Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 2, February 2011
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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Human Dignity and Diversity Training:
Clarifying Standards and Practices

Susan G. Clark and David J. Mattson
School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Yale University

Final Draft Received 23 January 2011

Abstract. Human dignity is a widely supported goal in human affairs, made clear in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other constitutions, declarations, and conventions worldwide. Human dignity arises from respect for the value of the individual, equal treatment under the law, individual freedom, and social justice. However, applying this principle in practice is problematic. In contrast, using one of the more narrow "diversity" yet popular formulas that are based on group identities and allocations of power may obscure the more comprehensive human dignity construct. Human dignity concepts capture a more basic understanding of human welfare and justice than many alternatives in currency. For example there are cases wherein diversity training did not enhance dignity for all, and with predictable problematic outcomes. We offer recommendations that will help communities' foster dignity through increased respect, greater freedom of choice, and enhanced mutual deference. This paper should be of interest to anyone committed to advancing human dignity and sustainability in the common interest.

Key Words. Human dignity, social justice, diversity training, political correctness, inclusiveness, leadership, appraisal

Historic experience has convinced most of the world community that human dignity is the paramount goal of humankind (see United Nationals Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; Hunt, 2007). Human dignity is the basic construct in our daily lives and political organization (McDougal, Lasswell, & Chen, 1980; Lasswell & McDougal, 1992). This concept guides our thinking about who we are and how we can best live together (Mattson & Clark, in press). Human dignity depends on respect and full and open choice respecting the rights of others. Freedom of choice, consistent with the dignity of all, requires mutual deference to others' choices. This paper examines the human dignity idea, contrasts it with diversity training, and offers recommendations to evaluate efforts and advance human dignity for all.


Efforts to advance human dignity can be appraised by examining social and decision processes using widely recognized standards for quality processes in democratic communities (e.g., Lasswell & McDougal, 1992). Among these are procedural, substantive, and practical tests to determine how well a "training" program served common interests (see Brunner et al., 2005). For example, it is known that voluntary approaches to community problem solving serve common interests better than coercive approaches. Analysts can ask whether a program entailed inclusive and responsible participation, took into consideration valid and appropriate concerns of the participants, and upheld the expectations of those who participated in good faith. In the academic setting they can ask whether a program was conducted in the best tradition of liberal education and the modern university as described by Kronman (2007) and Levin (2003), especially whether it helped participants gain more realistic "interpretative critical judgments" about dignity and diversity matters, and whether it enhanced the culture and interpersonal dynamics in the community. It can ask how were individuals treated (see Day and Glick, 2009). In short, these methods can help communities determine whether efforts are widely supported, evidence-based, and effective in application.

Diversity training is one method that has been promoted to increase the skills of individuals to treat each other with respect and dignity ("New York Times Magazine," 2007). It is a prescription that has been widely embraced for alleviating cultural tensions and remedying past deprivations based on stereotypes (e.g., Kirkam, 2009). To be most effective, diversity training should directly and transparently promote human dignity. If it is reduced to incomplete formulas, political correctness, and narrow justifications, that is, if it is used for political advantage, bureaucratic gain, to increase organizational effectiveness, lift morale, bring greater access to the marketplace, enhance productivity, or other less worthy ends, it may, in fact, actually degrade dignity. Poor handling of dignity and diversity issues can cause loss of social capital, disengagement, and destructive conflict (Putnam, 2007; Berreby, 2005; Michaels, 2006; Wood, 2003). As a result, Day and Glick (2009, p. 340) rightly ask "do the actual content and delivery of diversity courses contribute" fundamentally to people's lives and organizational cultures.

This common interest-based approach to appraisal focuses on how beliefs and values shape our individual and collective behavior. It clarifies how we construct our identities, the symbols that we use on a daily basis, and the importance of the organizational and institutional cultures within which we live and work. It further illustrates diverse roles that we all play in community policy making and permits us to see these dynamics in a constructive way so that, if any shortfalls exist, they can be rectified to improve dignity outcomes.

Last, a brief word on the relationship between human dignity and sustainability. We, and the authoritative world community (e.g., UN), see that human dignity is the overriding goal for humanity. This is a very well established shared goal across all countries and governments. Clearly there is a huge shortfall between the goal and the way many people live and the status of their environments on which they depend. Elsewhere, we have argued that this goal cannot be achieved without conservation, the “wise use,” of both natural and cultural resources (e.g., Mattson and Clark, in press; Clark, 2008; Clark et al., 2010; Clark et al., in press a, b). These arguments are not new and are not repeated here. Concerning the notion of “sustainability,” we see that what is needed is to create and sustain a human social and decision making process wherein human dignity becomes a possibility for all (see Clark 2002). This will require conserving environments sustainability. In contrast, sustainability is often conventionally understood to be only about physical resources in the environment (e.g., water, forests, biodiversity). We see that the conventional view of sustainability mischaracterizes the actual content and nature of the overall sustainability challenge for humanity. We see that physical sustainability is only a prerequisite and means to support the overriding goal of human dignity for all. Many authors (e.g., Nusbaum, 1997; Koger and Du Namm Myers, 2009, Bell, 2010) and others (e.g., the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies group under Evelin Linder) support our perspective through their writing and work. There are a great many other examples of people and groups graviting toward the view of human dignity that we review and articulate here (e.g., the Yale Human Rights and Environmental Dialogues, Clark and Wallace 2010). These trends and conditions are promising.

