The Curious Reemergence of Little Platoons

“What does your part of the country think about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. right now?” a man in his mid sixties read aloud from a sheet of paper to the group of six Republicans and six Democrats. I had just arrived at the small, split-level home in a wooded neighborhood in Bloomington, Indiana—miffed by the uncommon, light-to-medium traffic that had delayed my arrival from Indianapolis—and hurriedly joined a group of twelve seated in a circle. This was a Better Angels workshop, one of hundreds of such gatherings happening in communities across the country, which aims to unify a deeply divided nation. The organization’s name derives from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address, delivered while our country was on the precipice of a civil war, where he implored Americans to prevent difference from “break[ing] our bonds of affection,” and to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” Like Lincoln, Better Angels seeks to heal a broken America by improving our public discourse. The volunteer-led workshops teach skills of human connection— paraphrasing, listening, asking questions of …

The Value of Exercising Civility—in Both Oikos and Polis

“I’m done with my grandfather,” a friend confided in me after a recent family gathering. “He compulsively talks about how George Soros is to blame for everything—and then refuses to recognize any evidence to the contrary,” she said. “He has his talking points, and there’s no changing his mind. It’s not even worth having a conversation.” In our polarized moment, we sometimes struggle to fulfill basic social or professional obligations with family, friends and co-workers who hold views we find objectionable. But we ought not cut people off without thinking carefully the consequences. It’s not just that we risk losing important relationships. People whose ideological or political opinions we oppose may still have something to offer. Cutting them off leaves us both intellectually and emotionally poorer. Most of us have stories like the one my friend told me. And while the details differ, they all go to a central question: What is the unspoken social contract that governs how we discuss ideas? At what point do we no longer have to listen to what another …

What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today?

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, human beings that you should care for them?”

The question the Psalmist asks God is the same question philosophers have been asking one another for more than three millennia: What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from the rest of creation?

For Aristotle, the answer was man’s political, or “social,” nature. For Blaise Pascal, it was man’s intellect: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, maintained that man’s distinguishing feature is his volition. Immanuel Kant located humanity’s uniqueness in our moral nature.

The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turned 70 on December 10 this year, offers a different answer: to be human is to have an innate dignity that gives us an irreducible moral worth—a worth that makes all human individuals fundamentally equal to one another and distinct from other forms of life. The UDHR’s first line proudly recognizes “the inherent dignity and . . . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” principles that are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR’s crucial claim is that the question of man’s nature is not merely academic or philosophical. It has moral consequences. Philosophers have long argued that man is distinct from animals or plants by emphasizing different aspects of his person. But the UDHR’s claim is different in asserting that a shared human nature gives us each equal moral worth. For most of human history, the notion that all humans are morally valuable was widely rejected.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the UDHR’s foundational statement—that we all share an inherent dignity that implies certain inalienable rights—will one day again fall into global disfavor. For this reason, it is imperative that each successive generation understand the values of this document. To do so, we must remember the atrocities that led to it.

The decision of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission to ground human rights in the idea of universal human dignity was not due to the philosophical force of the idea of dignity itself. As an astute essay by Remy Debes shows, the idea and terminology of dignity in intellectual history is rather amorphous. In his De Officiis (On Duties), Cicero uses dignitas to describe those holding an “honored place.”1 Such has been the case for most of dignity’s history, with the word often being used to describe the respect to which a particular kind of person—of a certain birth of rank—was entitled. In his De Oratore, Cicero uses dignitas and the related notion of gravitas to describe speech that is magisterial and weighty. It was not merely who spoke; dignity also aptly specified an aesthetic quality: i.e. persons who conducted themselves in a “dignified” manner.

