Women only need apply

The announcement by the Republic’s higher education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor to create women only positions in universities has received responses varying from derision to praise. The idea is to create professorships only available to women so as to even out the imbalance against women in higher education. On a charitable reading we must assume that for O’Connor this scheme is genuinely aimed at evening out the gender balance in the higher levels of academia and not simply jobs for the girls.

Whilst one can praise O’Connor’s commitment to gender equality, one can certainly question her strategy for bringing that about. Such schemes which discriminate against one group so as to correct a historical imbalance against another group fall under the euphemistic title of positive discrimination. Whereas in the past women were negatively discriminated against when entering higher education, now we employ positive discrimination to get them in. The assumption here is that because the discrimination is positive (for women) it is good.

However, positive discrimination for one group is very easily seen as negative discrimination against another. This is because the other group that it impacts, in this case men, are being discriminated against on the basis of factors irrelevant to the post; it does not matter whether one is male or female in order to be awarded with a professorship, what matters, among other things, is one’s experience, publications, qualifications etc.

Now one may argue that historically men have benefited from discrimination against women in the past, and in order to right that we must employ positive discrimination on behalf of women. But this is quite flawed reasoning because it treats individual men and women as part and parcel of the amorphous groups: men and women, and it reasons that if an individual is a member of one group, then he or she deserves the appropriate discrimination. But it is not clear that the individual men applying for jobs in higher education have benefited from historical negative discrimination against women, nor that the individual women who will benefit from O’Connor’s proposals have been negatively impacted by historical negative discrimination against women.

Being a member of a group with an identity does not entail that one is subject to all the privileges and drawbacks of that group. Rather, human beings are individuals, and so if one wants to correct injustice, one must look to injustices upon the individual. This is why when it comes to employment, what is taken into consideration are only those criteria which directly affect the post in question, and the candidate is assessed on whether or not he or she meets that criteria. This is the fairest way of awarding a position to a candidate, since the only injustice that can occur will be one which overlooks the candidate’s fit for the post and judges the candidate on criteria not relevant to the post. In academia, gender is not a relevant criterion for the fulfilment of a post, and hence it would be unjust to wield it against a candidate who applies for a position (or to deny outright the opportunity to apply).

So in this case what we have is one injustice being used to correct another historical injustice; and it is not at all clear that in order to correct injustice we must make use of more injustice. Rather, resorting to injustice to correct injustice only perpetuates injustice, accustoms a society to the universality of injustice, and in this case does nothing to promote excellence in academia. This is why O’Connor’s plan is not only plain silly, it is downright unjust.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Human Rights and Human Dignity

We are accustomed these days to rights talk. Rights have a significant degree of authority behind them. The European Convention of Human Rights is a foundational document ratified by a number of European countries. The concept of rights contained therein appears to command the assent of a number of Western democracies. Not only that, when an appeal to some human right (or the violation of such a right) is made it is often capable of putting to rest most social and political discussions.

Nevertheless, there remains some confusion over the nature of human rights, and whilst public discussions may often appeal to rights and rights talk, such discussions are rarely ever principled or follow a logical train of thought. Not only that, significant public voices addressing the issue of rights in relation to abortion, including representatives of Amnesty international, have stated that one is only a subject of rights if such rights are afforded to the individual by some governing body. Hence, if, on their reading, the unborn are not afforded legal protection, then they are not subject to rights and human rights do not apply to them.

This confusion quickly clears up when we actually read the human rights documents, that is, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The UDHR is quite clear in linking the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ with human dignity, and the ECHR follows the UDHR in listing those rights that pertain to all humans in virtue of their dignity.

It is human dignity that grounds rights, and human dignity is something that one possesses not in virtue of being a member of a privileged group, such as all those who have been born, or some positive law granting one legal entitlements; rather, human dignity is something one has in virtue of being human. This dignity flows from human nature, and it does so precisely because human nature is rational nature. Human beings are the kind of things that are rational, whether they exercise their rationality or not. Hence they are the kinds of things capable of determining their own ends (regardless of whether they do so or not), and as so capable they themselves must not be the instrument for anybody else’s end; for that would be to treat them as less than human. Hence every human being is to be treated in light of the dignity that they have; regardless of the legal recognition or otherwise of such dignity. Indeed, it is precisely because humans have such dignity independently of state recognition that one can criticise the state or its authorities for abuses of such dignity.

