Defending Human Dignity by Derek S. Jeffreys

On the issue of morality in international politics, it sometimes seems there’s a structural difficulty in the discussion. On the one hand, there are political practitioners (of some form or another) who speak in terms of what can be done, but tend away from the more abstract. On the other, there are academics and/or commentators who are well-versed in the abstract, but have little to no experience with practical action itself, most especially in the international scene.

That is why Derek S. Jeffreys’ book is so timely, in that it finds someone who straddles the practical and speculative realms, and does so in a unique way. Defending Human Dignity: John Paul II and Political Realism is a book I wanted to like, and do to an extent. But it has some major problems as well.


In his book, Jeffreys aims to explain the Holy Father’s vision of international politics, especially regarding the rights and duties of nations and the like. This is no easy task, but Jeffreys makes it through quite well.

It should be noted that the difficulty with this work, or rather type of work, is the necessity of going deeply into the thought of the thinker in question. So, for instance, in this book, Jeffreys spends the most of the first three chapters focusing on the Pope’s baseline philosophical notions, while focusing more strictly on international affairs only in the final chapter. While this might seem to be a problem for the work, it strikes me rather as a necessity. As the Pope is coming from two intellectual traditions (Thomism and phenomenology) that are not exactly suffused into the common cultural background of America, Jeffreys’ explanation of it is both good and needed.

Jeffreys spends many pages showing just how indebted John Paul II is to the phenomenologist Max Scheler, especially as regards how agents relate to values, the development of a hierarchy of values, and the notion of love in this hierarchy. Trying to summarize all of this would be tedious (and, for the many not familiar with phenomenology, readers might want to look through a book Jeffreys suggests, Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology), but it does form the foundation for the rest of the work. Even though the Pope does owe a great deal to Scheler, Jeffreys wisely points out that John Paul II places Scheler’s insights within the framework of Thomism – or, in other words, the Pope uses the insights on experience from Scheler, while holding that these insights require the existential background (in this case, Thomism) for these insights to make sense. The ethical views of the Pope can be described as “personalism.”

After going through this background, as well as giving a critique of certain natural law ethicists (such as John Finnis and Robert P. George) and a much larger one of consequentialism in general and against realism in particular (using Robert Kaplan and George Weigel as his opponents), Jeffreys focuses on the Pope himself. While much of the philosophy to this point came from earlier works (before becoming Pope) or more first principles oriented encyclicals, now the attention moves more towards speeches the Holy Father made (such as those before the UN) or more specified encyclicals. In this, he shows how the Pope’s notions of a “civilization of love” are good, but not beyond critique. Specifically, Jeffreys sees problems in the Pope’s statements, specifically that the Pope has not followed his views well enough. This deals especially with the UN, and with its nations. The issue, as Jeffreys sees it, is that the Pope’s notion that states have rights tends away from his personalism, leading to contradictions when issues of human individuals versus nations (specifically, human rights versus self-determination) come into conflict.

But, let us focus more on the discussion of international affairs. Jeffreys divides political realism into two elements, its descriptive and normative parts. The former element describes the realist worldview, of a tragic and horrifying world of power politics, war, and evil. The latter element is the advice on what statesmen should do, which is highly focused on measuring consequences and can tend towards amoralism. He says that the Pope’s thought diffuses realism because it accepts the description but rejects the advice, or (as one blurb on the back cover says) “realism without consequentialism.” The Pope, as Jeffreys explains, is in no need of schooling on sin in the world – he is fully aware of it, both in terms of his thinking and also thanks to his experiences in Poland. In Jeffreys’ eyes, the result is good – the Pope avoids pie-in-the-sky idealism without falling into the realm of measuring consequences like a utilitarian (this tradition of thought, as Jeffreys points out, being abhorrent to the Holy Father).

There are many positive aspects of this book. Jeffreys does a wonderful job of summarizing the many elements involved in the Pope’s thought, which is complex (to put it mildly). Jeffreys explains the Pope’s ideas respectfully, but is also not shy in offering critique where he sees it due. In terms of the relation of the Pope’s views to the ideas of political realism, Jeffreys explicates the differences very well. As I wrote, I wanted to like this book, and in many ways, still do.

But there are problems in this work. A minor one (which may be more the fault of the copy editors) regards the citations, which can be a mess – footnote citations repeated in the text happen far too often. Moreover, too often citations are for works not specifically listed in the bibliography (“Finnis 1984” comes up often in the notes – but Finnis 1980, 1991, and 1998 are the only ones listed).

