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JANUARY 6, 2009 3:15PM

What is dignity? Is it a useful concept?

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 “Dignity” is a word we hear often in a variety of contexts.  And while we all probably think we know what dignity means, there seems to be a lot of disagreement about what constitutes dignity and what does not.  What is a dignified life as opposed to an undignified life?  Do animals have dignity, and do they deserve to be treated with dignity?  What does it mean to have dignity or to be treated with dignity?  What does it mean to violate dignity? Do we grant dignity, receive dignity, or just inherently possess dignity?  Does anyone know? 

Within the field of bioethics there is much debate about the meaning, or perhaps more precisely the “usefulness”, of the term dignity. Steven Pinker wrote an article entitled, The Stupidity of Dignity. Pinker references Bush’s Council on Bioethics and the “disquiet” that is often associated with biomedical innovation saying: 

“The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of ‘dignity’ a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.” (Emphasis added) 

Pinker then references a 2003 editorial by bioethicist Ruth Macklin, Dignity Is a Useless Concept: 

“Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy--the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. […] Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, ‘dignity’ adds nothing.”


So, I’m wondering; what exactly is “dignity” and is it a useless word or concept?


This issue of dignity is referenced in an article by Peter Singer from January 2007 called A Convenient Truth.  The article addresses a bioethical controversy about treatment administered to a nine-year-old girl named Ashley in Seattle, Washington, whose intellectual development “has never progressed beyond that of a 3-month-old” but who is expected to live a normal lifespan.  Interestingly, there was a recent episode of Law & Order which also followed this very storyline.  The opening paragraph of Singer’s article asks: 

“Can it be ethical for a young girl to be treated with hormones so she will remain below normal height and weight, to have her uterus removed and to have surgery on her breasts so they will not develop? She cannot walk, talk, hold a toy or change her position in bed. Her parents are not sure she recognizes them. She is expected to have a normal lifespan, but her mental condition will never improve.” 

Ashley2006 copy  

As one might expect, one of the big issues is the question of who benefits from Ashley’s treatment; the parents or Ashley.  It seems obvious that the two need not be mutually exclusive; both Ashley and her parents could benefit.  As Singer says, “…the line between improving Ashley’s life and making it easier for her parents to handle her scarcely exists”. 

The article outlines three primary objections to this treatment.  First is the argument that it is “unnatural”.  Singer briefly outlines refutations to that objection, and moves on to the second objection, which is the “slippery slope” to more children being “modified” for the convenience of parents.  Singer replies to that charge saying: 

“In any case, the ‘best interest’ principle is the right test to use, and there is no reason that other parents of children with intellectual disabilities as profound as Ashley’s should not have access to similar treatments, if they will also be in the interest of their children.” 

The third objection is based upon the concept of dignity, the focus of this essay.  This seems to be the objection to Ashley’s treatment upon which Singer’s article focuses most.  Singer writes: 

“Finally, there is the issue of treating Ashley with dignity. A Los Angeles Times report on Ashley’s treatment began: ‘This is about Ashley’s dignity. Everybody examining her case seems to agree at least about that.’ Her parents write in their blog that Ashley will have more dignity in a body that is healthier and more suited to her state of development, while their critics see her treatment as a violation of her dignity.”


So, there it is; the question of what is dignity and what violates dignity.  And considering that we all think we know what dignity is, it is interesting that there is no clear consensus about what constitutes dignity or what violates it.  For instance, as Pinker points out: 

“We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone's dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away.” 

Singer immediately delves into this philosophical dilemma of what constitutes dignity.  He says: 

“As a parent and grandparent, I find 3-month-old babies adorable, but not dignified. Nor do I believe that getting bigger and older, while remaining at the same mental level, would do anything to change that.” 


Do Animals Have Dignity?

But Singer takes the issue one step further saying: 

“We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?” 

GCP-013-Dignity copyDo dogs, cats, and animals in general, have dignity?  Should they be treated with dignity?  Is dignity related to intellectual functioning, as Singer seems to suggest?  If it is related to intellectual functioning, are individuals of average mental ability less worthy of dignity than geniuses?  With regard to those who think Ashley’s dignity was violated by the treatment administered to her, what constitutes the dignity that was violated?  Since she is incapable of doing anything that would create her dignity, I must conclude that Ashley’s dignity is an inherent trait.


So, what is dignity?  As it turns out, answering that question is no easy task. 


Vat2AndRatz copy

Pinker points out, regarding the report from Bush’s Council on Bioethics, “The report does not, the editors admit, settle the question of what dignity is or how it should guide our policies” (emphases added).  So, for the purpose of beginning this discussion, I’ll quote what I think is the simplest, most commonly thought definition: The quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect.” 

I’m not sure the abovementioned definition helps much because there is, then, as has already been shown, the question of what makes one worthy of esteem or respect, as well as how that esteem or respect would be demonstrated.  In Ashley’s case, there was no clear consensus about her dignity or how to honor her dignity. 

Showing respect to another individual often translates to treating someone with “decency” and “courtesy”, which does nothing to help answer the question because we often defer to people we do not consider worthy of esteem or respect.  As a general rule, treating someone without decency or courtesy, or in another word, rudely, is a show of low, or no, respect and of unworthiness of esteem or respect.  But this still seems to leave us in a quandary with Ashley’s situation.  Was she treated respectfully, decently and courteously, or was she treated rudely and disrespectfully?  I’m not sure that either really applies to Ashley’s situation. 

At this point, the concept of dignity begins to appear not only useless, as Macklin says, but rather more problematic than helpful simply because nobody seems to actually know how to apply the concept consistently. 

I’m going to add one more criterion to what might constitute dignity.  I would amend the aforementioned definition to something like this (improvements/alternatives welcomed): “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect, and worthy of absence of intentionally imposed physical or emotional/mental distress, as well as relief or prevention of such distress whenever possible.”  This particular amendment seems appropriate to me because when we treat someone with decency or courtesy, we are in effect avoiding causing them discomfort, whether emotional or physical.


iraq_prisoner_honor_dignity copyAnother reason this amendment seems appropriate to me is that when we speak of treating prisoners with dignity, for instance at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detention camps, we primarily refer to providing “creature comforts”, and to not creating undue discomfort or distress such as that which is caused by torture.  So it seems that we do, on a societal level, recognize that treating someone with dignity includes allowing some degree of comfort to that individual.  This line of thought leads me to conclude that if Ashley’s treatment provides her with greater comfort throughout her life, then the treatment does not violate her dignity, but rather honors it.  Likewise, Ashley’s parents, who will be responsible for Ashley’s care for the entirety of her or their lifespan also, have an equal worthiness of consideration for their dignity.


animal_cruelty_starved copy With regards to animals, it seems to me that the same holds true.  If someone abuses a pet, or any animal, that person violates the animal’s comfort, and therefore, also violates the animal’s dignity.  In this issue we find another component of violating dignity: neglect, which is one of the major violations of dignity perpetrated by humans on animals.  When humans abuse animals whether pets or “food animals”, the dignity of those animals is violated. 


chained copyIt seems that one of the greatest ways someone shows respect is to avoid abusing another, whether the other is human or not.  Even here, the issue of what constitutes abuse may sometimes be unclear, but certainly, needlessly removing comfort, or creating discomfort, is abusive while attempting to provide comfort, or to avoid creating discomfort, is a clear attempt towards respect and honoring dignity.  It also seems clear that one of the best ways to become unworthy of esteem or respect is to needlessly cause the suffering of another, whether the other is human or not.  In this sense, then, I also conclude that other animals do have dignity and are worthy of esteem and respect, just as humans are.


This brings us back to Macklin’s assertion that dignity is really nothing more than “respect for autonomy”.   

Recently, gay marriage has become a high profile issue.  It seems fair to say that disallowing gays and lesbians the same privileges as other citizens unnecessarily creates discomfort and distress for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  This clearly “violates” the dignity of these citizens, unless we are to conclude they have no dignity, and that they are not worthy of esteem or respect, and comfort. 

What of our brothers and sisters with various forms of “mental illness”?  The stigma surrounding these mental states only creates undue discomfort and distress for these individuals. This is another area where neglect is a major issue.

