In the Image: Human Dignity and Public Justice

For this group editorial, we wanted to share a conversation with you. As editors we get the chance to talk offline, push back against one another, raise questions that make us think of other questions, as we move towards developing a coherent whole. Most often, the coherent whole is the group editorial you read on Mondays - today, to open our topic of human dignity, we want to share that first conversation, where you can hear our different voices, questions and first thoughts. Join us in the comments!

Hilary: I’ll open with my first thought when I read this topic: What does human dignity have to do with public justice? We often think of human dignity as related to the individual—but what is the significance of human dignity as a concept for public life? How does the notion of human dignity change our definition of doing justice to one another? I’m wondering particularly about how it changes our view of institutions and their functions.

One of my first thoughts about this was actually the competition between business ends (profit maximization/return, efficiency, expansion, etc.) and our responsibility to respect the dignity of every person (wages and benefits, working conditions, etc.). The concept of human dignity here seems to provide a way for us to talk about the limits on one institution (business/marketplace) while still acknowledging that institution's good and rightful place in society. Human dignity makes business accountable to a purpose beyond the “mere” purpose demanded by a competitive market. It tells us something about the means and the ends we seek in our various spheres of life.

The same would hold true of education, something we talk about here at SJ a lot. That humans have inherent dignity and worth, that they are made in the very image of God and therefore are bearers of that image into the world, makes us think differently about the quality, the access, and the affordability of education.

Melissa: Thinking about human dignity that way—from a business perspective—plays out in a number of ways, but especially in our conversations about human trafficking, immigration, and mental illness. One key way to move forward in these conversations is to acknowledge the ways that civil society and government can work together to meet basic human needs. Our current approach—which employs an individualistic framework of what it means to be human—downplays our unique differences; it attempts to create policy that applies equally to everyone, but the result is inherently unequal.

Of course, it’s easier to think about human dignity when we put a face on it, and it often seems like those issues are merely abstract concepts that fuel policy discussions on Capitol Hill. Yet the implications play out in many people’s daily lives. Maybe this is a cliche example since I’m from Seattle, but consider what human dignity means when it comes to something as small as one’s morning cup of coffee: When given the option to choose between fair-trade and supermarket-brand coffee, many of us would opt for whichever is cheaper for us as consumers. Yet, the extra $5 per pound of ethically sourced beans might have a huge ripple effect—like fair wages and standards—for roasters and growers on the other side of the coffee cup. The same is true for local and organic food; buying from a local farm may be more expensive for consumers, but those farms are more likely to participate in fair labor practices that uphold justice and human dignity.

Hilary: I think that makes a lot of sense - when we think about human dignity in the public square, we have to think not only about our institutions’ choices in terms of policy, but also in terms of our own behaviors, how we treat one another in the public square - the ethically sourced coffee is a way to respect the dignity, needs and value of the growers and roasters on the other side, as Melissa says. Which brings me back in part to the idea that human dignity places a critical limit on the means and ends of other institutions and ways of the thinking. Consumers can be driven by a mentality where we seek the lowest price, or we can bring other questions into consideration - the company’s treatment of its workers, its trade, its environmental impact. A high view of human dignity can help us better evaluate the choices we make in the public square, it seems.

Our current approach—which employs an individualistic framework of what it means to be human—downplays our unique differences.

Jeremy T.: In relation to this notion of consumerism and human dignity, I’m reminded of the ongoing debate here in the District over bringing big box stores to town such as Costco and Wal-Mart. Costco recently succeeded in setting up shop in the District but Wal-Mart has experienced a bumpier path. Much of the city’s council and labor unions have argued that Wal-Mart should offer employees a living wage that is commensurate with locality pay and has pointed to Costco as a model business that provides employees with more generous benefit packages. Wal-Mart argues that the presence of lower prices and more jobs—even if they are low-paying—will be enough to jolt neighborhood economies within the District. Thus, the D.C. City Council introduced legislation titled the “Large Retailer Accountability Act” (LRAA) that would force stores like Wal-Mart to raise the minimum wage of its employees to $12.50. Wal-Mart, of course, feels discriminated against and threatened to pull out of the District if the issue is not resolved. In September, Mayor Vincent Gray sided with Wal-Mart and vetoed the bill.