But there are more substantive problems as well. As I will suggest in a minute, many of them may be the result of too little space in this book.

Jeffreys’ critiques of other systems at times seem problematic – it appears that he is showing the differences between these systems and the Pope’s when he instead intends to disprove the former by means of the latter. As such, the critiques often seem a bit shallow. Moreover, Jeffreys’ language regarding them seems a bit too over-the-top (he seems a bit too quick to say that elements of his opponents’ views have “no philosophical merit,” which tempts one to respond, “According to who? The phenomenologists? Great. So what?”) Regularly, Jeffreys will point out some element within a competing system and follow it by saying such an element violates the ordo amoris (an important element of the Pope’s thought, borrowing strongly from Scheler). Great, but that is more an observation than a refutation. It would rather be like a Kantian accusing an element of Hobbes’ system of “not applicable in the Kingdom of Ends” and leaving it at that. Simply showing a disagreement does not disprove something. Unfortunately, too often Jeffreys does merely leave it at that.

This problem is painfully clear in the criticisms of consequentialism and political realism. While he was wise to choose Weigel for moderate (and Catholic) realism, his choice of Kaplan for straight realism is more disappointing. As Jeffreys points out, Kaplan is more a journalist than anything. Had Jeffreys wanted to really get at political realism, he (and the reader) would have been better served with a different opponent, such as Hans Morganthau or Henry Kissinger.

Jeffreys says that the Pope “may recognize the central importance of order and security but refuse to make them our highest values” (139). That’s great, as far as it goes, but it seems that many of the problems Jeffreys sees in political realism’s consequentialism will, in the end, remain. The major issue he sees (in his humbly-labeled “decisive” critique) comes down to measurement. In dealing with, say, proportionality, how does one measure whether an action will tend more to the good or the bad? Jeffreys’ response is that one cannot, especially when bringing spiritual elements in (i.e. how do you calculate loss of human dignity in noncombatants from air-strikes on cities?). That being the case, so thinks Jeffreys, consequentialism (and thus political realism) stands defeated.

But does it? After all, going to war in the first place involves such a calculation. One can envision situations where, say, the just war doctrine’s requirements are met, and yet where war is unadvisable – one might say that’s why proportionality was put in there in the first place. Is this, too, now illegitimate and “without philosophical merit”? Certainly, we don’t have omniscience to know if our calculations are correct, and we cannot (under the system described) measure certain types of things…is war now out?

Or, in the realm of practical thinking, can one make such distinctions, imperfect though they are, in order to act? Unless one holds human choice as requiring perfect information, than this type of calculating seems fine – perhaps consequentialism isn’t “decisive”ly defeated after all. Or, perhaps these calculations are out, too.

Does this inevitably lead to pacifism? Some might say so, and indeed some say that the Pope follows “just pacifism” (i.e. who interprets the just war doctrine so strictly that war is almost never permissible; the more cynical might call it “pacifism with a Hitler exception”). And herein lies a problem in this work. While it is directed more at political realism, Jeffreys deals little to not at all with pacifism. Had he done so, perhaps he could have illustrated how the Pope’s ideas are not merely pacifism with a new face, but something different.

This touches on the structural problem. Having spent so much of the work on explaining out the Pope’s ethics, Jeffreys’ critiques tend towards the shallow (again, showing the differences rather than really critiquing), and his discussion of the Pope’s views versus political realism suffer the same. In many ways, Jeffreys’ book would have been helped by being longer – giving a more detailed critique of other ethicists, giving a stronger case against realism (and against a worthy adversary), and explicating the relation between the Pope’s thought and pacifism. By dealing with these things, the book would have been all the stronger.

Having said all that, this book should be read by those interested in morality and international affairs. The Pope’s views in themselves are important, and indeed this is a first step towards thinking about morality in interstate action that does not merely repeat the tired arguments of realism vs. neoliberalism vs. international law. It could be stronger, it has its problems, but still worth the reader’s time.

About the author

Jeff Grim

Jeff Grim has been a reader all of his life. He has had a particular interest in military history, any war at any time. His fascination with military history has brought him to an interest in historical fiction where the history comes alive with fictitious heroes and villains. Recently, Jeff has become interested in historical mysteries set in various time periods.

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