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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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.