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Promoting Human Rights and Human Dignity in an Axial Age

Promoting Human Rights and Human Dignity in an Axial Age

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Published by Michael Penn
Concern for human dignity animates much contemporary work designed to advance the protection of human rights. Yet the concept of human dignity remains elusive. In this paper we suggest that human dignity is tied to the unique ontological status of human beings and that the emergence of humanity’s concern for human rights and human dignity during the twentieth century parallels an emerging consciousness of the essential oneness of the human race. We go further to relate the protection of human dignity to the moral life of humanity as a species, adumbrate the threat to human dignity that is embodied in the doctrine of materialism, and suggest that the desire to protect human dignity is an essential aspect of the accelerating maturation of the human race as we pass through a second axial period in human history.
Concern for human dignity animates much contemporary work designed to advance the protection of human rights. Yet the concept of human dignity remains elusive. In this paper we suggest that human dignity is tied to the unique ontological status of human beings and that the emergence of humanity’s concern for human rights and human dignity during the twentieth century parallels an emerging consciousness of the essential oneness of the human race. We go further to relate the protection of human dignity to the moral life of humanity as a species, adumbrate the threat to human dignity that is embodied in the doctrine of materialism, and suggest that the desire to protect human dignity is an essential aspect of the accelerating maturation of the human race as we pass through a second axial period in human history.

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Published by: Michael Penn on Dec 19, 2012
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 1
Promoting Human Rights and Human Dignity in an Axial Age
 
Michael L. Penn, Aditi Malik, Tri Nguyen, & Atilla Cidam
 
 2Abstract Concern for human dignity animates much contemporary work designed to advance the protection of human rights. Yet the concept of human dignity remains elusive. In this paper we suggest that humandignity is tied to the unique ontological status of human beings and
that the emergence of humanity’s concern for human rights and
human dignity during the twentieth century parallels an emergingconsciousness of the essential oneness of the human race. We gofurther to relate the protection of human dignity to the moral life of humanity as a species, adumbrate the threat to human dignity that isembodied in the doctrine of materialism, and suggest that the desireto protect human dignity is an essential aspect of the acceleratingmaturation of the human race as we pass through a second axialperiod in human history.I. IntroductionIn 1953 the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, wrote
The Origin and Goal of History.
In that important book, Jaspers described the period between 800 and 200 B.C.E.,which he called the
 Axial Age
, in the following way:In this age were born the fundamental categories within which westill think today, and the beginnings of the world religions, by whichhuman beings still live, were created. The step into universality wastaken in every sense. As a result of this process, hithertounconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjectedto examination, questioned and liquidated. Everything was swept intothe vortex. In so far as the traditional substance still possessed vitalityand reality, its manifestations were clarified and thereby transmuted.
1
 The Axial Age brought the mythical age to an end and there appeared on the horizonof human consciousness a series of reverberations that were to shake thefoundations of human thinking. This period of history saw some very extraordinarypeople appear. These include Confucius and Lao Tze in China, the Buddha in India,the Prophets of Israel in Mesopotamia, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece, andthe extraordinary visionary -- Zoroaster -- in Persia.The Axial Age was remarkable because it was a time of great upheaval and suffering,a time of tremendous violence, instability, and social disruption. The violence wasfacilitated by new technologies of death associated with horsemanship and theinvention of the chariot. But the Axial Age was also a time when we experiencedvery radical shifts in the architecture, the content, and the processes of humanthought. It was as though humanity, as a species, acquired the conceptual tools andthe social pressures that would compel it to build a new mind. Since the mind is thereservoir from which civilization flows, the Axial Age gave birth to new forms of civilization.
2
 
 
 3A) A Second Axial Age in Human Aspirations and ValuesWe invoke the memory of the Axial Age at this time because for a little more than acentury and a half we have been living in another axial period in the history of theworld. As compared to earlier eras, the rate of growth and change has acceleratedgreatly and we have begun to see old systems of thought, old ways of organizingsociety, old ways of relating to racially, culturally and religiously different peoplebegin to weaken and totter under the weight of their own obsolescence. Alongsideunprecedented degrees of suffering and exploitation, we have seen a flowering of human aspiration for freedom, for an end to conflict and violence, for greater
sharing of the world’s resources. We have seen an explosion of knowledge
about the condition of the world and this expansion of awareness makes it possible for usto address problems the likes of which we have never considered before. Nowhereis change greater than as relates to relations among and between peoples of different cultures, races, classes, and nations. The global scope and ethical core of 
the changes underway are captured succinctly in humanity’s growing c
oncern forhuman development and human rights.B) Shifting ValuesDuring any axial period human consciousness must be liberated from obsoletevalues, moribund ways of seeing, and maladaptive habits of thought. Whether fromhumanitarian, environmental, or political perspectives, a worldview that isdemonstrating, in ever-greater measure, its own inadequacy is the doctrine of materialism.The doctrine of materialism, which was fathered by nineteenth century Europeanthought, took on the status of a religious creed by its proponents during the secondhalf of the twentieth century. Its simple assertion was that all of reality
includinghuman reality
is essentially material in nature, and that the goal and purpose of human life is basically the satisfaction of material needs and desires. Institutions of commerce, governance, and education exist in order to protect and facilitate this
quest, and humanity’s
collective concern should be an ongoing refinement of thesystems that are aimed at carrying out this task.The doctrine of materialism acquired enormous influence through the exploits of American capitalist culture, and was invested by Marxism with a degree of credibility that would distinguish that short lived but powerful system. As has been
noted by the Universal House of Justice, “I
f leaders of thought were to be candid intheir assessment of the evidence readily available, it is here (in the doctrine of materialism) that one would find the root cause of such apparently unrelatedproblems as the pollution of the environment, economic dislocation, ethnic violence,spreading public apathy, the massive increase in crime, and epidemics that ravagewhole populations.
 
The failure of materialism rests in its inability to satisfy humanity’s
most basic

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