Viewing comfort, or lack of discomfort, as a key to “dignity”, casts many social and policy issues into a different light or a different character.  How often is dignity referenced without explicitly linking it to the concept of “comfort”?  How many social issues such as stem cell research are opposed within the framework of “human dignity” but are never linked to an individual’s worthiness of “comfort” or freedom from suffering?  

“Morality” seems to be connected to dignity, as well.  Considering the concept of comfort, can we separate morality from suffering?  Somehow, to separate the concepts of morality and suffering seems counterintuitive; to cause another being to suffer or to allow someone to suffer needlessly when that suffering can be ended is not generally seen as moral.  Violating a person’s dignity is viewed as an immoral act, and said act of violation is generally associated with imposing some form of suffering or discomfort onto another individual. 

Pride appears to be a factor in what many think of as dignity.  For instance, when one is humiliated, embarrassed publicly, it is often said to offend or violate that person’s dignity.  Being humiliated is an affront to one’s pride, yet, how well one manages that humiliation is often said to exhibit dignity.  As in Pinker’s example of enslaving or degrading an individual, it seems that suffering quietly is often considered a display of dignity.  Interestingly, pride is also one of the "Seven Deadly Sins"; it is a sin in one culture, a virtue in another.  Is suffering quietly more dignified than rising up against the source of imposed suffering?  Again, there seems to be no clear consensus.  Can it be that both acts are equally dignified, despite being opposite acts?


dignity view11 copyAs one example of the links among dignity, morality, and suffering, I would point to the societal debate concerned with the concepts encapsulated within Oregon’s Medical Marijuana and Death with Dignity acts.  Both of those laws allow individuals to commit what many view as improper and undignified actions in order to avoid suffering, thereby preserving their dignity. So, is it possible to preserve one's dignity through the commission of an undignified act?

Another question that might be explored here is the concept of “dignity of the dead”.  That has always seemed a strange concept to me.  Is someone who is dead capable of having dignity?  It seems unlikely, so it is more likely a case in which dignity is assigned to the dead.  Can the dignity of a dead person be violated?  We've all heard the saying, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”  This suggests we should show a level of respect towards someone who is dead, often even if that person was not respected while alive.


That which one person views as honoring dignity, another person views as violating dignity.  Within the same culture, an affront to one's pride is a violation of that person's dignity, yet pride itself is considered undignified.  

I think the term, dignity, mostly and best serves a sort of poetic purpose, as context seems to be a primary reference point for what the word means, and poetry often benefits from a degree of ambiguity in the meanings of words, and there is little consensus about source or interpretation of the content or meaning of dignity. 

For all the more specific meanings and usages associated with dignity, such as in the field of bioethics, and for the purposes of policy decisions and research, I think there are better terms that avoid the ambiguity that comes with the word dignity, which only obstructs intelligent, rational formation of policy. For instance, Bush’s Council on Bioethics has seemingly attempted to place dignity at the center of debates regarding bioethics in research, yet they don't bother to define dignity or to explain how it should guide decisions and policy.

I’ve presented some varying views here, including some of my own, and I hope for a wide-ranging array of comments, varying opinions, and perhaps some views not yet mentioned.


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Rick, what a question and what a post? Volumes have been written about this. And why is it such a complicated question when you really think about it? But it is. When my mother suffered from Alzheimer's for many years, this was a daily question. For her last 8 years, she certainly didn't know who we were, and she didn't even know who she was. She didn't know she was a she or even a person for that matter. Visiting her made me angry. Keeping "her" alive made me angry. I felt our pets are treated with more dignity than she was or many of the other residents. And I have no answers for you to this, but I so appreciate your piece and the many many aspects of dignity you brought up. Thank you.
Moral courage, a virtue, would have us do the best we can under whatever circumstances we face. The best we can do sometimes is often woefully inadequate, and I think that this is one of the reasons that there isn't a "bright line" that we can draw to say exactly what dignity is, since the perspective depends on where you sit. If you are marytkelly's mother, dignity may be something her condition no longer allows her to express, but it can be expressed in the way that the people around her interact with and treat her. I think, in the end, it means that we restrain ourselves from expressions of cruelty no matter what the cost may be to ourselves.

Mary points to the inadequacy of this in her response. Cruelty may mean we cause no physical harm, but what can we do for someone who is "not there" in a sense? How do we express this idea when we are dealing with animals rather than human beings? Good question!

Personal dignity seems to require some consciousness of ones condition in terms of the ability to appreciate that one had been treated well, fairly, kindly etc. However, recognition that another ought to be treated with dignity, is a personal or professional requirement. We know it is often not successfully met. Human beings can behave more like beasts than idealists and often do, justifying and rationalizing their actions.

You are right, the Bushies do leave things vague. Probably because it would require more difficult thought than they wish to engage in, they just want to do the 'right' thing, as if we all know what that is, as if there are no moral complexities, and there has never been a more difficult measure than that 'right thing.'

I want to think about this a little more and may come back...
Mary and Susanne,

Thank you both for such thoughtful comments.

Mary, your situation is exactly the type of situation that is so often referred to in terms of 'human dignity', yet nobody seems able to actually determine what that is. Is dignity a useful concept in this?

Susanne, you point out a possible explanation for the shortsighted use of 'dignity' by the "Bushies" --- to simplify things inappropriately and where simplification is inappropriate. I hope you come back with more thoughts on this...
You've outdone yourself, Rick. This is a really, really interesting post, one that makes me think hard. My comment here is just a placeholder for now; I'll be back.
I could cop out and say dignity, like pornography, is one of those things that you know when you see it, even if you can't put together words to define it. And regarding animals, most people would agree, especially after looking at the pictures you posted, that animals are entitled to dignity. But do we really? Sure, a dog is. What about a mouse? A mole? A fish? A crab? A spider? A flea?

What living things, finally, are entitled to dignity? Are any? Is dignity a meaningless concept in a world ruled by physical properties absent of a God or Afterlife? If so, who is deserving, and who is not? I'm thinking again of the spider and the fish.
I think it's one of those words like "rights" (or, for that matter, "love") that has many meanings in different contexts. This ambiguity means that it is not a particularly useful concept unless its intended meaning in a particular context is specifically identified by the author. Your post does an excellent job of pointing out many examples of how the word can be used by different people to mean very different things, and how conflating them can make otherwise sensible arguments seem absurd, and vice versa.
"We've all heard the saying, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” This suggests we should show a level of respect towards someone who is dead, often even if that person was not respected while alive."

I understand the rationale for not speaking ill of the dead is that the dead can no longer defend themselves. Your illustrations are of those who cannot defend--or fend for--themselves. Dignity in this context is at issue in the breach, and when there is an imbalance of power.

I've turned myself into knots on this already, and have deleted more than I've left in. This thinking business may take a while.
I'm just going to give a series of impressions and reactions rather than trying to craft them into a narrative. I hope that this isn't worthless to everyone else.

The Pinker article was an eye-opener, from a political standpoint. I can see why it appeared in TNR, what with the light it sheds on the Bush administration's misdeeds, even down to stacking the deck on an ethics commission. They (the Bushies) are seriously dangerous and immoral people. I largely agreed with Pinker's views. (Side note: I don't agree with all of his writing on cognition, but that's perhaps more of a philosophical difference than anything else.) The only point I'd raise is that I think he oversimplifies a bit when writing about hypotheticals: Some hypothetical situations we might like to avoid don't really need empirical support for bad outcomes, such as "desecration" of dead bodies. I believe that all human societies seem to attach ritual to the treatment of their dead; we don't need to ask, "What would happen if they didn't?" in order to say, "Well, let's not go there." Why? I don't know either, but just because I don't understand some issue doesn't mean I can't acknowledge its apparent reality.

Pinker does make one central point which is the first thing that occurred to me: Dignity is inextricably tied up with our understanding of personhood. To treat someone with dignity is essentially recognizing that they are a person. It's hard to see what more is needed than that bare statement, to me. Thus, if we talk about the dignity of animals, we're talking about treating them as persons, to the extent that they may be persons. (I'm not taking a stand here, one way or another, on whether non-human animals actually are persons or not, but I know many people do have strong opinions. I'd need to think about it more.)