This view of dignity would not change for many centuries. In Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédiethe crowning achievement of the European Enlightenment, the entry on Duty is an early proponent of the notion that our common nature, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain faculties,” means that we have certain moral obligations to all members of the human community:

The first absolute duty, of each man towards all others, is to harm no one… The second general, absolute duty of men is that each person must respect and treat others as naturally equal beings; that is, as beings who are as good as oneself, because this is a matter of a natural or moral equality. See Equality. The third general duty respective of men considered as members of society, is that each must contribute, as much as one can possibly do, to the utility of others.2

Immanuel Kant was the first to explicitly link man’s equal nature and moral obligations to our innate dignity.3 He claimed that all persons possess dignity by virtue of being moral beings—and humans alone are moral. More importantly, he asserted that our dignity has certain ethical implications. It is man’s “transcendent kernel” that endows all humans with unconditional, intrinsic worth, which is why in Kant’s famous categorical imperative people must be treated as ends in themselves, and never merely as means to ends.

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity… but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity. Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.4

It is perhaps with this tradition in mind that the UDHR uses humanity’s universal dignity to condemn the senseless loss of human life the world had so painfully endured (there is no scholarly consensus regarding why the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission chose to ground human rights in human dignity).

More important than the abstract philosophical reasoning, however, was the practical, lived experience of people in the mid-twentieth century. Humanity had just been through one of the bloodiest half-centuries in human history: two disastrous World Wars, the first use of nuclear weapons (on civilians, no less), the Rape of Nanking, the Russian Gulags, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust—which together caused the deaths of more than 100 million human beings—and other, some perhaps still unknown, atrocities. East to West, North to South, the world had been devastated by humankind’s brutality against itself.

The four decades leading up to 1948 confronted those still alive with humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for evil. It seemed to the survivors that civilization had been resting on a narrow precipice, inches away from complete annihilation. They immediately set about determining how to move humanity further away from such a ledge, and they soon realized that any solution would require recognition of the importance of our irreducible worth as persons. They understood what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would so eloquently describe 25 years later in The Gulag Archipelago: the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. Atrocities can be and were perpetrated by people not so different from us.

With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, we are reminded that as we lose those who lived through those dark moments—the Greatest Generation who saw the evil of which humanity is capable—we become more nonchalant about concepts such as human dignity. Yet it is important to keep humanity’s capacity for evil salient to avoid losing sight of the need to respect everyone’s inherent worth. Philosophical contemplation is not sufficient for moral growth. Ethical development requires us to reflect on human tragedy and evil—which is why it is so important to study and remember the Holocaust and other atrocities. It is of course perfectly reasonable to disagree about how to apply the principle of human dignity to international affairs or to domestic policy questions, but—as history shows us—we dismiss it at our peril.

Human dignity matters because it takes certain options off the table: it means that we cannot casually dismiss costs to human life or wellbeing when we take decisions. Adam Smith famously observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that we do not feel the same degree of concern for those in China who suffer from an earthquake that we do for our own minor disturbances.5 As a descriptive matter, this is of course entirely true. Yet the fact that we share human dignity means that we ought not to entirely disregard the value of the lives of those who are different or distant from us.

The Book of Genesis tells of God creating man “in his own image.” This gave rise to the theological concept of imago dei—a rich and deeply-mined idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That man was created in the image and likeness of God separates him from the rest of life on earth, giving him a moral worth (this concept is also found in Sufism). It is likely that this view of human dignity influenced the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission: some of the Commission’s most influential members—Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik (Lebanese existentialist philosopher turned diplomat), and General Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippines—were Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively.

Yet they knew that if the document were to be taken seriously and have any impact outside the West, the document’s principles needed grounding in a broad cross-cultural consensus. Otherwise, the declaration would be thought of as a manifestation of merely “Western” values that were inapplicable to other cultures. The Commission consulted philosophers from all cultures and religions, from far East to far West, to distill a basic set of values that they could agree upon and unify around. The result was a proclamation of universal human rights grounded in our inherent dignity, affirming the fundamental unity of the human race. The dominant religious and philosophical traditions—Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Hinduism, and many of their respective offshoots—take for granted that all members of mankind have basic attributes in common, and that we share a common humanity. These traditions may differ over how to deal with life’s miseries, but not the what of who we are as a human race. It is this common essence that the UDHR captures: for the framers, the fact that every man, woman, and child shared the most fundamental thing in common put other racial, linguistic, national, and religious differences into perspective. As the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain mused, many songs can be played on the document’s thirty strings.

