On whether you really believe in human dignity

Charles Taylor reflects on what happens when our principles come up against the complexities of actual people.



Charles Taylor reflects on what happens when our principles come up against the complexities of actual people.


There are different variations of what people call secular humanism – it’s not a single thing, even as religion is not … so various forms of secular humanism, various ways of holding the secular humanist position – like various ways of holding a Christian position – can just be too weak.

I mean, for instance, there are certain forms of secular humanism which are very much moved by the sense of a dignity of the human person, of the rational agent and so on. Now this kind of basis of responding positively when someone’s in need can be undercut if the people concerned just don’t look very rational, don’t look as though they’re really controlling their lives. I mean you think of various movements of social improvement – I mean, very famous ones, like Marxism as led by the Bolsheviks and so on. And you find some of these Bolshevik leaders, after a while, they look at these mujiks, these peasants, I mean they’re just so primitive and they’re not responding and they’re not really … so they slide from thinking all human beings have dignity and we have to help them to thinking, well, these people don’t really – so maybe the best we can do is force them into line. You see, there’s that kind of slide, that’s another way in which inadequate sources can be too weak.

Of course, there are Christian variants of that. I mean Dostoyevsky, one of the greatest Christian writers of all time, in his legend of the Grand Inquisitor gives us – you know, maybe very prejudiced against the Catholic Church, as Dostoyevsky was – but he gives us a picture of the Grand Inquisitor who is – he says, these poor people, they just can’t live up to the gospel, they can’t by themselves. So the best thing we can do for them is a nice comfortable life of control, and we give them rules, and that’s the best we can do for them. Well you see, there you have a sense of depreciation of the human image in the form of the people that are before you, which slides you off the response which – I mean, the response which you should have in virtue of saying, that’s an image of God.

So it’s a great gift in a certain – I mean, from a Christian point of view, it’s a great gift to be able to see the humanity in every human being. I remember once a film I saw about Mother Teresa and people said, “Well, how can you – these people, they’re dirty and they’re sick and they’re lousy and how can you go and help them?” And she said, “They’re made in the image of God.” And then I realised, I could have given that answer, but the difference here is that she really feels that. Wow!

This involves a certain vision. It’s the ability to see that person, and their lives look degraded, you want to leave their presence – but nevertheless she sees something there which I don’t. I have to admit I don’t. And that is the big difference. That is a kind of tremendous gift.