Dignity: Its History and Meaning

Simon Blackburn explores an ancient moral concept that some consider fundamental to human society

March 29, 2012




Michael Rosen begins his elegant, interesting and lucid exploration of the concept of dignity with due deference to its critics. Schopenhauer said that dignity was the shibboleth of "perplexed and empty-headed moralists" bobbing vacuously in Kant's wake. Nietzsche thought that cant phrases such as "the dignity of labour" paper over the disagreeable reality, which is the necessity of slavery. Others think that the idea of dignity is inferior to the notions that really matter in politics and ethics, such as autonomy, rights, respect or even utility. But drawing on classical, liberal and Catholic traditions, Rosen hopes to rehabilitate dignity to its rightful place near the centre of moral thought.

The main problem in the way is that the different moral traditions give rather different meanings to the word. Classically, dignity is associated with rank and hierarchy. It signifies a status or worthiness that belongs to some people more than to others. To behave with dignity is then to comport yourself in the same way as the people at the top, such as Aristotle's "great-souled man" with his rather off-putting awareness of his own excellence, gravely expressed in his slow manly gait and deep manly voice. It is not only women who might want a drawing pin to puncture this balloon.

However, dignity can be stripped of these comparative social trappings, so that Cicero can use it to refer to the position of humans in general in their place in the Universe. And with Christianity there arrives a possible inversion of the classical hierarchy ("blessed are the meek") or, more lastingly, a similar democratisation. We all have a special dignity because we are all, alike, children of God and equal in His eyes. This is a divinely ordained, supernaturally guaranteed L'Oréal advertisement, assuring us that we all deserve the best because we are all worth it. Unfortunately, the patchy history of Church dealings with outsiders, heretics and apostates shows how difficult it is to remember this message.

Kant came on the scene with his own secularisation of the egalitarian message, allegedly locating our dignity in our common capacity for conferring value on things by rational choice. Rosen is rightly cautious about whether this modern existential (and rather American) view of the grandeur attaching to autonomy is in fact the deepest strand in Kant's thought. Kant probably thought that it was only because we antecedently carry nuggets of value in our souls that our rational choices have the power to confer values in the first place, in which case he is not so far from the Christian view. Religiously, of course, granting too much privilege to personal choice is highly unorthodox - just think what "pro-choice" means in today's debates. Similarly, the group Dignity in Dying, for instance, campaigns for more choice in our means of dying, but this is a change that the churches bitterly oppose.

This introduces the notion of dignity not as the inviolable birthright of human beings but as something that can be assaulted or lost, and that it is sometimes the business of the state to protect. Dignity is here connected with freedom from humiliation or abasement, although confusingly there is also the possibility of retaining dignity even in horrific circumstances. This is signalled in Friedrich Schiller's stoical notion of dignity as "tranquillity in suffering". Being the captain of his soul and master of his fate cannot, however, have been the notion at issue when the United Nations Human Rights Committee, "in order to protect public order and considerations of human dignity", upheld the French Conseil d'État's dismissal of the case brought by Manuel Wackenheim. This gentleman sought to overturn an order forbidding dwarf-throwing competitions, where burly men in clubs and discotheques tried to throw dwarfs the furthest, this being a pastime whereby Wackenheim, a dwarf, earned his living as a voluntary projectile. It was not Wackenheim's tranquillity that the court doubted, but something else.

Yet it does not appear that Wackenheim's self-respect had been undermined by his experiences, or he would hardly have gone to law to protect his rights. And although one may not wholeheartedly applaud his choice of profession, he seems to occupy a relatively harmless band on an entertainment spectrum that thrives on undignified behaviour. We may have here a fairly pervasive error of taste, but should the law busy itself to protect us from such failings? Would it be illegal to laugh when Aristotle's idol encounters a banana skin?

Rosen pursues the complications created by these alternative understandings of dignity largely through the workings of the German courts. Dignity is a central notion in the Grundgesetz, or fundamental constitutional principle of the post-war Federal Republic, which states that human dignity is inviolable and that respecting and protecting it is the duty of the state. But as with Wackenheim, the interpretation of such a clause is a headache. In 1987, the courts forbade a cartoonist from depicting right-wing Bavarian minister-president Franz Josef Strauss as a copulating pig, yet this is just the kind of apt comparison we want cartoonists to make. The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell's portrayal of David Cameron as for ever encased inside a condom is surely a joy to us all.

In another application of the constitutional principle, it seems that the German military could not legally shoot down a passenger aircraft taken over by terrorists and headed towards creating terrible mayhem, on the grounds that doing so would be contrary to the dignity of the passengers. Obviously there is a long history in moral philosophy of puzzling over the prohibition on treating people as "mere" means rather than ends in themselves, but this does seem to be an instance of rather too much deference to the embargo. The dignity of those about to be victims of the mayhem needs some weight.

Rosen's admirable book deserves wide attention from political theorists, jurisprudes and political philosophers, although the tangles of the German courts are not entirely encouraging. Perhaps dignity cannot quite escape its unfortunate associations, and we can make do with respect instead. In everyday life, most of us manage to behave with proper respect for other people without thinking in terms of their dignity. We can be courteous, polite, even mildly deferential, without working in terms of such a notion, just as we can show a proper degree of self-respect without putting on a deep voice or slow tread. I might treat your dog with friendly respect, although doggy behaviour can be fearfully undignified. Equally, if I am annoyed at someone littering a wilderness, I might say that they ought to respect it, but I would not know how to work in terms of its dignity. Magnificence, grandeur, sublimity perhaps, but dignity sounds to be a step too far.

In the end, Rosen himself denies that dignity is the fundamental value. Humiliation and degradation are inhuman and bad, but then so are pain and murder: "The worst of what the Nazi state did to the Jews was not the humiliation of herding them into cattle trucks and forcing them to live in conditions of unimaginable squalor; it was to murder them." That is right as well, although, as he recognises, the symbolic degradation of others may be required in order to make their murder, particularly on an industrial scale, possible. The road to hell may be paved with little and large indignities. Perhaps every war has its Abu Ghraib lurking in the background.

The Author

Michael Rosen, who took up the post of professor of government at Harvard University in 2006, studied languages at school and is still fluent in German and French. He read philosophy, politics and economics as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, and before his finals had a brief sojourn as a scholar at the Stiftung FVS Hamburg.

Rosen says Hamburg was not a particularly interesting place for philosophy and social theory at the time and so he transferred to Goethe University Frankfurt. He says that although he didn't really know much about what was going on in Germany, he did know that a lot was happening in Frankfurt. A friend he played football with introduced him to some of his friends from Frankfurt and he still keeps in touch with them.

Rosen says he divides his time between Berlin, the US and his house in Oxford, which is currently being redecorated.

In his spare time he enjoys reading, listening to music, skiing and practising Iyengar yoga. He also likes to cook and occasionally hosts dinner parties, but says he is more of a Jamie Oliver than a Gordon Ramsay (his signature dish is toad-in-the-hole).

He is enjoying life in the US, but if he had to name one English thing that he misses, he says it would be apples such as Cox's Orange Pippin.

Dignity: Its History and Meaning

By Michael Rosen

Harvard University Press

200pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780674064430

Published 26 March 2012

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