Human dignity and humanistic values

Several years ago, when I learned of my election as president of Society for Humanistic Psychology and took on the role of president-elect, I began to use this preparation time to reflect deeply on what it means to be a humanistic psychologist. Much of this preparation has been an exploration of the early history of the movement and its emergence as a third force in psychology between the behaviorists that dominated the academy and the psychoanalysts who thrived in the clinic. As a society, we have had many occasions to revisit fundamental questions about our humanistic identity. I think we are at another historical moment when it would serve us well to stop, reflect and trace back the foundational roots of humanistic psychology and its most fundamental mission in the field of psychology and in the world at large.

Historically and philosophically, phenomenology is the epistemological foundation for humanistic psychology. Phenomenology is always engaged in a process of interrogating the meaning of constructs, tracing them back to their origins in life-world experience and making sense of them within their social, historical and linguistic context. The phenomenologist never tires of the slow, deliberate process of exploring what things mean and examining our role in the constitution of these meanings. Whether we are explicitly aware of them or not, these meanings are always already present in the way we comport ourselves to our work and the way we interact and communicate with our colleagues. Interrogating our humanistic identity, then, is a matter of constantly, and with great vigilance, rooting out what we already implicitly understand about what we are and what we are called to be in the world. We can then bring these meanings to explicit, critical reflection and into more vibrant action in the world.

To interrogate the meaning of humanistic psychology, we can take humanistic psychology’s phenomenological approach and turn it back upon itself. To engage in phenomenology is to describe the phenomenon and then to identify its invariant themes. Next, through imaginative variation, the investigator distills the phenomenon down to its essential or eidetic structure. Using this approach, we can ask, what are the invariant themes of humanistic psychology? What is the (situated) essence of humanistic psychology? In the next newsletter, I will expand on my findings but I want to focus this newsletter on what I have found to be a core, invariant theme of humanistic psychology that is often overlooked: a fundamental recognition of human dignity.

Human Dignity

At a time when B.F. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity was casually rejecting the concepts of human freedom and dignity, humanistic psychology affirmed these concepts. The humanistic stance that affirms the ontological difference between human beings and objects was part of a worldview that was pulled along by an ethical concern – to protect dignity, which had become the basis for the protection of basic human rights, including the United Nations’ (1948) Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Article I of the Declaration states, “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.” To say that human beings have dignity is to say that human beings also have an obligation or duty to respect the rights of all people. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to be freed from slavery; equal protection before the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; and so on.

Philosopher and ethicist Immanuel Kant was influential in his distinction between price and dignity . To have a price, according to Kant, was to be measured against other values. A box of cereal and a 1998 Mazda MX-6 are objects, and objects have a price – their worth can be estimated in terms of other values, such as their economic worth. However, a being with dignity must be measured according to her intrinsic worth. “In the realm of ends,” he writes, “everything has either a price or a dignity . Something that has a price can be exchanged for something else of equal value ; whereas that which exceeds all price and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity” (Kant, 1785, cited in Williams, 2005). To say that human beings have dignity is to say that any given person is beyond price, of non-quantifiable value that is non-fungible and therefore of infinite worth. This is why, against utilitarian ethics, we can say that it is impossible to estimate a person’s worth over and against the anonymous crowd. Human worth is not summative in the way something with a price has summative value. Therefore a single person – think for example of Rosa Parks – can be seen, ethically, to have as much value as a whole collective of people who stand against her.

Humanistic psychology, after Kant, is an approach to psychology that recognizes the ontological dignity common to all human beings by reason of their nature or being. This is why humanistic psychology is suspicious of all kinds of reductionism which attempt to reduce human beings to the properties of things. This is why we refuse to permit the narrowing of the meaning of a person to a label such as a mental health diagnosis. This is why humanistic psychology is drawn to wholistic approaches which understand the person to be more than the sum of his or her cognitive, behavioral, and anatomical parts. This is why we understand that the person, while situated always within an interpersonal context, is not reducible to mere social meanings – no person is just-nothing-but a social construction. The person transcends reductionistic labels and simple categories by virtue of her dignity. To relate to the other person as a person of dignity is to engage with her in an I-Thou encounter, as opposed to an I-It encounter, as Martin Buber (1958/1937) described; it is to encounter her as a person rather than a thing.

