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Human Dignity and Humanistic Values: A Call to Humanistic Psychology’s Mission

Posted on 19 Dec | 6 comments
Human Dignity and Humanistic Values: A Call to Humanistic Psychology’s Mission

Several years ago, when I learned of my election as President of Society for Humanistic Psychology and took on the role of President-Elect, I began to use this preparation time to reflect deeply on what it means to be a humanistic psychologist. Much of this preparation has been an exploration of the early history of the movement, and its emergence as a Third Force in psychology between the behaviorists that dominated the academy and the psychoanalysts who thrived in the clinic.

As a Society, we have had many occasions to revisit fundamental questions about our humanistic identity. I think we are at another historical moment when it would serve us well to stop, reflect, and trace back the foundational roots of humanistic psychology and its most fundamental mission in the field of psychology and in the world at large.

Historically and philosophically, phenomenology is the epistemological foundation for humanistic psychology. Phenomenology is always engaged in a process of interrogating the meaning of constructs, tracing them back to their origins in life-world experience, and making sense of them within their social, historical, and linguistic context. The phenomenologist never tires of the slow, deliberate process of exploring what things mean, and examining our role in the constitution of these meanings. Whether we are explicitly aware of them or not, these meanings are always already present in the way we comport ourselves to our work and the way we interact and communicate with our colleagues. Interrogating our humanistic identity, then, is a matter of constantly, and with great vigilance, rooting out what we already implicitly understand about what we are and what we are called to be in the world. We can then bring these meanings to explicit, critical reflection and into more vibrant action in the world.

To interrogate the meaning of humanistic psychology, we can take humanistic psychology’s phenomenological approach and turn it back upon itself. To engage in phenomenology is to describe the phenomenon and then to identify its invariant themes. Next, through imaginative variation, the investigator distills the phenomenon down to its essential or eidetic structure. Using this approach, we can ask, what are the invariant themes of humanistic psychology? What is the (situated) essence of humanistic psychology?

Based on my own investigation of the history and great works of humanistic psychology, I believe I have identified at least five core, invariant themes of humanistic psychology: phenomenology, human dignity, rejection of the fact-value dichotomy, anti-reductionism and holistic thinking, and a hermeneutics of love.

The Phenomenological Approach: From Epistemology to Ontology
If we, so to speak, “reverse engineer” the epistemological approach of humanistic psychology, which is phenomenology, we can ask what this impetus toward phenomenology implies about the metaphysical or ontological presuppositions of humanistic psychology. Why do humanistic psychologists in particular seek out this phenomenological way of seeing and knowing? It seems clear to me that this move toward phenomenology is opened by a humanistic ontology that understands that human beings are different than things.

The human being is a kind of being that is a radically different reality than that of, say, a rock or a hammer. This difference is so fundamental to our approach that we often forget it, because it is so much a part of the air that we breathe, yet it is fundamental in that it clearly distinguishes humanistic approaches from all of the other approaches to psychology that fail to recognize this difference—this personalist difference. Within the logical positivism that informs behaviorism and cognitivism, human beings are seen to be objects that are ultimately no different in kind than the objects of physics. That’s why their epistemology is borrowed from Enlightenment-era physics. In Freud and most versions of psychoanalysis that follow Freud closely, human beings are typically understood to be driven by unconscious mechanisms that are biological in nature but no different than other forms of life. Within reductive neuroscience, the human is identified by his or her nervous system and seen to be ultimately reducible to the material forces that govern nervous system activity. Starting from within these reductive approaches, I challenge, it is impossible to arrive at any legitimate concept of human dignity.

Human Dignity
At a time when B. F. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity was casually rejecting the concepts of human freedom and dignity, humanistic psychology affirmed these concepts. The humanistic stance that affirms the ontological difference between human beings and objects was part of a worldview that was pulled along by an ethical concern—to protect dignity that had become the basis for the protection of basic human rights, including the United Nations’ (1948) Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Article I of the Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” To say that human beings have dignity is to say that human beings also have an obligation or duty to respect the rights of all people. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to be freed from slavery; equal protection before the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; and so on.

