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Dignity?

Well, let me use this forum to get some help. I’m in the early stages of writing an essay for the Bioethics Council on the meaning of human dignity. One indispensable source, of course, is Mansfield’s MANLINESS--a book that has been widely but not yet very seriously reviewed. There, he says that men need to feel important, and that need, he suggests, is at the foundation of individuality. Manly men (and women, of course) dramatically and with exaggerated self-confidence assert their noble or "transcendent" and indispensable individual greatness. But asserting one’s own importance is not the same thing as actually being important. Is the real source of individual dignity more than dramatic individual assertion? Do we need revelation to give a positive answer to that question?

Discussions - 40 Comments

Peter, a few things: 1) Diana Schaub reviewed the Mansfield book seriously in The Claremont Review; 2) I believe the best place to start in thinking about human dignity is with Kass’s articulation of our upright posture, our distinctive but quite visible physique/psuche. That status as the standing animal elevates - ontologically - us beyond the other ones; we’re open theoretically and practically to the rest of the world and our fellows; connected to such a physique is a distinctive psyche, with interiority and the most intense version of the great powers of life. 3) Mansfield’s real source of human dignity, I believe, is in the human resistance to nature, the desire to stand up against it and make yourself a name; that’s half of human dignity according to Erwin Strauss, Kass’s source, but only half. 4) you might want to c/c Kass and/or Mansfield’s notions with St. Leo’s Agnosce, o christiane, dignitatem tuam; know, o Christian, your dignity ... . (Christmas homily, circa 600AD; very famous).

Peter, How nice to see you posing questions on here.

Isn’t importance about what you carry? To take on burdens and carry them well, that makes you important. If men need to feel important, it merely means that they need to take up burdens, and goodly useful ones, preferably. Useless burdens would be undignified.


Does human dignity demand importance? Would this preclude the unimportant, as with children who can carry nothing, being burdens themselves, from human dignity? Dignity is about worth and honor. But don’t we assign human beings dignity, whether they deserve such an honor or not? In a civil society, don’t we presume the potential worth of any human and treat them with the honor that dignity would demand? To assert one’s own dignity is presumption. But to deny another his human dignity is, well, rude at the least.


Not very grand, just housewifely philosophy.

B. F. Skinner asserts in "Beyond Freedom & Dignity" that we bestow the "dignified" label on behaviors that appear to us to be free from obvious supporting stimuli. To volunteer is more dignified than to help someone for a reward. To memorize and deliver a speech is more dignified than to read it from a prompter. To teach for the love of teaching is more dignified than to teach for a salary. To fight for the love of country is more dignified than to fight for pay.

If Skinner is correct, then striving for one’s own importance is less dignified than is achieving importance through serendipity.

It also suggests that a culture uses dignity to motivate members to work for the culture without rewards other than dignity, which turns out to be a good deal for the culture.

If Skinner is correct then so much the worse for "dignity". Dignity comes off as smelling like a ploy. Ceteris paribus behavior free from obvious supporting stimuli is neither necessarily better nor worse. Is the quality of volunteer work better than the quality of paid work? In fact you are suggesting that "dignity" is its own supporting stimuli. Personally I think you are proposing a chimera...there is no such thing as behavior done without any supporting stimuli....of course when it comes to giving a speech this is a different question...giving a speech from memory almost always makes for a better delivery...but this is still saying nothing about the content. If you want to be Kantian about it, you could say that dignified behavior is behavior undertanken solely for supporting that which is moral, because it is moral.

But if you translate this into social terms you basically are saying that a dignified person is one who appears to do what other people want him to do because they want him to do it(that for which a man is praised or blamed). A demogogue is thus the most consistently "dignified" person...and tyrants are cultured people because they keep the company of cultured people.