That the Human Rights Commission found such a consensus illustrates the universality of basic truths about the world and the human condition. It recognized that human nature is the same throughout time and culture, and that people everywhere are able to infer certain fundamental principles regarding the nature of freedom, human dignity, and communal flourishing. This ought to be a reminder to us in our own deeply divided moment: it is only when we agree upon shared fundamental values, such as the inherent dignity of all persons, that it is possible to debate the Good. It is also an encouragement: we were able to reach an agreement on first principles in the pursuit of a more just world.

However, today we are in danger of forgetting the consensus of values that once united us. Memories of past atrocities, which once galvanized the world to make such a statement of human value, are fading. This is particularly worrying because the UDHR is not legally binding: there are no armed forces, police, or courts to enforce its 30 articles. Indeed, critics often disparage the utility of the UDHR by pointing to the horrible human rights violations that have been committed in the decades since it was enacted. Yet in declaring the value of each human being—and outlining what they are owed, and owe to others, in light of their personhood—the UDHR was, and continues to be, a beacon of moral authority to the world.

The UDHR is in many ways analogous to America’s Declaration of Independence: another non-binding document which enshrined universal truths of the inviolability of human equality and rights.6 In his speech on the Dred Scott Decision on June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln discussed the denial of slaves’ equality and rights, and acknowledged the way in which the Declaration of Independence neither brought about perfect equality nor recognition of fundamental rights:

[America’s framers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

The principles of the Declaration of Independence reveal the moral wrong of slavery. The Declaration did not abolish that abhorrent institution, but as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass would argue, its moral clarity contributed to slavery’s eventual destruction.

The same may be said of the UDHR. The 70 years since its enactment have seen many advancements in the cause of human rights. The UDHR precipitated decolonization and the independence of post-colonial countries. Specific references to the UDHR are made in the constitutions of Algeria, Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Togo, Somalia, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Equitorial Guinea, Burundi, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)—and even informed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and other countries.7 The UDHR also contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and to the collapse of the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Bloc. In the United States, it hastened a proliferation of civil rights legislation protecting the freedoms and promoting equality for formerly oppressed and marginalized groups, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and many others.

No one would argue that the UDHR was a sufficient cause for these developments. (It plainly was insufficient to prevent many of the atrocities that have occurred in the decades following its enactment—the genocides in Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia, the totalitarianism in North Korea, the Congolese Civil War, and many other brutalities.) But its moral authority was undoubtedly an important instrument to those who worked so hard to effect progressive change.

The UDHR brought the world into a new era. It articulated a new standard to which states were to be accountable in how they treat their citizens. But the UDHR’s demands are not restricted to governments. The UDHR also sets a standard for our moral obligation to one another—citizen to citizen, person to person. The UDHR’s framers understood that culture is prior to law and institutions. The conduct they wished to deter or promote had to be instilled in hearts of minds of leaders and citizens alike.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR and a key contributor to the UDHR, knew that a declaration of abstract ideals carried “no weight unless the people understand them, unless the people demand they be lived.” Judicial decisions and law change only when individuals “progress inwardly.”8 Universal human rights begin with each of us, she said, “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. They are the world of the individual person.”

In her remarkable biography of the UDHR, A World Made New, Mary Ann Glendon eloquently describes how seriously the UDHR’s framers took the idea that respect for human rights, and for human dignity, begins at home: “[Small places] are where people first learn about their rights and how to exercise them responsibly—families, schools, workplaces, and religious and other associations. These little seedbeds of character and competence, together with the rule of law, political freedoms, social security, international cooperation, are all part of the Declaration’s dynamic ecology of freedom.”