The Goal of Human Dignity

Human dignity is an old and enduring concept (Dahl, 2006; Kleman, 1977). Given a choice, most people select freedom over bondage and open expression over censorship and repression. As an explicit goal, human dignity took clear form in western civilization more than 200 years ago during the Enlightenment (Washrman, 2004; Dpre, 2004). It has been formalized in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution ("promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity") and other constitutions and conventions worldwide (see Clapham, 2007; Hunt, 2007). The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and companion conventions that together make up the International Bill of Human Rights – binding for the entire world community – all call for enhancing human dignity (Martin & Turner, 2005).

Matters of morality and justification are embedded in people's beliefs. Conflict often arises when people subscribing to different beliefs that justify their special outlooks strive for collective action. Beliefs are made up of three parts: doctrine, formula, and symbols (Lasswell & McDougal, 1992). The doctrine is the basic premise, typically expressed in abstract or philosophic terms. It functions to affirm the perspectives of the community. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, contains the doctrine, the principles, and precepts that citizens assert to be true and worthy. The formula is the prescriptive norms of conduct that must be followed in daily life and in political affairs in order to realize the doctrine. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution detail the formula by which the nation will realize the doctrine set forth in the Declaration. Finally, our beliefs and ways of doing things are symbolized in many popular manifestations, including signs, phrases, words, gestures, pictures, stories, lore, poems, heroes, and other symbols.

The doctrine regarding human dignity asserts that, as a social ideal, all individuals deserve respect and freedom. People are consolidated or united, say, as Americans or as world citizens, yet at the same time divided by geography, race, sex, gender, philosophy, religion, ethnicity, and in myriad other ways. The social problem is how to balance differences among individuals in ways that still meet common interests, to find "oneness" out of our "many-ness." Among the tenets of the human dignity doctrine are that liberty is one of the fundamental human endowments, that individual people are responsible for themselves, and that the focus is on the individual within the society. This doctrine also asserts that individuals are unique persons with ongoing personal and political associations, and that individuals are what they are now and not their ancestry.

The formula for achieving human dignity calls for finding ways to give people an equal start and ensuring that they are treated fairly in all value processes, such as law, education, and the economy. The human dignity formula seeks the best ways for people to operate as individuals, and to organize for community benefits while protecting individual rights. The formula calls for recognition by those involved in processes of civic and public order that all persons are created equal and that they are self-evidently endowed with liberty, that is, they are free and responsible for themselves and their choices (Wood, 2003). A sense of personal independence and social responsibility follows from this belief.

Problems with "Diversity Training"

Despite people's good intentions, the goal of dignity for all people is not always fully appreciated, and some forms of diversity training that have been less than effective or respectful have been promoted instead (Table 1). Diversity training can embody a superficial understanding of the history and content of the human dignity paradigm along with only a passing commitment to its principles and practices. The diversity construct—using racial, gender, ethnic, and other group categories defined by historic and current power relations—is sometimes used as the basis for training programs, which complicates community inquiry into how community practices affect human dignity (e.g., Kirkham, 2009). Too often, these training programs use an approach that participants find antithetical to the inquiry, open discussion, and mutual respect they expected. Instead of critical interpretative judgments and common interest outcomes, diversity training can lead to rancor, rejection, apathy, and polarized opinions.

Table 1. A partial comparison between the diversity and human dignity constructs (worldviews, belief systems, paradigms). See text for explanation and citations.
Diversity Construct
Human Dignity Construct
Categories used
Race, birth sex, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, and others
Individual human being
Allied concepts
Social and environmental justice; multiculturalism, constructivism (post-modernism)
Human rights; pragmatism
Group membership; group’s special interest
Individuals; individual’s inclusive special and shared and common interest
Historic or contemporary focus
People are their ancestry and how it was treated historically
People are who they are today in the contemporary world
Victimhood status
Adherents of this construct may see themselves as historic and present victims and thus deserving of special treatment and compensation; victimizers should be punished
Adherents of this construct recognize historic inequities and claims and thus seek to redress these while at the same time advancing human dignity for all individuals; victimizers should be punished (e.g., war crimes)
Relatively new
Historically old
Value emphasis
Power for one’s group
Respect for all individuals; all values—well-being, respect, rectitude, affection, skill, enlightenment, power, and wealth—for all individuals
Goal Improve status of one’s identity group relative to other groups Improve status of all human beings; seek a commonwealth of human dignity; the widest possible production and enjoyment of all values

