Pinot Noir and dignity needs

In a memorable scene from the 2004 movie Sideways, one of the main characters describes his love for Pinot Noir, emphasizing its delicacy as a grape: It is hard to grow, thin-skinned, cannot grow just anywhere, cannot thrive when neglected, and needs constant care and attention. In fact, it can only grow in specific little corners of the world. “And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it.” With such patient nurturing, its flavors are “most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle.”

Leaving aside the fact that this movie had a positive impact on Pinot Noir sales and a devastating impact on Merlot sales, we can see an interesting message here. There is a grape that is hard to grow but will give you amazing results, rewarding the effort. There is so much more to great wine than “grape + climate.” You need to find the right soil, look for the appropriate space, offer care and accompaniment, and show patience and attention. And then, the outcome will be stunning.

Dignity needs

Integral human development is an approach that articulates a commitment to each person and to the whole person. Just as in the case of Pinot Noir, it may take intensive accompaniment and great effort to ensure that a person can flourish. But the results could be amazing. Some people may be “Cabernet people,” growing almost anywhere. Others may be “Pinot Noir people,” requiring the extra care for which integral human development and the common good advocate. The thought that so much talent remains unrecognized underscores the importance of the invitation, and challenge, to leave no person behind.

What does this commitment to the flourishing of others ask of us? The answer is both simple and subtle: A person does not live by bread alone.

For example, the immense talent of Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi was discovered by chance when she happened to enter an after-school program in Kampala; the probability for this journey to happen was decidedly low. Talents that are overlooked or unsupported are not just a loss for the many persons whose talents are unseen, but a loss for all of us. This is a motivation to look deeper.

What does this commitment to the flourishing of others ask of us? The answer is both simple and subtle: A person does not live by bread alone. Human flourishing requires more than food and shelter. Louis-Joseph Lebret, the French Dominican priest and economist who was instrumental in developing the concept of “integral human development,” introduced the idea of “dignity needs.” Dignity needs are a class of personal needs that allow a person to live a dignified life. They include, according to Lebret, space—a space to which one can retreat and contemplate, and perhaps also a space to entertain friends or to ponder literary works or other artistic evocations of one’s inner life.

Having a space that you can shape, where you can invite people in, but also close the door, has already been recognized as a deep expression of personhood in Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.” There may be cultural nuances to the understanding of space, but the general point transcends specific traditions. The space Woolf talks about is both literal and figurative. In order to be respected and supported in their self-respect, human beings need space to develop. This is not desirable, it is necessary; it is not a “dignity desire,” but a “dignity need.”

The idea of the soul

What about the dignity need of being able to understand a poem? Here again, a dignity-oriented perspective moves us beyond food and shelter and necessary external conditions. It moves us to an inner sphere, to the inner life, to the space that has been called “the soul.” Even though psychologists and theologians may talk about different things in their discourses on the soul, the concept of the soul generally points to interiority, an inner “force” or “space” that can be formed and that animates the person.

Immanuel Kant famously made the point that the existence of the soul cannot be proven, but that the postulate of its existence plays an important role in moral philosophy. Belief in the soul allows us to tell a different story about human agency and the human person.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church characterizes the soul as the “innermost aspect” of the person (363) and it also teaches that “every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not ‘produced’ by the parents—and also that it is immortal” (366). The idea of a created and immortal soul tells a story about the uniqueness of the person, about a fundamental affirmation of a person’s existence, about the horizon of the person beyond the body and the limits of time and finitude. It is also a story about the dialogue between external conditions and a person’s inner life. Souls are “formed” and “shaped.” It is a reminder of the worthy effort to nurture a person’s need for beauty and recognition, for respect and privacy.

The story about the soul is also a reminder of the depth and mystery that the understanding of dignity of persons may entail. A belief in the soul leads to a specific perception of the person and her needs. Lebret’s understanding of “dignity needs” gets deeper and more colorful through this story about the soul of the human person, which also lends nuance to the concept of integral human development.

An uprooted world

Is this story about the soul helpful in trying to understand the state of our world today? In her preface to the Amnesty International Report 2020/21, Secretary General Agnès Callamard talks about the way the world has been uprooted: “The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the world’s inability to co-operate effectively and equitably at the onset of a low-probability, high-impact global event.”

In a world disrupted by the pandemic and uprooted by human rights violations, how should we think about who we want to become and what we should not be?

True leadership, Callamard elaborates, has not been shown by those with power and privilege, but rather by nurses, doctors, health workers on the frontlines, technicians, and “from those who, bunched together more often at the very bottom of the income scale, worked to feed the rest of us; who cleaned our streets; cared for the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of deceased; repaired our essential services.” This is the story of courage and heroism. “But underneath that heroism, pandemic times laid bare the devastating consequences of abuse of power, structurally and historically. The COVID-19 pandemic may not define who we are, but it certainly has amplified what we should not be.”

This sentence has a clear moral message. In a world disrupted by the pandemic and uprooted by human rights violations, how should we think about who we want to become and what we should not be?

This question was also faced by a French philosopher in the early months of 1943. Simone Weil was asked by the Free French Resistance movement to write a text about rebuilding France (and Europe) after the war. In response to this request, Weil chose to reflect not so much on structures and institutions, but on the needs of the soul. The text, posthumously published under the title L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots), talks about the need to address the moral and spiritual malaise of the time, the need to respond to the dissolution of community by recognizing duties towards humanity. Weil describes the challenge of uprootedness and the need to look beyond tangible structures: “Everyone knows that there are forms of cruelty which can injure a person’s life without injuring her body. They are such as deprive her of a certain form of food necessary to the life of the soul.”

The pandemic has been cruel—but so have been some ways of dealing with it.

The need for roots

Taken together, the insights of Lebret and Weil suggest that there is a plausible connection between the “needs of dignity” and the “needs of the soul.” In order to live a life in accordance with her dignity, the needs of a person’s soul have to be met. Weil has identified roots as an elementary need of the soul—being rooted in a way that external conditions cannot undo, in a way that gives the strength to rebuild a broken society and to resist the temptations that have led to the brokenness. Lebret has argued for a human-centered development that is rooted in a concern with human flourishing and does not reduce persons to consumers.

How can we rebuild the world and find roots that allow people to flourish and solidarity to grow?

Integral human development is a way of asking questions. Looking at the rising levels of human rights violations articulated in the Amnesty International report, we can ask ourselves: Which needs have been neglected so that we have become what we should not be? How can we rebuild the world and find roots that allow people to flourish and solidarity to grow? What are the needs of the soul that we must address?

Is there a lesson to be learned from Pinot Noir that can help us respond to these pressing questions? Eliza Hilliard comments in an article about the challenges of growing this delicate grape: “Pinot Noir grapes require more than just strong roots: the soil structure has to be perfect in order for these vines to flourish.”

It is a matter of roots and structure. Which roots, which structures? Weil would call our attention to community and responsibilities, and Lebret would emphasize structures that are driven not by growth indicators, but by the commitment to fully human lives.

We need structures that consider dignity needs and the needs of the soul. We cannot simply go back to pre-pandemic conditions that prepared the way for us to become “what we should not be.”

If we get the answer right, we might be amazed by the results—flavors that are “brilliant and thrilling and subtle.”

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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