Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review of Kateb's Human Dignity

Review of George Kateb's Human Dignity (Harvard University Press, 2011)

In this lucid and highly readable "defense of human dignity" (xii) and rights, Kateb (Princeton University) explicitly avoids the use of theological insights (156), preferring the autonomous individual and human reason as his guides.  For Kateb, the equal status of persons and the dignity of the person are not synonymous with the dignity of the species.  Human "stature" is viewed as individual achievement, whereas a complete theory of human dignity must include "equal individual status" and the "status of the species" (9).  The study predictably values the individual over the community, often discounting communitarian achievements to the promotion of human dignity.  While exhibiting much perceptiveness, this study approaches human dignity with what some readers will view as overly modest expectations, perhaps not unrelated to the author's refusal to fully assess the contribution of religious thinking on the topic. 
In defending the "inviolability" (31) of human rights on moral and existential grounds, the "golden rule" is offered as the best guide for private morality, while a humane constitution is presented as the "best public morality" (52).  Kateb's critique of many prominent thinkers, including Peter Singer, J. S. Mill, and others, and his provocative application of a theory of human dignity and rights to contemporary politics, are significant accomplishments of the book.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Ph.D.

Review of Morrell's Empathy and Democracy

Morrell, Michael E.  Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation (University of Pennslyvania Press, 2010)
Writing within the political tradition of contemporary liberalism, but offering insights of enduring importance on the value of empathy to democratic thought, Morrell (Univ. of Connecticut) attempts to advance "democracy's promise" by promoting both a deliberative and equal political order.  The study begins with a thoughtful survey of the tensions between deliberation as reflection and deliberation as equal consideration.  The concept of empathy, as well as empathy's potential contribution to democratic thought, is analyzed.  Empathy as a process, including affect and cognition, is defended.  In arguing for an "affective turn" as the best alternative for democratic life, the author affirms and surveys the contribution of political psychology regarding the role of "emotion, feelings, moods, and passions" in "explaining political attitudes and behavior."  When the process model of empathy is integrated within deliberative democratic practices, "legitimate decisions that give equal consideration to all those in a society" can be achieved.  The study fails to incorporate the discernments of classical, Christian, and phenomenological traditions regarding empathy into an otherwise noteworthy project.  This reevaluation of the importance of empathy to deliberative democracy fills a critical lacuna in current scholarship.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Ph.D.
Assoc. Vice President of Academic Affairs and
Professor of Political Science
Athens State University