Diversity training is organized typically around concepts of diversity and multiculturalism (see Kronman, 2007, p. 164-180)––concepts that are not usually open for discussion, but advanced ideologically (as immutable doctrine) as the morally correct way for people to view each other. Numerous authors (e.g., Kronman, 2007) have noted that these two concepts, which comprise "political correctness," are founded on the philosophy or idea of "constructivism" (that is, post-modernism or anti-essentialism, to use more formal terms). This philosophy holds that there are no standards (such as human dignity) upon which to ground civility, discourse, and common interest; that peoples' views and opinions are all equally valid; that everyone should be valued because they have and assert their special interests; and that power politics is the key to getting ahead (see Belsey, 2002). Together, these notions assert that all value claims are really instruments of cloaked power and are best seen as forms of potential oppression. Moreover, no idea or civilization has any legitimate claim to superiority.

Collectively, the concepts of diversity, multiculturalism, and constructivism are, according to Kronman (2007, p. 138), the source of political correctness. Although these three concepts are based on solid intellectual foundations, they are half-truths that too often play themselves out in destructive ways, as may be the case in diversity training. In combination, they purport that all human values are artificial and lack any natural basis or standards by which to judge competing value claims. This notion stands in stark contrast to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which seeks to set global standards for human dignity.

On the surface, the idea of diversity and its allied concepts are attractive, intellectually and morally. Indeed, making meaning out of one's life requires confronting and choosing among a diversity of perspectives and values. Diversity training does promote learning, up to a point, in that it can potentially promote discussion among participants. But at the same time, it can shut down learning if its formula intersects with the ideas, rules, culture, and interpersonal dynamics of a community. Diversity training and its inherent ideology in such situations becomes the criterion for setting agendas, policing discussions, silencing questioners, and precluding open inquiry; the political correctness of the training exercise can override all other considerations.

Diversity and political correctness are a problematic focus of attention for those who are committed to human dignity (Table 1). Nevertheless, many businesses, universities, and other organizations substitute diversity training for rigorous, respectful engagement and common-interest focused discourse. In the academic community in particular, diversity training can contravene traditions of critical thinking, human rights, and contributing to the intellectual and moral growth of society.

How problems are defined largely determines how they will be solved, and the lack of clear, justifiable goals can make useful problem definition impossible. Whether diversity training is couched as "diversity," "leadership," or "inclusivity," instituting such training implies that there is a problem that needs to be fixed (see Weiss, 1989). Too often, though, the actual problem remains undefined. Is the organization's community not diverse enough? Are workers or community members deficient in knowledge and skills for treating others with respect? Or should recruiting patterns be changed to select for some unspecified diversity characteristics? How is diversity actually determined? Who should decide? How much of what kinds of diversity is the right amount? How does the individual human being figure into group diversity categories? In the end, it is important that organizations clarify what problems or issues exist and specifically how diversity training will solve them, if at all. Regardless of the diversity categories that people use—race, ethnicity, nationality, or many other identity categories—they are in fact artificial and fluid. Categorization is useful for organizing our life experience. It makes sense of what we see and feel and how we relate to people and events. Yet, "common sense" may deceive us about other people, and how we classify people is rarely "true" or "real." Berreby (2005) points out that sometimes, even though we think we know what categories people "should" belong to, they turn out to be misleading or even totally incorrect. He argues that humankind is infinitely divisible and that every category reveals within it subcategories and inside those even more subcategories yet. Over time and across cultures, these categories and subcategories are always changing. They are inventions that are shorthand for the enormous variety of humans. He suggests that the more useful question is not what kinds of diversity exist in the world, but rather what diversity constructs exist in people's minds as a reflection of their self-constructed identities and their perceptions of others' political and economic utilities––all in specific contexts.

"Diversity" is relatively new compared to the concept of human dignity (see Hunt, 2007). According to Wood (2003), Kronman (2007), and others the diversity concept holds that a person's historic identity and historic roots (e.g., a person's ancestry) are more important than an individual's identity as a contemporary person. Those who subscribe to this idea tend to believe that certain identity groups have been "victimized" by advantaged, more powerful groups. Individual identities are constructed around notions of victimhood, involving victims or victimizers. Within America's diverse culture, there are numerous groups, distinguished by race, ethnicity, sex, or other categories, that have been historically disadvantaged and underprivileged. Other groups have had advantages of power and privilege (see Michaels, 2006). According to adherents of the diversity concept, groups that have been historically disadvantaged thus have a special claim or right proportional to their past victimization, and deserve compensatory privileges (see Harris, 1991; Kronman, 2007).