That said, I think that there are other ways to argue against mistreating animals than saying that we're violating their dignity: It debases our own humanity (in my view) if we are willing to ignore the suffering of animals that can experience suffering and do nothing to alleviate it. All that's required is sentience on the part of the sufferer, rather than personhood and thus dignity. Thus (to use a political example, since politics has come into this) George Bush was shown to be something of a sociopath at a young age by his delight in stuffing firecrackers down the throats of live frogs; whether he outgrew this cruelty is an open question. Dignity doesn't necessarily come into the picture.

On the other hand, I don't believe that Macklin's "respect for autonomy" is sufficient, either, because I don't think there's a really good way of establishing (in philosophical terms) that any given person, animal, or even computer system has or lacks autonomy.

So, I'm kinda running on, so I'll stop and wait for now.
My goodness, Rick, what an ambitious post--congratulations on such an excellent topic. I've only begun to scan it and must leave now to help my son with a huge, two-month-long project due tomorrow that he hasn't started yet (!) but I am definitely coming back to this one.
Well, I just finished up another 3 hours of shoveling snow, most of it off the back porch roof (don't want it fall like the carport did), and found all these great responses to this post. I'll get back later to respond in more depth. Thanks to all of you for the thoughtful input, and to those who say they'll be back, I certainly hope you will be.
Whoa Rick! This is some HEAVY duty stuff to digest. I don't think I could answer all my feelings on this blog comment. I love the way you showed the different sides of dignity and/or what it is. I'm glad to see you include the dignity and rights of poor helpless animals. The story about the little girl is a tough thing to swallow. It reminds me of the Terri Shivo quagmire.

I believe the gentleman Michael Wynn comes close to defining dignity as we know it. But is it too broad? Great question. I have a father who is slowly dying from Alzheimer's and I see people on a daily basis where he lives that I truly believe would rather be dead if they could only communicate it. And, even if they could, nothing would be done. They sit in there own feces and urine. That's not dignified to me, even though the staff fights the never-ending battle to show them dignity.

I will be glad to see what others have to say, then I'll digest and return.

Thanks for making me aware of this.
GREAT work.
I wish you hadn't put that pix of the dog there Rick, it destroyed my train of thought. Dignity to me is so important its scary. I've fought and mostly failed to have dignity for most of my life, and I haven't had to face yet a lot of the things that really put one to the test for most: i.e. severe illness, old age, and death. My wife faced terminal illness with a dignity that has left me aghast for the last 15 months. I don't know if I will ever recover and I am almost sure I will never be as big. My hope is for a heart attack while I am asleep, but maybe I won't be lucky. Cheers.
Good gracious, there's a lot to chew on here. I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) along for the ride on many of your premises. Ashley's dignity is no more impinged than her parents' in their desire to make the rest of her natural lifespan as comfortable and easy for her caretakers as possible; a fertilized egg does not have dignity; warm-blooded animals do; fish and cold-blooded animals, perhaps not, but I still don't want to see them unnecessarily hurt; a corpse doesn't; a flag doesn't; a concrete wall doesn't.

I cannot tell you why I draw these distinctions, anymore than I can tell you why I shudder at depictions of torture. But your search for a phenomenological definition of "dignity" makes for fine thought-fodder.

Long day here. My brain is a bit wrung out, but I can add a brief take on the subject, at least in how I see dignity.
I see dignity as a projection to the world of the quality of our humanity, and a plea to others that they treat us in a manner that respects and reflects that humanity.
Do dogs, for example, have dignity? I asked my blue-eyed, orange Aussie Shepherd, (the one in my pic) and he just looked at me for a moment, then laid his head back down and sighed. I hate it when he treats me like I just asked a stupid question.
wow. you tackle an enormous philosophical question and bring some good insights to it.

As a practicing Unitarian Universalist (UU) (an oxymoron, I know), I've thought about the idea of dignity some. The first of seven principles that UUA congregations affirm and promote is:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person

In explaining this to our religious ed classes, we offer the explanation that ...
"each person is important. No one is more important than any other"
and yep, this is true even if his mother is the minister or her dad is the President or they are poor or Iraqi or whatever)

How this manifests itself in real life and actions is, I think, the much larger question your essay attempts to address. I tend to think it has much more to do with ensuring an absence of suffering than a provision of comfort (which seems like such a Western word). But it also has to do with affording a basic level of respect.

On the human level, it gets tricky when dealing with criminals, terrorists, non-cognizant older people or even the silly folks who parade themselves with complete indignity all over reality TV.

Clearly, I have no answers, but I don't think it's a useless concept. At some level, it forms the basis for those famous words...

...all [men] are created equal & endowed...with certain inalienable rights...
If you have never read it, you might enjoy checking out Kazuo Ishiguro's novel "Remains of the Day." It is from the perspective of a man who over time has developed a philosophy of dignity that is very involved, perhaps unusual - it's a very compelling read, a fantastic novel.
I can no more imagine providing a satisfactory definition for dignity than for reality. And even if one had such a definition, drawing such lines for ourselves is hard enough, drawing them for others is impossible. Still it must be done, but all I have to contribute to this discussion is questions.

If Ashley is expected to live a normal lifespan, who is to care for her when her parents pass on? Though both are profoundly handicapped, isn't there a difference between Ashley and Stephen Hawking?

Which better serves dignity - discarding frozen embryos in the trash or using them for stem cell research? Is there dignity in forcing a mother of ten to have another unwanted child? Is there dignity in forcing a crack addict mom to deliver her unwanted child?

Is dignity better served by starving or eating human flesh? Is dignity better served by refusing to bend to a tyrant or by living to fight him another day? Is dignity better served by dying or by surviving Auschwitz?

Is there dignity in denying terminal patients death on their own terms? Is there more dignity in prolonging the life of a beloved pet that has gone blind or immobile or in putting it to sleep?
Much to consider here, Rick and far too much to ignore. Would that all of the planet take these thoughts into consideration. Not only as they read what you so eloquently (and diligently) have brought forth, but with every action and word directed toward humanity. I have no answers, but I am more than pleased that there are people like you that beg the question. Rated for your dignity in addressing them.
I think it is talking the talk and walking the walk. Thanks for the post Rick.
I can no more imagine providing a satisfactory definition for dignity than for reality. And even if one had such a definition, drawing such lines for ourselves is hard enough, drawing them for others is impossible. Still it must be done, but all I have to contribute to this discussion is questions.

If Ashley is expected to live a normal lifespan, who is to care for her when her parents pass on? Though both are profoundly handicapped, isn't there a difference between Ashley and Stephen Hawking?

Which better serves dignity - discarding frozen embryos in the trash or using them for stem cell research? Is there dignity in forcing a mother of ten to have another unwanted child? Is there dignity in forcing a crack addict mom to deliver her unwanted child?

Is dignity better served by starving or eating human flesh? Is dignity better served by refusing to bend to a tyrant or by living to fight him another day? Is dignity better served by dying or by surviving Auschwitz?

Is there dignity in denying terminal patients death on their own terms? Is there more dignity in prolonging the life of a beloved pet that has gone blind or immobile or in putting it to sleep?
I'm talked out today, but I wanted to say Thank you for this post. I will learn much reading everyone's ideas.
Peter Singer goes too far at times. The parents who have to look after their child need to decide which is the best course of action. It's not that clear cut or obvious when reading about it from the sidelines.
Like God, or Spirit, Dignity seems to be a word only nebulously defined by what it isn't rather than what it is. Of course, this is really the problem with words, which is what makes this such a marvellous post. Your ability to get near the heart of the matter in what really is few words is remarkable.
Thank you and rated!
This is the most ambitious post I have ever read on Open Salon, and I mean that in a good way. But the post also demonstrates the limitations of an online venue. So many issues are raised that it is difficult to know where to begin.

But it is a post obviously written by a person with a kind heart and a well-developed ethical sensibility, and I find it inspiring, even though I don't have the time to respond with a worthy comment.
Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Rick. Too many levels to address without writing a post myself, which I will refrain from doing (don't wanna bloghog).