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher and ethicist, was influential in his distinction between price and dignity. To have a price, according to Kant, was to be measured against other values. A box of cereal and a 1998 Mazda MX-6 are objects, and objects have a price—their worth can be estimated in terms of other values, such as their economic worth. However, a being with dignity must be measured according to her intrinsic worth. “In the realm of ends,” he writes, “everything has either a price or a dignity. Something that has a price can be exchanged for something else of equal value; whereas that which exceeds all price and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity” (Kant, 1785, cited in Williams, 2005). To say that human beings have dignity is to say that any given person is beyond price, of non-quantifiable value that is non-fungible and therefore of infinite worth.

This is why, against utilitarian ethics, we can say that it is impossible to estimate a person’s worth over and against the anonymous crowd. Human worth is not summative in the way something with a price has summative value. Therefore, a single person—think for example of Rosa Parks—can be seen, ethically, to have as much value as a whole collective of people who stand against her.

Humanistic psychology, after Kant, is an approach to psychology that recognizes the ontological dignity common to all human beings by reason of their nature or being. This is why humanistic psychology is suspicious of all kinds of reductionism that attempt to reduce human beings to the properties of things. This is why we refuse to permit the narrowing of the meaning of a person to a label such as a mental health diagnosis. This is why humanistic psychology is drawn to holistic approaches that understand the person to be more than the sum of his or her cognitive, behavioral, and anatomical parts. This is why we understand that the person, while situated always within an interpersonal context, is not reducible to mere social meanings—no person is just-nothing-but a social construction. The person transcends reductionistic labels and simple categories by virtue of her dignity. To relate to the other person as a person of dignity is to engage with her in an I-Thou encounter, as opposed to an I-It encounter, as Martin Buber (1958/1937) described; it is to encounter her as a person rather than a thing.

Condemned to Ethics
We are drawn to phenomenology because phenomenology is one of the few secular traditions that permits a valid recognition of the ontological dignity of the person. With the recognition that basic human rights require us to preserve this notion of dignity, and that our holistic, non-reductive and phenomenological approach gives us the basis upon which to do so, it becomes clear that humanistic psychology not only has a clear epistemological basis in phenomenology and a metaphysical basis in the recognition of ontological dignity, we also have a clear ethical imperative to protect the basic human rights of all people everywhere. This is so even if that means doing so with great humility, with an awareness, through our existential viewpoint, that any simplistic ethical formulation is bound to be just as ethically violent as the pretense that we can do without ethics. Sartre (2003/1958) said we are condemned to freedom. This means, too, that we are condemned to ethics. We are convicted by the ethical Other. We cannot escape it; it haunts us. For us, as Emmanuel Levinas (1969) taught us, ethics is our first philosophy—it is what calls us out to our metaphysical and epistemological stance—the stance that understands the ontological dignity of the person—the call of the Other.

To say that ethics is the first philosophy of humanistic psychology is to say that humanistic psychology is guided by values—understandings of the good life that lead us to take stances on issues of importance. Last year, when Louis Hoffman was President of the Division, the theme of his presidency was diversity. And he spent his presidency working to make our organization more inclusive. The concept of diversity is a value. It is a value that, whether we explicitly realize it, is undergirded by a recognition of the ontological dignity of persons. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s envisioned our future society as an integrated Beloved Community built on agape love (good will toward all people), this gave rise to his famous dream. At the 1962 “Address Before The National Press Club,” King pronounced:

We are simply seeking to bring into full realization the American dream—a dream yet fulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; the dream of a land where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (King, 1962, p. 105, cited in Baker-Fletcher, 1993).

When humanistic psychologists affirm the dignity of all persons, we join in solidarity with Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community. This is why we care about including people who are different. This is why we must. The value of diversity and other humanistic values, such as compassion, authenticity and creativity, to name a few, guide us in our selection of methodologies that can better access (not to mention, utilize) these human virtues.

A Hermeneutics of Love
The disclosure of humanistic values, grounded in an appreciation of the ontological dignity of the person, is guided, I contend, by a hermeneutics of love. By the phrase “hermeneutics of love,” I am intending to invoke the memory of the classic text by Paul Ricoeur (1970), Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. In that book, Ricoeur identified Freud, as well as Nietzsche and Marx, as three “masters of suspicion.” He saw these three figures as representing the heights of the modernist interpretive stance of reading texts in a way that interrogates them for their deeper, hidden meanings through an attitude of incredulity.