But of course I am an incredible skeptic....so feel free to disagree. Why not say that people whose actions most obviously betray a suporting stimuli should be dignified?(I prefer this route...and in fact it is necessary in order to make the distinctions concerning why people undertake action X)

A supporting stimuli in this case is an apparent reason...there is an apparent reason for giving a speech from memory(namely the quality speech delivery.)

In truth obvious supporting stimuli are the grounds for attributing dignified behavior. Dignified behavior is behavior that is rational...irrational behavior can be given "dignified" status...but this is largely oweing to the complicity and cowardliness of the poets. A Machiavellian prince might use "dignity" as his playground...but then again this is because it is often times better to appear "dignified" than to be "dignified".

John, I find you a credible skeptic.


However, some of us do do what other people want him to do because they want him to do it. Such behavior is as common as motherhood which is not considered dignified at all.


But I still do not know about achieving importance through serendipity, though striving for importance is surely less dignified. "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them". said by a clown brought down by assuming a dignity. Even in serendipity, there is a choice; to take a thing up, to "do" the thing because of some benefit, some goodness. One can choose not to take the thing up at all, snubbing serendipity and being unimportant. If one takes the thing up and then defers the goodness to another’s account rather than taking to one’s own account (like pay)then does that dignify the action or the person? Having taken the thing up, a man becomes important, because he has made the thing important to himself. The carrying of the thing gives him his status, and his mode of doing so (and his intent in the doing? Is that always easily judged?) bestows dignity.

"Do we need revelation to give a positive answer to that question?" I do not know that we are answering that bit at all.

I forgot to ask another question. Are we what we carry?

How can this be separated from status/hierarchy/peeking order? The old-fashioned "honor" systems were about social status, obligation, and privilege. Just off the cuff, I would say that dignity is the refusal to surrender our status under trying circumstances. Like so many other things, "dignity" is a social phenomenon -- doesn’t really exist when humans are interacting with simple nature.

Peter, I think the entrees on this chain are a good start, as all of them make good points and point to aspects of the "dignity" phenomenon. Now start writing!

Peter over at the first things blog-site, an exchange on ... the grounds of human dignity.

(A few more of these and I’ll be a (not "the") biblio-guy.

"Is the quality of volunteer work better than the quality of paid work? In fact you are suggesting that "dignity" is its own supporting stimuli."

No -- the quality is NOT necessarilly better, but apparently autonomous behavior has a different value to society than does assisted behavior, because it frees up the "supporter" to do other things.

And, Skinner also sugggests a continuum of supports and stimuli, both before and after the behavior in question. A transparent teleprompter allows more dignity than does a piece of paper clutched in the orator’s hand. A raised eyebrow reminding a child to say "please" allows more dignity than the phrase "say please, or you’ll go to your room."

Dain is right, in this view, dignity is a social construct, giving a society a greater (and cheaper) choice of payments and incentives for behavior.

But, again, the point is not to get people to DO things, but rather to get them to do them autonomously. There is a link to individualism, since autonomy is one of the cornerstones of individualism.

Skinner also discusses the energy that we spend trying to hide the stimuli that, when discovered, detract from our dignity. The belhop acts surprised when tipped, the waitron waits until the guests have left to retrieve the tip from the table. The priest sends minions out into the congregation to actually touch the offerings, or, at best, the plate and the envelopes holding them. The White House insists that someone else planted faux reporters into the press conference. And, when we insist on exposing these supports, we strive to perpetuate and reinforce the undignified status of the person whose lack of originality has been exposed.

Fung, I understand what you are saying. All good points. And in a sense such a view is quite Machiavellian. The question for the law giver or prince is which modes and orders to errect in order to best form the constitution of the people. But in its naked form this looks too much like arbitrary power...If Moses would have came down from the Mountain and said here are my ten commandments...odds are Moses would have became a supplement to the drinking water instead of the golden calf. So revelation or appeals to it certainly play a huge part...even the american founders appeal to Locke, Aristotle, Cicero, not to mention Nature and the Nature of God. In the end thought I still think this is somewhat of a perversion of the concept of autonomy/individualism and dignity.

