Sunday, May 13, 2007

We will be judged on how we respect others

As published today in the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.

I often draw inspiration from my readers when the time comes to write another column. My readers’ own insights and criticisms are one of the prime motors impelling me to reflect on a given issue. This has been the case regarding my column two months ago, “Illegal immigrants should be treated with dignity and respect.”

Many tell me that respect is something earned, that one should neither expect it instantly, nor grant it readily. Respect, seen under this light, is something of a commodity, a reward for good actions in which the giver of respect becomes a sort of creditor, and the receiver becomes an accumulator of moral credit who also, in some sense, is indebted to the creditor. This is a transactional view of respect, because the process of grant-ing and receiving it becomes a transaction, one in which the parties have something to gain or lose when respect is unearned, unrequited or lost.

This is a very American way of looking at the concept of respect and, from the viewpoint of our history, one that generally has served us well.

Since this way of granting respect is so ingrained in our culture, we don’t reflect on it much, and when we do, we recur to these business and financial categories to explain it.

It’s easy to see why so many say that illegal aliens are unworthy of respect. Illegal aliens cheated when coming here; they violated the rules of fair play, they didn’t wait their turns, they jumped the lines. Their initial violation, critics tell us, makes illegal aliens unable to accrue moral credit.

All their achievements are fruits of the poisoned tree of illegal entry.

Hence, the only solution possible, critics argue, is the mass deportation or, at least ostracism, of illegal aliens by empowering the state, even the private sector, to enforce national immigration laws.

Once the illegal aliens return home, they’ll be expected to wait in line to get back into our country or, better still, stay to improve their own countries. Everything will then be hunky-dory and our righteous anger appeased.

Instead, I argue that this transactional way of looking at respect, though practical, is seriously flawed because it often overlooks a fundamental aspect of the human person: That human beings, for the mere reason of being human, have an intrinsic, inviolable and inalienable value.

True respect is owed to every single human being, despite any lack of natural or economic endowments.

In terms of the Judeo-Christian heritage forming the natural law basis of our jurisprudence, men and women are created in the image and likeness of God. From this fundamental fact we have come to know that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This pursuit of happiness is transcendent and unique to each person.

Man exists as a unique and unrepeatable being; he exists as an “I” capable of self-understanding, self-possession and self-determination.

The human person must always be understood in this unrepeatable and inviolable uniqueness. A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person.

Respect for human dignity can in no way be separated from obedience to this principle.

No principle overlooking the transcendent dignity of every human being may be enacted into public policy without our society becoming tyrannical in the process. Our transactional view of “respect” is flawed and incomplete, precisely because, in the end, we treat certain people as merchandise in the market of respect, by treating them the way we treat other “things” in our other markets: As objects to be appraised, weighed, acquired or disposed of according to our perception of their potential or actual utility value.

We disguise our disrespect to their dignity by cloaking it under the mantle of moral outrage. We deceive ourselves by believing we are acting morally, when we are not. Otherwise, our individual conscience wouldn’t stop nagging us.

I’ve never claimed to have all the solutions to our immigration and border security problems. I don’t always know what to do, but I know what not to do: I will not support the enactment of any law that violates the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

I will not support any effort to empower businesses or individuals to marginalize real or perceived illegal aliens, and I will continue speaking out against these efforts at every opportunity.

That’s how I define R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and I am convinced that our nation will be judged most severely if we fail to give it to those less fortunate generously, and unconditionally.

- More discussion on The Conemaugh Valley Times, my blog on local issues.