Likewise, in our society, when politics turns into the appeasement of special interest groups, injustices are committed to those who have neither the power nor the influence to voice their concerns.

Similarly, equality is often mistaken for equity thus preventing people from being treated justly, fairly and impartially. The voices of those who have no lobby group to champion their cause are drowned by the loudest and most obnoxious crowds.

When the value of the human person is reduced to the ability to be productive, the position of totalitarianism and extreme individualism becomes almost indistinguishable. The horrific attitudes of totalitarian regimes towards the disabled, the elderly, and the terminally ill are now repackaged as ‘mercy’ and ‘choice’.

To expect politicians to force a change in attitude is to overestimate the influence of politics itself. The political arena is, after all, a reflection of the values and attitudes which prevail in society. Perhaps we find ourselves in the rather uncomfortable position where we must admit that we would much rather be consumers than human persons.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

[email protected]

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