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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

Character Sketches: Values, Utopia, and a Man Undeterred

We have been discussing in this series the link between values and self-esteem: how defining the former can inform conscious choices about behavior that create and sustain the latter. High self-esteem generally predicts better physical and mental health, as well as greater satisfaction with work and relationships. Happier, more productive and less antisocial citizens likely contribute to a more stable and successful community.


For the final entry of this section, we consider whether values and self-esteem among individuals are essential components of a good society, of an ideal culture. Can and should they be fostered for the benefit of all, and not just individuals? We also look at one man who believed and fought for this, at great personal and professional cost.


Whereas values are generally considered useful personal guides to behavior, societal “rights and wrongs” are usually alluded to as ethics. These are espoused by groups to individuals with the goal of containing and directing mass behavior. Morality would be the measure of an individual compared to prevailing ethical structures. A person is likely a member of several societies, each of which may lay a claim of ethical standards upon her: a family, a community, a Parrish, a profession, a school. As Thomas Hobbs described in his Leviathan,[1] such authoritarian leadership can seem to be the only way that we humans can ultimately coexist, given our aggressive and competitive natures.


The concept of utopias, though, first explored by Plato in Republic[2] and Sir Thomas More in Utopia,[3] asks the question of whether we can truly have a society in which everyone’s individual values can be behaviorally expressed, so that the needs and desires of each are met. In his poem, “The Heaven of Animals,”[4] James Dickey imagines a hereafter in which predator and prey eternally relive their natural, bloody, instinctual cycle, peaceful because it is Heaven’s will. Can we be comfortable knowing that while we each feel good about our own personal values, we might be prey or predator unto another’s’? Do we possess values that allow such conditions, justifying the popularity of dystopian fiction?


The United Nations in 1948 proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in response to the horrors of World War II.[5] This document identified ethical behavior for individuals and nation states, taking into account the value of individual rights and freedoms protected by the rule of law.


Similarly, the eminent Swiss theologian Hans Küng led the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ 1993 efforts to adopt a Global Ethic.[6] Admitting that it purposely left out many individual values, he focused on four commitments: 1) to a culture of non-violence and respect for life, 2) to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order, 3) to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness, 4) to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women. A Catholic priest, Küng attempted to synthesize a preponderance of ethics from the world’s religions, without expressing a specific theology.[7]


Some might consider Küng a sad figure. Once a rising star among Catholic theologians, he increasingly ran into conflict with higher powers in his church, challenging tenets and practices he described as too medieval for our modern society, such as celibacy for priests, papal infallibility, and the central power and authority of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy.[8] In 1979 he was proscribed from teaching at his Catholic university. Undeterred, he shifted his efforts to the ecumenical institute he had founded, where he led thought about how peace might be achieved in our world through religions learning to coexist. He believed that this could only happen if each sect examined their own foundations and talked openly with each other towards that goal.

Küng never lost belief in his own values, continued to act upon them, and self-confidently continued to urge the world towards global ethics.[9],[10] In interviews, he proclaimed his happiness, despite the stress from his treatment by Catholic authorities, and that he never wished to leave the church he felt he belonged in. He maintained his self-esteem and remained steadfast to values he felt could contribute to his and other religions and our world.[11]


The question becomes, was he correct - can we humans all agree on universal values, and is it even necessary for a productive, peaceful society? Developmental psychologists continue to describe and explore the existence of altruism in many life forms on our planet,[12] and, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, violence has declined across the world as human empathy for others has increased.[13] During the Enlightenment, John Locke[14] wrote that our natural right of freedom ends where it impinges upon another’s. These are certainly answers to Dickey that eternal life as prey is not heavenly, and therefore, as a predator, unsanctionable; they also appear to support Küng.


In order to have the happiest and most productive societies, we must each choose personal values to guide our individual behavior, then monitor and refine our comportment. While any values may benefit one individual, for societal advantage they must not prevent others from exercising their own rights or values; we must allow everyone else the same freedom we wish for ourselves, and religions must learn to accept this (see The Survival Pledge 2, Part 3: Conversion ≠ Coexistence). Then, as our self-esteem is strengthened by following our personal values, as we become more productive and less harmful to others, we reap the additional benefits of safer, less stressful and more successful communities.


A dynamic utopia might achieved by each of us taking responsibility for our own beliefs, values, and behaviors, while allowing others to make their own individual choices, without our coercion or criticism. Our only concern should be our own values and protecting others from overreach or tyranny of those who have not yet adopted such ethics, morality or values. When everyone owns personal responsibility for their lives and such a society, we should have little to fear from each other. Towards that goal, then, let us each ‘live and let live,” and truly “let (peace) begin with me.”[15]


This blog will return in 2023 with a new series about misconceptions regarding mental health and mental illness. Until then, my hope is that you may wish to review the previous series, “The Survival Pledge,” a deeper dive on how personal responsibility can lead to satisfaction and peace. Happy Holidays and New Year.

[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm. [2] Plato, Republic, 375 BCE. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg). Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1497/pg1497-images.html. [3] Saint Thomas More and Henry Morley, Utopia, 1516. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg). Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2130/pg2130-images.html. [4] James Dickey, “The Heaven of Animals” in Poems 1957-1967. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974, pp 59-60. [5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights [United Nations web page]. Available at https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights. Accessed December 3, 2022. [6] A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions. Edited by Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel. New York, Continuum, 2006. [7] Myriam Reynaud, “The Global Ethic: Hans Küng’s Lasting Gift to the World,” Hans Küng and the Global Ethic, Berkley Forum [Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University Web page]. Available at https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/the-global-ethic-hans-kung-s-lasting-gift-to-the-world. Published May 3, 2021. Accessed December 3, 2022. [8] Hans Küng, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today. Translated by Edward Quinn. New York, Doubleday and Company, 1980. [9] Avery Dulles, “The Council, Reform and Reunion: From March 31, 1962.” America: The Jesuit Review, March 31, 1962. Available at https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/100/council-reform-and-reunion?utm_source=website&utm_medium=inline_promo&utm_campaign=read_this_next. Accessed December 5, 2022. [10] Roger Haight, “Hans Küng, influential Vatican II theologian censured by John Paul II, dies at 93.” America: The Jesuit Review, April 6, 2021. Available at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/04/06/hans-kung-death-obituary-vatican-ii-240394?gclid=Cj0KCQiAyracBhDoARIsACGFcS6C4V1z-METzRsnAfXVEa8ZT4gG1qZhTYL4yxuBBPx1E3KeDCGJ5F0aAptdEALw_wcB. Accessed December 5, 2022. [11] Claude-Francois Jullien, “An Interview with Hans Küng: Christianity with a human face.” Commonweal. Available at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/interview-hans-k%C3%BCng. Originally published in Commonweal April 9, 1971. Published online April 7, 2021. Accessed December 5, 2021. [12] Rajhans P, Altvater-Mackensen N. Vaish, A, et al: Children’s altruistic behavior in context: The role of emotional responsiveness and culture. Sci Rep 6:24089, 2016 [13] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York, Penguin Books, 2011 [14] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1689. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg). Retrieved December 5, 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7370/pg7370-images.html. [15] Jill Jackson-Miller and Sy Miller, “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” Copyright © 1955, Renewed 1983 by Jan-Lee Music, (ASCAP All Rights Reserved. International copyright secured.)

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