Campbell Corner Language Exchange

On Ontological Parity and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by Janna Turoff

Jacques Maritain gave us the gift of dedicating his heart and mind to speaking out publicly to remind us that there is a reciprocal relationship between the common good and the recognition of the inherent dignity of each person. He and his colleagues courageously spoke out on behalf of human rights at a critical time in history, during and just after the holocaust. It was the hope of Jacques Maritain and the men and women who actually wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that their work would be a small step in the ongoing movement towards the global recognition of ontological parity and the appropriate legislation to support this acknowledgment.

Ontological parity is the life affirming concept that every person is equal to one another by virtue of being. Maritain might substitute the word soul for being. This equality serves to remind us that each person has integrity, wholeness. Each of us needs to respect self and other. We each have something to contribute. We each have the capacity to live in accordance with intelligence, the good. Ontological parity reminds us that when it comes to the level of being there is no hierarchy amongst people, the playing field is level.

I believe that this is what Maritain was trying to teach when he said that "the human person's dignity consists in its property of resembling God - not in a general way after the manner of all creatures, but in a proper way. It is the image of God. For God is spirit and the human person proceeds from Him in having as principle of life a spiritual soul capable of knowing, loving and of being uplifted by grace to participation in the very life of God so that, in the end, it might know and love Him as He knows and loves Himself."1

By virtue of the human soul all human beings are inherently equal to one another. Helping people to recognize, respect and teach ontological parity was an integral part of Jacques Maritain's work. These principles serve as the underlying premise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to article 1 of this Declaration "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." I understand this to mean that it is the birthright of every person to know that she is of equal worth to every other member of the species and to trust the intelligence of her heart and mind.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in hope at the end of the second world war by people, representing the nations of the world, who bore witness to the holocaust and recognized that "disregard and contempt for human rights" results in barbaric acts. These people believed, as did many people in the long tradition that preceded them, that "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." Therefore they worked to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms."2 The framers of this declaration strove to create a foundational document that could be used as a tool by individuals and nations to help bring about necessary legislation to safeguard and enhance human rights for all people and to bring about global understanding of ontological parity through various forms of public dialogue including the art of teaching.

Today the need for global recognition and respect for the inherent dignity of each human being, and for the implementation of effective legislation that will safeguard human rights for all people throughout the world is no less urgent than it was more than fifty years ago.

Let's juxtapose two of the articles with the situations that real people find themselves in today to get an idea of how far we have yet to go and how critical it is that we make the journey.

Article 26, Section 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that

    "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."

  • Yet, 125 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 "-two thirds of them girls- do not attend school in the developing world." This is the same number of children in that age range in North America and Europe.3

Section 2 of the same article reminds us that

    "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

What would this world look like if all people were educated in this manner?

Article 25, Section 1 of the UDHR begins by declaring that

    "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care ..."

  • Yet, almost half of the world population lives in abject poverty eking out an existence on less than two dollars a day.4 The tremendous disparity between the haves and the have nots is growing at a frightening rate. "Despite repeated promises of poverty reduction made over the last decade of the twentieth century, the actual number of people living in poverty has actually increased by almost 100 million. This occurred at the same time that total world income increased by an average of 2.5 percent annually."5 Is an adequate standard of living too much to ask for? Does anyone need more?
  • Of the one million poor farmers suffering from the AIDS virus in the Henan Province of China, which by and large is due to unsanitary blood collection programs, many will not survive. In part this is because the medicine they need to live though available is financially beyond their reach.6 Is adequate access to medical care too much to ask for?
  • According to the World Food Program "There is enough food in the world today for every man, woman and child to lead healthy and productive lives. And yet, hunger afflicts one out of every seven people on earth."7 "Seven out of ten of the world's hungry are women and girls."8 According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization it is estimated that 25,000 people die everyday as a result of hunger and poverty.9 If there is enough food why are so many people starving? Is adequate food too much to ask for?

I included these statistics to remind us that there is much work to be done to address the gross institutionalization of man's inhumanity to man. There are social patterns that we have developed in which we disregard one another's humanity on both the large and small scales. Human rights advocacy work takes place on many levels and addresses all aspects of human life. It is both personal and political, by the word political I don't just mean formal politics rather I am referring to the entire social realm.

Recognition and respect for ontological parity underlies all human rights. When we do not respect one another as equal human beings we are at risk of treating each other as things. In this respect some economic policies whether intentionally or not treat people as means to the ends of making money, rather than using money as a means of helping people to improve the quality of their lives.

We all have needs and we all have something to contribute to the good of the whole of our human communities. In recognizing and truly respecting the inherent dignity of each member of our society, including ourselves we create the kind of society in which human beings can flourish.

