Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: dignity

The Duty to Restore People to Their Duties

Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen? then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.


Notice how Gandhi understands the importance of freedom or self-rule in his account of the experience of justice. Meeting the basic need is important, but meeting the need in a way that is absorbed into respect for the innate dignity and integrity of the other human being is central to a proper understanding of justice. Otherwise people become the mere means by which we fulfil our obligations – our real duty is to restore to people to their full role and to put people in a position to meet their own obligations.

Control First, Plan Later

In one institution they painted a zebra crossing on the floor of the recreation hall – in order to help people safely cross the road. Can you imagine anything more dangerous?

We often do this. We teach a skill but in the wrong environment where it has no meaning and where the real life consequences of using or not using the skill don’t exist.

Many good ideas come adrift because we do not give them the right foundations. The cart goes before the horse.

I remember a conversation I had with a keen advocate of person-centred planning who was part of In Control. She seemed to think that people and families couldn’t plan or make sensible decisions without first receiving support and training in person-centred planning. This seemed upside down to me.

For me I couldn’t see the sense of giving people support to plan unless you’d first given them control over their lives. And once you’ve given someone control they may or may not need help to plan. It is extremely presumptuous to assume that disabled people or families can’t make their own life decisions without the well intentioned involvement of an enlightened professional.

I still feel:

Give people control first. If people still need a bit of extra help to plan then lets figure out the best way to make that happen afterwards.

Not only is it patronising to plan with people and assume they can’t make decisions for themselves – it’s also dangerous. When people are not in control, and are persuaded that they must first play the planning game just to get the chance to be in control, then we swiftly corrupt the planning process:

  1. Planning turns into pleading, negotiating, advocating – but that’s not planning. It lacks integrity and creativity – it is done as part of the ‘game’.
  2. Professionals leap in as consultants, trainers, planners, facilitators and brokers. Instead of supporting capacity we create new professional roles and tasks.
  3. Planning is used to control people further. Support plans are checked, altered, approved or not approved.

Its always useful to ask: would we want this for ourselves? When in life do we plan? When in life do we stick to the plan? When in life do we have to share our plans with others?

The only thing that makes planning safe is staying in control – knowing it’s your own plan and if you change your mind you can throw the plan in the bin.

The Eight Degrees of Charity

Level One – There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Level Two – A lower level than this is one who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he recieved. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone. This [type of giving] was exemplified by the secret chamber that existed in the Temple. The righteous would make donations there in secret and poor people of distinguished lineage would derive their livelihood from it in secret. A level close to this is giving to a charity fund. A person should not give to a charitable fund unless he knows that the person managing it is faithful, wise and capable of administering it in a proper manner as Rebbe Chananya ben Tradyon was.

Level Three – A lower level than this is an instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received. An example of this were the great Sages who would go in secret and money into the doorway of the poor. This is an appropriate way of giving charity and it is as good a quality if the trustees of the charitable fund are not conducting themselves appropriately.

Level Four – A lower level than this is an instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, but the donor does not know to whom he gave. An example of this were the great Sages who would bundle coins in a sheet and hang them over their shoulders and the poor would come and take them so they would not be embarrassed.

Level Five – A lower level than that is giving the poor person in his hand before he asks.

Level Six – A lower level than that is giving him after he asks.

Level Seven – A lower level than this is giving him less than what is a appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.

 Level Eight – A lower that that is giving him with sadness.

Maimonides from the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim 7-14

This important analysis of the demands of social justice should be given to all students of social policy, political theory and theology. For it sets out more clearly than anything else I know the real challenge of charity and social justice.

We forget that many society’s before the welfare state have figured out systems of mutual care and support. For instance, Jewish society had a long history of making social justice part of the institutions of agriculture, work, religion and society. Moreover, as Maimonides shows, Jewish thinking has been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure that charity is always an act of justice – not patronage.

Another way to read Maimonides is in reverse – the quality of giving improves to the point that the act of giving becomes utterly invisible:

  1. Resentful giving
  2. Insufficient giving
  3. Giving only when asked
  4. Giving directly
  5. Not knowing to whom you are giving to
  6. Not knowing who gives to you
  7. Giving that is utterly private
  8. Giving that is not giving

In other words we ascend to that point where there is no sense of weakness, vulnerability and dependence. The gift is still there – but it is absorbed into everyday life in a way that feels rightful and proper to both.

To my mind our efforts to create a system of universal entitlements, without stigma, in order to reform the current welfare state are probably analogous to Level 2 giving. Such a system would not be necessary in a society where everybody already had enough and where mutual exchange and support were natural and universal. But we are not that society. We live in a time of great inequality and for most people the economy offers little fundamental security. Most of us do not own land we can rent, have savings or a guaranteed income. Our securities are collective and guaranteed through democratic politics – for better or worse.

Those who seek to dissolve rights in the name of charity have not paid attention to the fundamental questions of human dignity, respect and equal citizenship which is at the heart of social justice – “you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.”

How Euthanasia leads to Eugenics

…a [Nazi] Ministry of Justice Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Code drafted a similar law sanctioning “mercy killing” of people suffering from incurable diseases. The law read, in part: 

“Clause 1 Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to him or others, can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor. 

