One concept, two imperatives

A simple understanding of integral human development is a short formula: the development of the whole person and the development of each person. This deceptively simple characterization dates back to 1967, when Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, talked about “authentic human development.” Development “cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each person and of the whole person.” (14) The concept can be translated into two imperatives: Do not leave anyone behind! Make sure that each dimension of the person counts!

If we accept this, then the new reality created by the coronavirus causing COVID-19 is, tragically and paradoxically, a source of a deeper understanding of integral human development.

Do not leave anyone behind! The pandemic affects everybody: we see young people and the elderly suffer and die; we see poor people and rich people struggling with the disease; we see every single person in the public spaces in certain European countries wear protection masks. No one is left unaffected. Pope Francis, in an extraordinary moment of prayer on March 27, reminded us of our common ground as humans affected by a pandemic: “We have realized that we are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed.” Even though we have to admit that people are affected differently, all are affected nonetheless.

Make sure that each dimension of the person counts! The pandemic affects basically every dimension of our human existence. We see our relationships affected. People worry about increased levels of domestic violence during a lockdown; they rejoice in new experiences of connectedness and togetherness (the balcony concerts in Italy being a prime example). We see the biggest economic disaster in a century unfolding before our eyes. Election campaigns, personal journals, funeral ceremonies, family meals, and incarceration levels are all changed and challenged.

The pandemic affects our gross national product, but it also affects “the beauty of our poetry and the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate and the integrity of our public officials” (adapted from a speech by Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968).  Each dimension of the person counts; each dimension is affected.

Tragically, a tiny virus is a powerful illustration of a global force that brings “integral change.” But let us make sure that we understand that the tragic part of the story is only half of the narrative.

Being more, not having more

The idea that integral human development is the development of each person and the whole person was inspired by Joseph Lebret’s work. Lebret, a French Dominican and economist, had worked with sea fisheries in France and later with many communities in Latin America; he had observed the negative effects of certain economic developments on people. Lebret coined the term “human economy,” i.e. an economy that would be “favourable to human development,” to “a fully human life,” as he wrote in his 1954 essay “Économie et Humanisme.”

Denis Goulet, one of Lebret’s students, characterized human-centered development as follows: “Societies are more human, or more developed, not when men and women ‘have more’ but when they are enabled to ‘be more.’ The main criterion of development is not increased production or material wellbeing but qualitative human enrichment” (Denis Goulet, Development Ethics: A Guide to Theory and Practice. London: Zed Books 1995, 6-7). The choice between “being” and “having” can be seen as a fundamental choice, an insight developed by Erich Fromm in his influential book, To Have or to Be?

Integral human development reflects choices; it is a matter of agency. It becomes obvious that not every “integral change” affecting each person and the whole person is a case for integral human development, properly understood. Integral human development promotes the quality of life, the quality of being in the world, a life in consonance with human dignity.

Yes, indeed, even facing a pandemic we can strive “to be more.” The everyday heroes in hospitals and nursing homes come to mind, along with the persons fighting for the protection of the homeless, trying to make sure that no one is left behind. This could be a teaching moment to reflect on what really matters—and who really matters.

Upholding human dignity

Dean Scott Appleby, in his inaugural blog post, has characterized integral human development as “the state of a society in which the irreducible dignity of the human person and the cultural and spiritual as well as economic and material requirements of human flourishing are central to political and social life and upheld by the rule of law.”

In other words, the commitment to the dignity of the human person that is expressed in a commitment to the flourishing of the person is central for the legal, social and political world. Every person has human dignity; every person’s life matters.

Being committed to the dignity of the person in times of an emergency is hard. Fifteen years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, causing disastrous conditions all over the city, including the Memorial Medical Center. With the electricity gone on the first day and the generators being flooded two days later, the situation in the hospital became unbearable. The governor of Louisiana ordered the evacuation of the hospital by 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 1. This meant that the medical personnel had to abandon the patients, a case discussed as “forced abandonment.” What does it mean in such a situation to put the irreducible dignity of the human person at the center?

What does it mean to put the dignity of the human person at the center in the middle of a pandemic if the capacity of intensive care units is exhausted, if unemployment levels are skyrocketing, if bodies are buried in mass graves?

My honest answer is: I do not know.

I do know, however, that it takes a lot of courage and perseverance to uphold human dignity in times of a crisis. Let me call this the deep practice of human dignity. In a deep practice of dignity, we respect dignity under adverse circumstances. In a deep practice of human dignity, we will walk the extra mile, think the extra thought, show the extra care.

Two ways

What, then, is the best way to ensure integral human development in times of a crisis? One necessary way is certainly “the big way”—big decisions by political and economic elites, big support systems, big infrastructure. There is even a time to ask about new global institutions. Scott Appleby reminded us of the role of the legal and the political dimensions.

A second way to ensure that no one is left behind and that each dimension of the person is properly considered is “the tiny way of habits.” About nine years ago, Elaine Scarry published Thinking in an Emergency. She was motivated to write this small book based on her diagnosis that the nuclear age, understood as a state of “chronic emergency,” had triggered a worrisome development whereby ever more powers were given into ever fewer hands.

An important insight in the book is the role of habits—habits are dispositions to act, reflections of attitudes. Scarry appeals to the role of habits in an emergency, using the examples of CPR (the significance of placing rescue skills in the hands of as many people as possible) or the Swiss shelter system, which provides protection for all citizens rather than for the political elite only—and the citizens know what to do in the case of an emergency. These habits reflect choices.

Integral human development in times of a pandemic can be translated into habits that reflect, in small gestures and big decisions, a commitment to the dignity of the human person. This is especially important since the coronavirus leading to COVID-19 is affecting each person and the whole person. The response will be habits that are lived by each person and affect the whole person.

Even in the narrow world of a lockdown, there can be a sense of the polyphony of life. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer used this term while in prison in Nazi Germany. While incarcerated, he read poems and wrote poems, meditated and engaged in theological writing projects—thereby cultivating and embracing a sense of flourishing in a prison cell. Make sure that each dimension of the person counts!

Democracy is sustained by a culture of neighborliness and the habits of being good neighbors. This is even more true for democracies in a pandemic. A deep practice of human dignity will be committed to the local neighbor and to the global neighbor. Do not leave anyone behind!


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 the second in 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.

Photo: A child in Spain applauds for medical personnel from a balcony. (Shutterstock)



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