Seven decades ago, world leaders sought to bring from the ashes of humanity’s evil and darkest moments a document declaring humankind’s commitment to, and capacity for, justice and good. The UDHR was the fruit of this effort, but it was only the beginning. The survival of its principles depends on the decisions we take each day to recognize the inherent, inviolable dignity of all those with whom we interact.

Far from being a document that was an end in itself, let us see this seventieth anniversary as fresh start—a starting point with which we see ourselves as everyday architects of a more just, harmonious world.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics. She earned an M.S. in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, lives in the American Midwest, and is currently writing a book on civility. She contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and The Hill. You can contact her at www.alexandraohudson.com and follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

Notes and References:

1 Rosen, Michael. Dignity: It’s History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (accessed December 9th, 2018), 11.
2 Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. “Duty” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.271 (accessed December 8th, 2018). Originally published as “Devoir,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 4:915–917 (Paris, 1754).
3 Rosen, Michael. Dignity: It’s History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (accessed December 9th, 2018), 19.
4 Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated and edited by Mary Gregor [NY:  Cambridge, 1998], pp. 42-43.
5 “Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”
6 Gendon, Mary Ann. Louis, chevalier de. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declariatio of Human Rights. New York: Random House Publishing (accessed December 8th, 2018).
7 Ibid, 228.
8 Ibid, 239.
9 Ibid, 240.

A Journey to the Center of the Intellectual Dark Web

I approach Berkeley Church, a beautiful gothic revival church-turned-event-space in downtown Toronto, on a Sunday evening that is unusually frigid—even for the Great White North. 

I am here for “Q Social,” an event put on by an online magazine called Quillette, which has—with nearly one million unique monthly visitors—taken the internet by storm. In its young, three-year life, Quillette has become the outlet for “conservatives that are sick of conservatives, and liberals who are sick of the left,” as one speaker put it that evening.

Tonight’s event gathers the glitterati of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), an eclectic cohort of academics and public intellectuals battling against the tyranny of political correctness, and fighting for “Enlightenment values,” such as freedom of expression, toleration, and evidence-based inquiry.

The IDW’s notable members run the gamut in terms of field and background—from scientists such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson, who contribute to Quillette, to public intellectuals, talk show hosts, and policy wonks such as also Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, and Christina Hoff Summers—with the latter speaking to the crowd that evening (David Frum was also in attendance).

Quillette’s success stems from its willingness to publish and discuss “dangerous” ideas that run counter to mainstream narratives about race, gender, and sex. That Quillette is mostly crowd funded shows that it is meeting a previously unvoiced demand for alternative voices on many controversial issues.

The magazine broke into the public conscience with an essay defending the “Google memo,” which claimed that the existence of fewer women in STEM occupations was scientifically unremarkable and normatively no big deal. Quillette soon followed that up with four expert responses, including sex-scientists Debra So.

In the wake of a recent hoax—three academics submitted articles on ludicrous-sounding topics related to “grievance studies,” and some were accepted by respected academic journals—Quillette ran responses by academics who argued that the “fashionable nonsense” that is our post-modern, politically correct culture is ruining academe. (Some of the hoax articles that were accepted ranged from the absurd to the outrageous: from “rape culture” in dog parks, to an essay on feminism and intersectionality that included extended, edited passages from Mein Kampf.)

Quillette’s founder, Claire Lehman, is based in Sydney, Australia, and started the outlet after quitting a graduate program in psychology, disillusioned by the suppression of free inquiry in academe. “I noted a gap for data-driven, scientifically rigorous writing. I sought to remedy that… [Tonight shows] the flame is burning bright as we shepherd universal values into next generation,” she shared with the audience of over three hundred and fifty.

Quillette’s accomplishments are indicative of a broader trend in news media. Readers across the political spectrum are dissatisfied with the status quo and hungry for new voices and new ideas. Current Affairs—founded by Nathan Robinson, a graduate of Yale Law School currently pursuing his PhD at Harvard—is the progressive, social democratic analogue to Quillette. 

