Dignity is apparently big in parts of ethics, particularly as a reason to stop others doing anything ‘unnatural’ regarding their bodies, such as selling their organs, modifying themselves or reproducing in unusual ways. Dignity apparently belongs to you except that you aren’t allowed to sell it or renounce it. Nobody who finds it important seems keen to give it a precise meaning. So I wondered if there was some definition floating around that would sensibly warrant the claims that dignity is important and is imperiled by futuristic behaviours.

These are the ones I came across variations on often:

The state or quality of being worthy of respect

An innate moral worthiness, often considered specific to homo sapiens.

Being respected by other people is sure handy, but so are all the other things we trade off against one another at our own whims. Money is great too for instance, but it’s no sin to diminish your wealth. Plus plenty of things people already do make other people respect them less, without anyone thinking there’s some ethical case for banning them. Where are the papers condemning being employed as a cleaner, making jokes that aren’t very funny, or drunkenly revealing your embarrassing desires? The mere act of failing to become well read and stylishly dressed is an affront to your personal dignity.

This may seem silly; surely when people argue about dignity in ethics they are talking about the other, higher definition – the innate worthiness that humans have, not some concrete fact about how others treat you. Apparently not though. When people discuss organ donation for instance, there is no increased likelihood of ceasing to be human and losing whatever dollop of inherent worth that comes with it during the operation just because cash was exchanged. Just plain old risk that people will think ill of you if you sell yourself.

The second definition, if it innately applies to humans without consideration for their characteristics, is presumably harder to lose. It’s also impossible to use. How you are treated by people is determined by what those people think of you.  You can have as much immeasurable innate worthiness as you like; you will still be spat on if people disagree with reality, which they probably will with no faculties for perceiving innate moral values. Reality doesn’t offer any perks to being inherently worthy either. So why care if you have this kind of dignity, even if you think such a thing exists?

10 responses to “Dignity

  1. I think people have dignity for characteristics of themselves that bring them status, and therefore respect. So it makes sense to protect these characteristics.

  2. You may enjoy this Pinker article: http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/The%20Stupidity%20of%20Dignity.htm

    (D)elevation may also explain the moral tone. Self-modification etc get tied up with the disgust response. People who tell bad jokes are merely foolish but people who mess with blood and guts for cash or other mundane reasons are voluntarily dirty. Psychologically its a matter of community hygiene: http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=262

  3. I suspect what people really mean when they say they are afraid some act will reduce the dignity of other folks is that they fear it will reduce *their* dignity. It is something they would not do, and something they would not respect in others, and so your willingness to do it, by disagreeing with them, shows your disrespect of them.

  4. This is really about taboo enforcement. If one person breaks a taboo, then others might be encouraged to break it, which would (allegedly) be worse for all, in a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. Therefore people who break the taboo are shamed. Talking about the dignity of *not* doing something is an indirect way of reinforcing the belief that doing it would be shameful.

  5. You could write a nearly identical piece on “virtue”. These concepts really only make sense if you fully understand that it isn’t all about you.

    Dignity and virtue may appear to demand irrational and arbitrary constraints on your behavior. And they do. They are also among the defining characteristics of civilization as opposed to barbarism.

    In short, a society that recognizes and affirms concepts like “human dignity” is a far, far more pleasant place to live than one that does not.

    But then, I believe that there are good reasons to avoid unethical behavior even when you are 100% certain nobody will ever find out. Apparently, you do not. (“Reality doesn’t offer any perks to being inherently worthy.”)

  6. Are you saying dignity has externalities? For instance if I undignify myself by becoming less human this somehow harms others?

    I suspect you are thinking of the unpleasantness of societies which forcibly damage the dignity of their members, not those that force their members to be dignified. Obviously disrespecting people is bad for them. It does not follow that forcing them to be respectable is good.

    Your claims that dignity’s demands are irrational and arbitrary and also that it leads to a far far more pleasant place to live are likely inconsistent.

  7. The things that dignity requires are culture-specific and somewhat random. For example, dignity requires the dead to be disposed of a certain way, doing everything else with the corposes is undignified – both for the dead, and for those responsible for the dead. However, the exact “dignified” way is very different depending on the culture.

    Yet, having a well-defined “dignified” way to deal with something provides a golden standard for the society, that may not be perfect, or on the cutting edge of science and technology, but is good enough for many purposes. In every culture, the “dignified” way of burial takes care of rot and hygiene considerations, in various ways.

    What’s allowed for dignity reasons changes with time, albeit slowly. Driving for women has been considered undignified – until sometime after the technology made it easy and convenient (early car models required significant physical force to drive and service).

  8. I think you would appreciate Nick Bostrom’s paper “Dignity and Enhancement”: http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/dignity-enhancement.pdf

  9. Katja, the problem is that the language of “dignity” has been poisoned by, basically, people with religious agendas. But there’s another sense of dignity out there, one that refers to equal status and independence — which seems like much more of a meaningful value than all the stuff about innate humanness being used to cover weird worries about stem cells and transhumanism.

    For an example of the worthwhile sense of dignity being expertly deployed by a top philosopher and lawyer, see Jeremy Waldron’s recent Tanner lectures.

  10. Jesper Östman

    Could be related to the purity and authority dimensions in Haidt’s moral psychology.


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