Our public intellectual A-list

MercatorNet's focus is human dignity, so we’ve cobbled together a list of 20 public intellectuals who promote some aspect of human dignity. Defining public intellectuals is tough; spotting them is easy. They appear on TV and radio; they write in the op-ed pages of the London Telegraph, Newsweek and the New York Times. They’re smart; they’re communicators; they’re not afraid of fisticuffs; they’ve got fresh ideas; they’ve got mojo.

We’re going out on a limb here. Not every idea of everyone listed below is completely consistent with MercatorNet’s ideals. But they all see being human as something special, something worth fighting for.

After asking friends and contributors to nominate public intellectuals who support human dignity, we discovered how few of them there are. There are people aplenty who believe passionately in human dignity, but few who can articulate why -- and have the wit and charm to debate in the public square without bitterness and rancor. In the face of challenges from dehumanising isms like scientism, materialism and relativism, we badly need more of them. Perhaps more intellectuals should read MercatorNet!

No doubt we have overlooked some obvious candidates. That’s where you – our readers – come in. Send us your comments and suggestions.

Magdi Allam

b. 1952. Egyptian-Italian. Better known in Italy than in the English-speaking world, Allam is a controversial journalist with Corriere della Sera who has written extensively about relations with the Muslim world. Born a Muslim, he recently became a Catholic.

Gary Becker

b. 1930. American. Becker won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1992 for his groundbreaking work on the economics of the family and for promoting the idea of "human capital".

Benedict XVI

b. 1927 as Joseph Ratzinger. German. Pope Benedict had a stellar reputation for scholarship and acute cultural analysis which spread beyond theological circles after his election. He is the world's leading voice for human dignity founded upon the divine creation of man.


b. 1960 as Paul David Hewson. Irish. Bono has leveraged his fame as the lead vocalist in U2 to become an outstanding advocate for relieving poverty in the developing world. He has been extraordinarily successful in forming coalitions for global humanitarian relief.

Rocco Buttiglione

b. 1948. Italian. Buttiglione is an unusual combination of politician and academic philosopher. Outside of Italy he is best known for refusing to temper his opposition to homosexuality even though it cost him a cushy job in the European Union.

Francis Collins

b. 1950. American. Leader of the Human Genome Project and one of the most prominent scientists in the US. (He is currently being considered for the position of head of the National Institutes of Health.) Collins, an evangelical Christian, recently launched a new foundation, BioLogos, to promote the search for truth in both science and religion.

Dalai Lama

b. 1935. Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama is one of the best-known religious figures in the world. He has used his position as head of a persecuted nation to promote the need for Buddhist ethics and interfaith harmony.

Norman Davies

b. 1939. English. A specialist in Polish and European history, Davies has highlighted the role played by Eastern Europe in forging Western culture.

Francis Fukuyama

b. 1952. American. Best known for his startling theory that liberal Western democracy is the "end of history", Fukuyama is an acute analyst of elements of decay in Western culture and a critic of the unthinking embrace of biotechnology.

Robert P. George

b. 1955. American. A lawyer and philosopher, George teaches at Princeton (along with Peter Singer!). He is a leading exponent of natural law theory, the notion that moral truths as accessible to rational inquiry. He has been an outstanding defender of the dignity of the human person in US debates over bioethical issues. 

Mary Anne Glendon

b. 1938. American. A professor at Harvard Law School, Glendon is an expert on constitutional, property and human rights law. She has been a strong opponent of abortion and has held a number of distinguished positions, including US Ambassador to the Vatican.

Vaclev Havel

b. 1936. Czech. Under Communism, Havel was a dissident playwright and human rights activist. After the Velvet Revolution, he became President of Czechoslovakia and subsequently of the Czech Republic. He believes that the post-modern world has lost a deep sense of transcendence and is submerged in pragmatism.

Leon Kass

b. 1939. American. Kass is a medical doctor who moved into philosophy and bioethics. He is probably the most influential voice in the US for humanism against unrestrained technological progress and has been a leading opponent of human cloning and euthanasia.

Kishore Mahbubani

b. 1948. Singaporean. Mahbubani is a career diplomat who has served on a number of major think-tanks. He is best-known as a convincing apologist for "Asian values" and as a foreign policy analyst. He is a good corrective to Western cultural arrogance.

Melanie Phillips

b. 1951. English. Phillips began her career as a left-leaning journalist but has drifted toward the centre over the years. She is a formidable defender of Israel and an implacable foe of cant, woolly thinking, and political correctness.

Roger Scruton

b. 1944. English. Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. His special field is aesthetics, but he also engages in contemporary political and cultural debates as a voice for conservative values.

Amartya Sen

b. 1933. Indian. A Nobel Prize laureate in economics, Sen is a welfare economist who has studied the underlying mechanisms of poverty, famine and gender inequality. He publicised the fact that 100 million girls had been killed in Asia because of gender preference.

Christina Hoff Sommers

b. 1950. American. A philosopher and ethicist, Summers is a trenchant critic of late 20th century feminism who has written extensively on morality in public life.

Charles Taylor

b. 1931. Canadian. Apart from his reputation as one of Canada's leading philosophers -- yes, they do have some! --  Taylor has also been a serious candidate for Parliament. He has tried to guide political and social thinking away from a focus on the individual and towards an understanding of man in a community.

Muhammad Yunus

b. 1940. Bangladesh. A 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Muhammed Yunus is famous for developing and promoting microcredit in the developing world for entrepreneurs who are too poor to apply for conventional loans.


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