Both Claire and Nathan are anti-institutional, clear thinking writers who offer their readers a interesting perspectives and a new vision for a better future. Like QuilletteCurrent Affairs is a high-quality, crowd-funded publication that started around three years ago with a slew of excellent writers—and is also flourishing (it’s worth noting that Current Affairs has an attractive print edition, while Quillette is solely online). Both represent a sort of creative destruction: as traditional publications like The Weekly Standard and The Nation shutter and falter, new outlets thrive.

In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson (referring to his mercurial would-be patron Lord Chesterfield) defined “patron” as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.” Johnson would be pleased with the more democratic, crowed-funded platforms that support writers today, releasing them from the whim of aristocratic patrons, and empowering them to maintain creative freedom as Quillette, Current Affairs, and others now enjoy. This development—art being no longer constrained by the caprice a privileged few—is an unalloyed good: it yields higher quality materiel for readers, more flexibility for writers, and is better for the future of free inquiry.

“Quillette is about people coming together and celebrating values that we hold deep in our heart: freedom, truth, humanity, toleration,” Lehman affirmed Sunday.

These values should not be controversial, yet they are. Thankfully, people across the world are putting their money where their dissatisfaction is in supporting Quillette and other outlets like it—including Aero, Unheard, The Stranger, The Post Millennial, and more. This “commodified dissent” means that those with the courage to articulate truth and principle with verve and clarity will continue to be heard in a moment where our society is politically and morally confused.

Alexandra Hudson, a former civil servant and Rotary Scholar, is a writer in Indianapolis currently working on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.

What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today? – Quillette

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, human beings that you should care for them?”

The question the Psalmist asks God is the same question philosophers have been asking one another for more than three millennia: What does it mean to be human?What makes us different from the rest of creation?

For Aristotle, the answer was man’s political, or “social,” nature. For Blaise Pascal, it was man’s intellect: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinkingreed.” Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, maintained that man’s distinguishing feature is his volition. Immanuel Kant located humanity’s uniqueness in our moral nature.

The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turned 70 on December 10 this year, offers a different answer: to be human is to have an innate dignity that gives us an irreducible moral worth—a worth that makes all human individuals fundamentally equal to one another and distinct from other forms of life. The UDHR’s first line proudly recognizes “the inherent dignity and . . . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” principles that are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR’s crucial claim is that the question of man’s nature is not merely academic or philosophical. It has moral consequences. Philosophers have long argued that man is distinct from animals or plants by emphasizing different aspects of his person. But the UDHR’s claim is different in asserting that a shared human nature gives us each equal moral worth. For most of human history, the notion that all humans are morally valuable was widely rejected.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the UDHR’s foundational statement—that we all share an inherent dignity that implies certain inalienable rights—will one day again fall into global disfavor. For this reason, it is imperative that each successive generation understand the values of this document. To do so, we must remember the atrocities that led to it.

The decision of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission to ground human rights in the idea of universal human dignity was not due to the philosophical force of the idea of dignity itself. As an astute essay by Remy Debes shows, the idea and terminology of dignity in intellectual history is rather amorphous. In his De Officiis (On Duties), Cicero uses dignitas to describe those holding an “honored place.”1 Such has been the case for most of dignity’s history, with the word often being used to describe the respect to which a particular kind of person—of a certain birth of rank—was entitled. In his De Oratore, Cicero uses dignitas and the related notion of gravitas to describe speech that is magisterial and weighty. It was not merely who spoke; dignity also aptly specified an aesthetic quality: i.e. persons who conducted themselves in a “dignified” manner.