“Clause 2 The life of a person who because of incurable mental illness requires permanent institutionalisation and is not able to sustain an independent existence, may be prematurely terminated by medical procedures in a painless and covert manner.” 

From Forgotten Crimes by Susanne E Evans

Notice that the first clause is almost exactly what those seeking to advance euthanasia in the UK are putting forward as a reasonable legal measure. And notice the easy and natural step to by-passing the question of voluntary choice for those who might be deemed lacking mental capacity.

There is hardly a break between euthanasia and eugenics – the first creates the licence to ignore the dignity of human life, the second gives others the duty to ignore it.

The Prince and the Rooster

Once, in an ancient kingdom, there lived a fine and handsome and intelligent prince. But one day he got it into his head that he was a rooster. At first the king believed this was simply a passing thought, a phase his son was going through. But when the prince took off all his clothes and began flapping his arms and crowing like a rooster, the king knew he had a real problem. The prince took up residence under the dining-room table and would eat only kernels of corn dropped onto the royal carpet. The king was sad to see his son in such a state. He called in his best doctors, his miracle workers, his magicians. One by one they talked to the prince, tried medicine and magic. But he remained convinced that he was a rooster. One by one they filed out.

Each time, the rooster crowed. The king fell into a deep depression, convinced that no one could cure his son of his tragic malady. He told his servants to allow no more medicine men or fortune seekers into the palace. He had had enough. One day an unknown sage approached the palace and loudly knocked upon the palace gate. The king’s chief servant cracked open the wooden door and saw an old man with piercing eyes staring at him. “I understand the king’s son believes he is a rooster. Well, I am here to convince him otherwise.” The servant slammed the large wooden door. “So many have tried and failed. Go away, old man!” The next day, the servant heard once again a loud knock upon the gate. Again he cracked open the door. “I have a message for the king,” said the unknown sage. “What is it?” said the servant. “Give it and be gone.” “Tell the king these words exactly: ‘To pull a man out of the mud, sometimes a friend must set foot into that mud.’ The servant had no idea what it meant, but he left the sage waiting outside the gate and took the message to the king.

Slumped on his throne, the king listened to the cryptic message. “To pull a man out of the mud, a friend must set foot into that mud.” Hmm, what did he mean by that? But as he thought about it, the words began to make sense. He sat straight up and said, “Yes, bring him in. I will give him a chance!”

To everyone’s amazement, the wise man began by taking off all his clothes. The king shook his head. Now there were two naked men under the dining-room table, crowing like roosters. Soon the prince said to the wise man, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” “Can’t you see?” said the sage. “I’m a rooster, just like you.” The prince was happy to have found a friend, and the palace resounded with flapping and crowing. But the next day, the wise man got out from under the table, straightened his back, and stretched. “What? What are you doing?” asked the prince. “Not to worry,” said the sage. “Just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean you have to live under a table.” The prince admired his friend, so he tried it. It was true. A rooster can stand and stretch, and still be a rooster. The next day, the sage actually put on a shirt and a pair of pants. “Have you lost your mind?” asked the prince. “I was a little chilly,” said the sage. “Besides, just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean that you can’t put on a man’s clothing. You still remain a rooster.”

Puzzled, the prince reluctantly tried on some clothes. The sage then asked for a meal to be served on the golden platters of the king. He sat down with the prince, and without realising it, the prince began to eat. The sage engaged him in a lively conversation about the affairs of the kingdom. Suddenly the prince jumped up from the table and cried, “Don’t you realise that we are roosters? How can we be sitting at this table eating and talking as if we were men?” “Aha!” cried the sage. “I will now tell you a great secret. You can dress like a man, eat like a man, and talk like a man, but still remain a rooster.” “Hmm,” said the prince. And from that day forward, he behaved just like a man. In a few years, he assumed the throne. He led his kingdom to great glory. But every once in a while, the thought occurred to him that he was, in fact, still a rooster-and when he was all alone he would crow a little bit, just to make sure.

Rabbi Nachman from Nina Jaffe & Steve Zeitlin (1993). While standing on one foot. Puzzle stories & wisdom tales from the Jewish tradition. NY: Henry Hot. 70-75. Prince Rooster

I first heard this story from that great promoter of Hasidic Wisdom, John O’Brien. This story also reminds me of the work of Womencentre in Halifax. What is magical about their work is the way in which each woman sees herself as working alongside the woman who is in need. And as an equal they can help, enable and challenge within a relationship based upon trust – focusing on the real issues facing the woman – not their labels or reputations.

The best support is always paradoxical in this way – it lifts people up as equals – not from above, not from below – but alongside.

Dignity Comes First

If you take a cloak from a neighbour as a pledge you must return it to him before sunset, for it is the only covering for his body and what else has to sleep in. If he shouts out to me I will hear him with mercy. 

Exodus 22: 26-27

In other words no debt entitles you to rob another of their basic rights, including their dignity. The cloak is also a symbol of our social covering – the means by which we maintain our dignity and appear with respect before others. Property rights exist – but they are not fundamental and they must be limited by the demands of basic human rights and our shared human dignity.

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