Human dignity in a pandemic year and beyond

One year ago, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and one month after global lockdowns began, the Keough School launched the blog Dignity and Development. Since that time, through more than sixty blog posts, Keough School faculty, staff, partners, alumni, and students have explored the COVID-19 crisis and many other issues through the lens of integral human development (IHD). As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, it is our hope that our community of scholars and practitioners has begun to shape a vision for a public conversation about the centrality of human dignity and our collective obligations to one another. In other words, we believe that an IHD perspective makes a difference.

In this special commemorative blog post, Dignity and Development editors Scott Appleby, Clemens Sedmak, and Laura Miller-Graff reflect on new insights from the past year and the questions and dilemmas that endure.

What was the global context when you launched the blog, and what is the context one year later?

CS: We started the blog at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020. At that time we had no idea that, a year later, we would still see the global fight against the pandemic. We see a rising concern with mental health issues and the effects of the pandemic on young people. There seems to be a shift from health via economics to psychology (including the psychology of those who do not accept COVID-19 restrictions any longer).

LMG: As the pandemic continues, it shifts the tenor of a lot of the questions we are asking, and their proposed solutions. Our world is encountering a prolonged stressor and what is very clear in our blog posts is that we also need to think about long-term responses. From an integral human development perspective, of course, this commitment to sustained response has always been central, but the pandemic, and the ways it has intersected with and further complicated other forms of injustice makes the conversation about long-term, sustainable response all the more pressing.

SA: The question remains the same, then and now: How to advance integral human development? While IHD is all about persons and not states or geopolitics, while we will not achieve progress without “all hands on deck”—citizens, saints, survivors, victims of injustice, NGOs, humanitarian workers, even lawyers and academics—the sobering truth is that one person (and regrettably, not Pope Francis) is more influential in the short- and mid-term in sending a signal to the world with respect to defining, and directing resources to, the priorities of nations and peoples. The identity of that person has changed since we started this blog, from a ruffian without a discernible ethical compass, to a person of faith who identifies with workers and seems to want to attempt what is highly unlikely in American politics and governance: a national and global agenda informed by solidarity and stewardship of the planet, the common good, and a preferential option for the poor. This will not make a sufficient difference, but it is necessary to that end.

Why is the discussion of IHD important?

LMG: Having a mechanism for encountering the intersection between IHD and research scholarship is critically important for the Keough School. It forces us to consider questions at the research-practice-policy nexus to integrate and propel our scholarship in the direction of our school’s mission: to promote human flourishing.

CS: It is a reminder that the person does not live by bread alone, and that the tangible infrastructure is at the service of an intangible infrastructure. To quote from the learning journal of a Notre Dame undergraduate student, “The biggest thing I learned about integral human development is that it must go beyond materialism. A lot of times, many of the proposed solutions have to do with economic or other material issues. But, if we are truly to fight for each person and the whole person, we need to go beyond the material in our approach to understanding and solving problems. I appreciate the idea of seeking not to have more, but to be more, as I truly believe that that is what leads to the most fulfillment in life. Obviously, we need to make sure that basic tangible needs are met, but when it comes to IHD we need to go beyond the tangible and material in order to make sure that nobody, or no part of anybody, is left behind.”

SA: Yes, I think we three share the conviction that, while important and meaningful research, teaching, and public service occurs every day in multiple academic, policy and practice settings, there is an “added value” in having a common language, or at least a seminal concept like IHD, through which all who share it are invited to “be not afraid” to be explicit about the values and moral commitments that inspire and sustain them. At the Keough School, for better or worse (and we think, for better) IHD has become our fundamental reference point. It is important that the concept is sufficiently open-ended and non-dogmatic to allow individuals to interpret it according to their own moral compass, and also sufficiently “solid” that it does not melt into air, or mean whatever one wishes it to mean. This blog is our exploration of the multiple resonances and applications of the term.

How does a blog about integral human development connect to a school of global affairs?

SA: The ambitious reader of the more than sixty blog posts published over the past year will have the answer to this question. An environmental engineer strives to focus the attention of government and health officials on the next devastating hurricane or earthquake in order to save lives, homes, businesses, and schools now. In doing so, she draws on IHD’s vivid and bracing imagination, which sees through the fog of forgetting and distraction to foreground the vulnerability but also the resourcefulness and creativity of the human person. A development economist guided by IHD principles does not abandon his expertise in the dynamics of the market, or the proven relationship between levels of taxation and the availability of well-paying jobs for millions of workers, but he challenges aspects of the received wisdom that fail to see the worker as a whole person who desires and deserves greater access to education and training for upward mobility, and whose family cannot thrive in a narrowly conceptualized economic environment—especially but not only during a pandemic.

