Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Criticizing "Inherent"

Currently, and in the just offered draft revision, of the UU Principles is the statement that we (the member congregations) affirm and promote... or (new language) covenant to honor and uphold (I like that new language):

the inherent worth and dignity of every person

I criticized "inherent" last night over at the Chaliceblog.

Chalicechick asked what the problem is with "inherent."

Lots. Rather than dump it all there in a reply that would get skimmed, I decided to post here (in a post that will get skimmed).

One criticism, pointed out in a conversation between services, is that "inherent" means that you have it, it's yours by your very nature... so... there's nothing anyone can do about it. You have inherent worth and dignity, and that is that. The most abused, oppressed, neglected individual has all their worth and dignity inherently and nothing anyone can do will affect that. So... why act?

Bill Schulz pointed out that there are only three philosophical bases on which we seem to find a foundation to rest human worth;

One is God; all God's children have worth and because it's god-given... but that one's been so shredded that we can put it aside (as a movement). We don't agree on the existence of god, much less divine nature, much less the details, and so we as a movement can't claim that (the culture is in the same boat) bedrock, and must look for another.

Another is Natural Law. Essentially, this is an argument that something in our nature is of inherent worth. It's not far from the argument made about god-granted worth--and no one has managed to weave together much of an argument for it. Assert it? Sure. But argue it and explain why? Nah.

(I'll grant here that I tend to feel that it is... but I grew up UU, and American, and liberal, and my feeling otherwise would be a shock. But having grown up with and integrated the belief doesn't make it true. It merely makes it what I believe--and want to believe. That's fine, but just asserting it is like asserting the divine right of kings; who says so?)

So, bereft of god-given and nature-granted, what do we have?

If worth doesn't come to us from some greater power, what and where is left?


Schulz points to the slow, steady struggle by humanity to assert that we have worth, and to assert it in larger and larger numbers and in finer detail. From The Rights of Man (well, from even before that) to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And, he says, so far that has been a progression; we haven't (yet?) stepped backwards. We have worth and dignity because we, humanity, assert it and affirm it--not because it's inherent, but because we see truly having worth and dignity as being part of what makes being human possible, and that to deny that to someone is thus a crime against that person and a crime against humanity.

So having the Principles assert, affirm and honor the worth and dignity of every person would have meaning. It would put us firmly in the camp that we're actually in, and by removing "inherent" would actually create a greater call to doing social justice work, because what's so very important to us, to all of us, is delicate, precious and no one but humanity is or can.

For those who personally feel it's inherent, removing it doesn't deny that. It sets that theological assertion aside--and in doing so affirms to a larger group that they have the obligation to act.

In short? "Inherent" is a cop-out. And the phrase "inherent worth" is semantically slippery, too. Worth? Worth what, and to whom? Gold and jewels have no inherent value--but people value them enough to in some cases kill for them. We give them worth. "Worth" is an abstraction, a perception, like "tastes good." Does something inherently taste good? That's silly; we've all met people who dislike things we think taste wonderful.

Worth is an assertion of value--to some human being. Thus the errancy of inherency is demonstrated.

But I bet we have to have a great, freaking floor fight over it. There's a member of the CoA I need to talk with, because I'm really quite surprised at this whole draft.


David Jackoway said...

If the worth and dignity of a person is determined by society rather than being an intrinsic aspect of our nature as sentient beings, then we grant society the authority to classify certain groups of people as being worthless. The oppression of slaves, Jews, native Americans and others is first justified by the denial of their inherent worth and dignity, after which all manner of indignities are tolerated due to their lowered status. By asserting the inherent worth and dignity of all peoples we are denying society the right to judge who is or isn't worthy.

ogre said...

David, you just made my argument;
we are denying society the right to judge who is or isn't worthy.


Yes, you're correct; that is absolutely the danger--that the onus is on us.

Which is... kind of what UUism has said for some time.

Chalicechick said...

((The most abused, oppressed, neglected individual has all their worth and dignity inherently and nothing anyone can do will affect that. So... why act?))

Because man doesn't live by dignity alone.

I'm not getting about Schultz's argument. To me, inherent just means that we're saying there is dignity to humanity's essential character and that worth and dignity are part of the package deal of being human, whether you personally choose to assert it or not.

And everybody is worth something. At minimum, the cost of their organs on the black market. But most of us are already worth something to someone and have the potential to create added value to the world.

Even, say, this guy.

Not neccessarily arguing, just puzzling things out.


uumomma said...