Pinker's descent into "public intellectual" status has made him more popular but even less rigorous than earlier IMO. So let's discount him (like Rob in a related area, I particularly differ with Pinker on theory of language). Singer presents a different can of worms. Without his utilitarianism reaching beyond the human species, he can't support his animal rights positions. But then to be consistent with his utilitarianism, he has to take seemingly callous positions regarding severely handicapped infants.

In each case, it seems to me, dignity is not central to their position, rights are. And perhaps this is because where dignity is used tautologically and synonymously with being an attribute of being human (limiting it to humans for now), rights can be specified and enumerated. So even a right to dignity does not get us out of that box.

The UN Charter includes dignity in its preamble: "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person...". And more famously and importantly, the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." But nowhere, to my knowledge, is "dignity" defined in the documents. Like art and pornography, we're supposed to know it when we see it.

For me, actually, the best depiction, if not definition, of both human and animal dignity is in J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace (as well as in much of his other writings).

I'll set up one passage. The protagonist, a disgraced former professor, is working at a small town veterinarian's, where one of his jobs is to cradle the dogs as the vet applies lethal injections and then to dispose of their bodies at a local incinerator. He sees the workers mistreat the corpses as they are fed into the fire and thereafter takes over the task himself. Here's the quote:

"Why has he taken the job? To lighten the burden on Bev Shaw (the vet)? For that it would be enough to drop off the bags at the dump and drive away. For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?
For himself, then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing."

Huge thought topic, thanks. As someone who has been working with people with mental illness and demetia disorders for years (and as someone who is just curious about...stuff), this is something I think about a lot - and struggle with. Its interesting to me that, while I've often questioned what constitutes dignity in many of the ways you have described, I've never actually questioned the 'usefulness' of the word or concept in and of itself. That's kind of blowing my mind, and making me think of all of the other words associated and derived of the word *dignity* - and questioning the usefulness of that some of language, as well - and whether the usefulness of one term might justify the use of another, and on and on... So, I'm off to think about these things for however long. Huh. Thanks, this is amazing writing.
I'm sorry it has taken so long for me to respond back, but I have literally been recuperating from my battles with the snow shovel earlier. I'm starting to feel a little more energized again, so I'll consider some of these contributions to this post; contributions which have already exceeded my expectations!

I had the same thought when I started thinking about this: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that really did not fit this particular situation. We all think we know it when we see it, but we don’t, because we don’t know what it is. It is one thing for one person, and something else for another. That is also true to some extent with pornography, but not nearly to the same extent.

Your sliding scale regarding which “animals” might have, or be worthy of, dignity was also similar to something I considered. I think Buddhism does not distinguish between species where this is concerned.

Your statement regarding “God or Afterlife” left me a little unsure of your meaning. Might you elaborate on that idea? My most sincere question to you is; what does God or Afterlife have to do with dignity? I don’t see a connection.

Thanks for you thoughtful comment. Regarding the ambiguous and many meanings of “dignity” you say, “…conflating them can make otherwise sensible arguments seem absurd”. This was precisely the initial inspiration for this post. I keep hearing dignity-based arguments for or against certain ideas, but too often nobody making those arguments really outlines how dignity should be a factor.
Mrs. Michaels,

I appreciated your contribution here. I understand your point about the rationale for the saying about not speaking ill of the dead, and your right about my examples that outline an imbalance of power.

I’m not sure the rationale is valid in the case of deceased persons. And for the record, I always feel sort of guilty if I say something bad about someone who has died. Perhaps that is merely conditioning; probably is.

Regarding commenting on this you say, “I've turned myself into knots on this already, and have deleted more than I've left in.”

I had to laugh out loud. You can’t know how much I left out my blog above because of the already seemingly overwhelming length of it. I was afraid the length would scare people off. Suffice it to say I understand your dilemma.


Thanks for your typically thoughtful response. You never disappoint.

On the matter of “personhood”, how exactly is that defined? What determines personhood? Is it species membership, is it specific behaviors, is it merely how others view us, or is there some other unknown element?

I appreciate that you reiterated the idea expressed in my post that “neglect” is a manner in which we can “debase our own humanity”. I think that’s an important aspect that is too often overlooked. And you nicely point out how the concept of dignity does not really add much to that equation.

Regarding Mackin’s “respect for autonomy”, I think the way to view that idea is that it was presented primarily in the context of bioethics, and not intended to necessarily go beyond that arena.

I hope your son's project went well. I truly hope you return with some input on this; you usually make good comments.

Your description of what you see “on a daily basis where [your dad] lives” raises the bioethical issue of your not seeing that as dignified, yet others would argue that for these people to be allowed to end their lives would not be dignified. Who decides what is dignified? This is where Macklin’s "respect for autonomy" fits into the debate; shouldn’t it be up to those who ARE capable of deciding for themselves?

Thanks for you contribution to this discussion.
I am so glad that CCC mentioned Coetzee's Disgrace, which I think is one of the best novels about the human condition that I have ever read. It affected me profoundly, made me terribly sad, yet in the end, uplifted me. The protagonist also refuses to save a crippled dog he has taken a liking to, even though he could. I grappled with that for a long time but finally understood why he did it. It had to do with respect and dignity for ALL the dogs and the people who work with them.

The dogs are an allegory for the dispossessed blacks of South Africa and that's as far as I'm going to go with the analysis. But it is truly a book worth reading and pondering, just like this blog post.
A very fine, thought-provoking article.

It seems to me, that as far as the religious right and considerations of "bioethics" go (e.g., the prohibition of embryonic stem cell research), these ideas arise from a belief in the "intrinsic divinity of man," i.e. the belief that humans were divinely created, and thus to take providence over that which is God's is viewed as a violation of the divinity bestowed upon man by a higher power.

Except it won't wash, for a variety of reasons. The current administration, for example, speaketh with a forked tongue, on one hand seeking to prohibit embryonic stem cell research on grounds that abortion is a violation of the intrinsic divinity of humanity, and to harvest stem cells from said embryos merely adds insult to injury. Yet this very same administration does not view torture techniques such as waterboarding as a comparable degradation; neither does it fundamentally see Iraqi children killed by American bombs as being degraded; it simply gives lip service that such "collateral damage" is deeply regrettable. Such lip service however does not restore the "dignity" of those who were killed, and we realize finally that the only act that would give the words the weight of conviction would be the cessation of any and all bombing which takes the lives of "innocents."

More fundamentally, the act of disposing of any human being, in the singular or en masse, is a similar violation of "the divinity of humanity." So the act of war itself gives the lie to assertions about respect for the divinity of life.

It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who once stated (paraphrased): "We talk about 'respect for life.' But what we're really talking about 'respect for human life,' and when this is viewed in the context of two world wars and innumerable smaller conflicts, rife with atrocities upon atrocities on all sides, we realize that we have precious little respect for the lives of our own kind, either."

What I've written above does not directly address the conundrum your article does, namely defining and elucidating the concept of "dignity." But I think it does have bearing on why "dignity" remains such an amorphous concept; since we humans have always adjusted our value of human life according to various contexts (for example, viewing the killing of the "enemy" in declared wars is viewed as a worthy, even a "moral" act, while the killing of the "enemy"as in the case of a blood feud, a la Hatfield versus McCoy, is viewed as intrinsically immoral).

This raises the question: is it the nation state that defines dignity? This seems patently ludicrous, and therein the amorphous nature of "dignity" is laid bare.

The poem you include in your post clearly reveals this. It sounds pretty, but it's just arbitrary blather, most of it vulnerable to the canons of conventional logic and the testimonials of history.
Do animals have dignity?

I refer you to my post Dignity - I am a Dog

Although my piece is much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek, I see that you commented on it, so perhaps I may imagine that it contributed in some small way to your writing of this post.

Very thought provoking. Thanks.
Doc Dach,

Thanks for the comments.

Your example perfectly demonstrates ‘neglect’ as a loss of dignity on both sides of the equation. Being neglected violates the dignity of the person being neglected, and minimizes the dignity of the person being neglectful.
Ben Sen,

I’m sorry the pix “destroyed” your train of thought. Maybe it is dignified of you to recognize dignity in others? I don’t know, Ben, I think you probably possess more “dignity” than you know.

