The Magazine

Dignity Defined

What is it, exactly, and do we know it when we see it?

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By EMILY WILKINSON
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In the age of Anthony Weiner and Larry Craig, Girls Gone Wild and Jersey Shore, mass obesity and Big Gulps, Crocs and velour sweatsuits, what have we to do with dignity?

‘Dignity and Impudence’ (1839) by Sir Edwin Landseer

‘Dignity and Impudence’ (1839) by Sir Edwin Landseer

Tate

Ours is not, in the aesthetic sense of the word, a particularly dignified age; but it is, as the Harvard philosopher Michael Rosen explains, an age in which another sort of dignity has become the crucial concept in Western thinking about human rights. This sort of dignity is invoked in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity [emphasis added] and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world .  .  .”—and plays a foundational role in American and European high court decisions on such weighty matters as abortion, the use of coercion and torture, assisted suicide, and (last, but not least) the very serious business of dwarf tossing. 

This is an academic book, but with a sense of fun (e.g., dwarf tossing), and while its last chapter, a new reading of Kant’s ethics and the question of why we are obliged to treat the dead with dignity, is perhaps best left to professional philosophers, the first two chapters are perfectly accessible to lay readers. They are not written in the unwieldy, hyper-abstract, and jargon-laden prose that, these days, dominates academic writing across the humanities. Indeed, Rosen’s prose is delightful in its clarity, concision, fair-mindedness, and occasional playfulness—no negligible feat for a slim volume that takes on a hefty portion of the intellectually gobsmacking Kant. And in its affable, yet rigorous intelligence, the book recollects Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive philosophical bestseller, On Bullshit. The first chapter offers a succinct history of Western thinking about dignity—from Cicero to Nietzsche—and the second offers a history of 20th- and 21st-century legal and theological thinking about dignity through deft readings of German, French, and American legal cases and papal encyclicals.  

So what is dignity? Rosen begins with the curmudgeonly Arthur Schopenhauer’s “characteristically jaundiced view” of the subject: “That expression, dignity of man, once uttered by Kant, afterward became the shibboleth of all the perplexed and empty-headed moralists who concealed behind that imposing expression their lack of any real basis in morals.” 

How, Rosen wonders, to reconcile Schopenhauer’s reading of dignity as an empty piety, a mere rhetorical flourish, with its centrality in modern human rights discourse, “the closest that we have to an internationally accepted framework for the normative regulation of political life,” and its prominence in such fundamental documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Germany’s Basic Law? 

And how to reconcile these two senses of dignity with myriad other divergent uses: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s description of his nuclear program as a “path to dignity” for the Iranian people; John Paul II’s invocation of the dignity of human life in his arguments against abortion;
DignityUSA’s work promoting the full integration of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Catholics into the life of the church; David Brooks’s lament for the passing of “the dignity code”—reticence, self-restraint—in American public life? 

Rosen looks to history to untangle dignity’s various strands of meaning.  Dignity began as a concept denoting high social status and the honors and respect due to rank. But even the earliest Western discourses on dignity offer an inkling of another, more philosophically suggestive dignity. 

Cicero’s On Duties briefly sets rank aside and notes the superiority of human nature—particularly man’s capacity for study and reflection—when compared with the merely sensual natures of animals. Cicero’s extension of the term “dignity” to express something beyond the honors due to rank, a dignity from which animals are excluded, that inheres in and ennobles humanity and is based in its rational faculties, begins to articulate the concept of a metaphysical dignity of man that Immanuel Kant perfected in the late 18th century, the formulation that now justifies most prominent arguments for universal human rights.

Rosen traces the evolution of metaphysical thinking about dignity as an ennobling human quality through Aquinas, Bacon, Pascal, and Milton; but it is Kant, “that thinker on whose giant shoulders the modern theory of human rights largely rests,” to whom he devotes the most attention. Until Kant, dignity played a negligible role in political theory. In his explanation of Kantian dignity, Rosen begins with Kant’s distinction between two kinds of value: things that can be substituted for (food, clothes, furniture) and those that have an “inner value” and are “raised above all price,” that have “an unconditional, incomparable value.” 

Kant explains dignity as “the condition under which something can be an end in itself,” the condition of being in possession of “the unique intrinsically and unconditionally valuable thing” that is morality: 

Morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself. .  .  . Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.

The radicalism of Kant’s claim lies in his explicit insistence on dignity as a quality that only human beings possess. Rosen explains that, according to Kant, only morality has dignity and only human beings carry the moral law within themselves—thus, only human beings are capable of dignity. Kant sets human beings apart from the rest of the natural world in a way that distinguishes him sharply from Renaissance thinkers like Aquinas, who held that all creation had dignity. 

“Yet,” Rosen continues, “Kant’s conception of dignity is at the same time deeply egalitarian,” since “dignity is something that all human beings have in common.” (No surprise that Kant’s work coincided with the French Revolution and its creed of égalité.)

So how does this conception of dignity play out in contemporary law? Rather confusedly, as it turns out, not least because of dignity’s semantic slipperiness. Courts, European courts especially, tend to confuse Kantian dignity, the basis of human rights, with the more aesthetic notion of dignity (respectability, propriety, dignified behavior). This sort of dignity (dignified behavior), while often an outward sign of Kantian dignity, is not synonymous with it.

Take, for example, the case of M. Wackenheim, a dwarf whose proposed dwarf-tossing competition in a small French town was banned as a “violation of respect for the dignity of the human person,” even though Wackenheim offered himself willingly for the tossing. The determined dwarf pursued his cause to the highest court in France, and then to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, both of which agreed with the lower court: Dwarf tossing is a violation of public order in its “infringing the dignity of the human person.”  

Rosen disagrees, seeing the case merely as a question of undignified behavior rather than of the kind of human dignity that is desecrated by torture, rape, or any other violation of the autonomy of the individual. A state’s attempt to curb the sort of voluntary humiliation involved in dwarf tossing, Rosen contends, would be an unwieldy task: “To judge by my experience, if the state takes it upon itself to prevent undignified behavior in clubs and bars late at night, it will, to say the least, have its work cut out for it!” 

Nor would its work end in bars. Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler would become public enemies. More significantly, Rosen contends, attempting to curb undignified behavior is ultimately undemocratic: It is crucial for people in democratic societies to be able to show irreverence for those things they do not believe deserve respect—and state-mandated dignified behavior, as in the case of M. Wackenheim, ultimately compromises this necessary right. 

Nor is “the essential kernel of what is valuable about human beings”—Kantian dignity—so easily violated. Acting in movies like The Hangover or working as a human cannonball is not quite in the same league as being subjected to genocide or torture. They do not deny human agency and value in the same way—though they do suggest this violation in aesthetic terms.

Perhaps the most winning aspect of Dignity is the case it makes in implicitly linking Kant and the philosophical history of dignity to contemporary legal cases, constitutions, and laws. Rosen contends quietly that philosophy still signifies in real ways in our world: shaping states, laws, and human attitudes. 

In an era when the study of the humanities is in decline, this is heartening stuff. More heartening still is Rosen’s interest in reaching an audience beyond philosophy professors. His easy, conversational style and pointed avoidance of jargon invite the educated lay reader into a culturally relevant and interesting conversation. This is the sort of work that humanities professors need to undertake if they want their disciplines to survive.

Emily Wilkinson is a writer in Williamsburg, Virginia.