According to Wood (2003), this "victimization and compensation" construct took clear form in 1978 with the U.S. Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, articulated in Justice Lewis Powell's opinion. Although this formula is not formalized, for example, as a Constitutional amendment, it does exist in diverse practices and policies in the private sector and at various levels of government. This view of diversity focuses on inclusion and allocations of power, and calls for redefining and redistributing the basic goods or values of society in order to advantage target groups. This means that diverse people must be brought together in order to foster inclusiveness, and that some people, largely those of advantaged groups, must be somehow transformed. Diversity and contact among groups, it is argued, will breed tolerance and respect and will create good will and social betterment for everyone involved. Among the rules used to redistribute values are federal contracts for minority-owned businesses and admission rules under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The underlying assumption of the "contact hypothesis" is that prejudices can be reduced if people from diverse backgrounds intermingle. It further assumes that social interactions will take place where people meet as equals, have a shared goal, and are supported (see Berreby, 2005). It assumes that "goodwill" arising from contact will overcome prejudice. In Berreby's view, however, these assumptions derive from a hypothesis that is "in a muddle" (p. 190). Some research suggests that prejudice decreases after contact, whereas other studies reveal that contact produces just the opposite. Yet this politically correct notion has become entrenched.

If organizations are intent on helping their communities achieve greater clarity about their human dignity interests, attain greater insight into relevant human dynamics, and acquire skills necessary for change, then certain tasks are paramount. Goals need to be clarified, problems defined, and standards set. Moreover, the concept of human dignity––not diversity––must be central. Using this approach, organizations will have predictably better odds of determining when, where, and how diversity training might advance human dignity, if at all.

Standards to Advance Human Dignity

Diversity training should employ the highest standards of mutual respect, knowledge sharing, and ethical interaction because so much is at stake in terms of human dignity. The rules of respectful dialogue, evidence-based discussion, and a common ground focus should be at the forefront of all deliberations and actions. In what follows we outline standards to aid in evaluating diversity training, including standards related to goals, decision making, civility, critical judgment, and the common interest. We start by describing a way of thinking about participants, their perspectives, and their values, germane to understanding human dynamics related to diversity training and dignity.

Participants, Perspectives, and Values

Most communities are made up of diverse participants striving for particular goals, some of which serve special interests (e.g., "I want power"), some of which are shared (e.g., having interpersonal respect norms in place), and some of which serve broad common interests (e.g., achieving human dignity and respect for all).

Perspectives. Community members' diverse perspectives and belief systems consist of identities, expectations, and demands. As people interact in diverse situations, they use different values through diverse strategies to achieve favorable outcomes for themselves. Despite their heterogeneity, community members do share interests. It is safe to say that they share a common interest in having a social system that actively promotes human dignity, well being, and respect. Most communities struggle to clarify what human dignity and respect means for them and to secure dignity and respect outcomes in practice.

Table 2. Values, definitions, and questions to ask about the role of values in social or decision process (after Lasswell, 1971; Clark 2002, p. 25-29, 34, 40-41). The values are in no particular order.
Question to ask
Having in influence in decision making
How is power used and what interests, groups, and people does it serve? Who has it? Who wants it?
Having information
How is information produced, given to whom, and received by whom?
Controlling resources of all kinds—money, natural, other people
Who has it, and how is it used to affect outcomes of decisions?
Personal safety, both mental and physical health, and comfort
Who has it and who does not?
Developing one’s talents into operations of all kinds - professions, vocations, and art
What are the skills present and in use in solving problems and making decisions?
To give and receive friendship, loyalty, love, and intimacy in interpersonal relations
How are friendship, loyalty, and professional relations used in solving problems and making decisions?
To give and receive recognition in a profession and community based on merit
How is respect recognized, rewarded, and for whose gain is it used in solving problems and making decisions?
Responsible, ethical conduct What are the ethics at play among people and between the powerful decision makers and other people?

People's responses to interactions within their communities include both experiential and analytic components. Experiential responses are those aspects dealing with emotions and affect – feelings about whether something is good or bad (see Epstein, 1994; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2004; Kirkham 2009). People accept or reject events that seem self-evidently "valid" or recognizable, and their behavior is mediated in part by feelings from past experiences. Analytic or cognitive responses are those that pertain to normative rules, consciousness, and rationality. In addition to their experiential responses, people also accept or reject events based on justification via evidence, rationality, and logic. Their behavior is mediated in part by conscious appraisal of events.