This view of dignity would not change for many centuries. In Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédiethe crowning achievement of the European Enlightenment, the entry on Duty is an early proponent of the notion that our common nature, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain faculties,” means that we have certain moral obligations to all members of the human community:

The first absolute duty, of each man towards all others, is to harm no one… The second general, absolute duty of men is that each person must respect and treat others as naturally equal beings; that is, as beings who are as good as oneself, because this is a matter of a natural or moral equality. See Equality. The third general duty respective of men considered as members of society, is that each must contribute, as much as one can possibly do, to the utility of others.2

Immanuel Kant was the first to explicitly link man’s equal nature and moral obligations to our innate dignity.3 He claimed that all persons possess dignity by virtue of being moral beings—and humans alone are moral. More importantly, he asserted that our dignity has certain ethical implications. It is man’s “transcendent kernel” that endows all humans with unconditional, intrinsic worth, which is why in Kant’s famous categorical imperative people must be treated as ends in themselves, and never merely as means to ends.

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity… but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity. Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.4

It is perhaps with this tradition in mind that the UDHR uses humanity’s universal dignity to condemn the senseless loss of human life the world had so painfully endured (there is no scholarly consensus regarding why the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission chose to ground human rights in human dignity).

More important than the abstract philosophical reasoning, however, was the practical, lived experience of people in the mid-twentieth century. Humanity had just been through one of the bloodiest half-centuries in human history: two disastrous World Wars, the first use of nuclear weapons (on civilians, no less), the Rape of Nanking, the Russian Gulags, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust—which together caused the deaths of more than 100 million human beings—and other, some perhaps still unknown, atrocities. East to West, North to South, the world had been devastated by humankind’s brutality against itself.

The four decades leading up to 1948 confronted those still alive with humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for evil. It seemed to the survivors that civilization had been resting on a narrow precipice, inches away from complete annihilation. They immediately set about determining how to move humanity further away from such a ledge, and they soon realized that any solution would require recognition of the importance of our irreducible worth as persons. They understood what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would so eloquently describe 25 years later in The Gulag Archipelago: the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. Atrocities can be and were perpetrated by people not so different from us.

With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, we are reminded that as we lose those who lived through those dark moments—the Greatest Generation who saw the evil of which humanity is capable—we become more nonchalant about concepts such as human dignity. Yet it is important to keep humanity’s capacity for evil salient to avoid losing sight of the need to respect everyone’s inherent worth. Philosophical contemplation is not sufficient for moral growth. Ethical development requires us to reflect on human tragedy and evil—which is why it is so important to study and remember the Holocaust and other atrocities. It is of course perfectly reasonable to disagree about how to apply the principle of human dignity to international affairs or to domestic policy questions, but—as history shows us—we dismiss it at our peril.

Human dignity matters because it takes certain options off the table: it means that we cannot casually dismiss costs to human life or wellbeing when we take decisions. Adam Smith famously observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that we do not feel the same degree of concern for those in China who suffer from an earthquake that we do for our own minor disturbances.5 As a descriptive matter, this is of course entirely true. Yet the fact that we share human dignity means that we ought not to entirely disregard the value of the lives of those who are different or distant from us.

The Book of Genesis tells of God creating man “in his own image.” This gave rise to the theological concept of imago dei—a rich and deeply-mined idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That man was created in the image and likeness of God separates him from the rest of life on earth, giving him a moral worth (this concept is also found in Sufism). It is likely that this view of human dignity influenced the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission: some of the Commission’s most influential members—Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik (Lebanese existentialist philosopher turned diplomat), and General Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippines—were Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively.

Yet they knew that if the document were to be taken seriously and have any impact outside the West, the document’s principles needed grounding in a broad cross-cultural consensus. Otherwise, the declaration would be thought of as a manifestation of merely “Western” values that were inapplicable to other cultures. The Commission consulted philosophers from all cultures and religions, from far East to far West, to distill a basic set of values that they could agree upon and unify around. The result was a proclamation of universal human rights grounded in our inherent dignity, affirming the fundamental unity of the human race. The dominant religious and philosophical traditions—Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Hinduism, and many of their respective offshoots—take for granted that all members of mankind have basic attributes in common, and that we share a common humanity. These traditions may differ over how to deal with life’s miseries, but not the what of who we are as a human race. It is this common essence that the UDHR captures: for the framers, the fact that every man, woman, and child shared the most fundamental thing in common put other racial, linguistic, national, and religious differences into perspective. As the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain mused, many songs can be played on the document’s thirty strings.