In an address I gave at last year’s annual conference (Robbins, 2013), I suggested that there is another way to reveal the hidden meanings of persons and texts: a hermeneutic of love. In contrast to an attitude of suspicion, a hermeneutic of love interprets not through a mood of fear, but through the attitudes of charity, empathy and openness. When a person is approached through these attitudes, with sincerity, it allows the person or text to reveal otherwise hidden truths, which can be communicated through a well-earned sense of trust and non-defensiveness. Whereas Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche were masters at suspicion, it doesn’t take long to begin to recognize important figures who we could deem, in contrast, Servants of a Hermeneutics of Love: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis of Assisi, Thich Nhat Hahn, Rumi, and Thomas Merton are a few figures who come to mind.

The hermeneutics of love is an attitude that is salient in all of the major figures of humanistic psychology. Rollo May’s (2007) Love and Will, after Paul Tillich, explored the important dialectic between love and power (will) by which true power is only ever power through love. In the Art of Loving, Erich Fromm identified agape love as the only valid basis for meaning in life. In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, love is considered to be a necessary condition for a meaningful existence. In the approach to therapy developed by Carl Rogers, agape love, which he calls “unconditional positive regard,” is considered an essential ingredient in effective therapy. Abraham Maslow, in the Farther Reaches of Human Nature, saw love as uniquely capable of revealing true knowledge about the other person by permitting the other person “to unfold, to open up, to drop his defenses…” (p.109). The list could go on.

It is clear enough that a thorough examination of the humanistic literature identifies a hermeneutic of love as a distinguishing and central theme of humanistic psychology. This hermeneutic of love flows from a phenomenological epistemology, a metaphysics that recognizes the ontological dignity of the person, and an ethical call to the preserve the dignity of (and therefore the transcendence of) the Other (who is beyond price). The hermeneutics of love is the interpretive stance that brings these epistemological, ontological and ethical presuppositions of humanistic psychology and puts them into action.

In summary then: Humanistic psychology, in essence, is a human science guided by a hermeneutic of love within a phenomenological epistemology, which is grounded in the recognition of the ontological difference between human beings and things, which, in turn, flows from the ethical recognition of human dignity.

Baker-Fletcher, G. (1993). Somebodyness: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the theory of dignity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Buber, M. (1958/1937). I and thou. New York, NY: Scribner.

Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.

Fromm, E. (2006). Art of loving. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

King, M. L., Jr. (1962). An address before The National Press Club. Washington, DC, 19 July 1962.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Maslow, A. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin.

May, R. (2007). Love and will. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Robbins, B. D. (2013). Humanistic psychology as a hermeneutics of love. Annual Conference of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, February 2013, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

Rogers, C. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Mariner Books.

Sartre, J. P. (2003/1958). Being and nothingness. London, UK: Routledge.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York, NY: Bantam Vintage.

United Nations (1948). The universal Declaration of human rights.

Williams, T. D. (2005). Who is my neighbor? Personalism and the foundations of human rights. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America.

-- Brent Dean Robbins

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Comments and Discussions

I first read Brent Dean

I first read Brent Dean Robbins post several weeks ago. Something about the emotional flavor of the post disturbs me. It is too calm, too serene. Remember the movie Network, Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" speech? Well, this post is emotionally nothing at all like that speech, but taken in the context of contemporary social, economic, technological milieu, Brent Dean Robbins assertion that humanistic psychology is grounded in a hermeneutics of love is tantamount to yelling "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

In a culture grounded in a capitalist ideology that enthrones financial profit as the highest value, that reduces all things to commodities and all people to things, that believes the pursuit of self interest is the path to the common good, that uses feel good happiness as its moral compass, that views people to be at their best when acting like machines, in such a culture insisting that a hermeneutics of love is the metaphysical reality of our human existence, that all people have a unique dignity, that charity, empathy, and openness are our ontological ground, this is violent, radical stuff. It is a call for revolution, the overturning of the entrenched economic system, the tearing apart of comforting relationships, the breakup of our education system, a war against the entertainment industry, a calling forth of irrational forces.

How can we reflect on a hermeneutics of love and remain so calm? I guess it takes practice. For 2,000 years Christianity has promoted a hermeneutics of love and the dignity of the soul (the body not necessarily included), with limited efficacy. I'm an estranged Catholic for many reason but one being because I found it difficult to remain calm, complacent and a loving person in the face of a world that showed little respect for the dignity of persons, that calmly preached love and quietly accepted evil.

A modern psychology of the self, as Otto Rank (l960) has argued in Psychology and the Soul, is a substitute for the belief in a soul. When humanistic psychologists begin to speak of the ontological dignity of the person, of the power of love to heal both individuals and societies, we should recognize that a thin vale separates our human science and our religious traditions that are an expression of human creativity.

