A very short and nascent and fuzzy defense of “dignity”

The notion of “dignity” has been much abused lately, primarily by the likes of the social conservatives/religious reich, to weigh in, harmfully, on everything from legal restrictions on how people choose to have sex with one another to stem cell research (not to say the least about things like transhumanism). We should reject these warped ideas, which seem rooted only in a notion of dignity as expressing the demands of whatever god one believes in.

In response to this misbehavior, many commentators, most prominently Steven Pinker, have called for the abandonment or serious suspicion of the concept of dignity.

This is a mistake.

I think that we can understand a non-religious, non-oppressive concept of dignity, one that supports not the smothering of human potential but an honoring of it. We can understand it as something like respect and autonomy (some combination of the two, even), as a value that commands our attention to the moral equality of others, who have projects that are just as meaningful as our own, as well as something in their nature that we have non-instrumental reason to value. I’m only just beginning to think about this issue, and have no immediate plans to follow this thought out any further, so please forgive any extreme stupidity in what follows, but…

The fundamental idea is that all humans’ projects have inherent (non-instrumental) value or worth. I take this as a primitive. It’s one of those foundational principles that it’s hard to defend, although it seems to lie in the background of many of the things we think about the world.*

I don’t see why we can’t call the direct recognition of that worthiness “dignity.” To treat someone with dignity is to recognize that s/he is someone who is trying to bring things into the world, and that this bringing-things-into-the-world counts as a value to us. And that gives us a reason, ceteris paribus, to not interfere with what such a person is doing (counseling things like the Millian harm principle), as well as to actively assist him/her. It also gives us a reason to respect such a person’s autonomy and self-determination. I think a lot of our everyday notion of dignity captures that — think of the idea of “death with dignity,” which is connected to choosing when one dies, and in the manner in which one dies, for oneself — to actively shaping even one’s own death, to making one’s death something that one does (or fights, or is otherwise actively involved in), rather than something that happens to one.

A notion of dignity like that can be brought into play to support things like stem cell research, gay marriage, transhumanism, and so forth, while at the same time resisting insults that genuinely ought to offend our senses of dignity, the sorts of things that appear in (for example) Brave New World. For one thing that’s definitely true about the people in Brave New World is that their lives are not their own — they don’t really have independent projects in any strong sense. Such a notion also seems to create pressure toward social and economic equality — if some people are vastly more able to bring projects into the world than others, that seems to offend this sense of dignity — it seems to suggest that some peoples’ projects are worthwhile, and others’ aren’t.

Bah, perhaps I’ve been reading too much Arendt and other continental-types lately. Here, have some Byron:

ABBOT. Avaunt! ye evil ones!– Avaunt! I say,–
Ye have no power where piety hath power,
And I do charge ye in the name–

SPIRIT. Old man!
We know ourselves, our mission, and thine order;
Waste not thy holy words on idle uses,
It were in vain; this man is forfeited.
Once more I summon him– Away! away!

MANFRED. I do defy ye,– though I feel my soul
Is ebbing from me, yet I do defy ye;
Nor will I hence, while I have earthly breath
To breathe my scorn upon ye– earthly strength
To wrestle, though with spirits; what ye take
Shall be ta’en limb by limb.

SPIRIT. Reluctant mortal!
Is this the Magian who would so pervade
The world invisible, and make himself
Almost our equal?– Can it be that thou
Art thus in love with life? the very life
Which made thee wretched!

MANFRED. Thou false fiend, thou liest!
My life is in its last hour,– that I know,
Nor would redeem a moment of that hour.
I do not combat against death, but thee
And thy surrounding angels; my past power
Was purchased by no compact with thy crew,
But by superior science– penance– daring,
And length of watching– strength of mind– and skill
In knowledge of our fathers when the earth
Saw men and spirits walking side by side
And gave ye no supremacy: I stand
Upon my strength– I do defy– deny–
Spurn back, and scorn ye!–

SPIRIT. But thy many crimes
Have made thee–

MANFRED. What are they to such as thee?
Must crimes be punish’d but by other crimes,
And greater criminals?– Back to thy hell!
Thou hast no power upon me, that I feel;
Thou never shalt possess me, that I know:
What I have done is done; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine.
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts,
Is its own origin of ill and end,
And its own place and time; its innate sense,
When stripp’d of this mortality, derives
No colour from the fleeting things without,
But is absorb’d in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.
Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe nor am thy prey,
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter.– Back, ye baffled fiends!
The hand of death is on me– but not yours!

* If one must have a defense of it, I have some affection for the case Simone de Beauvoir makes in The Ethics of Ambiguity, which, highly loosely, is recognitional (in a Fichte kind of sense) — there’s an idea that we require the recognition from others of our own worth, and, for that recognition to mean anything to us, it must be from those who are themselves worthy of recognition. Anyway, it’s a difficult line of argument, and I can’t do it justice here and now.


2 Responses to “A very short and nascent and fuzzy defense of “dignity””

  1. Tim Says:

    The proposition I found most troublesome is the one that you noted requires a difficult line of argument that was outside the scope of the post: “The fundamental idea is that all humans’ projects have inherent (non-instrumental) value or worth.”

    The biggest problem in that sentence is the word “projects.” Lots of work has been done on arguments that humans themselves have inherent value or worth. Let’s assume that some of those arguments are pretty good. But all human projects? It seems like there have been a lot of human projects that were outright evil (even though their perpetrators might still have some kind of intrinsic value). And I’m not sure the value of projects really speaks to dignity anyway, except insofar as people become attached to their projects and identify with them, incorporating them into their senses of self-worth.

    I had some further rambling on this, but it’s not holding together well, so I’m not going to further embarrass myself by posting it.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Thanks Tim — the intuition I was trying to capture is, I think, prior to the idea of humans themselves having inherent worth. One of the reasons we do think humans themselves have inherent worth is because they are autonomous beings — that is, because humans uniquely have the capacity to reason and will to bring things into the world.

    But I agree that it is very difficult to defend, without a lot of weird backwards moves about what we’re committed to if we think P, which we do think. The Beauvoir reference I made is one of those approaches. Another approach, which I’m very tentative about but which might fly, is to accept the idea that practical reason is always done “under the guise of the good” — that is, that when we decide to do X, we’re committed to believing that there is all-things-considered normative reason to do X. That might allow us to bootstrap the notion that our projects in general come with this moral imprimatur — that each of us is committed to believing that our own projects, at least, have moral worth, and that others, reasoning the same way, are likewise. But that sort of reasoning does get problematic when faced with akrasia as well as evil, so it would need more work.

    A lot of the literature on these sorts of fundamental questions seems to go both ways — some (you can read Kant this way) take as a given that there’s something of inherent worth in humanity, and then deduce from that fact that autonomy is the thing, because it is the thing that distinguishes humans. Some (like Peter Singer) flat-out deny that humans are special.

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