Dignity’s Due | The Nation


Dignity’s Due

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

There is one big omission in the view that dignity is the respect accorded to high social status: the lord at the top of the great chain of being, God. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael allows that dignity still exists in the natural kingdom, where divine majesty remains intact even if America has shown the world that men can rule themselves. “In the great Sperm Whale,” he remarks, “this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.” Such is the dignity that matters to Captain Ahab, famously obsessed with the Deity who refuses to answer him—and for whom the white whale stands in as proxy.

Dignity, Rank, & Rights
By Jeremy Waldron.
Edited by Meir Dan-Cohen.
Buy this book

Its History and Meaning.
By Michael Rosen.
Buy this book

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

Also by the Author

Does David Bromwich’s idea of a Burkean left amount to anything more than contempt for Obama?

Immigration, second-class wages, torture and taboo

Unlike Ishmael, Ahab fears the loss of dignity resulting from the departure or silence of God. He fears that when belief in a God on high wanes, humanity’s worth and purpose is thrown radically into doubt. As the literary critic Robert Milder argues in his magnificent study of Melville, Exiled Royalties, “Ahab craves recognition that he is heaven-born and, if not heaven-destined, then at least, by nature and bearing, heaven-worthy…. If God will not condescend to him by word or sign, Ahab will extort the sign, if only by forcing God to kill him.” By extension, Moby-Dick explores how human dignity ultimately depends on (and emerges from) a theological principle, not a political or social one alone.

Kings and aristocrats relied heavily on a theological worldview, with God establishing their “divine right” to rule on earth. In fact, it is extremely doubtful that Kant’s bundle of assumptions about what gives human beings dignity can be plausibly traced to European beliefs about social status, as opposed to theological premises that he struggled to reformulate in secular terms. As the nineteenth century passed and Kant’s thought fell out of favor (Arthur Schopenhauer called dignity “the shibboleth of all perplexed and empty-headed moralists”), the party most closely associated with claims about human dignity was neither liberal nor socialist, but rather conservative and rigid in its commitment to hierarchy: the Catholic Church.

In his penetrating and sprightly essay, Rosen rightly emphasizes the centrality of Catholicism in the modern history of human dignity. His command of the history is impressive, but his chiefly philosophical purpose leads him to overlook some dramatic historical developments or note them merely in passing. Rosen leaves the impression that the concept of human dignity arose as a kind of common ground between liberal Kantians and post-Holocaust Catholics, both of whom agreed that our humanity is the source of moral worth but differed slightly about its implications. But no Kantians were around when it mattered: at midcentury, when the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration and the German Constitution were written. Further, Rosen throws up his hands when it comes to explaining how political Catholicism, most closely associated with the concept of human dignity in the 1930s, was changed by fascism and war, which affected its reinvocation of dignity in the 1940s. 

Rosen beautifully shows, however, that the Catholic notion of dignity long bolstered the vision of a highly hierarchical society. In the confusing decade of the 1930s, when Catholic social thought profoundly informed the illiberal regimes of Austria, Spain and Portugal, “dignity” seemed to refer to man’s place in a divine order in which the high rank of humans still meant their subordination to one another—notably the subordination of women to men. The first national constitution to use human dignity in a prominent way was Ireland’s in 1937; in it, “the dignity and freedom of the individual” is linked to theological virtues, and women were told—contrary to the country’s earlier liberal constitution, which the new document repealed—to find their “place within the home.” And the notion of human dignity invoked by the church forbade the egalitarian solutions of communism, which promised to “level up” humanity more than liberals have. But in the 1930s, Catholics were not yet sure whether the protection of human dignity was served by liberal democracy or threatened by it—and almost as frighteningly as by communism itself.

* * *

Even so, a few Catholic dissidents argued against the alliance of Catholicism and reaction, advocating instead a moralistic conservatism compatible with—or even dependent on—a liberal democracy whose viability had long been doubted in mainstream Catholic circles. When the Allied victory in World War II swept Europe of reactionary politics (except in Iberia), Catholics began to link human dignity with parliamentary democracy and “human rights.” But even then, Catholics wanted to separate dignity from the potentially anarchistic implications of individual rights. “The holy story of Christmas proclaims this inviolable dignity of man with a vigor and authority that cannot be gainsaid,” Pope Pius XII stated in a hugely influential message in late 1944, “an authority and vigor that infinitely transcends that which all possible declarations of the rights of man could achieve.” Human rights had long been associated with the legacy of the French Revolution—no wonder the pope was nervous about them. And so the most unfortunate fact in the history of human dignity is that, when the notion was introduced into world politics by Christian hands, it had been severed from a revolutionary legacy thought at the time to be a slippery slope to communism and a road to serfdom.

The political theorist Charles Beitz has recently discovered that it was Barnard College dean Virginia Gildersleeve who altered the preamble of the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945 to include its current reference to “the dignity and worth of the human person.” The language seems most traceable to Catholic usage, because no one else invoked the idea during wartime. One thing is clear: the appearance of human dignity in the charter was surely not an evocation of a principle violated by the European Holocaust, because the Jews were of no serious concern to either Pius XII or Gildersleeve. The latter had spent much of the 1930s trying to bar Jews from her school, and she gave speeches sympathetic to Germany’s early territorial expansion. After the war, as the historian Stephen Norwood has noted, Gildersleeve’s “campaign” against what she called “International Zionism” seemed evidence of “the inability of many…to comprehend the depth…of Jewish suffering.” The same is true in postwar West Germany, where the annunciation of dignity suited the agendas of its time.

The main one, it seems, was the rise of the Christian Democrats, a conservative political movement that established dominance in Western Europe, in which appeals to “human dignity” figured by far most commonly. In the history of postwar constitutions, after Ireland’s pioneering usage, human dignity appeared first in conservative Catholic Bavaria’s Constitution in 1946, then in that of Christian Democratic Italy in 1947, before the West German Constitution was written with its now-famous first article: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” And indeed, the enduring influence of Catholic premises on West German legal thought shaped dignity’s meaning for a long time. Rosen seriously overstates the Kantian influence in the original West German Constitution and its early interpretation. The figure he cites as a Kantian interpreter, Günter Dürig, drew his influential interpretation of dignity and other precepts of constitutional law as “objective values” from one of Kant’s most incisive modern critics, sometime Catholic philosopher Max Scheler.

After 1945, Westerners generally followed the example of the Catholics in the previous decade and used the notion of human dignity to attack communism. A founding document of American Cold War politics, NSC-68, states that the point of the US campaign to contain communism was a defense of human dignity, and President Harry Truman agreed that “both religion and democracy are founded on one basic principle, the worth and dignity of the individual man and woman.”

* * *

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size