Dignity: Its History and Meaning
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Dignity plays a central role in current thinking about law and human rights, but there is sharp disagreement about its meaning. Combining conceptual precision with a broad historical background, Michael Rosen puts these controversies in context and offers a novel, constructive proposal.
Drawing on law, politics, religion, and culture, as well as philosophy, Rosen shows how modern conceptions of dignity inherit several distinct strands of meaning. This is why users of the word nowadays often talk past one another. The idea of dignity as the foundation for the universal entitlement to human rights represented the coming together after the Second World War of two extremely powerful traditions: Christian theology and Kantian philosophy. Not only is this idea of dignity as an “inner transcendental kernel” behind human rights problematic, Rosen argues, it has drawn attention away from a different, very important, sense of dignity: the right to be treated with dignity, that is, with proper respect.
At the heart of the argument stands the giant figure of Immanuel Kant. Challenging current orthodoxy, Rosen’s interpretation presents Kant as a philosopher whose ethical thought is governed, above all, by the requirement of showing respect toward a kernel of value that each of us carries, indestructibly, within ourselves. Finally, Rosen asks (and answers) a surprisingly puzzling question: why do we still have a duty to treat the dead with dignity if they will not benefit from our respect?
sake of moral duty. When the noble prisoner, Florestan, in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio (1805), sings in his dungeon, “Willig duld ich alle Schmerzen / Ende schmählich meine Bahn. / Süsse Trost in meinem Herzen / Meine Pﬂicht hab ich getan” (I suffer all pains willingly, my way comes to a wretched end. A sweet consolation is in my heart: I have done my duty), he is showing a Schillerian kind of heroism. Such heroism is, in principle, available to everybody, not just those of “noble birth.” All of us
being treated in a humiliating way. But if being digniﬁed is something that one shows, is there not a corresponding idea about the way one should be treated—the right to be treated with dignity? To treat someone with dignity is (it seems natural to say) to respect their dignity. But this is “respect” in a sense that is different from “respect-asobservance.” Let me call it “respect-as-respectfulness.” To respect someone’s dignity by treating them with dignity requires that one shows them respect,
indeed explicit. There can be no argument, in my opinion, but that dwarf-tossing is undigniﬁed. But then again so are many other human activities. To judge by my experience, if the state takes it upon itself to prevent undigniﬁed behavior in clubs and bars late at night, it will, to say the least, have its work cut out for it! And should it even try to do the legislation of dignity 69 so? First of all, who is harmed by undigniﬁed behavior? If it is the person who behaves in an undigniﬁed way,
example remains within the orbit of humanism: there are beneﬁciaries to the duty of charity, even if the latter are not entitled to those beneﬁts as a matter of right. The position that I am proposing is far more radical: that we have a duty to treat a corpse with dignity just because one of the ways in which we dignity 140 have a duty to act is that we should perform acts that are expressive of our respect. This is not a duty that we owe either to any particular being or agent who will be
interpretation of Kant. If value is really conferred by “the choice of a rational being,” as Korsgaard says, what about the value of that choosing being itself? Where does that come from? Either a rational being must have value because of its own choice (which looks like a vicious circle) or there must be at least one thing whose value does not come from the choice of a rational being. Contrast this with the reading of Kant that I have just been developing. On this view, the choices of rational