The work of helping people to recognize, respect and truly understand ontological parity takes place on many levels of society simultaneously. These include public discourse and legislation on the international, national and local levels as well as public discussions in various types of community groups including town and city-wide meetings, meetings of religious, educational and neighborhood groups, as well as informal and formal community gatherings of other sorts. Some might argue that the most important form of teaching people to recognize and respect the inherent dignity of each human being occurs on the grass roots level in small inter-personal settings like the family, the classroom and between friends. I believe that this work is needed on all levels of society.

We come together in societies large and small to take care of each other, our families and ourselves, to give and to receive. When we truly engage with one another in dialogue what is shared is a gift. It is in respecting one another and truly engaging in dialogue in which we each not only speak but also really listen to what the other is saying that we begin to fulfill our promise to self and other.

There are many ways to promote respect for the rights and freedoms delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to the work of the legislator, the activist and the journalist it is the work of the community and the family. The tools at hand include teaching and dialogue which are both tools of political action. Teaching occurs on many frontiers not just the classroom. In every interaction we are each students and teachers if we allow ourselves to be. Learning is an active process that involves the intelligence of both the student and the teacher. Often times how we approach learning is equally as important as the subject at hand. I believe that the art of teaching someone to respect the inherent dignity of all human beings at heart is the work of friendship.

It was the hope of Jacques Maritain and the men and women who actually wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that their work would be a small step in the ongoing movement towards the global recognition of ontological parity and the appropriate legislation to support this acknowledgment. They knew then, as we know now, that we do not live in a world in which the inherent dignity of each human person is recognized and respected. Yet, recognition and respect for ontological parity underlies all human rights. Although we have not reached this goal in our legal systems, our social systems, or our economic systems we owe it to ourselves, each other, and future generations to continue the work of the generations before us to try to make that which may seem impossible, not only possible but probable. It is incumbent upon us to work in our own time with the tools we have at hand to enhance the groundwork in whatever ways we can for future generations to build upon.


1. Jacques Maritain, The Person and Common Good, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 4th printing, 1985) page 42.

2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The quotes are taken from the Preamble.

3. Edmund Cain, "Helping Poor Nations Lifts All Boats", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 23, 2001.

4. Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents, (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002) page 253. "In 1998, the number of poor living on less than $2 a day is estimated at 2.801 billion -World Bank, Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries 2000 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2000), page 29."
To offer some perspective on the relationship between 2.8 billion people and the total world population, I visited the US Census Bureau's World POPclock Projection page on the Internet According to the US Census Bureau, on October 18, 2002 there were approximately 6.2 billion people living in the world.

5. Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents, (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002) page 5.

6. According to an article in The New York Times "China Frees AIDS Activist After Month of Outcry" by Elisabeth Rosenthal, printed on September 21, 2002,
"One million poor farmers in Henan were infected with H.I.V. in the 1990's after selling their blood to government-affiliated collectors."
The information Ms. Rosenthal discusses is also documented by the US Embassy and ACT UP

One of the people responsible for bringing international public attention to the tragic situation in the Henan Province is Dr. Wan Yan Hai. On August 24, 2002 the Chinese government arrested Dr. Wan on the charge of disseminating state secrets. According to ACT UP Dr. Wan "is a former Chinese health official who was fired after he took up the causes of gay rights and AIDS in the mid-1990's." Dr. Wan was released on September 20, 2002. According to the New York Times article "The release came after an international outcry over his arrest, with an extraordinary range of voices, including the State Department, United Nations officials, and Act Up, the protest group concerned with AIDS issues, expressing their concerns." Public voices in the public arena helped free Dr. Wan and draw attention to the very serious public health crisis that is exacerbated by a lack of public education on how to prevent the spread of the virus and the unconscionably high prices that make the life saving medicines that are used to treat AIDS in other parts of the world financially out of reach for many of the poorest people in China who are dying from the virus.

According to ACT UP, during the last week of August 2002 "the Health Ministry [of China] received two petitions, which Dr. Wan's group had helped prepare, from farmers suffering from AIDS." We demand that the government provide free medicine, or medicine we can afford, and we demand the government produce copies of Western medicines as quickly as possible," read one petition, signed by 30 patients from Sui County in Henan. Countries like India, Thailand and Brazil all now produce or buy cheap generic copies of the powerful AIDS drugs that have been so successful in the West. The Chinese government has rejected that route, saying it might be seen as a violation of patents under World Trade Organization rules. As a result, treatment with the recommended AIDS "cocktail" of drugs now costs about 10 times as much in China as in Thailand, making it unaffordable to almost all sufferers.

7. World Food Program website:

8. World Food Program website:

9. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization website: