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


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.