Ontological dignity of the person is not a metaphysical reality, it is a subjective truth, a creative, willful choice. Human culture and even religions have parceled out dignity to some and not others. Behind these observations is a debate often overlooked by humanistic psychologists. Are we humanists who believe that human beings have a particular nature, that if we know this nature we can find peace and a place in the world, or our we down and dirty existentialists who, in the spirit of Romanticism, see existence as an undefined "forward self-thrusting, perpetual self-creation" (Isaiah Berlin ,1999 ) which can be conceived of either as hostile to man or as a place in which we will at best find a mix of being at home and being terribly out of place. All we need is love makes for a great song and a comforting religious sentiment, but, a hermeneutics of love is but part of a complex human condition?

When we lump together diverse, complex people from different cultures, religious traditions and historical contexts (Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis of Assisi, Thich Nhat Hahn, Rumi, and Thomas Merton) under a rubric of love I fear we are oversimplifying matters. Buddhism and Christianity do not view love the same. The genealogical method fleshes out hermeneutics. When we search out the origins of contemporary beliefs and practices so much that seems written in stone becomes fluid and by chance and choice. We should recognize that humanistic psychology and philosophy originates in the death of god and attempts, as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky did, to existentialize christian beliefs. As a child of the Roman Catholic Church, an Irish American heritage, and with degrees in philosophy, theology and psychology, I recognize that Christian altruism runs deep in my psyche. No matter how cynical I might become, I'll be a bleeding heart and inclined toward altruistic activism and a belief in the dignity of the person/soul/self. A big dose of guilt and neurotic over responsibility, and maybe, as Nietzsche argued, resentment, goes along with that love. Tillich, May, Fromm, how many humanistic psychologists trace their origins to the Christian tradition and the peculiar Platonic-Judeo Christian mix that is at the foundation of Western culture. Having spent many years in Asia, I've gained some sense that our Western traditions are but one take on the real.

Love is no cure all. Love's close companion is the will and the two can't be separated. As such, love is often a violent, disturbing, disruptive, arm wrestling experience. In therapy, love often fails to produce change. In the pursuit of social justice, love comes up short. In the face of complex moral dilemma love can be an escape from freedom. Love is a very complex human experience. We often turn to love when the gates of hell are wide open and the demons are running wild. Chris Hedges (2002) found that the ferocious brutalities of war stimulate the longing for love in both the victims and the perpetrators of violence. Humanistic psychology, in my view, needs a broader base than "love." A mother's love is a blessing and much more. And, when we look at the human condition from the perspective of love in its many dimensions, I think the emotional atmosphere may have a calm center but all about will be stormy weather. Love is a very revolutionary, radical attitude. Taken seriously, love gets us into trouble more often than not.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1960). .observes, “the belief that a revival of religion will furnish the resources by which men will extricate themselves from their social chaos is a perennial one, and it expresses itself even in an age in which the forces of religion are on the defensive against a host of enemies and detractors.“

Otto Rank (1961), the brilliant, self educated lay analyst, Freud’s heir apparent, recognized humanity's need for a spiritual belief system. He recognized, rather early on, how psychoanalysis was moving beyond psychology to become a system of religious beliefs. Psychology was, in his view, hopelessly confused and broken. On the one hand it pursued an understanding of human existence without a comforting illusion, and on the other hand it sought to replace god and religion with its own pseudoscientific metaphysics.

Morse Peckham (l962) in “Beyond the Tragic Vision” writes:

Man’s tragedy, Goethe had said in Faust, comes from his inability to accept his inadequacy before the demands which the conditions of experience make of him. Hence he must always have a Mephistopheles at his side. (p.255)

William Sadler (l969) wrote a book entitled “Existence and Love.” After rigorously examining existential and phenomenological studies of love even he, a trained theologian as well, slipped into religious idealism and metaphysical abstractions. Love, he proposed, was a guiding force leading humanity toward its destiny. Sadler like Fromm and other humanistic psychologists, slips into religious sentimentality and exaggerates the power of love to take us beyond our paradoxical nature, or to put it in the jargon of humanistic psychology, to fully integrate, to achieve a fully functional life.