I’m pleased to see you contribute to this. Thanks.

You mention these two points: “a fertilized egg does not have dignity” and “a corpse doesn't”. I do, of course, agree, but there are so many who do not.

How do you think some of those people who do not agree manage to see dignity in those two entities?

Will you engage in some more “thought fodder”?

You really cracked me up! I guess you’ll have to prove to your canine comrade that you are, indeed, dignified.

I liked your wording: “I see dignity as a projection to the world of the quality of our humanity, and a plea to others that they treat us in a manner that respects and reflects that humanity.”

I hope you treat your Aussie “in a manner that respects and reflects [his] humanity”.


I appreciate your perspective and that you stopped by to comment.

You say, “I tend to think it has much more to do with ensuring an absence of suffering than a provision of comfort”. I think I mostly agree with you on this. And you’re right; “comfort” does seem like “such a Western word”.

I do think, though, that when we “treat someone with respect” we are in effect making an effort to provide comfort to them. I can ignore someone, which may or may not cause some form of “suffering”, but if I make a special effort to “treat” someone with respect, then it seems that I am making an effort to consciously afford them some level of comfort.
Rick, A fair question you ask me, and one I rather anticipated. My thought is that dignity is closely tied to one's religious beliefs. If we live in a world where one of the great religious traditions is, in fact, real, then the treatment of other living things (or perhaps just humans?) with dignity is a definite requirement. I believe all the Holy Scriptures, whether the Torah, Pentateuch, Bible, or Koran (and possibly others that I am much less familiar with) teach that we must treat others with love, compassion, fairness, truth, etc. In short, we must treat others with dignity.

But what if all of those ancient manuscripts are simply man-made myth? If there is no God, then do the moral teachings of those books have merit? If there is no afterlife, then do our actions on earth even matter? We will all just die and be forgotten. To be treated well, to live by, and be treated by, the Golden Rule is nice, but does it mean anything?

I come from a Judeo-Christian tradition in which it is the presence of God that gives life meaning. It is God's commandment that we treat others with dignity. By doing that, we grow closer to God, and our lives gain meaning and richness.

I also recognize the humanist argument that all are entitled to dignity, and God has nothing to do with it. But by bringing God and Afterlife into the equation, the consequences of treating others with dignity become much greater, here on earth where we come into greater communion with the Creator, and in the Afterlife, where we reap "our rewards in heaven". I offer the hypothesis that absent God (or whatever you wish to call it), dignity, and life in general, really has little meaning. We become little more than bugs, some who have lived more comfortably than others, to be sure, but still nothing but a random collection of molecules and atoms that will exist in some form forever. What does dignity have to do with that?
Procopius - you seem to be arguing that there can be no dignity absent a deity. Many people of faith make the same argument about morality in general.

That proposition does not withstand the test of our own eyes. Some atheists behave far better than some people of faith by any objective standard. What makes an atheist behave morally?

For all it's high-sounding rhetoric, religion all to often behaves like MLM (multi-level markerting). It uses a "carrot and stick" approach to enforcing morality. For those of us raised in the Christian tradition, the message is made very clear. Behave and you get a great and an eternal reward, misbehave and you get the fires of Hell and eternal punishment. If you're a Muslim fanatic, blow up a skyscaper and you get 72 virgins. If you're a Viking, die in battle and you get good seats in Valhalla.

In the book Touch the Earth, there is a quote from a very wise old Native American whose name escapes me:

"What manner of men are these Europeans that they must fear their God in order to do good?"

We can make this as complicated as we like, we can study Kant and Schopenhauer, we can try to resolve all the contradictory wisdom sayings in the Bible or the Koran, we can wax eloquent for the rest of our lives, but it really is quite simple: We should do good because it's the right thing to do.
Oh, there is so much to think about. You've brought up examples that dare me to answer the call for humanity, but it goes even further than that.Your post has brought to mind, for me, the years that I worked with geriatric criminally insane men. These guys were considered by many to be the very bottom of the cesspool. They had committed heinous crimes at some point in their lives, were sent to the "funny farm" to possibly be rehabilitated so they could return to function in society and live happily ever after. No way, never happened! Instead they had stayed decades,20, 30, 40 years ...arrived at old age, and were then in need of medical and mental observation. Most of them were diagnosed with what we now call Alzheimer's. Not nice. I saw horrible indignities to these men. Although, they had committed some crime, some time, and had not cared about their victims' dignities..I figured they had already been judged and sentenced, so it was not up to anyone who was supposed to be providing a service for these guys, to render attacks on their dignities. An example that has haunted me since it happened is as follows. A patient, we'll call him Tony, was due for a shave. Believe me when I tell you, Tony did not want a shave that day, he was hungry and that was all he could focus on. So, the way I saw it, no problem, another day, another shave. But Tony's male attendant said rules were rules, and Tony HAD to be shaved. Well, you can bet that Tony resisted every way he could, even though he was restrained. He broke the restraints, threw an uppercut that made the attendant's teeth clomp. Good for Tony!! Well, maybe not so good...Tony came out of that battle with a broken nose, 2 black eyes, and a missing tooth, along with a mouthful of blood...but he didn't get his shave.. I wrote an incident report and turned it into my unit supervisor. She read it, looked at me over her glasses like I was some kind of specimen found during a colonoscopy, and said " Are you sure this is what happened?" "Positive!", "Well, I'm going to give it a day before I hand it in to the Building Supervisor. Maybe you'll get a better idea of what really happened" I left the office feeling like I had been in some other reality. When I went to my car when my shift ended, I had 3 "gentlemen" waiting for me. Worried about me, they said. Hoping I wouldn't need to be taking time off soon, they said. Hoping I'd reconsider my incident report, they said. Then they allowed me to get in my car and drive away. When I went to work the next day, I did reconsider my incident report, and oh yeah, that's right, Tony was aggressive yesterday... I sold out on Tony's dignity and mine. Like I've already said, there were countless attacks on dignities for these guys. Did they realize it. Probably not. But, it haunts me because I don't know! Did Tony know I sold him out because I was afraid of 3 guys and my immediate supervisor? Probably not. But I knew, and there was no way I could make myself feel better about this. Still. Even now. My dignity was horribly impaired that day and it feels like I wear the scars from a terrible burn. Tony's dignity, that had been raped.
Thank you for a post that has forced me to answer to myself for a wrong that I did to someone and his dignity....Rated...junk1
Tom, what I am putting out is the hypothesis that dignity has no meaning without religious faith. It exists, but serves no lasting purpose other than to increase the wellness or comfort of the person receiving it. Morally, I feel I must treat others with dignity regardless of whether or not I have Faith. But without that Faith, I can ask: what's the point? I'm no different than an ant. I do not treat ants with dignity, nor do I feel bad about that.

Perhaps you'll say humanity requires that we treat other humans with dignity. But if we are nothing by a collection of molecules, then why should we? And if we are more than just molecules, then we enter the realm of religion, where we must define what we are, and why we are entitled to be treated differently than a bug. Why is there a moral imperative?

It is the religioius impulse, I propose, that saves us from Nihilism.
What an amazing post, and what a difficult concept.

Instead of being redundant, I add a couple secondary questions, in all seriousness:

1. If animals have dignity, is vegetarianism a natural conclusion for humankind? Or is it ok to eat animals that possess dignity? Can you kill an animal in a dignified manner?

2. Does dignity exist outside of a person's frame of reference? ie. If a person is unaware of their own loss of dignity, does it count? Does it matter? Does dignity reside in the viewer or is it internal?

a. This could be applied to the mentally ill or those without cognitive function, for example. If someone is unaware that they need dignity, such as a person in a coma or vegetative state, does it truly matter if they have it? How can you define their internal need?

b. This could also be applied to those who have been wronged and don't know it. For example, was my dignity stripped from me when my wife committed adultery? Or was it taken when I found out?
We do Australian Shepherd rescues/adoptions. This fellah was on death row in a pound near Denton, TX. His "owners" had chained him up in their yard - he kept escaping. Imagine that! They then threw him away. A nice lady e-mailed us, we met her halfway and brought him home. (North East OK) He's family now.
Thanks for your comment on my comment on your piece.
For me..its all about the sentient being. I don't care if you are a robot....if you are sentient, you are a "person". (Actually...Robot ethics is a weirdly fascinating topic for me..but thats another story).