Other examples: The anthropologist seeking to translate the distinctive plight of refugees into policy measures draws on the moral authority of IHD to argue for complementing merely material assistance with cultural, religious, spiritual, and psychological measures. A psychologist uses the lens of IHD to increase understanding the dynamics of domestic violence and the ways it has been amplified by the pandemic. In a global school, all these people, and many others, talk and work across fields and disciplines, united by their shared concern for human dignity.

CS: The very idea of “integral human development” has evolved in the context of the globalization of economy. Louis-Joseph Lebret was instrumental in developing the idea and in coining the term. He observed in the late 1920s the impacts of global economic trends on local small-scale fisheries with the attempts of transnational players to monopolize the best fishing areas.

What approach has the blog taken to the IHD conversation?

LMG: Having read through a year’s worth of blog posts on this topic, I’m amazed at the conversational space that has been built. As the blog has grown, you can see our authors building off of each others’ insights and highlighting points of interdisciplinary synergy.

CS: We have asked each author to reflect on a topic s/he cares about through the lens of integral human development, i.e. paying special attention to the dignity of the person and the dignity of most vulnerable populations. We do not operate with a standardized understanding of IHD. It is part of the beauty of the term—that it can be approached from so many angles. To paraphrase the Italian writer Italo Calvino, it never finishes saying what it has to say.

What are some of the key themes and insights from the first year of the blog?

CS: Choosing a dignity-centered perspective makes a difference whether you talk about young people in the US, global trade relations, or international conflict zones.

LMG: I think a key theme is how deeply the pandemic has reverberated across our world. In a way, this is stating the obvious: The pandemic and its effects echo again and again in blog posts addressing a wide range of contemporary global issues. We reflected in our team blog post that this is in part because the pandemic “reveal[s] and deepen[s] social inequities,” but I also think we’re beginning to see the emergence of the pandemic’s legacy in these writings. It has affected everything from civic behavior to water access, and has pushed forward questions as diverse as what it means to be an adult to how we can integrate diverse sources of information to enrich our understanding of the world. In this sense, I feel encouraged that our writers have risen to the challenge Dean Appleby posed in his inaugural blog post. Their insights consolidate our lessons learned and begin to chart a pathway toward a more hopeful future.

Has anything surprised you? Any unexpected or especially fresh perspectives?

CS: To be honest, each text has surprising elements if you work closely with it. And as editors we examine each text line by line. It is a wonderful way to get to know a colleague better.

LMG: Reading the blog posts reminds me of the importance of creating spaces for interdisciplinary conversations. It never ceases to amaze me how entrenched we (me included!) can become in a particular disciplinary “mode” of thinking. Engaging in robust discussions on topics that transcend disciplinary boundaries highlights the assumptions with which we approach these conversations and generates a deeper understanding of how different conclusions are reached. It’s challenging, engaging, and exciting.

What questions are often overlooked in discussions of human dignity?

CS: There are hidden dimensions of both poverty and dignity. The idea of a “decent life” or “dignified life” has a material dimension but goes far beyond the material. Issues like “honor” and “reputation,” “recognition” and “respect” play a major role. There is also the “right to a narrative of one’s own.”

SA: Clemens anticipates my response, and I would amplify his last point—a narrative of one’s own, to which others, or another, can give witness and can incorporate into their own self-understanding and, as a result, tap more deeply into the wells of compassion in one’s own soul.

What have you learned from the process?

SA: That our colleagues and contributors lack only an invitation to share not their knowledge, (doing so, after all, is their stock in trade), but also their otherwise hidden or muted cris de couers and creencias (bone-deep convictions)—about fairness in the workplace, equality among races, the outrageous and unacceptable plight of hundreds of millions of women and children around the world, the irresponsibility of so many leaders in the face of environmental degradation, and the like. We will keep inviting them!

CS: I have learned that each member of the Keough School community—faculty, staff, students, alumni, visiting scholars, event panelists—has something interesting to say. One colleague remarked that the blog is like a beast that has to be fed. I see it rather as a community garden that we tend together.

LMG: The analogy of a community garden is great—it’s an apt way of describing the blog and also our collective commitment to dignity in our work more broadly.

Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. 

Laura Miller-Graff is associate professor of psychology and peace studies at the Keough School of Global Affairs. She is a core faculty member of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, part of the Keough School.

Clemens Sedmak is professor of social ethics at the Keough School of Global Affairs and interim director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.


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