Human Dignity in the american/lockean regime doesn’t really tolerate deception as a means toward achieving social control. A recognition that Men have the fundamental right to the persuit of happiness certainly leaves open the possibility that they will teach because they want to teach, or otherwise act morally for the sake of the moral. But frankly it establishes that human beings have dignity that is not contingent upon living for the sake of the other or society...but that they are equally dignified in living for themselves. Washington may have pulled his hair out over the 1 year enlistment situation he constantly faced...but there was a sense in which the civilian soilder was an end unto himself, entailed to the persuit of his own happiness. If this was not the case then what was he fighting for?

Dignity and Respect and Praise are to a large extent things that are earned, given and taken away. But the right to the persuit of happiness is not earned but a given. Just as people are free to work for money, or for love of the subject, they are free to strive after Respect and Praise or any other end they see fit that does not endanger the scope of freedom available to others. From my house, human dignity rests in the inaliaenable right to the persuit of happiness.

My apologies: These are some excellent comments, but I have no time to answer today. I will look at the First Things comments on the grounds of human dignity later on this afternoon or tonight, and that’s my assignment to all of you.

Well, let me be clear that I wasn’t dissing Diana Schaub’s review. Let me call it serious but (no doubt because of space constraints) not "very serious." Nobody has yet come to terms with Mansfield’s ambitious effort to account for EVERYTHING--even the origin of philosophy--in terms of manliness.

Actually Fung, I don’t think you were trying to be Machiavellian. But I don’t think Machiavelli would necessarily disagree with what you have said.

"And, when we insist on exposing these supports, we strive to perpetuate and reinforce the undignified status of the person whose lack of originality has been exposed."

A prince that is loved more than he is feared risks having his supports questioned...because people love at their own convinience but feel fear at yours. A prince who properly uses fear can thus control people by having them do things autonomously the grounds for such action never trully being questioned. You don’t have to kill Socrates many times over...you just have to kill the first one. So conceptions of dignity are certainly dependent upon the social construct employed by the law givers and Prince.

(A serious and teasing point): isn’t the Straussian reading of the Republic that it’s the way the gods, the world, and the city, and men have to be, according to thumos?
Admittedly, Harvey’s attempt is Aristotelian, not Platonic.

Well, Paul is on the way to a "very serious" review of MANLINESS. It is an Aristotelian repetition of the REPUBLIC’s abstraction from eros. Our abilities to abstract and idealize (particularly idealizing ourselves through abstracting from our the limitations of our embodiment) are at the core of our manly or "transcendent" displays. Which leads me to return to the original questions: Are our manly assertions (or resistance to the limitations of our natures) a real (a word use ambiguously here) foundation of our dignity? [You can put the autonomy people in this first category--as well of those who speak of securing their "rational independence.] Or is our dignity dependent on a truthful recognition of our limitations or dependence and living well with what we really know? Or our dignity dependent upon our experience of ourselves as creatures under a personal Creator? Each of these might be partly right and there are, of course, other possibilities.

I think it’s all three, Peter: We’re given a distinct and dignified nature (i.e., rational animal, upright posture-and-all that entails and implies); part of that nature’s actualization requires us to resist (E. Strauss pointed out the pun there: re-stare) the downward pull of nature (i.e., gravity) as well as the laziness inherent in our nature; we have to work to attain our true status; but we can’t simply resist or wholly transcend nature (still have to walk on the ground, eat, sleep from time to time - and the resistance to nature#1 is part of Nature’s great design for us as upright (physically, intellectually, morally) animals.
Both E. Strauss and L. Kass argue that this (quite obvious and true) view of human nature can give us a transcultural standard (of sorts). Kass takes a stab at doing so at the end of his piece, "Thinking about the Body," when he picks up a Herodotus story and distinguishes and evaluates the burial practices of Persians, Greeks, and somebody else (not Jews!).