That is different from "dignity" tho...really is. I don't even think of "deserving" or not deserving it. Dignity as I define it is about essential and inherent worth, and not subjective. No other person can take mine away....they can embarrass me or humiliate me or treat me in a way that suggests that THEY have no respect for me...but my dignity is mine to keep forever.
What a moral courage!

A side note; the whole post is directly against dogmatic way of thinking. For example, if you think that God's agenda is leaving human being as he made and do not interfere, you will be fuming at Ashley's case and fail to see any genuine morality issue there.

Moral courage, as I feel it, comes when you are willing to shed the "dogma" or whatever of easy path to righteousness, but do real hard thinking of your own.

...and just to make it clear...people with illnesses or disabilities that make it less likely to easily express that they are self aware, therefore sentient....are of course still persons. People are persons, period.
Proco - I'm misunderstanding I guess because it still sounds like you're saying there's no dignity (however it is defined) without a deity, and the behavior of humans, at least, would seem to indicate otherwise.

Let me put your question a slightly different way? Is there a purpose to good without God? For me, the answer is quite obviously yes.

Simply put, one does not have to be an Existentialist to be an Atheist or an Agnostic.
@darkside -- "Can you kill an animal in a dignified manner?"

In some NA tribes, it was the practice to offer up thanksgiving, not for but to, the freshly killed deer. The sacrifice of the deer was thought of much as we might think of the sacrifice of a soldier -- giving of life for the good of others. In other tribes, it was the custom to return the bones of a fish to the stream from whence it came for the same reasons.

We, being so much more civilized than these savages, line up our cattle, chickens and hogs for the slaughter and treat them just as they are to us -- only so much meat. I can't help but wonder if the anger and fear experienced by these animals isn't somehow transferred to us in the eating of them.
What about this idea of treating others with "dignity" as a purely pragmatic concept? If the bulk of humanity was without the concept of dignity and we were reduced to a nihilistic, dog-eat-dog world, then wouldn't the quality of life for all be diminished?

In other words, the act of abusing my neighbor is a double-edged sword, because my neighbor is also free to abuse me. By and by, we all live in fear (and poverty, since anarchy and high commerce do not function well together).
Tom, you echo my own thoughts.

I did some volunteer work with the Mohawk tribe in my youth, and I was struck not just by their honor of the animal, but also that they would only cut down dead trees for fuel unless there were none available.

Dignity, indeed.
Can't believe this one isn't an EP - great post!

Dignity is kind of a vague concept. To me, I suppose it means respecting one's intrinsic value (human or not). Of course, there is debate over where to draw the line as to the point at which an action violates another person's dignity, and that action could even be justified as being temporarily undignified but leading to a greater benefit for that individual (i.e. forcibly sedating or restraining a panicking, injured person or animal, or subjecting oneself to a colonoscopy or mammogram).
I think you have quite clearly made the case that dignity is a concept and, like all concepts, difficult to define. (eg, what is red?) Whenever I am at a loss for the meaning of a word representing a concept, I go to the original meaning of that word. I believe that words have genetics and that we use them instinctively.
I liked and agreed with the listed definitions of dignity and the entire blog was thought-provoking and fine write up...
Thanks for sharing.
"but also that they would only cut down dead trees for fuel unless there were none available."

Aside from being an ostensibly "moral" act - in terms of the overall well-being of the ecosystem upon which one's livelihood depends, isn't this also a pragmatic act? Ergo, it doesn't make sense to cut down live trees for fuel when dead trees are available. As a kid growing up here in the Pacific NW, we always took the windfall on our property, first, and if that filled the woodshed we took no more. I never perceived it as a spiritual act, per se; it was simply pragmatic, but the net result was the same: live trees continued to live, for the good of all. (until my parents were forced out by development, and the woods were razed to make room for retail space).

Of course, this raises the issue of environmental protection/degradation in general, and during the 19th and 20th centuries in particular. If we contrast the ideas of John Muir ("spiritual" environmentalist and founder of the Sierra club) with the ideas of Gifford Pinchot (first head of the U.S. Forest Service), each was profoundly concerned with safeguarding the U.S. forests. Muir, because he saw an intrinsic value in the wild, Pinchot because he was concerned that the forests be husbanded for the good of future generations:

Now, consider these two quotes:

1.) "Outside the tropics, American forests were the riches and most productive on Earth, and the best able to repay good management.
But nobody had begun to manage any part of them with an eye to the future. On the contrary, the greatest, the swiftest, the most efficient, and the most appalling wave of forest destruction in human history was then swelling to its climax in the United States; and the American people were glad of it."

- Gifford Pinchot, speaking of 1885 in "Breaking New Ground."

2.) "Pinchot....looked upon the nation's forests not as cathedrals but as woodlots, and the wilderness concept advanced by John Muir drove him bananas."

- Undersecretary of the Interior, John C. Whitaker at Oakland, CA, 29 Oct. 1974.

The quote from Pinchot above hardly bears out what is said in the second quote, in fact, Pinchot sounds rather like a zealot. So, where does the line between simple pragmatism and the "more spiritual" wilderness concept lie? Are they worlds apart, or is each a manifestation of the other?

Another wrench in the cogs, here, is the fact that the land issues that confronted a young United States were not new in the historical context. Plato wrote about how the hills of Attica looked like "the skeleton of a sick man, with all the fat and soft earth being washed away." (as the result of deforestation). Similarly, generalized deforestation of many areas in Europe was complete by the 15th century, and what we now call a "secular" context didn't even exist in those societies - yet the Greek affinity for nature is legendary.
An interesting point, Rod. Several, in fact.

Which brings us to another thought: Is dignity a function of pragmatism, or vice versa?
Tom, rather than hijack the post, I'm sending an e-mail to you and Rick. It's a discussion that will never be definitively answered, I think. I'll just say there is a moral imperative to extend dignity to other living things, reegardless of a Deity. I also think that the moral imperative gains in significance when we accept that we are more than a collection of molecules, that we are an entity whose very existance is a miracle that lives on after death.
pardon the misspellings from too rapid typing!
Returning by request, Rick. You ask how I come to the conclusion that a fertilized egg and a corpse do not have inherent dignity, while acknowledging that others do not.

I suppose the best I can do is to say that I personally conceive of sentient life as possessing the right to dignity, and neither of those fulfill the criteria.

Unlike many in our culture, I don't really grok the ritual preservation of the body after death. My http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=6599 very first post on OS was about my thoughts around this issue, and I remain just sort of puzzled by the rituals and fetishization of the container once the contents themselves have gone.

I suppose, then, that my carnivorous nature is in direct conflict with my belief that creatures with consciousness are inherently owed a form of dignity. I did vote for the recent California ballot measure that ensures animals raised for slaughter at least a modicum of dignity (room to stretch wings, stand up, lie down, etc.) but I haven't stopped eating meat, nor will I ever.

God (which I also do not believe in), I could go on for HOURS about abstract concepts like this, and I love it--thank you.
I'm glad to see that you can follow my points - I've been writing very fast, much faster than I would if I were writing an article, and I sometimes worry that I don't express myself very well at these times.

I postulated a dignity-pragmatism connection in the post immediately before yours, supposing that a failure to recognize the dignity of another makes us vulnerable to same, and so in a world without dignity the quality of life for all would diminish.
I don't want it to seem that I am trying to monopolize this thread, so I'll close with the following - and I'll keep it short:

We are Homo sapiens sapiens - an animal on the earth. The "naked ape." According to the vagaries of evolution, we have this brain which has this incredible ability to reason, to abstract. This ability serves well in the role of hunter-gatherers, but it also gives us the capacity to dominate our environment to a large extent.

