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A Response From Jean Bethke Elshtain

By Jean Bethke Elshtain | March 1989
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Centennial Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of four books, most recently Women and War.

Neither simple agreement nor disagreement seems the best course in responding to Hanink’s eloquent articulation of “A Personalist Vision.” In­stead, I shall pick up on several themes that seem to be particularly compelling from the standpoint of political and civic philosophy in and for our time.

(1) Hanink helps us read the “signs of the times” in caring and discerning ways. The personal­ist vision constitutes a provocative critique of much of modernity. This vision does not fit tidily into our by now facile labels of “left/right, progressive/ regressive.” Instead, personalism makes such labels problematic and jogs our thinking in other direc­tions by insisting that we focus on what Hanink re­fers to as our “established disorder,” whether evi­dent in disregard for vulnerable human existence at the beginning or the end of the life cycle, or in re­lentless fashioning of weapons of mass destruction.

(2) The personalist construction of “human rights” offers a powerful alternative to a starkly in­dividualistic or possessive construal of rights, with­out abandoning the language of rights altogether. That is, we are seen to have rights as members of communities. We are parts of a greater whole with a duty to consider the good of others and not to wallow exclusively in self-interest. However, the so­cial good or purpose does not override the unique value of each individual. Individuals have a unique and independent “finality” (in the words of John Paul II) that must not be overridden by society.

Rights here become one constitutive feature of a notion of public or social freedom.

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