Maybe this is what you are saying, but for me, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of others is more about what I need to do--not what others are. If I affirm the inherent worth of others, then I have to act like it (honestly, I don't much, but that's another post). So I like it as a way for a religious body to be together--not as something that other people have to live up to, but as a goal for myself to live with/for.

I'm not educated enough to get in on this deep conversation. I'm just saying, I like having to remind myself that this is what I actually believe, so I'll stop acting like a shit more often than not. It's very easy to live in the world thinking everyone else is worthless. I think it is just as easy, though, to live believing that everyone is worthy, too. It's just a different kind of easy.

Robin Edgar said...

"Ogre" could just as easily say -

The most abusing, oppressing, and neglectful individual has all their worth and dignity inherently and nothing they can do will affect that. . .

I would argue that *some* worth and dignity of individuals is indeed "inherent", whereas other worth and dignity (or lack thereof. . .) is earned by their words and actions, or indeed lack thereof. Too many of the U*U individuals I have the misfortune to know have been abusing, oppressing, and neglectful towards me and other people. Just how much dignity and how much worth do abusive, oppressive, and negligent U*Us expect me and those other people they have been abusive, oppressive, and neglectful towards to allocate to them?

I have long been a fan of Ovid's saying - "If you want to be loved, be lovable."

Indeed I find it rather more realistic and useful bon mot than, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."

The basic principle of this bon mot has a much broader application however -

If you want to be respected be respectable. . .

If you want to be honoured be honourable. . .

If you want to have worth be worthy. . .

If you want dignity be dignified. . .

Feel free to insert "U*Us" where you see the word "you". Of course, a whole lot of the U*Us I know stand on the wrong side of those equations. Indeed they stand on the wrong side of the UUA's "Stand on the side of love" slogan. . . I am still waiting for U*Us to try a bit harder to actually practice the purported principles of U*Uism rather than just endlessly yammering on about them. Now there's a turn of a phrase that references another famous saying -

The yammering Yahoos of U*Uism. ;-)

As I have said before, if U*Us want my respect they will have to work hard to earn it because they have repeatedly made a total mockery of the Seven Principles that they fraudulently "covenant" to affirm and promote in their rather inhuman "human relations" with me and other people.

Chalicechick said...

((If I affirm the inherent worth of others, then I have to act like it))

Excellent point, UUMomma.


ogre said...

CC, part of what Schulz is saying is that while we yearn for it and feel entitled to it... (but why? Another question), it's just talk unless there's action.

"Inherent" doesn't make the talk more valid or imposing--and if anything makes the action less urgent.

Look at the Declaration of Independence, which asserts "... and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Fundamental human rights claimed--and sourced as coming from the creator. Only today, we can't and don't agree on a creator. So the claim is what? That we have those rights, that they are ours... because of what?

Inherent is a claim. It's not a fact. It asserts... a source. It's a theological assertion that we don't agree on (so it ought not be made) and it further strips the claim of human worth and dignity of urgency. It's inherent, we need not act to protect it.

Whereas Schulz's argument is that we derive it from our perception of what we could and should be--and that since it has no inherency, but rather is a fundamental element of civilization that has been slowly, painstakingly fashioned (at great price) into something that is so precious, that we must guard, defend and support it for every human being, against any threat or injury (in the same way that we protect the rights of the majority by insisting on their being scrupulously extended to those who are most noxious and offensive to the majority).

Je pense, donc je suis.

I am a human being, because I say I am. (Egads, that sounds like Planet of the Apes--but the point remains)

Worth and dignity is not granted, it is claimed, it is asserted, and it is in protecting it for others that we defend it for ourselves. It's why the injury to another's worth and dignity--torture, say--is such an affront. It should not be done because to do so is an injury and affront to the worth and dignity of every last human being... and we should never, ever, stand for it, out of enlightened self-interest, if nothing else.

uumomma, you don't need to be all eddykated to discuss this, really. It's entirely possible to cast it in high-falutin' language... but the bottom line is one that every parent understands; you don't do that to other people, because how would you feel if they did it to you?

ogre said...

Semper reformanda--"Always reforming." In the past 25 years or so there's nothing that calls for any significant amendment, alteration or addition to the Principles?

Robin, your view's quite traditional, but also quite outside the tradition of the radical Reformation.

Robin Edgar said...

Reformation for reformation's sake?

Is that what it comes down to Ogre?

Surely the fundamental principles and ideals of a religion should only require "reformation" when there is real need for reform.

What do you see as being in immediate need of reform in the existing Seven Principles and what significant amendments, alterations or additions to the Principles do you propose?

Robin Edgar said...

Answer's to my questions, particularly the last one, would be appreciated Patrick.