People's expectations about how their communities should operate—that is, what the rules are, how they are enacted, and how they are ultimately mediated (or, in functional terms, prescriptions and their invocation and application)—come from the beliefs people hold and the experiences they have had. How individuals identify themselves in the context of their beliefs and experiences determines where they place their loyalties. One psychodynamic at play in diversity training may be people's tendency to displace personal anxiety and motives onto others and then try to justify their views and actions in terms of the public good/interest. For example, a person may have suffered discrimination or felt that he or she has suffered, which in turn structures his or her identity as a victim, engendering feelings that he or she is owed compensation by society. An event like diversity training may thus serve as an outlet to discharge that individual's anxiety, resentment, and need to set "things right." This is the "displacement hypothesis" described by Ascher and Hirschfelder-Ascher (2005, p. 22-38; see also Lasswell, 1930/1960).

Values. All people want access to "value processes" of importance to them. In other words, they want to be free to interact with others, both interpersonally and through society's institutions, to achieve the value goals they desire. Respect is one of the most important values to dignity outcomes of eight value categories recognized by the policy sciences (respect, power, affection, enlightenment, skill, wealth, well-being, and rectitude). Every interaction involves an "exchange" of values (Table 2). There are ways to carry out interactions such that the people involved get more of one or more values, thus increasing human dignity, at least in an immediate sense. Or they may get less of one or more values, thus decreasing dignity. These values, their interplay, and institutional consequences are clearly evident in all our social interactions.

Human dignity arises from the production and enjoyment of all values through human interaction. Individuals experience dignity if they can participate in and be indulged in all value processes that are important to them, especially if they are affected directly by the outcomes. First and foremost, human dignity requires respect. The inverse of collective human dignity is despotism, in which people are systematically deprived of values by powerful elites. This functional definition of human dignity in value terms provides a way to describe and analyze diversity training and determine which participants are indulged or deprived and, more important, whether there is collective movement towards greater dignity for all.

It is reasonable to expect that diversity training would increase respect, skill, and other values for the participants. But rather than building community, dignity, and civility through open, fair, valid, and appropriate evidence-based interaction, diversity training can at times create just the opposite outcome—disrespect and value losses for perhaps many participants. This does not benefit the involved community. As currently practiced, diversity training often tends to favor special interests while neglecting the common interests of everyone involved. Some who seek respect feel disrespected, and those who look for power (i.e., equal participation in decision making) feel powerless. Some who want affection feel rejected or torn between competing loyalties. Those seeking rectitude can feel slighted. And those seeking enlightenment and skill may feel thwarted. The overall outcome in value terms can thus be mixed, at best, and the net effect in value costs to the individuals involved and to the whole community can end up as an erosion of dignity, respect, social capital, trust, freedom, civility, and future working relations.

Clarifying Goals

Goals set targets, allow for actions to meet them, and permit evaluation and learning. Clear goals are necessary to solve real problems. Without clear, concrete goals procedural rationality is compromised and substantive real world gains unlikely. Ideally, goals address actual problems, offer new ways of doing things, and paths to achieve them. In short, goals are essential to successful problem solving.

Too often, though, goals for diversity training are deficient. Often they are unclear, which creates unnecessary conflict and confusion among community members. For instance, diversity training may be billed as building an "inclusive culture," which suggest laudable ends but with unclear relations to either diversity or dignity. A second problem is goal inversion. It is not uncommon for assumed, informal, or unofficial goals to take precedence over formal goals. For example, a training program's activities may suggest that manipulating perceptions, promoting specific alternatives, and maintaining control have taken precedence over actually enhancing human dignity. A third problem is symbol inflation. Goals are typically symbolized to ease communication and enhance emotional impact, especially with complex and emotional issues such as "diversity." People identify with symbols, which encapsulate how they see themselves, their problems, and potential related solutions. Unfortunately, symbols can come to be the center of attention in diversity training and thereby become more important than solving "the problem" at hand. This inflation of symbols can divert attention from solving problems, substituting an emphasis on images, identifications, meanings, and emotional commitments (see Charon, 1998). People's attention becomes fixed on contested symbols without clarifying substantive community interests.

The language, promotional claims, and appeals to symbols employed by trainers and participants all determine the focus and effects of diversity training. These elements also shed light on the relative importance of symbols and the diverse prioritized values of involved participants. The shifting language sometimes used to promote and justify diversity training clearly shows the symbolic significance of this training to different groups of people. For some it may be easier to organize around symbols than to address more substantive problems, and, ultimately, conflict over symbols and personal identifications can divert people from seeing and addressing issues of greater relevance to advancing the dignity of community members (Franzese, 2007; Howard, 2000; Koltko-Rivera, 2004).

There are many adverse consequences from lack of goal clarity, goal inversion, and symbol inflation, especially when diversity training is substituted for genuine efforts to promote human dignity. First, without a clear official goal that is justifiable to the community, it is often very difficult to ground the training practically in the actual contexts of people involved. Second, goal inversion typically advances unofficial or informal goals that often supersede human dignity goals. Third, symbol inflation can impede a respectful, community-wide, and evidence-based look at the actual problems with human dignity, if any. In sum, problems with goals will almost invariably create situations that make participant anxious and leave them speculating about the meaning of the training and their own commitments to dignity, thus heightening their intellectual, predispositional, and other differences.