Speaking of Jews: Just when we’re getting all the preceding in our thick skulls comes Word from "out there": hey, you’re created. I’ve got an offer ... you can resist, but it will elevate you beyond your wildest dreams. (BTW: today’s the Feast of the Assumption.)

I also want to acknowledge the "social dimensions" of the issue that other/previous posts/posters have talked about. I’m reminded of Kurt Reizler’s wonderful piece on the psychology of shame. He distinguished (following the Greeks) two sorts: one natural, the other conventional or societal. It wasn’t a totally hard-and-fast distinction (the nature-convention distinction isn’t like that!) but the broad lines are clear: so our dignity has to contain things like "earned dignity" and the fulfillment of socially-and-personally accepted roles (formerly called "vocations"). E.g., a father isn’t a best friend, a teacher isn’t a lover (pace Socrates), and so forth.

Just some thoughts.

One last point: in the above-mentioned Kass piece, he says, "Dignity"="virtuous acknowledgement of our bodily necessities." (However, that doesn’t quite accomodate his earlier discussion of upright posture’s transcendent (with a small ’t’) theoretical and practical openness to the world, others, and even self.

Of all the issues Paul raises, let me focus on one: Can we conceive of dignity without shame? Is the attempt to live "beyond" shame also the attempt to live beyond (moral) freedom and dignity? That idea, of course, didn’t originate with B.F. Skinner--both his friends and his enemies overstate his originality.

The gentleman, according to Aristotle, doesn’t experience "shame" because he neither experiences the shameful desires or passions that prompt shameful behavior, nor does he act ignobly. But the autarchy of the aristotelian gentlemen is light years away from either Machiavelli (whom, I assume, you were alluding to as one of the earlier people who said: "get over it!" "Shame is keeping you down!") or today’s technologically-minded cynics (e.g., Glenn Reynolds).

Thanks to Joe for the link. And to Aristotle: Is there anyone who doesn’t experience shameful desires or (on occasion) engage in shameful behavior?--although it is true enough that shame isn’t a virtue or characteristic of the (manly) gentleman as gentleman. To be beyond shame is not just to be beyond conventional repression, but also to deny the truth about one’s own (somewhat mysterious) being.

So, if we, as a society, abandon shame, then we will also abandon dignity. Is that it? I cannot stand seeing that, which is why I do not watch TV. That is just everywhere in popular culture and it is ghastly.

OED, first definition of dignity is this: The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence. Then come issues of rank and social status. Fourth definition: Nobility or befitting elevation of aspect, manner, or style; becoming or fit stateliness, gravity. Which sounds more like a "virtuous acknowledgement (and denial of) our bodily necessities." or passions.


Then, I would love to read the first things blog-site, an exchange on ... the grounds of human dignity. because this is such fun. However, I am searching about for it and not finding the right spot. Would you mind, sorry, giving a link to exactly what you had in mind?

Well, as Paul Tillich points out, there is no faith without doubt. Just so, there is no courage without fear, and no dignity without animal appetite.

Kate, just google "first things"; you’ll see it. It’s a relatively new feature for them. It’s a temptation for blog-readers like me, but the quality of posts, I’ve found, has been relatively high.

With concepts, I’ve always found the OED is a good common sense place to start. With that in mind, Aurel Kolnai’s 1976 article, "Dignity," in the journal Philosophy does a good job elaborating the linguistic field. Of note, especially since you’re a Tocqueville scholar, is K’s observation that "dignity" is an abstract noun not derivable from a primary English adjective. I recall Tocqueville’s complaint about abstract speech in democratic ages.