From Contemplation to Action

Having contemplated via phenomenology the eidetic structure of the humanistic tradition, I am using these insights to guide my decisions during my year as President. From these insights, a number of initiatives flow.

Both the annual conference and SHP’s program for the APA Convention will feature the theme of “Human Dignity and Humanistic Values.” Presenters who submitted proposals were strongly encouraged to find ways to integrate these themes into their presentations at the two annual events.

As Program Chair for SHP’s program at the APA Convention, Richard Bargdill has been working hard to help facilitate interdivisional collaboration on a number of exciting events with themes that include Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1967 address to the APA Convention, the DSM-5 and the future of mental health diagnosis, the problems of the good life in psychology, humanistic critiques of positive psychology, and human rights.

The annual SHP conference will be held in Palo Alto, Calif. and hosted by Sofia University. The dates of the conference are March 13-16, 2014. We are grateful that Aaron Mishara and Carol Humphries are co-chairing the event, and that Brent Potter has agreed to coordinate this year. The keynote speakers for this event will be Ann Weiser Cornell, Shaun Gallagher, Nathaniel Granger, Jr., Rick Hanson and Ilene Serlin. I wish to give special thanks as well to committee members Connie Kellogg (Treasurer), Maria Taheny (Student Representative), David Cain (PR), and Trent Claypool (CE Chair).

I have established a Task Force on Human Dignity and Humanistic Values that I will co-chair with Nathaniel Granger, Jr. This Task Force will have three sub-committees, each respectfully charged with developing statements on human dignity, humanistic values, and humanistic communication. These statements will be integrated with a working statement on social justice and humanistic psychology. Our aim is to have drafts of these documents prepared for the mid-winter meeting in Washington, D.C. this January, or at the very latest, August 2014 at the APA Convention in Washington, DC.

The Society continues its critical response to the DSM-5. Peter Kinderman and I, Co-Chairs of the DSM-5 Response Committee, are merging with the Global Summit on Diagnostic Alternatives, Co-Chaired by Frank Farley and Jonathan Raskin. Our plan is to hold an in-person summit with major leaders in mental health by summer of 2014, in order to work toward consensus on taking collective action in the direction of a viable alternative to DSM diagnosis. The work of these committees has been instrumental to the ongoing success of the public critique of the DSM-5 and serious talk of future alternatives. Kudos to the hard working committee members, including Chloe Detrick, Sarah Kamens, Krishna Khumar, and Donna Rockwell.

Also, with the help of Paul Wong, we are in the early stages of planning a Consortium for Humanistic Research that we hope will help facilitate and encourage more research in the field.

Last but certainly not least, Louis Hoffman’s appointed Diversity Committee will continue to function under my presidency and will serve as an important guidance in our ongoing decisions toward the vision of a truly integrated Society.

I am grateful for your confidence in me in taking on this vital leadership role in the Society. Your ongoing support and feedback are valued and appreciated. If not sooner, I hope to see you all in Palo Alto this March!

Baker-Fletcher, G. (1993). Somebodyness: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the theory ofdignity . Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Buber, M. (1958/1937). I and thou . New York: Scribner.

Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning . Beacon Press.

Fromm, E. (2006). Art of loving . New York: Harper Perennial.

King, M.L., Jr. (1962). An address before The National Press Club . Washington, DC, 19 July 1962.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity . Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Maslow, A. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature . New York: Penguin.

May, R. (2007). Love and will . New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Robbins, B.D. (2013). Humanistic psychology as a hermeneutics of love . Annual

Conference of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, February 2013, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, Calif.

Rogers, C. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Mariner Books.

Sartre, J.P. (2003/1958). Being and nothingness . London: Routledge.

Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity . New York: Bantam Vintage. United

Nations (1948). The universal Declaration of human rights .

Williams, T.D. (2005). Who is my neighbor? Personalism and the foundations ofhuman rights . Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America. 

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