A multitude of dignities

Are human rights dependent on “human dignity”—and what does “human dignity” even mean?

Jane O'Grady

In the shocked aftermath of the Second World War, members of the United Nations began to draft what became (in 1948) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” states the first of its 30 articles. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, on the UN Committee, reported that one of its members demanded how on earth this list of rights could ever have been agreed on by the representatives of such vehemently opposed ideologies. The answer was, “Yes, we agree on the rights, but on condition that no one asks us why.” To which Maritain objected, “That ‘why’ is where the argument begins.”  What it is that justifies and generates rights in the first place, he argued, needs to be determined before considering which rights to advocate.

Are human rights, then, dependent on “human dignity”—and what does “human dignity” even mean?

In the 19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer dismissed the expression “dignity of man” as a “shibboleth” for “empty-headed moralists”; Marx declared its usage to be a ruse by the powerful for keeping the underdog content with his dismal lot. In the 21st century, the term “human dignity” has been branded “useless” by the medical ethicist Ruth Macklin, while the scientist-cum-philosopher Steven Pinker claims that it is a “dangerous ploy” by reactionary Catholics, for instance, to obstruct debate on euthanasia or on bio-technological extensions of human life. How ironic that those opposing euthanasia appeal to the idea that human dignity will be undermined if humans can be “put down” like dogs, while those in favour of it equally vehemently invoke the idea of “dying with dignity”, and have given the name “Dignitas” to the organisation for assisted suicide. That irony illustrates the intrinsic ambiguity of “dignity”. No wonder that, almost 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it remains a contested concept.

The 13 essays in Human Dignity in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition variously span theology, philosophy, ethics and history, as well as Renaissance art and sacred music. They originated as a series of lectures at the Catholic Las Casas Institute (in Oxford), and include, as the subtitle promises, “Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant perspectives”, though not Judaic, despite the book’s title. The aim of the lecture series, writes the editor John Loughlin in his preface, was to be a “synthesis” of biblical interpretation with history and philology. Discussion of what is meant by God “creating man in his own image and likeness” (which some of the theologians take as the source of our notion of dignity) alternates and combines with examining the word “dignity” itself, the way it developed, and whether, and to what extent, its current association with human rights and autonomy is owed to Classical, Christian or Enlightenment thought.

The Latin word dignitas originally stood for high social status. Cicero often used it in that sense in his orations; with one important exception—where he contrasts humans to animals. Whereas animals’ “only thought is for bodily satisfactions . . . man’s mind is developed by study and reflection”; from which “we may learn that sensual pleasure is unworthy of the dignity of the human race”. In their respective essays, Loughlin, Josef Lössl and John Milbank vary over the significance to be accorded this one-off usage; and Lössl accuses Michael Rosen, one of the few philosophers to tackle the subject of dignity, of “a certain vagueness . . . about both Cicero’s and the early Christian position”, and about how far the former influenced the latter. But it is a vagueness of which he too is guilty, and which is surely unavoidable.

The etymological development of “dignity” is, I would suggest, similar to that of many of our terms for virtue or excellence of character (“noble”, “honourable”, “gentle”). Each of these terms was initially used to designate someone as being of aristocratic descent, social rank being the unique criterion for respect and admiration. They increasingly and surreptitiously came to refer, however, not to being highly born, but to having the qualities associated with high birth; (by the same principle as, in medieval times, “villein” became “villain”). Oddly, the process could be compared to that of a sacrament (which St Augustine defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”) but in reverse. The transmutation, over centuries, of “dignitas” went in the opposite direction—from outward to inward: an attribute of worldly, external rank, and the respect for it, became internalised, so that it came to apply to spiritual, inner worth.