Problems with goals can also adversely affect community efforts to develop policies related to "diversity" or diversity training. Prescriptions set goals, articulate a plan for reaching them, and authorize related allocations of resources. In short, prescriptive activities should be organized around a goal, established and clarified by the affected community, and formalized in the resulting prescription or rule. In order for a prescription to be carried out successfully, it must not only include a clear goal and approach (what is to be accomplished and how), but also an authoritative "signature" (the imprimatur of an authoritative body recognized by the community), and a statement of intent and means to enforce the prescription (Lasswell & McDougal, 1992). If a community does not develop its prescriptions in a contextually sensitive way, or does not address all the values that are important to its members, implementation of programs such as diversity training––which are tacitly prescriptive responses to a putative problem––will be beset by perverse and unintended consequences.

Still another consequence of inattention to goals is that it will be more difficult to collectively appraise diversity training. If there is no shared understanding of purpose for the training, the diverse involved individuals and interest groups will each offer appraisals based on their unique interests, symbols, and identities. The human dignity goal can provide a foundation and platform for collective appraisals that will genuinely advance dignity outcomes rather than the special interests of individuals and groups.

Standards of Decision Process

Efforts to enhance human dignity, based on methods such as diversity training, can be appraised by comparing the entailed decision making process to widely held standards that explicitly derive from democratic and human dignity goals. In calling for a diversity training program a community is really establishing a constitutive prescription (i.e., rules for making rules), thus creating a new ordinary prescription and a decision process that includes information gathering, debate, implementation, and learning. This prescription is intended to serve the community. Ideally, a community's decision process works to meld varied individual perspectives (i.e., diversity) into recognized and widely supported shared interests and a related plan of action that ultimately builds common ground benefiting the whole community. Widely recognized standards are available that can be used to set up, guide, and appraise new prescriptions such as diversity training (McDougal et al., 1980). These standards include mutual respect, fairness, inclusivity, openness, factuality, practicality, balance, and amelioration. Decision making processes best serve the community when they arrange for common interests to prevail over special interests and give precedence to high-priority rather than low-priority common interests. Good decision making earns respect and a reputation of integrity and honesty for the process itself and for the people involved.

In setting up a diversity training program the decision process should not be dominated by elites who set the agenda, the discourse, the structure of interaction, the focus of attention, the problem definition, and possible solutions to be considered—all potentially in service of their exclusionary special interests. The community should have as one of its goals the building of an inclusive arena where respectful, knowledgeable exchange is encouraged. Appraisal should also be ongoing and independent of influences by elites or privileged groups who may have an interest in producing biased outcomes.

Standards of Civil Discourse and Critical Judgment

Efforts to promote human dignity can be appraised to see whether they are in the best tradition of liberal education and the Enlightenment as described by Kronman (2007) and Levin (2003), especially whether they help participants gain more realistic "interpretative critical judgments" about dignity and diversity matters, and whether they enhance the culture and interpersonal dynamics within a community. Civility is a highly valued goal. The academic community seeks to operate under rules for intellectual and other discourse that are primarily civil (see Shils, 1997). Universities are special places that were created and are maintained by society to carry out civil discourse about subjects ranging from the meaning of life to specific disciplinary research topics, employing respect and evidence, where ideally a superior argument "wins" the day. Universities also exist to enhance "knowledgeability" in society by producing a more highly educated, rational, sophisticated, and civil populace and a higher, more thoughtful culture that conducts itself civilly. Discourse is guided, in principle at least, by rules of openness, friendliness, engagement, data, and respect via teaching and learning. These are the ideals and the rules of the modern, humanistic, research university—to promote a spirit of free inquiry, shared humanity, and civility.

At the individual level, these ideals and rules are set up so that education can foster in each of us, as citizens, an "interpretative critical judgment" about life (Kronman, 2007, p. 161-162). All of us have interests of special concern and in life we must make judgments stemming from our self-interests. Through education we gain a kind of contextual detachment that can help move us in new directions, toward, for instance, more insight and contextual understanding of self in society. Some new directions may be broader and more inclusive than our original views, such as a move away from individual special interests toward more universal outlooks. Obviously, people are also free to hold onto their original interests unchanged.

Whatever happens, interpretative critical judgment is a skill that liberal education promises to students. It can help us maintain perspective on our context so that we might escape some of the limiting constraints of our upbringing, short-sighted interests, and parochialism. In the end, exercise of this skill fosters an organized realistic search for one's own identity—a kind of authenticity, a true self, and an agency of one's own actions (Taylor, 1991; Franzese, 2007; Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996). This search is about becoming a free and responsible person, one with "democratic character" (Lasswell, 1951), who uses the standards of civility and discourse described here and has a supporting identity, knowledge, and skills, all committed to human dignity.