Rights primarily flow from dignity insofar as human beings must be treated in such a way that their dignity is not violated. This fundamentally entails not subjecting their lives to the will of others, in which case we have a right to life, a right not to be tortured, not to be enslaved or put into forced labour. Flowing from this freedom from being subject to the will of others humans have a right to liberty and security, a fair trial when accused, and a legal framework within which punitive measures are exercised. Being free from the will of others all humans have a right to a private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the right to marry.

It is clear then that beginning from the principle of human dignity we draw out these various rights all of which revolve around dignity; failure to respect these rights is a failure to treat humans as fully human. Effectively what these rights ensure are the conditions by which we can live lives in accord with our human nature. In focusing human rights on human dignity, the drafters of the human rights documents did not envisage human rights as things conditional upon state or legal recognition. At the time these documents were drafted Europe had just emerged from a second war which saw some serious human rights abuses, and it is doubtless that having states sign up to these rights and ensure compliance therewith is a good thing. But compliance or otherwise with these human rights by a state does not entail that one is not subject to these rights. Hence, regardless of whether or not a state grants to humans or a certain class of humans, such as the unborn, these rights, those human beings nevertheless have these rights. Any sort of rights talk which classifies humans in one way or another and attributes rights to one class and not to another is absurd and contrary to the nature of human rights which all humans have in virtue of being human.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Canonisations of Bl Oscar Romero and Bl Paul VI

On Sunday 14th October Bl Oscar Romero and Bl Paul VI will be canonised in the Catholic Church. What this means is that whilst they are already considered blessed and thus subject to local veneration, they will now be venerated throughout the Church. Both of these saints were remarkable men in the 20th Century, and both showed heroic virtue in their own ways.

Pope Paul VI’s heroism is noted chiefly by his publication of Humanae Vitae which reiterated and re-affirmed the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and human sexuality. Humanae Vitae was not well received in many quarters, and despite immense pressure, Pope Paul VI held out and defended the truth. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the encyclical and it is timely for us to reflect on it. The Iona Institute NI delivered a set of lectures earlier this year on Humanae Vitae and they can be found on our YouTube page here.

Oscar Romero exhibited his heroism in another, more traditional manner.

Romero was the archbishop of El Salvador and was critical of the violence and oppression of the time. He spoke out on behalf of the poor and sought to uphold the human rights of his flock. He was shot while celebrating Mass March 24, 1980 and he was beatified by Pope Francis May 23, 2015.

Bl Romero is often considered a socialist saint and a radical because of his advocacy for the poor at the time and his opposition to government forces of the right. This is an unfortunate designation as the Church does not work within the confines of left and right; rather the Church is focussed on the human person and the dignity of the person. Should that dignity be undermined by repressive capitalist regimes, the Church speaks out; should it be undermined by repressive socialist regimes, the Church likewise speaks out. Having the good of all human beings in her heart, the Church advocates for the rights and dignity of the individual and does not swing in favour of one group identity or the other. This at times will entail opposing the establishment at the time, as Pope Leo XIII writes in Quod Apostolici Muneris, the encyclical on socialism, n. 7: ‘…[I]f the will of legislators and princes shall have sanctioned or commanded anything repugnant to the divine or natural law, the dignity and duty of the Christian name, as well as the judgement of the Apostle, urge that “God is to be obeyed rather than man”’. This was Bl Romero’s heroism, having the will of God in his heart and the good of every human person as his motivation he expressed outrage at the treatment of the poor and downtrodden for which he died a martyr. He was a martyr of neither the left nor the right, but for the truth about the dignity of the human person which is at the heart of all Christian social engagement.

Both of these saints are a witness to us to stand firm in defence of the truth, and to resist pressures whether they be to our reputation to our life.

Dr Gaven Kerr