Humanistic psychology, in so far as it is existential, needs to resist the temptation to flee our human predicament even as it strives to address our natural human inclination to create self transcending beliefs. This was the message of Goethe’s Faust. The devil continually offered Faust a magical escape from his human condition. Reason, Hegel’s Spirit, Freud’s and Jung’s unconscious, belief in endless technological progress, mystical transcendence, an all loving hermeneutics any number of magical/metaphysical belief systems tempt us to offer people an escape. What I call the down and dirty existential psychologists are the court jesters of psychology. Maybe humanistic psychologists fall somewhere in the middle between the down and dirty and the up and clean. I've not and don't expect to figure it all out. But, when I am not being a master of suspicion, I find Brent's post inspiring. Given the choice between Humanistic Psychology and the other, where my loyalties lie should be self-evident.

Berlin, I., & Hardy, H. (1999). The roots of romanticism. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Fromm, E. (l963) The Art of Love. New York: Bantam Book.

Hedges, C. (2002). War is a force that gives us meaning. New York: Public Affairs.

Niebuhr, R. (1960). Moral man and immoral society: A study in ethics and politics. New York: Scribner.

Peckham, M. (l962) Beyond the Tragic Vision. New York: George Braziller.

Rank, O. (1961). Psychology and the soul: Seelenglaube und Psychologie. New York: A.S. Barnes.

Sadler, W. (l969) Existence and love: A new approach in existential phenomenology. New York: charles Scribner’s Sons.

John, Great reflection! I'm


Great reflection! I'm very honored that my own reflections have generated such powerful insights and ruminations for you -- wonderful stuff. I think you are really at the 'heart' of what I am getting at -- very much a revolution.

Richard Pipes, in an article on the Russian revolution, traces the etymology of the word "revolution." When the Latin revolvere, "to revolve," was in Ancient use, it was applied to the motions of the planets. The connotation was regularity and predictability. But by the time of the 16th century, the meaning changed, and came to be understood ironically as having the complete opposite meaning. 16th century astrologers, applying the term to political events of the time, used the term instead to identify events as abrupt and unforeseen by the conjuction of planets, and were understood to be caused by forces beyond human agency and control. Thus, in an interesting way, the original use of "revolution" in astrology, which conveyed the meaning of regularity and repetitiveness, came instead, with regard to human affairs, to signify the very opposite -- the suddeen and unpredictable. (

A hermemeutics of love, to me, is precisely revolutionary in both senses. On the one hand, a hermemeutics of love promises to reveal deep truths of the human condition that are typically concealed by what might be otherwise called "rational discourse," such as in conventional sciences -- dignity being a prime example. On the other hand, these revelations are disruptive and powerfully call for ethical action in the world and demand radical change.

So, a hermenenteutics of love is a way of seeing in which a revelation does indeed lead to revolution, it seems to me. Revelation, deriving from the Latin revelationem, derives from a noun of action from the past participle stem of revelare -- "unveil," uncover, lay bare." By 1862, it came to have the connotation of "striking disclosure," and has depthful religious overtones as well, due to the Revelation of St. John, which is the revealing of a New Kingdoom of Earth -- a vision that surely inspired MLK, Jr's vision of the Beloved Community - and which King foresaw as necessitating a non-violent revolution founded on the premise of human dignity.

So thank you for your less than calm reflections to balance the serenity of my implicitly quite revolutionary post.

P.S. Just as a point of clarification, when I use the term "love", I understand it to mean the willing of the good of the other as other -- which is a kind of love that without power (after Tillich) would be too weak to be love in it's fullest expression. So I go along very much with Tillich on this, that love and power are dialectically constituted. Love as willing the good of the other as other requires the will to love, and will without love is empty of aim and becomes as a result defuse and weak.

But I think Dr. King said it best when he preached, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Amen to that.

Best wishes,
Brent Robbins

Excellent article supporting

Excellent article supporting your vision!!! If articles are skimmed through, not read, or deleted, I submit to anyone coming across this article to take pause, read it, then take pause, again. Thanks Brent.

Articulate distillation of

Articulate distillation of key thematic elements of humanistic psychology. I plan to direct my students to this post. Thanks Brent!

Thanks Drake! I'm glad this

Thanks Drake! I'm glad this will be useful for your teaching. I am also writing a more in-depth article for a special section of Journal of Humanistic Psychology on this theme of the hermemeutics of love. Bob McInerney and Jennifer Selig are also contributing. I am really looking forward to reading their essays in particular!

Best wishes,

Great article, Brent!

Great article, Brent!

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