In the early history of our species, we observed a multitude of phenomena around us, and developed rudimentary explanations for these phenomena, and one that was/is immensely popular was the idea of "God," or "Gods." These Gods were alive to us, and very powerful, but we could only model them on ourselves or on the animals/phenomena we observe. Since they were often mirrors of ourselves, it only serves to reason that their "mores" would come to resemble ours. In the Genesis account, man and woman were set in the garden and given "dominion" over the animals. This was not a rapacious role; it was more like a caretaker's role. Translations of the key passage in Genesis vary from "sheperd and keep" to "subdue and replenish" (the latter was the favored translation for framing Manifest Destiny in the young U.S.).

In short, God had made the world, but he was leaving it up to us to look after it. And I think that is exactly what we are trying to do, still. Granted, the idea has become largely secularized across much of society, but the mandate to "shepherd and keep" is there. In the case of Manifest Destiny, the divine mandate was interpreted as "improving" upon nature, which amounted to cutting down great forests and building great cities, and powering them with dams built on great rivers, etc. In time, many have come to realize that this is a distortion of the "mandate," and so environmental movements rise in response to the "rape of the wild lands." Yet the mandate remains, expressed in myriad ways, from something as simple as "a garden with weeds isn't a garden at all," to the whole idea of "industry." Build great centers of commerce. Build more roads. Progress, growth. All things bright and beautiful.

I think we, in a sense, are trying to become the Gods we once postulated. Those who oversee. The benevolent being of great wisdom and power. Out of this arises concepts like "dignity" and "respect for life," etc. The original ends of all of this were pragmatic: it doesn't make sense to foul your own nest. We have to live here; it's the only place we have.

Yet, as we have proceeded in our quest, our "sheperding and keeping" actions are in fact doing as much damage as they are good. We have, in fact, always been profoundly confused as to what the "divine mandate" calls for, and the secularization of society has only made the conundrum more perplexing....

And so here we are, debating the meaning of "dignity."

We're apes, trying to be gods. This is neither right, no wrong. It just is. The idea of "dignity" is just one facet of this this persona we are trying to adopt, which happens to have pragmatic application in the real world.
@Rod - a brilliant exposition, particularly since it pretty much follows my thinking on the subject :-).

I would add that for all the scientific that is accumulating that shows humans are not so unique as we once imagined -- tools, altruism, etc -- yet we have no evidence that dolphins or bonobos or any of the other intelligent species have discussions of this nature or even ponder the mysteries of their own existence.

Now, we may discover one day that they do, but until that day, I'm willing to argue that humans are different not only in degree, but in kind. Or as the ancients would have it, we are somewhere between the gods and the beasts. I would also hasten to add that far too often we behave more like beasts than like gods.
Rod, don't worry about "monopolizing". Just add whatever you would like to add; I'm finding this discussion most rewarding, and I can barely keep up.
D. Patrick,

Thanks for the recommendation; that same book has been recommended to me before, but I have yet to pick it up. I will certainly do so now. I have a whole collection of books that I currently own that I have not gotten around to reading, so I will add this one...
I shall think for a while...and return.

I think you find yourself in the same quandary in which I found myself when I started this essay. I really thought it would end up about half its current length or less, but once I delved into it, it mushroomed, and I ultimately ended up leaving out at least as much as I included here. The questions surrounding this issue seem endless once one starts thinking about it, but what impressed me more and inspired me to post this is the fact that I had never really seriously given this concept known as “dignity” any depth of attention.

And when I thought more about it, I started to see all the contradictory uses of the term dignity, and it suddenly seemed useless. Then I found that there are others in the field of bioethics who are debating that very issue; the “usefulness” of the term. I thought it was easier to see that issue within the realm of bioethics, but that turned out not to be the case.

Then it seemed to expand into other areas, too, and so this post. Your questions add even further examples of that dilemma.

Thanks for your question, and participation. Your input is always welcome and appreciated.

Thanks. I’m “more than pleased” that there are people like you and everyone else here that care enough to even participate in a discussion like this, and in such a ‘dignified’ manner, too. I find that very rewarding.

You say, "I wanted to say Thank you for this post. I will learn much reading everyone's ideas."

Thank you for reading it. Like you, I am learning from all the comments, as well. There are a lot of interesting perspectives coming out, and that was what I hoped for.
Black Bart, tim4change,

I think we share much in our perspectives. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Ok, I've thought and thought and thought about this and that's a whole lot more than I'm used to.

For me, everything should always come down to respect. We need to do a whole lot more respecting everything as human beings. Animals, plants each other all of it.

With respect comes dignity.

I don't think that you can have dignity without the presence of someone you respect, and you also can't have it if that person doesn't respect you.

Do I put a whole lot of stock in dignity? Not personally. I don't need much dignity, because I tend to see the world as one big toilet bowl full of turds anyway.

But if dignity means something to someone else I absolutely want them to be able to have it.

I think the symbiotic relationship is increasingly lacking in the world. We all need to work harder on that.

This is probably the crappiest comment you've gotten so far about this subject, but I felt like putting in my two cents.

Thanks for the opportunity. It was an excellent read.

The praise is much appreciated. And your assertion that “…the post also demonstrates the limitations of an online venue” is well taken. It was exactly that point that made this a particularly difficult post to complete and edit down to some kind of reasonable length.

If you find more time, I would definitely like more input from you on this post; if you find the time…

I will lose sleep over your question, I suppose. My nihilist bent wants to say that dignity really cannot have meaning. My pragmatism tells me I can't quite that easily dismiss it as a concept even though we cannot at this time quantify and verify it. It is also a fairly new concept in most of its uses, so as a concept it may well be only part of another meta-narrative we don't yet realize is a meta-narrative....

Ooo...you're making the catamite's brain hurt, Rick. Now he has to go look at pictures of Lolcats...

Put on some tea...



Thanks for your thoughtful contribution here.

Your reference to the UN documents is one of the references I chose to leave out of my essay, in part because it did not add anything by the time I thought of it, and in part because I figured there would be a good chance it would come up in the comments, and I think you for bringing those documents into the discussion.

Frankly, I found the use of the term in those documents especially pointless, and therefore, frustrating.

I find it interesting how you have tied these documents into the passage from the novel. I do think the concept of dignity is especially contingent on our own perceptions of ourselves and the world we live in and our role in that world, but also on the perceptions of us by others.

You describe the very circumstance that led to this post. There have been many times when I have questioned what constitutes “dignity”, although perhaps not as deeply as perhaps you have; I don’t know. I do think often about the usefulness of words, in general, and recently the word “dignity” seems to have come up a lot. The usefulness of words is obviously based on their meanings and the meaning of “dignity” seems to be very ambiguous.

I think you have hit upon one of the main problems with the term “dignity”. I think it is clear the kidnapping of “dignity” by religions has been a major problem for the concept in general, and that problem is compounded by the involvement of nationalism, tribalism, or whatever other –ism one might include.


You are correct that your piece did, “in some small way”, contribute to my writing this. It was among the many recent examples in which the concept of dignity has been mentioned, here on OS and in other forums. BTW, I much enjoyed your post.

Thanks for sharing your story with us. You write, “Tony came out of that battle with a broken nose, 2 black eyes, and a missing tooth, along with a mouthful of blood...but he didn't get his shave.”

This story exemplifies the dilemma of dignity.
Darkside, Persephone,

Both of you ask the question of this post. Is dignity inherent, or is it given, earned, received?

The answer partly lays in how dignity is defined, which is the problem with it, at least to some extent.
Ethical Atheist,

I think you’re right that religious dogma is a key problem area regarding dignity, moral courage, etc. I am actually a little surprised that aspect has not come more directly in this discussion than it has.

I don’t think dignity is a religious concept, but it is a concept that has been seized by religion, much to the detriment of humanity. Religion has, to a large extent, conflated human dignity with human divinity, using the concept to force religious considerations into societal and policy decisions.

Your analysis of the “physical marker” versus the “spiritual marker” is an interesting way to state this dilemma. I believe it points out one problem with the religious seizure of “dignity”. And the questions this raises are, as you say, questions that should be asked.

Thanks for this.
Tom, darkside,

Thanks for bringing up the concept of killing animals with dignity.

