Book review of Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014, 158 pages) by Sheila Liaugminas.
With Non-Negotiable, Sheila Liaugminas has produced a gem of a resource for Americans concerned with the various misguided notions that underlie several contemporary threats to the "non-negotiable" principles of human dignity and human rights. A slim 158 pages, Non-Negotiable is valuable reading for anyone interested in deepening his understanding of the consistent ethic of human dignity that figures from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. have championed in promoting timeless principles of truth and justice. In what will quickly become an oft-invoked tool for cultural evangelization, Liaugminas exposes the reader to powerful (if summary) arguments—advanced most forcefully but by no means exclusively by the Catholic Church—the vocalization of which is as necessary now as ever before in American history in order to combat an encroaching reign of policies that disregard human dignity and the human rights and duties that correlate to it.
Liaugminas begins her book by setting up the context in which a project such as hers is so deeply needed:
The “inalienable dignity of the human person” is the foundational cornerstone of the American founding—man’s being endowed by his Creator with inalienable rights, bestowed upon nature by nature’s God. The founding principles of America have been abandoned and are being combated by efforts to dilute the right of life, the nature and structure of marriage, and the dignity of the person from conception to natural death.
When it comes to us humans, certain truths are so foundational for our life and flourishing that they are simply not open to debate or mitigation—they are non-negotiable.
[We live] in an era that calls for the uprising of citizens committed to engaging the culture in the public arena of ideas. That starts with the discernment of which ideas are relative and which derive from unchanging truth.
In 6 ensuing chapters, Liaugminas draws extensively on magisterial and episcopal documents of the Catholic Church, as well as on dozens of articles and studies pertinent to the topic(s) at hand, to tackle issues from abortion to embryonic stem-cell research to religious freedom and the nature of marriage. Liaugminas describes the perspective advocated for in her book as one that is non-partisan and even non-Catholic, but simply "dignitarian," concerned above all with safeguarding human dignity—a perspective that, while not new to the forum of public debate, always benefits from fresh articulation and innovative juxtaposition vis–à–vis supporting and illustrative citations of scholarly and ecclesial emphasis.
In chapter one, titled "Being a Dignitarian," Liaugminas notes that the cornerstone principle of any flourishing society is an unwavering commitment to the belief that all human persons are possessed of intrinsic human dignity, a dignity in which moral obligations and also natural rights are rooted. Here Liaugminas exposes the falsity of the dichotomy between American political party commitments: the plethora of issues grouped under the banner of "social justice" on the one hand, and pro-life, pro-marriage commitments on the other. The first principle of a rightly-ordered society, she writes, is that in respecting the dignity of the human person, each person observes the moral obligation (or duty) never to intentionally kill a person. This commitment is harmonic with and is the first safeguard of the broader commitment to preserve and uphold the quality of human life, as secured through just living conditions, a fair economic system, etc. The integrity of the logic of "dignitarianism" yields inexorably the right to life—which right corresponds to the moral duty not to intentionally kill out of a respect for the dignity of the person. “That basic principle should be, at core, one thing all people of goodwill can agree on, no matter what their faith or whether or not they profess one,” Liaugminas writes. Chapter one, like every chapter in the book, concludes with a convenient "Let's be clear" section, summarizing the basic points of the chapter, often by means of comprehensive block quotes.
The crux of the book's thesis is developed in chapters two and three as an extension of chapter one's articulation of the principle of human dignity and the natural right—as present in our nation's founding documents and the writings of figures like Lincoln and Jefferson as in Catholic documents—to life, in accord with that dignity.
Chapter two explores abortion from the perspective of "dignity from the womb"; chapter three explores chiefly euthanasia through the lens "dignity without end." Liaugminas begins by drawing parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the pro-life cause today, citing King Jr. often as an exemplar of dedication to the unchanging truths of human nature amid unjust societal mores and even laws. Between anecdotes of and by former pro-choice converts to the pro-life cause, an inspiring account of informed consent legislation in South Dakota that accurately reflects the truth that the unborn child is an individual whose life is terminated in abortion, and citations that convey the biological realities of embryology, Liaugminas paints a compelling account of the dignity of the unborn child and that child's right to be protected under the mantle of law from being killed.
Chapter three carries the logic of the previous two chapters to its conclusion: The person's worth and dignity derive from his human nature as a free and rational creature and not from any utilitarian productivity he may be good for; consequently, even at the end of his life—when age and illness render him vulnerable, immobile, and perhaps even subconsciously operative—he must not be killed. Liaugminas admirably combats the twisted logic of "the right to die," highlighting how an endorsement of euthanasia via public policy and public consensus will in turn further sunder American commitment to the dignity of the person from man's natural and constitutional rights.
Chapter four, on the dignity of marriage and the structure of the family and also the book's longest chapter, is particularly incisive in light of the currents of judicial activism. Citing often Pope Benedict XVI's many addresses and homilies on the topic, Liaugminas covers all the bases in her defense of conjugal marriage. She then does the same in chapter five, on the dignity of conscience and religious liberty, taking the HHS insurance mandate to task as an egregious violation of religious liberties and underscoring the importance of ensuring this cherished "first freedom."
