Human dignity and democracy

Cardinal George Pell recently spoke to the Acton Society on the limits of liberal democracy. His speech was wide-ranging and interesting, but critics focused on a point marginal to his argument: his comparison between those in the West who now convert to Islam and those who had earlier turned to Communism.

His arguing partner was secular democracy, which he describes as an identification of democratic process with the belief in unlimited individual autonomy. This leads to unquestioned acceptance of abortion, euthanasia and genetic experimentation, and to the claim that opposition to such things is undemocratic.

Cardinal Pell argues that democracy is neither a value-free mechanism for regulating interests, nor a good in itself. Its value is to serve a moral vision.

To the individualist values espoused by secular democracy, he opposes ‘democratic personalism’. By this he means a vision of human beings as centres of transcendent dignity whose existence and happiness are bound to mutual relationships. Democracy serves the flourishing of human dignity and of mutual relationships. He argues that to implement this vision we would need to change culture. That calls primarily for persuasion and not political activism.

He introduces Islam into his argument in order to illustrate the emptiness within secular democracy. Last century, the Western cultural emphasis on individual choice attracted people to communism because it was built on solidarity. Recent conversions to Islam in the West suggest that it might prove as attractive in our century for the same reason.
Cardinal Pell is right to identify the radical individualism of Western culture and to insist that any political system must be built on a strong respect for human dignity. That said, I doubt that our political system can be described as a pure form of secular democracy.

I disagree, however, with his claim that democracy is not a good in itself. Democracy is a good because it uniquely allows for human beings to take responsibility for the shape of their common life and makes them morally accountable for what governments do in their name.

This means that governments and citizens are judged by the values that Cardinal Pell commends—the transcendent dignity of the human beings affected by national policy and actions. For that reason, election success never justifies a government’s policy. It does not render morally justifiable, for example, the destruction of Iraq or of the humanity of asylum seekers. What elections do is to make governments accountable for their actions, and citizens accountable for re-electing them. Because of this accountability, we may not move on from the disrespect for human dignity involved in our treatment of refugees and our participation in an unjust war, any more than from that involved in abortion, euthanasia and some forms of stem cell research. But, as Cardinal Pell says rightly, we are dealing here with a culture. To make the defence of human dignity central to our culture, we must change public attitudes by persuasion and better arguments. Direct action and heavying politicians to change laws are no substitute for public education.

I also agree that a democracy driven by the commitment to maximise individual choice contains a contradiction that, under pressure, will manifest itself. Where societies do not value human dignity and human relationships, such minorities as the citizens of Iraq or asylum seekers will be deprived of life and voice, and governments will act in authoritarian ways to resist accountability for torture and other forms of barbarism.

Cardinal Pell’s comparison of conversion to Islam with the earlier turning to Communism is ambiguous, at least in the edited version of his speech. The ambiguity is unfortunate, because the position of Muslims in the Western world is precarious, and internationally the citizens of Islamic countries are at risk from the bombs of Western powers. Any comparison between Muslims and the Communists who were the object of fear and loathing in the West, therefore needs to be carefully defined and limited.

Cardinal Pell’s comparison is ambiguous because it is not completely clear whether the converts to Islam to whom he refers are converts to a faith, or converts to establishing a political order in which adherence to the faith and practices of a religion are prescribed and sanctioned.

He would be right to say that some people in the West have been attracted to Islamic faith because they find secularism too thin a basis for human living. In Islam they find transcendence and solidarity. But other people have been attracted to Christianity and Marxism for the same reasons.

He would also no doubt be right to claim that some Western people have been attracted to a polity that prescribes the beliefs and practices of Islam. It is also true that Communists defended an analogously prescriptive form of government. But some Christians have also advocated and practised religious discrimination in government. These Christians should therefore be included with Communist and Muslim converts in cautionary tales about the defects of secular democracy, or the comparison not made.

Human dignity provides the standard by which all forms of government, whether led by Christians, Marxists or Muslims, are to be judged.

In order to defend human dignity, however, it is important to insist both that democracy is a value, and that democracies are judged by their respect for human dignity. If we insist, as Catholic thinkers sometimes do, only on the importance of the values that democracy serves, we may be tempted to argue that authoritarian forms of government that prescribe Catholic Truth might be better than democracies. That would involve the same kind of contradiction that Cardinal Pell points to in secular democracy. In the name of human dignity we would be infringing a value central to human dignity—namely, the citizen’s moral accountability for
public policy.  

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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