Diversity training programs with fixed agendas and narrow conceptual foundations can make grounded interpretative critical judgment harder to attain. As conventionally implemented, some diversity training does not help individuals to systematically gain increased contextual distance on themselves, nor does it enlarge the inquiries, discussions, and perspectives of participants. It does little to advance the potential for freedom and change because of the narrow "diversity" agenda of facilitators and the tight control of exercises and discussions. Diversity training often makes it harder for participants to aspire to, much less attain, the goals of human dignity or, in a university setting, of a modern university community. Open discussion by those who want to engage in critical inquiry common in universities, for example, can be stifled: valid and appropriate questions are dampened or deflected, the concepts underlying the diversity construct are defensively safeguarded, and dissenting or questioning viewpoints are policed. With human dignity as the goal, such venues should instead encourage mature, respectful, open discussion. They should not be a unidirectional "educating" of participants by facilitators who support only one view of life, politics, and society. The goal should be open inquiry focused on life's eternal questions of meaning, isolation, death, and freedom/responsibility (e.g., Yalom, 1980). People should feel free to participate as individuals seeking answers to life's most profound questions, not pegged as members of a particular diversity group or power block.

As a structured discourse, diversity training programs can violate the rules of liberal education, mutual respect, and evidence-based dialogue. Indeed, they can amount to a renunciation of these ideals. This is especially alarming in the academic community, which prides itself on being in the vanguard to advance them. Because of rigid process, limited and simplistic content, and problematic assumptions, conventional diversity training discards the established ideals and rules of an enlightened, humanistic community––unspoken and unconscious perhaps to some––in order to advance one particular and often highly politicized view of diversity.

Tests of the Common Interest

The social and decision processes that comprise diversity training can also be appraised using widely recognized procedural, substantive, and practical tests to determine how well the training serves common interests (Table 3, see Brunner et al., 2005). Analysts can ask whether diversity training programs entail inclusive and responsible participation, whether they take into consideration valid and appropriate concerns of the participants, and whether they uphold the expectations of those who participate in good faith (Brunner, 2002, p. 12-14). These methods provide a basis for determining whether such training is widely supported, evidence-based, and effective in application.

Table 3. Partial tests of whether a policy or program is in the common interest or not, that is, whether it is widely shared by people in a community.
Common Interest Tests
Failure to pass test means
Procedural test
Tells us whether inclusive and responsible participation was in evidence
To meet the procedural standards, administrators and facilitators need to demonstrate that they understood the human dignity goal, included all relevant participants in voluntary ways, and showed responsible involvement in the processes, as well as being held publicly accountable
If such participation is not part of the process, then the excluded are not represented and the irresponsible dominates
Substantive test
Tells us whether valid and appropriate concerns were considered
To meet the substantive standards, all appropriate issues raised by participants must be taken into account. Invalid and inappropriate concerns must be discounted
If evidence is lacking for concerns, then reasoned arguments cannot be advanced, and more comprehensive goals go unmet
Practical test Tells us whether decisions work in real life, in practice To meet the practical test, people who participated with valid and appropriate concerns should have their expectations supported by actual practices, given the context If such outcomes do not occur, then the policy or program fails

Finding and securing the common interest—one that is widely shared by people in a community—requires that participants first commit themselves to a goal, such as human dignity in daily practice. Common interests are difficult to clarify and secure in the abstract, and there is no single formula for deciding a common interest in all situations. There are, however, three universally applicable tests that can be used to help us make informed judgments about common interest processes and outcomes in specific contexts.

First, the procedural test tells us whether inclusive and responsible participation was evident in the diversity training program. If such participation was not part of the process, then those who were excluded were not represented. It is important that all participants be held accountable for their behavior and decisions, but this holds especially for elites who hold power over the constitution and implementation of decision making processes. To meet the procedural standards, organizers need to demonstrate that they understand the human dignity goal, that they are including all relevant participants in voluntary ways, and that they are responsibly and accountably involved in the processes. Organizational incentives are typically needed to support common interest processes and outcomes.

Second, the substantive test tells us whether valid and appropriate concerns are considered, consistent with the broader goals of the community, such as human dignity. The substantive test also means that invalid and inappropriate concerns are discounted, including concerns, which, if acted on, would self-evidently result in substantial losses of important values by other community members. Concerns that entail depriving others of respect would typically qualify as inappropriate. Standards are met when participants respect and honor valid concerns brought up by other community members, and are not met, for example, when valid concerns about process are dismissed out of hand especially by those with power.