Non-Negotiable is in no way an apologetic for the Republican party; nor is it exhaustively of political persuasion, though it certainly concerns itself with the policies and laws that strengthen or diminish a society's culture of dignity. While explicitly acknowledging that commitment to dignitarianism yields a deep and enduring concern with what one might call 'quality of life' issues, including the aforementioned plethora of causes that comprise the rich fabric of Catholic social teaching, Liaugminas unequivocally emphasizes the "non-negotiables" with which Catholics (whom she claims as a primary but not exclusive target audience) must familiarize themselves—the primary examples being the right to life itself and the right to religious liberty.
Laced throughout the book is the sub-thesis that misleading or evasive rhetoric obscures the various issues that Liaugminas takes up, and prevents many Americans from understanding the heart of the issues at hand. Laiugminas exposes the rhetoric of rights to "choice," "equality," "my body," or "death," for example, as being linguistic guises that mask the real rights and duties relevant to the discussion while enshrining a jumble of autonomous preferences (most commonly, the desires of self-sufficient adults) as expressions of "human dignity."
Non-Negotiable’s greatest strengths are its manageable and approachable length and style and its remarkable amalgamation of excellent resources into which the reader can delve further on his own time. In addition to the "Let's be clear" sections at the end of each chapter, Liaugminas closes the book with an appendix including suggested related reading, organized by chapter content. The sheer content of citations renders this book a ready-at-hand resource for those seeking eloquent takes on (some of) the most controverted cultural issues of the day. (Though at times the book reads as a continuum of interesting pull-quotes pieced together with little synthetic glue: By my count, only 10 of the book's 158 pages do not include large block quotes, some of which span more than half a page-length, reaching upwards of 35 lines.)
At the same time, Non-Negotiable’s scope determines its limits, and it omits what would have been a helpful clarification of the relationship between rights and obligations (duties), how both relate to the ends perfective of human nature (goods), and those goods' relationship to the source of man's dignity: his freedom and reason. A more perspicuous philosophical (as opposed to theological or specifically Catholic) treatment of this sort would lend itself toward the book's evangelical appeal, which as it stands will bear much fruit as an educational and hortatory resource, but less so as a free-standing apologetic.
Three particular passages contribute to my sense that the book's purchase for those disinclined to share its convictions will be minor. The first is from the Introduction:
We have an establishment hierarchy of culture-shapers today who hold a shared ideology treated as evolved knowledge, and it’s based on a secular humanist definition of the “person” that doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of reason. It is mostly an atheistic, agnostic view of the universe relying mostly on science, with no concept of evil, no concept of the spiritual life or an afterlife, and not based on any doctrine but only on evolving cultural trends and experiences.
The second half of this characterization especially will estrange many of the "peace and social justice" Christians (a phrase used on page 28) whose commitments to human dignity, if in need of purification, certainly don't derive from the worldview described.
A second pair of passages from chapter six, "Fighting for Dignity in Society," risks misrepresenting the project of the book itself:
The legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in his unceasing commitment to battling forces against human rights “for all God’s children” is the movement he led with a foundation on God’s revealed truth about mankind and freedom, and its nonviolent resistance to the tyranny of untruth and injustice.
[The Battle Hymn of the Republic’s] stanzas speak to all the issues of today’s culture wars, actions that proceed from challenges to and defense of natural law based on divine revelation—in other words, between believers in “God-given rights” and those who believe that rights come from no source other than cultural and political consensus.
Non-Negotiable, in appealing to figures like Lincoln and King Jr. to illustrate universal and invariant principles of truth and justice, hitches itself to the venerable natural law tradition that the Catholic Church has continued to expound but which exists, historically and philosophically, apart from the Church. But in speaking of "natural law based on divine revelation," or of "God's revealed truth about mankind and freedom," the philosophical (as opposed to theological) nature of the principles to which Liaugminas appeals—and therefore their breadth and public appeal—is undercut, or at least may be perceived as such by readers less familiar with the intellectual tradition on which the book draws.
Still, these passages do not overcome the book's typically level-headed and fair portrayal of the arguments favoring abortion, same-sex marriage, and the other subjects taken up in Non-Negotiable. And Liaugminas generally takes a more maieutic approach to the cultural evangelization for which the book calls:
We can … prod established opinion makers with rational arguments—the right questions—to provoke thought about matters they hold as prevailing “knowledge” of the common good.
Non-Negotiable is an enjoyable read and lends itself—indeed, encourages the reader—toward a deeper engagement with the arguments made therein. In an America increasingly hostile to "sensible" beliefs and practices formerly taken for granted, a book like Liaugminas's will do much to contribute to a more knowledgeable and equipped society of dignitarians, and to inculcate in young Catholics especially a deep concern for human dignity and all its ramifications, prepared for the long haul of demonstrating the still more excellent way:
There is no turning back, now that Church leaders and faithful are so engaged in public policy and having to defend rights we used to take for granted ... We have to learn to ask the right questions and be prepared to follow through, in the great Catholic intellectual tradition, with a reasoned case for truth.