Tom, your presentation of the Native American concept of offering thanks to the dead animal for its sacrifice to the living is a valuable addition to the overall concept of “dignity”. And it further demonstrates the dilemma of what is dignity.

“What about this idea of treating others with ‘dignity’ as a purely pragmatic concept?”

I’ll just say that I find this idea seemingly increases the likelihood that other species have dignity. Many other animals treat members of their own groups with “respect”, and I think it is safe to say that this is likely an instinctual trait; one that humans probably share.
Thanks, buckeyedoc, marcel and nahatsu,

The issue of what actually violates another person’s dignity is difficult.

The evolution of words is also a problem when it comes to things like definitions within current usages, which so often have deviated from the original definition and usage.

I don’t think eating meat necessarily violates the dignity of the animals that provide that meat. If anything does, it would be the treatment of the animals both in life, and in the manner of their death.

Thanks for the contributions here.

I think the dual nature of dignity is something you hit on very clearly;

“I don't think that you can have dignity without the presence of someone you respect, and you also can't have it if that person doesn't respect you.”

This is one reason why I think the concept of dignity is so often misused and abused when it is addressed as a singular event.

Thanks for the contribution.

I found especially interesting your presentation of this idea:

“The assertions of past and history that we are the keepers of this world and have dignity as such seems a bit much as well. Different species on this planet play a significant role in the maintenance of populations and territories”.

When one considers this perspective, and then considers the abuse of these various maintenance systems by humans, the question of dignity becomes confused with regards to the idea that humans have some kind of special status as “shepherds or keepers” and thereby derive a greater degree of dignity or divinity.

Thanks for this.
A stunningly intelligent and ambitous post followed by the kind of comments it deserves. Having read them all, I have a rather delicious case of intellectual vertigo, which I fear will make my own contribution less acute. Nevertheless...

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that dignity is one of those properties that only comes about as a by-product. If we aim to secure it directly, we are sure to reveal ourselves as lacking it in some sense. Nothing, Zizek holds, is quite so undignified (and I'm surprised this variant on dignity did not figure more prominently here) than someone "standing on their dignity." Supposing Zizek to be correct, if only as a heuristic exercise, why should this paradox be the case and what does it tell us about the nature of dignity. I'd venture to say that the legible performance of dignity inevitably fails *not* because dignity is an inherent property (whether to human beings,, sentient creatures etc.) but because it is a constructed excellence, as Rod would say a pragmatic good, but one that can only function as such insofar as we take it tom be, at the moment of experience itself, to be proper to the subject, i.e. as an inherent property. Dignity is performative, a matter of social transaction, attribution and projection, as P.J. observes, but one that must veil its own performative and contingent nature if it is to take. Because it is the effect of performances undertaken in accordance with social norms, dignity emerges as relative and variable across different cultural sets, different forms of social habitus, even different pragmatic situations. But in each of these contingent forms, dignity, if it is to count as dignity, will also and somewhat contradictorily appear to transcend its localized forms or instantiations. In this sense, it is rather like Kant's idea of beauty, a judgement that is not universal in the logical sense of the term but always takes a universal form. I believe this is why we can on the one hand understand certain actions as violating the dignity of others--i. e. stripping them of their capacity to bear those properties we find worthy of respect--while at the same time finding those same others to be the vessels of a dignity our actions can outrage but never diminish. I think this is also why subjects of persecution who maintain a behavioral style that continues to aopproximate the norms of the dominant culture (think Nelson Mandela for example) tend to emerge as icons of dignity. By enacting the dominant society's contingent ideals of conduct and self-presentation, despite that society's dogged attempts to dishonor them, figures like Mandela seem to demonstrate that those ideals are not contingent at all but the very image of dignity in its transcendental aspect.

Finally, our concern to cultivate and safeguard the dignity of the helpless, the undefended, those without a concept of dignity or the capacity to develop such a concept, answers to this same paradox. We must attribute dignity to them and in a sense perform their dignity for them so that its innateness may be reaffirmed (however mythically), so that the pragmatic nature of dignity remains hidden (and thus continues to operate).
Dignity is the ultimate in ennabling fictions. Not only does it resist summary definition; it bears its social effects, largely positive ones I would argue, precisely through such resistance.

At least that's what I'm thinking right now. Thanks for this discussion Rick. You've really set the OS buzzing with contemplation. A model post.
Hi, libertarius,

Thanks for the in-depth comment.

I liked your phrase “intellectual vertigo” and I believe I have the same ailment at this point. But it’s all good.

I’m glad you brought out the idea of nothing being as undignified as someone "standing on their dignity”. Isn’t that the truth? Sort of a variant of “tooting one’s own horn”?

I thought you found a particularly effective wording here:

“By enacting the dominant society's contingent ideals of conduct and self-presentation, despite that society's dogged attempts to dishonor them, figures like Mandela seem to demonstrate that those ideals are not contingent at all but the very image of dignity in its transcendental aspect.”

One thought I had regarding this is that, even in this example, it depends somewhat on circumstances.

I was also struck by this statement: “Dignity is the ultimate in ennabling fictions.”
How wonderful to read this post and all the comments.
It's made me THINK tonight.

I sense (because that's the only I can approach this) that dignity is connected with integrity. To me, dignity is the expression of the awareness of integrity. Does that make sense to anyone (or am I just playing with words?)
w/o a paddle,

Thanks for the comment. I thought this one had run its course, and then found your comment.

I think this whole post was "playing with words" to an extent, but then, words are really all we have to work with in this forum.

I think "integrity" would have to be included in a discussion of "dignity". Perhaps you might elaborate on your idea a little more.
Rick, I thank you for this ambitious post. I found it a bit overwhelming to try to respond to, but greatly enjoyed reading the comments...the quality of a post like this is best judged by the talented pool of folks drawn to comment, and you have the cream of the OS crop here. I don't have a lot to say/add that hasn't already been better said by others, but wanted you to know I've been a repeat visitor.

Thank you so much for your comment. I agree about the quality of the comments on this post, and frankly, they have far exceeded the hopes I had when I first posted this. I have to say that there are still a few others whom I hoped would comment, but that group includes one less now that you have contributed.

Thanks for this in-depth comment. I apologize for having taken so long to respond back to you.

Your first few paragraphs address some of what actually inspired this post. Respect being abused, “…in an aggressive way to demand something or a passive-aggressive way to defend the unacceptable”, and this is exactly what happens with the concept of “dignity”.

I’m glad you focused on the “animal aspect” and the aspect of “eye contact”. I think you make a good point in alluding to a good result via “anthropomorphism” toward animals and affording them respect and, dare I say it; “dignity”?

You write, “One can see them looking at one and one wonders what they are thinking.” Man, is that the truth! And, as you point out, each has a distinct personality, yet there are those who do not fully recognize this in other species, only in humans.

I found your description of Dexter Gordon’s eye contact and the impact that had on you, and the experience of meat versus the cow or the sheep and the eye contact that occurs between you and these ‘food animals’, to be especially good examples of the connection that can exist between living beings, whether human or other.

The eyes are “windows to the soul”. I always notice how people make eye contact with me, and that is a telling moment for me as to how I size them up. It is interesting that in some societies, making eye contact is rude in some situations. I’ve known people who would not make that contact, or who appeared uncomfortable doing so, and I do not recall an occasion when those people did not turn out to be untrustworthy or relationally deficient in some way. On the other side of that equation, there have also been those who would willingly and easily make eye contact, but who gave me an uneasy feeling on an instinctual level, and they also turned out to be untrustworthy or relationally deficient. But when people look me in the eye and seem comfortable with it and I also feel no distress, they have turned out to be honest, at least to whatever extent the circumstances warranted.

Thanks again for your comment.
Great post! I am doing a paper in English defending a character's from Of Mice and Men humanity. My English teacher says that humanity is made up of two part, respect or dignity and dreams or aspirations. Before I could start defending my character I had to define dignity. Your article here and the comments below really helped. For me treating others with dignity has to do with respecting others regardless of the power you hold over them. This could be race, gender, social status, or position.
Thanks for all the help,

Thanks for reading and I'm glad this was helpful. It is an interesting topic and I wish you good luck with your paper.