John, you’ve hit paydirt: Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973) is a great (way too little known) moral and political philosopher. He has his fans, incuding David Wiggins, Pierre Manent, me and most of my friends (Peter L. knows (of) him, of course; I don’t know how much Kolnai has impacted Peter, though. Peter’s pretty independent, if not idiosyncratic.). Kolnai’s development of the notion of "dignity" is part-and-parcel of his critique of his bete-noire, ’equalitarianism’ (which, he argued, had intrinsic connections with ’collectivism’, because both were versions of the self-deification of Man). His view of ’dignity’ was that it is an elevated social position or status that in its elevation-and-partiality - i.e., it didn’t claim to sum up or represent the entirety of the human good - was essential to liberty and good social order and to reminding individuals of their "metaphysical finitude," i.e., an essential, good, aspect of what we are is that we’re in contact with, but don’t possess, the full range of goods our nature makes possible and civilization has produced. We’re creatures, not the Creator. Society should reflect that imperfection (including messiness - he hated social planning).

Dan Mahoney has a good collection of his political philosophy essays published by Rowman & Littlefield. His collection of moral essays, Ethics, Reality, and Value (or some combination of the three words) is a must-have.

Gotta go.

Is that "Dignity" article by AK found in the Mahoney collection? If not, could I have a more precise reference.
Maybe a LINK?!?

I have not read Manliness. At the risk of demeaning the rest of my argument I will say that such a book seems a little silly. Maybe it’s how I was raised, but don’t talk about it-just live it. While I admit to having a philosophical streak, I try to dally in the philosophy of the Divine rather than the vain study of myself--a man.

As I understand from the comments, Manliness very much follows Aristotle’s failed definition of man. Reason and the mind are not enough. What gives a man dignity must be what defines man as a species.

First it seems foolish to define man as by himself--it is circular to say it is his own mind. Therefore, yes a full understanding of human dignity demands revelation and God. What makes man equal? While Aristotle and my political philosopher friends argue about reason, natural rights, etc, the only sure thing that I know about man is that they are equal in sin (For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God). Sin is what unites man into one species, one nature; it is his defining characteristic. Also shame as was earlier mentioned is the product of sin according to the Creation Story.

Man defined by Aristotle masters reason and asserts himself as reasonable to gain what we are calling dignity. In the Christian view man is defined by sin, and the mastery of sin is what gives us dignity. So our dignity is found by defeating sin that is revealed to us by God and the goodness needed to master sin may well also come from God. Regardless of that argument, it is divinely written on our hearts to sin and to realize sin--this makes us a man by revelation.

Mastering sin is different than mastering reason because it would seem to me to require more humanity and happiness. Mastering sin through faith, hope, and love fufills and dignifies the man more than Aristotle’s reason. It is more of a community effort, and contains less of the individual egotism of a gentleman. I think of Churchill as an Aristotelean man--good but very egotistical to the point where I question his dignity and success. America, always more Christian, might offer someone like Lincoln who was good--yet humble and great in ways that Churchill seems to lack (human qualities). In the end God (and therefore man) is most pleased with a humble servant to the human problem of sin than an arrogant sophist of logic.

The dignity of man is based on and needs divine intervention. As for citing philosophy, I am afraid that I am lacking in the educated essays previously talked about. My argument is a personal interpretation of the Bible and whatever else has made up my life...

Ethics, value, and reality : selected papers of Aurel Kolnai. 1978 as through the state of Ohio’s library system.


This from Amazon

Peter: Here’s the Kolnai reference: "Dignity," Philosophy, 51 (1976): 251-71. I don’t know whether it’s in the Mahoney collection.

And what I meant to add was this list from the library of what is in i>Ethics, value, and reality : as it looks interesting, but might not pertain here.

Erroneous conscience.--The sovereignty of the object.--Deliberation is of ends.--Morality and practice I.--Morality and practice II.--Existence and ethics.--Moral consensus.--The concept of hierarchy.--Aesthetic and moral experience.--Forgiveness.

