“A king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad,” Ishmael jokes in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in the course of cataloging every last use of whale blubber. “Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process.” The word “dignity” appears roughly twenty times in Melville’s novel and usually refers to the high standing of various offices and activities—including, inevitably, whaling. But often, “dignity” pertains to monarchs, though the humorous treatment that somehow elevates kings doesn’t work its magic on everyone. For Ishmael, the notion that democracy offers all people the dignified prerogatives of kings seems mistaken, if not ridiculous. “In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil,” he observes, “can’t amount to much in his totality.”
In Dignity, Rank, & Rights, Jeremy Waldron—perhaps the leading legal and political philosopher of our day—argues that the notion of human dignity originated in the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born. “Dignity” means rank, and Waldron argues that we are the beneficiaries of a long, gradual process that he calls “leveling up.” More and more people, he says, are treated as high-status individuals, deserving of the social respect once restricted to the solemnly oiled. In an age of human rights, everyone can become a king, at least on paper or in court, where claims that basic human dignity is nonnegotiable have achieved a remarkable popularity in the last few years.
Since the end of World War II, no one apart from conservative and typically Catholic thinkers has staked philosophical systems on the notion of human dignity, but liberal philosophers like Waldron are now flocking to this position to revitalize theories of political ethics. Around the same time that Waldron turned to the concept, the late Ronald Dworkin, in his masterwork Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), claimed that dignity constitutes the most basic value that a society should advance. Jürgen Habermas, the great German thinker, recently admitted that human dignity had never been cited as the basis for human rights for most of modern history, whether in Virginia in 1776, France in 1789, or thereafter; he concluded from this fact that dignity must have been the implicit underpinning for human rights all along. But this can’t be correct. During most of that time, the concept of dignity served to elevate some people over others rather than putting them on the same level. And when dignity finally did enter politics—encoded at midcentury in the United Nations Charter (1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and West German constitutional Basic Law (1949)—it was not the watchword in philosophy or political theory that it has since become.
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Before the modern era, dignity was not considered an inviolable value. In the fifteenth century, the Renaissance guru Pico della Mirandola wrote an oration later dubbed “On the Dignity of Man,” which is often regarded as a confused precursor of later understandings of the term. (In Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Harvard political theorist Michael Rosen treats him this way.) But Pico, a cabalist and magician, was far too idiosyncratic a thinker to be anyone’s precursor; after all, he insisted that what sets humans apart from everything else in the universe is their lack of any defined essence. As the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has noted, Pico’s discourse “does not contain the term dignitas, which…could not in any case refer to man…. For the central thesis of the oration is that man, having been molded when the models of creation were all used up…can have neither archetype nor proper place nor specific rank.”
In modern times, Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to write about the democratization of high standing. A French aristocrat who traveled to America to size up a newfangled thing called “democracy,” Tocqueville warned that if aristocratic values were not somehow preserved after the departure of feudal kings and nobles, humanity would be debased. “In aristocratic ages, vast ideas are commonly entertained of the dignity, the power, and the greatness of man,” he noted. Democracy might promise a leveling up, but it mainly threatened to flatten social distinctions altogether—a risk that Waldron and other current chroniclers of dignity do not seem to take seriously.
But even on its own terms, there are problems with Waldron’s argument. Aristocratic status is not an innate characteristic: ask the riffraff who have bought or married into it over the centuries. And even for those who lucked into high birth, their standing was always ritually established, as the ceremonial anointing of kings suggests. For nobles, social requirements included dress, language, manners and manor, and for males they also involved the sort of repetitive violence and denigration of the body that we now think human dignity is supposed to deter or forbid. Nineteenth-century aristocrats, in their last gasp of importance, whiled away their idle hours rattling sabers and, when not preparing to fight, engaging in nasty duels in which they gave one another the physical scars that were frequently the mandatory signs of their superiority. Such rituals, like anointing, seem fairly silly when applied to everyone; besides, discussions about human dignity consider it to be “inherent.” It is not something that elaborate social rituals—least of all bodily violence—are required to establish.
The historical origins of dignity in terms of social status are important to Waldron because of the recent turn to another potential source—abstract philosophy—for securing human worth. Even as dignity was slowly being recognized as existing beyond aristocrats, philosophers continued their age-old struggle to identify uniquely human properties that set us above the other animals. One philosopher, however, the German Enlightenment sage Immanuel Kant, thought about human distinction precisely in terms of dignity—namely, the priceless worth conferred on us by our freedom to choose. Kant inserted a break in the great chain of being between the rest of the animals, which are subject purely to the determination of nature’s laws, and human beings, who could (he hoped) deploy their free will to make their own rules rather than slavishly obey beastly imperatives. In a difficult argument, Kant insisted that man’s “rational nature”—our ability to set ends—makes every human life of highest value, and indeed provides the basis of all value in the world. His metaphysical promotion of the centrality of human dignity is significant intellectually because, as Rosen remarks, it is on Kant’s “giant shoulders [that] the modern theory of human rights largely rests” nowadays.
Waldron, whose latest book is typically careful, lucid and subtle, seems clearly nervous about resting everything on those shoulders. In practical terms, he suggests that it is best to establish people’s worth not by abstract and controversial claims like Kant’s about their freedom and autonomy, which do not command universal agreement, but rather by letting the law work slowly to grant them higher status, as has been the case in constitutional and international human rights law during the last few decades. Further, as Waldron persuasively argues, it is not possible to derive from Kant’s idea of human dignity everything that human rights law might protect. For example, the Universal Declaration makes room for economic and social protections, but how can the notion of human dignity justify the declaration’s more specific protection of unionization rights or paid vacations? Dignity seems too abstract a notion to support such specific entitlements.
The partisans of a metaphysical basis for human dignity might respond, predictably, that what goes up can come down. And, ultimately, some irrefutable argument is required to establish the grounds for treating human beings as immediately precious. The arc of the moral universe is definitely long, as our president likes to say, borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr., but it does not bend toward justice unless pushed, as King knew well. Waldron’s proposal is that the universal and egalitarian implications of Kant’s kingdom of ends can be reached indirectly by allowing the democratization of high status to continue through various legal institutions. But it is hard to see why anyone could be confident about this bet—unless Waldron were, like Obama, committed to the view that history inevitably betters humanity’s lot. But at this late date, it is naïve to appeal to the workings of providence. In fact, a closer look at the historical details of dignity’s trajectory suggests that its prominence today is directly related to a crisis of progress.
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