Third, the practical test tells us whether decisions work in real life, in application. It means that people who participated with valid and appropriate concerns should have their expectations supported by actual practices, given the context. This means that policies and practices adopted to advance human dignity actually produce this result, and requires that outcomes be monitored and resulting lessons are learned.


The practical questions are how any community can move forward to find dignity and respect for its members in practical, ongoing ways, how goals or respect norms that serve common interests can be established and lived, and how the community can develop the knowledge and skills needed to support them. Three strategic recommendations suggest themselves to help prevent problems and to set up future options to secure human dignity—focus on clarifying goals; build participatory, interdisciplinary arenas and processes; and improve and open up leadership.

Clarify Goals

Every community as a whole should spend considerable thought and deliberation on specifying the goals of human dignity exercises, that is, it should clarify the values it wants to achieve though such an activity. A careful decision-making process, specifically better intelligence (information gathering, processing, and dissemination) and genuinely open discussion and debate, is needed as a basis for clarifying the community's goals in the future. The overriding goal ought to be human dignity and mutual respect, wherein individuals truly matter and we all recognize our individual and collective struggles to liberate ourselves from fears and despotism. The search for dignity takes place not only at the individual level, but also at the level of communities and societies, and we must engage others in this endeavor, respectfully and ethically, without coercion.

Create an Open Arena

A genuinely inclusive, integrative process should be established and maintained jointly by community members. They should conduct the needed intelligence and promotion work and suggest a prescription that might work in their community's context. They should seek out and give voice to alternative understandings—real diversity. They should also oversee implementation and, especially, the appraisal function. In short, they should organize a complete decision process that functions under the highest standards in an arena that strives for common interest outcomes (see Epstein, 1994).

Any community exercise in enhancing human dignity should also draw on experienced members to teach thinking skills and complex, real-world, problem-solving models. Such an approach should present to members an opportunity for "deep learning" (Cross, 1999; Sheppard & Gilbert, 1991; Entwistle, 2000), whereby learning and synthesis can be maximized (Norris, 1985). A lot has been written on all these subjects and successful examples exist (see Johnson & Johnson, 1988; Terenzini, Springer, Pascarella, & Nora, 1995). The community can take responsibility for bringing such an arena into existence and ensuring that it is maintained to carry out problem solving in the common interest.

Upgrade Leadership as Needed

The leadership for any such exercise should come from community members. Leaders are needed to help participants use their cognitive capacities, pursue their rectitude values and other motivations, and avoid harmful emotional and propaganda dynamics. Leaders should link their practices (and philosophical underpinnings) directly and immediately to human dignity and to practices of establishing and maintaining a democratic society and fair dealing.

The first step in leadership and in problem solving is standpoint clarification (see Brown, 2000). Leaders and other participants need to understand their own identities and political agendas and find ways to avoid displacing their personal emotions, beliefs, and value demands onto public processes (see Ascher & Hirschfelder-Ascher, 2005; McAdams, 1996). All participants, including leaders, must escape the syndrome of victimhood with its focus on attributing blame and demanding compensation or privilege, if such perspectives are at play. If future exercises turn into crises for some participants or if self-restraint is eroded and destructive behavior comes out in its place, (e.g., aggressive uses of administrative power), then leaders must face such tendencies and outcomes and counter them constructively. To do so requires clarity, skill, and knowledge (Senge, 1990). Leaders must move such exercises beyond symbolic gestures to practical, respectful engagements.


The justification for these universal recommendations is that dignity and respect depend on a fundamental freedom of choice and mutual deference to people's choices to participate in all value processes in the community. Yet, many challenges attend the process of freeing ourselves from enslaving forces—we must focus on the fundamental questions of human existence, clarify self, and engage in a process of discovering how our values are tied into those of others. For a host of reasons, people are often unable to escape the bonds that limit their freedom, those that are self-imposed, as well as those externally enforced by other people's value outlooks. Not surprisingly, people seek to produce and enjoy all the values to the maximum extent possible—respect, well-being, affection, enlightenment, skill, rectitude, wealth, and power. For instance, people want to participate—voluntarily, fairly, and with full access—in social interactions that produce respect for themselves and then they want to enjoy respect's benefits. The same is true for all the value categories. Doing so in life amounts to human dignity in practice. Tolerance and respect for diversity, in the end, are what really matters. It requires a process wherein every individual person really matters


We appreciate the critical review of over two-dozen people who wish to remain anonymous, and Michael Dove, William Burch, and Denise Casey.


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About the Authors: Susan G. Clark is Joseph F. Cullman III Adjunct Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Policy Sciences, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and Fellow, Institution for Social & Policy Studies, Yale University. David J. Mattson is Adjunct Professor, Department of Biology and Center for Sustainable Environments, Northern Arizona University, and Visiting Senior Scientist, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale University.

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