Lössl and Loughlin don’t explicitly make this point. They do, however, reluctantly imply that the accrued meanings of “dignity” are self-contradictory. Originally a way of contrasting the superiority of the highly- as opposed to the lowly-born, it was intrinsically comparative, specifically ranking one human entity in contradistinction to another. Which is why when Cicero applied it to the “human race”, the only way to postulate the high worth of humans was by distinguishing us from the lowlier rank of other creatures; opposing the uncontrolled hedonism of animals to humans’ lofty reflectiveness and reason. There is an essential contradiction in preaching that “the human race has dignity” while in practice abiding by conventional social rankings—a contradiction similar to that captured by Orwell’s melancholy joke about how, despite all the efforts to equalise, some animals on the farm turned out to be “more equal than others”. Can there be degrees of dignity if all humans have it? Or is the hidden dignity of each at odds with the dignity they are actually afforded? In which case, what does their “intrinsic dignity” amount to? The contradiction is compounded, as Lössl and Loughlin demonstrate, by Christ’s declaration that “the first shall be last, and the last first”, which relied, as the word “dignity” inevitably does, on retaining the original meaning along with the newer metaphorical one derived from it—but they clash.

It is, in Christianity, a rather beautiful discordance—what other religion has at its emblem a man suffering a slave’s punishment, bleeding to death on a cross? Timothy Verdon’s essay describes how, in the portrayal of Christ as royal bridegroom in Giotto’s altarpiece, “Blessing of Christ”, the blood on Christ’s open palm recalls the wound of the nails in the crucifixion, thereby “investing [Christ’s] dignity with vulnerability”. Certainly it would be hard to imagine a Hindu representation of a god or Brahmin cleaning out a latrine as one of the untouchables would do. Advocates for the right to die may say that to refuse assisted suicide to someone protractedly dying in pain, incontinence and confusion is to abrogate their dignity. But euthanasia’s opponents can respond that this is just a form of aesthetic discrimination: as if to say that the person suffering is less than human, since their dignity only consisted in being a human at their flourishing best.

The thread that Lössl, Loughlin and Milbank discern as being common to the ancient world, Christianity and the Enlightenment is the insistence that dignity is a factor of having free will and rationality. But what about when a human—demented, paralysed, incontinent—has neither? And what about if a woman, or a human of low caste, or of a different race, is considered never to possess them to the same degree as a Brahmin, or a white, or a man of any class or caste? In the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (the Islamic version of the UDHR), women are pronounced to have “equal dignity” (with men) but not equal rights.

The conception of human rights was perhaps anticipated in Roman law and in Christian doctrine, but was actually articulated by Locke, Kant and other thinkers of the Enlightenment—a movement which, until recently, the Catholic Church has been wary of, as both Loughlin and Milbank still seem to be. Both criticise Kant’s argument about what the individual is entitled to, but their criticism is based on a misreading. Kant did not, as Loughlin claims, “argue that human beings should always be treated by other human beings as ‘ends’ and never as a ‘means’”. Rather he recognised that we constantly use one another as means to ends, with one another’s connivance—but urged that we should never treat one another “simply as a means”. If, for instance, your taxi-driver (who is the means, with her consent, of getting you to Paddington station) suddenly has a heart-attack, she thereby ceases to be the means that was intended; but you have to treat her as an important aim in herself who requires medical attention—you cannot just hop out and hail another taxi. Milbank says that “to treat oneself or another human being as an ‘end’, as the goal of an endeavour, is much more sinisterly objectifying” than treating either as a means, because “an end is an objective full stop”. But then so should be the person blocking the exit in an emergency; the point is that he, and not the exit, should be the arresting focus of your attention; only if he is dead can you step over him.

The essays in Human Dignity are a sometimes arduous, often fascinating read, but I was left little the wiser as to what is meant by human dignity. Still, in debating whether or not dignity engenders rights, or rights engender dignity, it is important to remember that the Las Casas Institute (where the lectures that became these essays were originally given) is named after the 16th-century Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, surely one of the first advocates of human rights. He persuaded Spanish rulers and the Catholic Church that the conquered indigenous people of Latin America had souls, and therefore deserved to be treated with dignity. In that 16th-century case, at least, the notion of dignity really did precede and give rise to rights.


Human Dignity in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition:
Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Perspectives
Edited by John Loughlin
Bloomsbury Academic, 283pp, £85

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