This back and forth raises questions of dignity by challenging the importance of consumerism over attractive, high-paying jobs. Washingtonians shouldn’t need to rely on big-box stores to provide highly-skilled jobs with attractive benefit packages. True concern for competitive jobs would compel council members to enact laws promoting job and education growth, not obstruction of one of the world’s largest businesses from investing.

Urban locales deserve the same low prices that suburbanites enjoy with options of Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club. Sure, Wal-Mart may not provide the highest paying job around, but that is not their business model. One cannot have the economies of scale that Wal-Mart offers while also enjoying high-paying positions. To me, it is truly undignified that elected leaders would fight against a business such as Wal-Mart that would bring new jobs and better deals to areas of the city that need it.

Melissa: I think the interesting thing about the Wal-Mart debate is that you can find compelling arguments on both sides—and those all can find some roots in arguments for human dignity. But isn’t that the case for so many issues we encounter in conversations about public justice? The problem is that there isn’t an easy answer for many policy problems when we start to consider such foundational principles as human dignity. How do we set up a helpful framework in which  policy, human dignity, principled pluralism, and public justice are complementary, not competitive?

Jeremy C: To my eye, the question Hilary originally posited sets up our team nicely for drawing out the nuances of a public justice perspective. There is no shortage of discussion about human dignity and justice in our current political discourse. But bringing these concepts, which in our minds tend to be linked with an ethos of individual rights, into dialogue with a concern for public justice, which brings to mind public responsibility, is a rare occurrence. So how do these ideas come together?

With CPJ's recent news about welcoming Nicholas Wolterstorff to serve on the Board of  Trustees, it seems only appropriate to look to his work on justice and human dignity to help orient us in this conversation. In Justice: Rights and Wrongs and Justice in Love, Wolterstorff traces the grounding for human dignity back to an inherent worth bestowed on each individual human being by God. Justice, he explains, is not simply about conforming to certain abstract philosophical standards or complying with legal procedures. It's much more down-to-earth than that. Justice, Wolterstorff contends, is what respect for worth requires.

If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he is, then that means that the existence of different kinds of worth entails the necessity of talking about different kinds of justice, including public justice. But how to go from justice toward individual human beings, which seems to be the focus of Wolterstorff's philosophical project, toward a conception of justice for public life?

In the contributions above, my fellow editorial team members draw out different inextricable dimensions of being human - or, using Wolterstorff's terminology, different aspects of human worth. We've talked of humans as consumers as well as producers, employees as well as employers, members of civil society as well as citizens of political communities. It is this last aspect of our human worth, man as political animal, as Aristotle put it, that provides us with the resources to move toward the familiar idea of public justice.

If justice is what respect for worth requires, then public justice can be seen as the kind of respect that is called for by the political dimension of our humanity. Public justice is the form of justice that entails giving diverse entities, both individuals and institutions, the space to shape our public life together. It's the form of justice that recognizes that our society is pluralistic - both structurally and confessionally, and that doing justice to the human dignity of all requires taking our responsibility to do public justice very seriously. I’m looking forward to seeing all the different ways our team looks at the issue of human dignity the coming month to help us better understand how we can better work toward public justice.

Hilary: I agree with Jeremy C. - and the idea that when it comes to doing public justice, we have to think about the political, and therefore (to my mind) communal aspects of our nature. “How do we live well together?” is perhaps the most basic question for political theorists and policymakers. Human dignity, which can help us understand more about who we are, ultimately helps us arrange our public life in a way that corresponds with the truth.

So now we want to ask you to join us in the comments. What does human dignity have to do with public justice?Where should this conversation go next?