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
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
- 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
"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
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. http://www.cartercenter.org/viewdoc.asp?docID=1046&submenu=news
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 http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/ipc/popclockw
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, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/21/international/asia/21CHIN.html
"One million poor farmers in Henan were infected
with H.I.V. in the 1990's after selling their
blood to government-affiliated collectors."
information Ms. Rosenthal discusses is also documented
by the US Embassy http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/sandtbak-hp.html#AIDS
and ACT UP http://www.actupny.org/reports/missing.html
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
7. World Food Program website: http://www.wfp.org/index.asp?section=1
8. World Food Program website: http://www.wfp.org/index.asp?section=1
9. United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization website: http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/news/2002/9703-en.html