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Marius Oosthuizen

Student Number: 150008


Module: MPHP 501 - Dignity of the Human Person
Name of Tutor: Dr. John Enslin
Date: 11 January 2015

Assignment Title:

A Critical Analysis of Stetsons Human Dignity and


Contemporary Liberalism, from a Historical Existential
Philosophical Perspective

Declaration and signature:


I declare that this represents my own original efforts and that I have not plagiarised
the work of anyone else in completing the requirements for this task.

Signed: ______________________

INTRODUCTION
Stetson writes a scathing attack on contemporary liberalism as its
conception and application of the notion of human dignity. He does so by
describing the usage of Human Dignity in contemporary public discourse,
particularly in the United States of America, reflecting on contemporary
liberalisms application of the term and how it relates to the dominant culture.
He then contrasts his derisive assessment with his own view of human dignity
as understood in two dimensions, namely; intrinsic- and extrinsic dignity.
Stetson concludes his criticism with a reflection on the philosophical
underpinnings of contemporary liberalism, and therein lays blame for what he
calls the degradation of human life. (Stetson, 1998:19).

STETSON ON HUMAN DIGNITY IN CONTEMORARY LIBERALISM


Human Dignity in Contemporary Discourse
Stetson (1998:3) laments the course spirit of the age and
precariousness of the human condition highlighting an imperative [to]
articulate defences of human beings and human liberties but holds that there
is paradoxically no shortage of the use of the term human dignity in public
discourse today. While the concept is widely and often referred to, there is in
his view, dramatic differences of opinion of its meaning and interpretation in
popular culture.
For Stetson, contemporary liberalism has reduced the notion to a
promiscuous incanting of rights [resulting in a] colossal devaluing of the
concept. One might say that Stetson accuses the liberals of replacing Platos
(Scandelon, n.d.) sense of- and reference to the [ultimate] Good, with a
demand for and insistence on what is good for me alone, with no regard
for how contrary that may stand to what anothers perception is of what is
good. Each individual, in the liberal view, upholds their dignity by becoming
their own philosopher king (Scandelon, n.d.), except as we will see, their
philosophy is one of entitlement and pleasure and not tied to any notion of
absolute goodness.
2

On Contemporary Liberalism
Contemporary liberalism, for Stetson, has resulted in a destructive
rights-saturated society, producing what he quotes Harvard Law School
Professor, Mary Ann Glendon (in Stetson, 1998:4) as describing as a
intemperate rhetoric of personal liberty, which enthusiastically embraces the
benefits of living in a democratic welfare state, but fails to adequately
recognise the resultant responsibilities and personal and civil obligations.
It is helpful to consider Stetsons view from four perspectives, namely
the Civic Life, conception of the Human Self, resultant Culture and underlying
Philosophy, which together constitute the view of human dignity in
contemporary liberalism.

Stetsons View in Four Perspectives


Civic Life
Stetson describes a rather bleak picture of the civil life that arises in
contemporary America due to the proliferation of liberalism and its
appropriation of human dignity. He bemoans the superficiality of liberalisms
rights talk (Glendon in Stetson, 1998:4) that sees a form of judicial activism
emerge which takes recourse to the courts as agents of cultural change.
(Stetson, 1998:6). This form of leftism, he contends, invariably results in
ever sprawling forms of government and degrades public debate down to a
dysfunctional and combative form, where opponents are not so much deemed
to be wrong about issues, but bad, racist or some other phobic stereotype
an approach to civic behaviour which undermines the dynamic fabric of
democratic civil life.
Stetson does not see in contemporary liberalism the relational aspect
of human dignity which one finds for instance in St. Augustines conception of
personhood, instead liberalist dignity vests in the individual, apart from others,
and to some extent, as we will see, competes with that of others. In this
sense, liberals lean more towards St. Aquinas (Rothbard, N. 2009) view that

personhood relies on the ownership and resultant dominion which one


exercises over ones own actions. Furthermore, the existential context of the
person is by liberals collapsed from for instance Kants (Kemerling, 2011.)
phenomenal (able to be perceived through the senses) and Noumenon
(unknowable through the senses) world, to one that is utterly subjugated to
the rational empiricism of the human individual. In the public space of such a
world there can be no Categorical Imperative to do right but merely a
contestation of interests.

The Human Self


Stetson (1998) sees at the heart of liberalisms civic life a view of the
human person engrossed in the notion of personal liberty, one where a
radical egalitarianism and a radical individualism (Bork in Stetson, 1998:5)
has supplanted a meaningful perception of human dignity with a fickle and
intolerant demand for self-esteem a warm positive feeling of the self. From
the perspective of governance, this he argues results in a pervading
assumption that humans are essentially malleable in nature and leads
directly to the formulation of program-after-program aimed at state-led social
reform. From Stetsons perspective, this is a drastic departure from other
previously and widely held notions of human nature, such as the Christian
Imago Dei1 (Longergan. N.d) or Jesiwsh Ha-adam Kvod (Kamir, 2002), ideas
inspiring a God-centric or God-inspired view of human nature.
As Stetsons generalises about the activist posture of liberals to
reforming humanity into the image of an ultimate liberal community, one might
observe that compared to what Aristotle saw in human consciousness as the
singular self-thinking thought (Schneider, N. 2009), a transcendental yet
imbedded universality of being of which all humans share a part, the liberal
view of humanity is one of a global crowd of self-thinking-thoughts who must

Imago Dei: The Image of God in the human person through the reason, either the ratio superior as St. Thomas
understood it or the principium verbi, verbum, and amor of rational creatures as explained in Longergan (n.d.)

somehow simultaneously be afforded the libert for self-determination, while


coping with the competing claims of their fellow libertarians.
For liberals then, As Statson sees it, the appitites2 as Aritotle (Stanford
Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2014) understood them are not so much to be
converted or held at bay in order to ensure the achievement of honourable
ends, but rather must be vigorously pursued and insisted on only to be
curtailed by the opposing appetites of other insisters.

Culture
Instead of being tolerant and intellectually wide as they claim, He
(1998) asserts that the culture emanating from contemporary liberalism is one
of victimization and bullying, where moral permissiveness has informed a
from of entitlement that sees freedom as license as opposed to an
existential phenomena, which though profoundly personal, is yet limited by a
commitment to a social and greater good of some kind.
For Stetson, contemporary liberalism claims to hold to something of
Ciceros (Maso, S. 2009) rationality of belief, yet in their case referring to their
self-construed perception, their singularly individualised and centralised
opinionated and often rationalised conviction of their view which intolerantly
leaves no room intellectually or socially for difference of opinion. In this way,
the liberals of today, in Stetsons view, have rolled back the universalised
dignity afforded to all in society by the Stoics (Nussbaum, M. 2008), resorting
instead to an indignant rejection of the very philosophical, and oftentimes
theological, points of view that brought them liberty in the first place.
Where evil then for Aristotle, came by defect or excess (Moorhead,
n.d), for contemporary liberalism which generally recognises perversion as
relativised perception and excess as immaterial, evil is limited to that which
curtails the liberty of the one wanting to serve their passions. Virtue then, for

Ones desires, that are held in check in the pursuit of right ends, through the virtue of moderation.

the liberal, is not to be found in the mean, but in the maximum pursuit of self
actualization and gratification (Goldstein in Mitchell, 1990).
In contrast to Hagels (Cemal, n.d.) proposed capacity for self-reflection
and respectful reciprocal recognition, first of the self and thereunto of all
others and perhaps the greater other of ultimate being, the mechanism of
liberalisms self-awareness, is not as moral moderator as much as an affirmer
of superficial self-absorbed sentimentality.
Where St. Augustine (Chan, J. 2009) for instance saw human dignity to
arise out of the internalised foci of tinitarian (De Trinitate) interaction between
the minds capacity to not only exist, but to obtain knowledge and then reflect
lovingly on the knowledge it has obtained, Stetson describes liberalism as
having a notably agency-centric conception of dignity one which
emphasises libertys application in unconstrained action on the part of the
person, as the upholding source of dignitas. This is partly in keeping with the
Renaissances obsession with individual performance (Komar, n.d.), an
insatiable celebration of the wonder of the human self in life today and its
achievements, as opposed to archaic notions of ends to be pursued. This
gives rise to a culture, as Stetson has observed in other terms, which one
may imagine being populated by beings of Machiavellian (ukessays, n.d)
expedience and the materialist-human-centric optimism of Francis Bacon,
rather than proponents of the public worthiness contemplated by Hobbes
Leviathan (Bartleby, n.d).

Philosophy
For Stetson, the civic life, sense of human self and culture of
contemporary liberalism flows largely from the underlying philosophical point
of departure as it relates to Truth and individual humanity. Taking
postmodernisms deconstructive agenda to the utmost end, Stetson (1998)
sees contemporary liberalism losing all semblance of the notion of truth in
favour of a fully relativised individualism, one which views human liberty as
the Summon Bonum and the ultimate Telos of humankind.

It is no wonder then, in Stetosns view, that intrinsic dignity,


constitutive of being human itself, unearned, unmanufactured and
unmaintained, is thereby reduced to superficial claims for rights and selfinterested forms of happy pursuit. Similarly, that extrinsic dignity, contingent
on conduct and related to the discriminatory nature of public judgement
(1998:15-16) of personal character, is in turn obliterated, as the boundaries or
normality and longstanding convictions of decency are overshadowed by new
forms of acceptable depravity. It is this confluence of humanist, consumerist,
hedonist perception and praxis which causes Stetson (1998:23) to conclude
that in fact, contemporary liberalism betrays its own principles of liberality
through the excesses it fosters, both personally and through the statism of
its governmentally authoritarian character.
To some degree, Stetson recognises in contemporary liberalism some
of the worldview that Nietzsche espouses, where individuals live out their
sense of reality from a somewhat realpolitik3 posture insofar as their desires
and aspirations are concerned. Paradoxically, instead of Nietzsches claim
that, morality is a hindrance to the development of new and better customs:
[and therefore] it makes stupid, (theperspectivesofnietsche.com) Stetson tries
to demonstrate that it is the amorality of contemporary liberalism that leads to
an irrational degradation of human dignity. While similar to Aristotles
Nicomachean Ethics (Sparknotes), life for the liberals is a navigation between
pain and pleasure, it is the pursuit of pleasure as Stetson sees it that tumps
purpose. Where Aristotle paid homage to a unmoved mover that in the end
implies that perspicuous order is the hallmark of rationality (Johnson, n.d),
for liberals, the rationality of actions begins and ends with the individual, who
so becomes the main actor in a chaotic enactment of meaningless existence.
In stead of being held captive by religion, in this case Christianitys
morally restrictive worldview, Stetson sees in contemporary liberalism

Realpolitik from German: real realistic, practical or actual; and Politik politics) refers to politics or
diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological
notions or moralistic or ethical premises. is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral,
or Machiavellian. Accessed at: http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Realpolitik.html

something of Nietsches cruel individualised pragmatism, which results in a


cruel immorality inflicted on the self and directed at any contrarian voice.

CONCLUSION:
While on the surface Stetsons rant against the liberalism of our day
may appear to be a weak clawing back to a lost and archaic normality, in his
reflections are to be found the work of the philosopher par excellence one
who contemplates reality contextually and reflects back to society their image,
so that consciousness and conscience may once again be reconciled. While
Stetson

does

well

to

criticise

contemporary

liberalisms

flaws

and

incoherencies, he does not adequately account for the positive aspects of the
worldview that has become increasingly hegemonic. Why did the liberals win
the culture war? Stetson does not offer an answer.
In this lies the shortcomings Stetsons own critique, the inability to
reflect accurately and in a balanced manner on the weaknesses of the
alternative that he indirectly puts forth. As we have seen, contemporary
liberalism has rejected the dualist worldview of Plato along with his notion of
the good, redeemed and aggrandised Aristotles baser appitites, crowded out
St. Augustines relationality and St. Aquinas charitable ideal, by harnessing
Mirandola, Machiavelli and Bacons humanist utilitarianism, losing sight of
Hobbes worthy vision and Kants insistence on truth within and without, even
denying Hegels conscientiousness and becoming bedfellows with Nietzsche,
only to dilute his evolutionary bestiality with universalised collectivism.
We are all wondrous humans in all our diversities both of nature and
excesses. Lets tolerate each other, starting with you, tolerating me they
may say. Stetson does well to criticise contemporary liberalism, he does less
well in offering a resolution beyond liberality.

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