That discussion on Fisrt Things is very interesting, and, oddly, I was just discussing Bodies: The Exhibition with my son and daughter-in -law this evening. Neither my son nor I could bring ourselves to visit that exhibition when it was in our area. It sounded a horror show to us. My daughter-in-law saw it and thought it wonderful. She has had health problems all of her life, has body parts missing, was raised partly in hospitals, and has very interesting views on the subject of the human body as a result. She does not seem to see much dignity in the human body as her dealing with her own is so humbling. However, to her, the whole exhibition became worthwhile because of the silence of the crowd before the figure of the pregnant woman and the (exposed) unborn child in the womb. That silent recognition of the humanity of the dead child gave the combined figure a perfect dignity, as in the sense of worth, in my Ami’s mind.


I wondered at that show, if the bodies had been identified as to previous inhabitants; names and biographical details, if that would have made the viewing easier or more difficult. Would some sort of memorial or marker to indicate the human being who had inhabited the plasticized flesh have "dignified" the exhibit.


And in this context, I would like to honor my daughter-in-law by mentioning here that she is pregnant, rather miraculously, herself. She was advised to abort as this is a severe risk to her very fragile health. To explain a little, she had been on the national lung transplant waiting list prior to the pregnancy. She has carried to nearly six months, on oxygen the whole time, but still, she and my future granddaughter are in amazingly good health. This was not supposed to be possible. She is insisting on going as far as she can, and past the six month point, we are told she should have a live child. To me this has dignity: The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence. But knowing her, I think she would have been ashamed to do otherwise.

Kate, yes, that is dignity...the refusal to be less-than-human in the face of terrible adversity. All the best to your daughter-in-law (and future grandbaby!).

Man, I come into the office a little later than normal and NLT’s is hopping!

A bibliographical comment: the Kolnai Dignity piece is not in Mahoney’s collection, but The Concept of Hierarchy piece in Ethics, Value and Reality covers some of the same territory.

More substantive: the piece on Moral Consensus is one of the best defenses of the objectivity of morality I know. And the Sovereignty of the Object has fine discussions of the relationships between truth, right, and good; the subjective and the objective.

Thanks to each and all for looking up references, etc.

Kate thru dain--I agree, that IS dignity. A large part of dignity is living well (which includes acting well) in light of what you really know (which includes what you really know about the responsibilities you’ve been given).

My apologies to John Lewis. I have recently and suddenly been hit with a tremendous amount of work, which continues to mount while I skim the excellent entries on this post.

I have to agree with Kate, I think. The pursuit of happiness pales compared to the dignity of the person who suffers cruel tricks of fate, or the cruelty of other humans with faith, humor, and humanness.

In "Man’s Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl suggests that we cannot control all that life hands us, but the only thing we can control is our response to it, and that THAT is what makes us truly human. Frankl suggests that our job is to find the meaning in our suffering, if suffering is our lot, and to provide the meaning of our existence rather than to expect life’s meaning to be revealed to us.

The reason that I like Frankl’s example, and the reason that I agree with Kate, is that it acknowledges the multitudes who are "unfortunate," and cannot sorry about the pursuit of happiness because they are busy pursuing survival for themselves or their families. But, that does not mean that such people cannot be dignified.

It also supports Skinners notion that dignity is recognized when a person behaves independently of obvious stimuli. In the case of the sufferer, we would expect complaint, escape behaviors, and self-pity. When behavior occurs that surprises us (dignified suffering) then we observe an independent relationship between environmental conditions and behavior.

I’ll keep checking, but I have to get on some other things, I am afraid!

Fung, I really and truly liked that whole statement. But especially: Dignified suffering both constantly surprises us and is evidence of our genuine freedom. I’m especially moved by this because I just found out that someone close to me and known to many of you who suffered with cancer with amazing dignity for several years is about to die.

Peter- My sympathies to you and yours. It is an awesome, confusing, and bewildering combination of privilege and responsibility to share that last chapter with someone. We have gone through it more than once, and I feel for you.

Fung, that’s a great phrase, "to share the last chapter with someone." Thanks.

Fung, as Paul says, you’re getting more and more poetic. Thanks. Peter

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