Shared values of dignity and human rights at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Parliament of World Religion’s confirms every person has dignity & rights

Fresno Bee, August 20, 2023

I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions last week in Chicago. It is the largest interfaith gathering in the world. It featured participants from 80 nations and more than 200 different religious traditions. There were also a few nonreligious people, like myself.

My interest in the Parliament is connected to its idea of a global ethic. In 1993, the parliament adopted a declaration, “Toward a Global Ethic,” stating that the world’s religious and ethical traditions agree that “every individual has intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights.” This unifying idea is found in other important international agreements. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The good news is that there is broad consensus about human dignity and human rights. But we still face challenges. And we disagree about the particulars.

One ongoing challenge is bad actors who reject the general idea of dignity and human rights. Tyrants and psychopaths are not committed to these ideals. In religious language, we might speak here of sin and evil. The challenge of evil is real. How should those who believe in human rights respond to bad guys?

We disagree about this. The debate about retributive justice and restorative justice reflects this disagreement. Defenders of retributivism think evil-doers ought to suffer and pay for their crimes. But advocates of restorative justice think that mercy, forgiveness, and rehabilitation are more important. We also disagree about how to create resilient and humane institutions that can limit the harm done by bad actors.

This disagreement is not about the shared ideal of human dignity. Rather, it is about how we ought to apply that idea. This kind of conflict is typical of the ongoing challenge of what to do when good people disagree about the meaning and application of shared universal values.

There are many examples of this kind of challenge, seen in our disagreements about social justice and social welfare. Consider, for example, the question of abortion. The anti-abortion camp thinks that prenatal human life has dignity and value, and deserves protection. The pro-choice camp thinks that women have the right to choose to control their own reproductive lives.

In cases like these, when good people disagree, we should avoid villainizing and stigmatizing those with whom we disagree. Defenders of retributivism are not evil; nor are advocates of restorative justice. The same is true of the pro-choice vs. pro-life argument. These are not disputes involving goodness on one side and wickedness on the other. Rather, they are disputes in which good people disagree about the meaning and application of dignity and human rights.

Which brings me back to the importance of organizations like the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and documents like the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. It is important to remind ourselves that common ground does exist. Good people can and do agree about basic principles of ethics. There is agreement about values that are important for living well. These shared values include honesty, respect, justice, fairness, integrity, compassion and love.

In our polarized era, it is easy to view others as evil, sinful or delusional. This is not to deny that there are wicked people in the world. But not every ethical dispute is a matter of good vs. evil.

Once we acknowledge that good people can disagree about the application of basic ethical principles, we have an incentive to be more humble and more hospitable. The way forward is to celebrate core values that we can all affirm. And then, with that shared foundation, we can work together to figure out why we continue to disagree, and how we might negotiate and compromise with other good people.

The good news is that there is broad consensus about basic ethical principles. But that is not the end of the story. Rather, these shared values provide a starting point for further dialogue. The remaining work is to explore what these values mean, how we apply them in specific cases, and how we can live together despite our disagreements.

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Dignity and Public Service

A nation lacking in dignity means our children have no one to look up to

Fresno Bee, July 7, 2017

After President Trump’s most recent tweet storm against the media, several people – including GOP senators – said his behavior was “beneath the dignity of the office.”

On July 1, Trump tweeted that his use of social media was “modern day presidential.” A new norm is emerging, lacking in dignity. Trump takes this to a new level. But the modern presidency has lacked dignity since Bill Clinton dropped his pants in the Oval Office.

Dignity is difficult to create, but easy to destroy. The same is true of trust and respect. Dignity inspires confidence and admiration. Shameful behavior undermines credibility and inspires revulsion.

The demise of dignity also afflicts the news media, since Walter Cronkite gave way to Jerry Springer. Consider Mike Brzezinski’s response to Trump’s outrageous attacks against her. She posted an image on Twitter implying that Trump has small hands.

That sexual euphemism was used by Sen. Marco Rubio against Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump, you’ll remember, badgered him by calling him “little Marco.”

And so it goes. It seems there are no adults left in the country. We are all smaller these days. Our children have no one to look up to.


The demise of dignity is linked to a general failure of civility. It is also linked to our inability to distinguish between public and private. Petty arguments and private parts are all on public display.

But dignity requires us to draw a line. The official acts of the office holder should be our focus. The private idiosyncrasies of those officials are really none of our business. In a dignified world, private personality is concealed behind the public persona.

That’s why judges wear robes and we call them “Your Honor.” It is also why cops wear uniforms. And it is why we say “Mr. President” instead of “Hey dude.”

Modern culture rejects that deferential stuff. We are informal and easygoing. We care more about cheap laughs than deferential esteem. Social media encourages thoughtless, reactive crudeness. And it degrades traditional notions of privacy. Dignity is destroyed by speed, stupidity and familiarity.

Some will say this is all good. Presidents and pundits are people, too. They have sex and get mad. Why not stop pretending that they don’t? It seems duplicitous for pundits and politicians to conceal their personal quirks and private opinions.

But the public-private distinction remains important. The First Amendment to the Constitution depends upon it.

You are free to pray in private; but the government is not free to force you to pray. You are free to assemble in public for political purposes; but you cannot trespass on private property for private purposes. You can say things that are highly critical of political figures; but you cannot slander or libel private persons.


And despite our informal culture, we expect professionals to live up to public standards of ethics and excellence. We want journalists, judges and janitors to keep their quirks concealed. What professionals do in private is their own business as long as they do their work for the public good.

Trust depends upon dignity. We trust professionals who clearly serve the public good. Dignified professionals speak carefully. They think critically and apply relevant expertise. They embody the collective wisdom of the institutions they represent. And they place service above self.

When dignity is lacking, we have no reason to trust these people, listen to them, or respect them. Respect must be earned. Once lost, it is not easily regained.

The demise of dignity in the public sphere is a serious problem for our democracy. Many Americans no longer trust our institutions, including government, business and the press. We have come to believe that no one is objective or professional – that everyone is in it for themselves.

Perhaps we are finally learning that public service was always a farce. Perhaps true dignity never existed. Maybe we are simply realizing that the emperor was never wearing any clothes. But the solution is not for everyone to simply drop their pants. A race to the bottom diminishes us all.

The recipe for dignity is simple. Behave according to the expectations of professional service. And always remember that the next generation wants someone to admire.