A Syrian village is bombed and people flee becoming refugees. A young black man is shot and killed, in effect summarily executed, for a minor infraction, by a cop in an American city. A child starves to death because his family is too poor to provide the sustenance to keep him alive. These scenarios describe real tragedies of people on the brink between life and death. They also describe situations in which not only the life of the victims is snuffed out but in which their personhood is diminished, their dignity impugned.
But one doesn’t have to invoke such extreme cases to identify an assault on human dignity. The child who is bullied by her peers, the minority member who is the object of humiliating prejudice, the financially struggling parent who has to decide between filling a medical prescription or feeding his children, all experience the inner anguish which accompanies the assault on their dignity.
But what is dignity? The word is often invoked, but its significance isn’t immediately clear. I can think of three different meanings given to the term.
An Ancient Concept
Dignity is an ancient concept that has, in fact, changed its meaning through time. In ancient Rome, for example, dignitas had a specific significance. The orator Cicero often uses the term to denote the authority and honor due to a person of high social status. But beyond that, dignitas is a distinctive capacity of human beings in the order of nature that differentiates us from animals. It is vested in our ability to think, learn and be cultivated. But again, dignity was a status concept accompanying character development that marked off aristocrats from the masses, or human beings from other living things.
When we get to the eighteenth century, dignity assumes a different meaning, which becomes identified wholly with morality and becomes the possession of all people regardless of their social standing. By far the greatest expositor of this view of dignity was the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose contribution to ethics cannot be overstated.
The Humanity That Resides In All People
In briefest terms, Kant sees something distinctive in ethical behavior which endows human beings with a value that nothing else in the universe possesses and renders human beings absolutely worthy. In his major treatise on ethics, Kant declares that we use and exploit all things as a means to satisfy our needs and wants. But there is one thing and one thing only that we may not use exclusively as a means, but must treat as an end-in-itself. And that one “thing” is the humanity that resides in all people; others as well as ourselves. As a means, all things have a price or a value, which is relative to the interests of the one who is doing the evaluating. But there is one thing and, again, one thing only that does not have a price. It is priceless. It is outside of the market and is beyond value. Its “value” is absolute. And that entity, again, is the humanity that is resident in each of us. Kant contrasts value with “worth”, or, to get to our point, “dignity.” In briefest terms, in each of us there resides an invisible, transcendent, quality – in a word, dignity -Kant tells us, that is absolute and demands as a duty to be respected.
At a deeper level, Kant proclaims that dignity emerges from our moral capacities. And here he becomes complex. As mentioned, Kant sees something distinctive in ethical behavior, which as noted is tagged to our capacity as free agents. As biological beings our impulses may drive us to want to steal that piece of fruit when we are hungry, but we are free to say to ourselves “to steal is ethically wrong and I will not do it.” Kant interprets this moral freedom as ultimately lodged in our capacity to reason, which he sees as independent from our drives, instincts and impulses as biological beings. It is this reason and freedom as the bases for the capacity for ethical choice that renders human beings ends-in-themselves, distinct from everything else, and ensures that we are possessed of humanity and dignity.
This is quite a lot. But in so putting forth his moral philosophy, Kant became the most influential defender of the concept of dignity, which has been invaluable to the history of ethical and political theory. By way of examples, Felix Adler based Ethical Culture on Kant’s ethics, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which launched the modern human rights movement, cites the central value of dignity seven times, with no doubt the ghost of Immanuel Kant looking over the shoulders of its drafters.
Dignity As An Aesthetic
There is a third meaning attributed to dignity, and it is an aesthetic one. We might say that a person “comports herself with dignity,” or “he acted with dignity.” In this sense, what the word entails, I believe, is a disposition of what we might call “grace under pressure.” When the person is challenged, and perhaps challenged severely, he or she did not fall apart but was self-possessed and in control of his or her emotions.
In my address of March 6th, I want to look at the value of dignity, especially in regard to the second employment I have mentioned above. Among other things, I want to explore what a commitment to dignity personally requires of us and how it might even challenge some of our assumptions about humanism. I warmly look forward to seeing you then.