That the Human Rights Commission found such a consensus illustrates the universality of basic truths about the world and the human condition. It recognized that human nature is the same throughout time and culture, and that people everywhere are able to infer certain fundamental principles regarding the nature of freedom, human dignity, and communal flourishing. This ought to be a reminder to us in our own deeply divided moment: it is only when we agree upon shared fundamental values, such as the inherent dignity of all persons, that it is possible to debate the Good. It is also an encouragement: we were able to reach an agreement on first principles in the pursuit of a more just world.

However, today we are in danger of forgetting the consensus of values that once united us. Memories of past atrocities, which once galvanized the world to make such a statement of human value, are fading. This is particularly worrying because the UDHR is not legally binding: there are no armed forces, police, or courts to enforce its 30 articles. Indeed, critics often disparage the utility of the UDHR by pointing to the horrible human rights violations that have been committed in the decades since it was enacted. Yet in declaring the value of each human being—and outlining what they are owed, and owe to others, in light of their personhood—the UDHR was, and continues to be, a beacon of moral authority to the world.

The UDHR is in many ways analogous to America’s Declaration of Independence: another non-binding document which enshrined universal truths of the inviolability of human equality and rights.6 In his speech on the Dred Scott Decision on June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln discussed the denial of slaves’ equality and rights, and acknowledged the way in which the Declaration of Independence neither brought about perfect equality nor recognition of fundamental rights:

[America’s framers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

The principles of the Declaration of Independence reveal the moral wrong of slavery. The Declaration did not abolish that abhorrent institution, but as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass would argue, its moral clarity contributed to slavery’s eventual destruction.

The same may be said of the UDHR. The 70 years since its enactment have seen many advancements in the cause of human rights. The UDHR precipitated decolonization and the independence of post-colonial countries. Specific references to the UDHR are made in the constitutions of Algeria, Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Togo, Somalia, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Equitorial Guinea, Burundi, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)—and even informed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and other countries.7 The UDHR also contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and to the collapse of the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Bloc. In the United States, it hastened a proliferation of civil rights legislation protecting the freedoms and promoting equality for formerly oppressed and marginalized groups, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and many others.

No one would argue that the UDHR was a sufficient cause for these developments. (It plainly was insufficient to prevent many of the atrocities that have occurred in the decades following its enactment—the genocides in Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia, the totalitarianism in North Korea, the Congolese Civil War, and many other brutalities.) But its moral authority was undoubtedly an important instrument to those who worked so hard to effect progressive change.

The UDHR brought the world into a new era. It articulated a new standard to which states were to be accountable in how they treat their citizens. But the UDHR’s demands are not restricted to governments. The UDHR also sets a standard for our moral obligation to one another—citizen to citizen, person to person. The UDHR’s framers understood that culture is prior to law and institutions. The conduct they wished to deter or promote had to be instilled in hearts of minds of leaders and citizens alike.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR and a key contributor to the UDHR, knew that a declaration of abstract ideals carried “no weight unless the people understand them, unless the people demand they be lived.” Judicial decisions and law change only when individuals “progress inwardly.”8 Universal human rights begin with each of us, she said, “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. They are the world of the individual person.”

In her remarkable biography of the UDHR, A World Made New, Mary Ann Glendon eloquently describes how seriously the UDHR’s framers took the idea that respect for human rights, and for human dignity, begins at home: “[Small places] are where people first learn about their rights and how to exercise them responsibly—families, schools, workplaces, and religious and other associations. These little seedbeds of character and competence, together with the rule of law, political freedoms, social security, international cooperation, are all part of the Declaration’s dynamic ecology of freedom.”9

Seven decades ago, world leaders sought to bring from the ashes of humanity’s evil and darkest moments a document declaring humankind’s commitment to, and capacity for, justice and good. The UDHR was the fruit of this effort, but it was only the beginning. The survival of its principles depends on the decisions we take each day to recognize the inherent, inviolable dignity of all those with whom we interact.

