By DONNA URSCHEL
Distinguished scholars, representing diverse perspectives, took part in a compelling conversation on what constitutes human dignity.
The April 26 event, sponsored by the John W. Kluge Center and titled “Dignity of the Human Person,” featured Dr. George Chrousos, Roshi Joan Halifax, Jennifer Hochschild, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Abdulkarim Soroush and John Witte Jr., who also served as moderator. All participants are or have been senior scholars at the Kluge Center in the past year.
Chrousos, a professor at Athens University Medical School in Greece, explained the medical perspective on dignity: Dignity exists because the complex human biological system supports it. There are distinct areas in the brain that handle self-awareness and dignity. Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and anthropologist, spoke from the perspective of Buddhism, which is “concerned with the development of moral character” and training the mind to achieve qualities that give rise to dignity.
“Buddha sought the middle way, the path between extremes,” she said. When the mind is not in a place of dignity, it is pursuing qualities of suffering—greed, aversion, aggression and ignorance.
Hochschild, a Harvard University professor, raised the topic of genomic science and how each person’s genetic code will be common information in the future. If human beings will be characterized in a precise manifestation of physical units, will science undermine the dignity of the human person or reinforce it?
McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., who was appointed to the College of Cardinals in 2001, said dignity is accorded to the human person through God. “We are special. The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” He quoted his friend, the late Cardinal Terence Cooke (1921-1983) of New York, who often said, “We are all brothers and sisters in God’s human family.” Soroush, an Iranian thinker and philosopher who is currently teaching at the University of Maryland, also spoke of God, saying the human person is dignified by God. “Everybody carries the spirit of God,” he said. “We are here because we are intended to be here. We have a fate. We need to live a good life, a life of respectfulness.”
Witte, a law professor at Emory University, gave an overview of the history of human rights from the Middle Ages through 1948, when a global declaration of human rights stated that all human beings on earth have a basic dignity and must be afforded specific rights.
In examining the importance of human dignity, Chrousos explained that any assault to human dignity can adversely affect a person’s health. Someone whose dignity is persistently attacked is at greater risk to develop psychiatric diseases and other diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
Soroush suggested there has been too much emphasis on human rights. Human dignity should lead to human responsibility and obligations, as well as rights.
Halifax supported Soroush’s emphasis on responsibilities. “We have a responsibility with end-of-life care,” she said. “How do we treat dying people?”
Soroush also talked about love, which is neither a right nor a responsibility. “Love is much superior to these,” he said. “Man is dignified because he can love and be loved.”
Human dignity, said McCarrick, is something that one can abuse but cannot lose. “Even the worst person in the world still has dignity.”
Cardinal McCarrick’s lecture will be accessible on the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications.