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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The history of "human dignity"

This article discusses a new edited book on the mysterious concept of human dignity (the article is by the book's editor, Remy Debes). The book, Dignity: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

I spent most of my life until deep into adulthood never encountering the idea of dignity in this sense, though of course any acquaintance with Kantian ethics soon reveals its importance in the tradition of modern moral philosophy. Prior to studying Kant at a relatively late stage of my life, I was socialised into the commonsense morality of my local culture, just like everyone else, but nothing I encountered ever relied on dignity in the sense of a special kind of inherent moral worth beyond price or quantification. (I did, of course, encounter other usages of the word "dignity", such as the idea of a certain admirable or noble calmness of demeanour, especially when maintained in difficult circumstances.) Debes presents dignity as a cornerstone moral concept in Western morality, but I find that a very doubtful claim. I also doubt very much that the relevant sense of dignity is the ordinary one that most people know - rather, it is quite esoteric.

At least in my experience, ordinary people (by which I mean people who are not trained specifically in academic fields such theology, moral philosophy, and human rights law) may seldom or never encounter the word "dignity" in Debes's sense. They are more likely to have been taught to avoid certain antisocial dispositions of character (such as dishonesty, cowardice, cruelty, arrogance, and propensity to violence), to avoid certain kinds of harmful conduct (such as murder, theft, rape, physical assault, and telling damaging lies about others), and to develop certain moral virtues (such as honesty, courage, kindness, a certain level of modesty not inconsistent with quiet pride, and a willingness to settle disputes peaceably).

I don't think this is something odd about my upbringing, however odd that may have been in any other way: I've never heard dignity (in the relevant sense) mentioned very much, if at all, in everyday discussion in any country that I have visited, and nor do I encounter the idea very much in literature or popular culture. Talk of "dignity", or "human dignity", in the relevant sense is language used only by certain kinds of people - those who are influenced either by Kant or by some kind of theological morality. The whole idea is explicitly rejected by utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse.

Still, the concept of human dignity does loom large in some areas of contemporary moral discussion, particularly in bioethics and in much of the human rights discourse. It's a slippery and sometimes frustrating concept. When I get a bit of time, I'll be fascinated to read up on its history.

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