Far from being a document that was an end in itself, let us see this seventieth anniversary as fresh start—a starting point with which we see ourselves as everyday architects of a more just, harmonious world.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics. She earned an M.S. in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, lives in the American Midwest, and is currently writing a book on civility. She contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and The Hill. You can contact her at www.alexandraohudson.com and follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

The Curious Reemergence of Little Platoons – Quillette

“What does your part of the country think about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. right now?” a man in his mid sixties read aloud from a sheet of paper to the group of six Republicans and six Democrats.

I had just arrived at the small, split-level home in a wooded neighborhood in Bloomington, Indiana—miffed by the uncommon, light-to-medium traffic that had delayed my arrival from Indianapolis—and hurriedly joined a group of twelve seated in a circle. This was a Better Angels workshop, one of hundreds of such gatherings happening in communities across the country, which aims to unify a deeply divided nation.

The organization’s name derives from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address, delivered while our country was on the precipice of a civil war, where he implored Americans to prevent difference from “break[ing] our bonds of affection,” and to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

Like Lincoln, Better Angels seeks to heal a broken America by improving our public discourse. The volunteer-led workshops teach skills of human connection— paraphrasing, listening, asking questions of understanding, and how to offer a critique of ones own political position—not of persuasion. The intent is not to minimize differences or to convert. It is to humanize others who think differently—ultimately, to make us less inclined to demonize others and more inclined to peacefully coexist.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents in a recent study from Vanderbilt University rated their political opponents as “less-evolved” than members of their own party. This propensity to dehumanize, which history shows us tends to go hand in hand with targeted violence, is alarming and underscores the urgent need for groups to promote person-to-person interaction.

Beyond humanizing people with whom one disagrees, Better Angels also shows attendees that there are other people in their community of good-will who also recognize the importance of civil tête-à-têtes to a thriving republic.

Partisanship is at a record high, and trust in traditional media institutions—those that historically have set the tone of public discourse— at record low. Americans are dissatisfied by the apocalyptic consequentialism of cable news and talk radio. Fast, loud, combative, outrage-inducing, these forums play on people’s baser instincts and have driven many to seek reprieve through in-person dialogue—even with complete strangers.

Better Angels is one of a swath of organizations addressing the problem of a broken public discourse: Slate Star Codex Rationalist meet-ups that seek truth in group settings, Benjamin Franklin Circles that collectively pursue virtue, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation that assembles “innovators” to problem-solve, and countless other national, state-wide, and local initiatives, do the same.

These entities recognize that the test of true tolerance is how one respects those who are different from oneself, and are committed to practicing a civil exchange of ideas across ideological lines. The basis of truly civil dialogue is choosing to see the dignity of the person on the other side of the aisle or computer screen, and reflecting on the basic respect they are owed in light of that dignity.

Groups like these also improve the anonymity problem of online forums—from Twitter trolls to the comments section of online news sites—which has contributed to such toxicity in our political environment. It is a truism that people are more likely to be cruel or make death threats virtually than when staring another person in the eye, which both attaches their identity to their opinion and forces them to confront the humanity of their interlocker.

These many disparate groups are an example of the American ethos of civic-mindedness, of ordinary citizens taking initiative and seeing a problem and working to fix it. These groups are the lifeblood of American society, and they are productive not only for the overt work they do—teaching skills, sharpening arguments, and all that—but, perhaps more importantly, for simply existing.

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society… is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind,” Edmund Burke once observed. These re-emerging platoons embody the encouraging reality that Americans are capable of working together—even if their elected representatives cannot.

“I am here,” one gentleman of our group in Bloomington shared, “because someone’s politics is not sufficient reason for me to cut them off.”

If America’s is to heal, it must start with more of us living out that truth.