With the gradual dissolution of this Cold War rhetoric, human dignity became open to new interpretations. At least in Western Europe, public Christianity collapsed. There and elsewhere, Kant became popular thanks to the publication of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971), which established individual rights as the indispensable foundations of social justice. (Interestingly, Rawls never focused on dignity, but the retrieval of Kant he inspired eventually got there—though, as Rosen shows in one of his most impressive discussions, it was in a far more secular key than Kant’s texts permit.) Finally, and at first independently, a new kind of international human rights movement arose, one initially focused on the sorts of bodily violations like torture that a global public came to regard as the most egregious violations of human dignity [see Moyn, “Torture and Taboo,” February 25]. When the Cold War ended, it became possible to surmise that most people, after all, agree about the dictates of “dignity” and other basic values, even though they spent the twentieth century slaughtering one another over which ideals to prize.
Rosen is a wonderful guide to the recent German constitutional thinking about human dignity crafted in this new climate. Today, he shows, the German concept of dignity is generally secular, liberal and even Kantian in its meaning, notably in a controversial decision made after 9/11 forbidding the state from shooting down an airliner captured by terrorists. (Rosen also has amusing discussions of dwarf-tossing and other current controversies, and is in general an urbane and witty companion, achieving his aim of accessibly written philosophy.) Dignity is a feature of nearly every constitution written of late, especially South Africa’s exemplary and prestigious document. Basic conflicts are easily reframed in terms of dignity: the dignity of life for infants used to be set off against women’s liberation in abortion debates, but the defenders of choice long ago learned to deploy the concept of dignity too. While the Supreme Court referred in June to the “dignity” of the states when it explained why it had to end the federal supervision of elections mandated by the Voting Rights Act, Justice Anthony Kennedy—the very same week, in Windsor v. United States—repeatedly invoked the “dignity” we have decided to confer on the institution of marriage as the rationale for providing a major victory for gay rights.
Yet the religious sources for the concept of human dignity make it hard for secular progressives to claim it easily or unambiguously. The 2012 Democratic Party platform referred to dignity frequently, in association with the universal human rights that liberals in the United States say are the country’s foundation, including a new emphasis on global women’s rights and global development, as well as in relation to liberal social policy like healthcare. Yet the Republican platform invoked dignity just as frequently: to inveigh against abortion and explain why it is wrong (one reason being that it offends “the dignity of women”); to insist that marriage is exclusively reserved for heterosexuals; and to support the military, warning that it must not become the site of “social experimentation.” In these usages, dignity clearly refers to a moral code above and beyond society, to which democracy must defer.
Not even Ishmael thought human dignity could be a purely secular ideal. He is nonchalant by comparison with Captain Ahab—but that’s a low bar. Ishmael is an exile too (and the namesake of one), but not, like Ahab, exercised about it. He is even complacent about God’s fickle disappearance, however much he allows himself to be temporarily seduced by Ahab’s quest. He has no place in the world and usually doesn’t seem concerned about his metaphysical standing. Yet strangely, when he celebrates democracy, Ishmael does so precisely in terms of the godly dignity that he mocked earlier when describing kings and their coronations:
Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces, but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. [T]his august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. [It is] that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!
Ishmael’s “faith” is rousing. But how can Melville’s character salvage ideal worth from the overthrown order in which kings and aristocrats acted as the dignified intermediaries between God and everyone else? And if men need robes to hide their blemishes, how can they do without “robed investiture” of some kind? Most important, how could Ishmael appeal so effortlessly to God, and the human dignity based on Him, as if it were not the very premise that Ahab needed to test in his fiery hunt?
Searching for divine certification of our standing may always be appealing, but the liberal interest in dignity seems to follow from less exalted and metaphysical concerns. When the French Revolution and the struggle for the freedoms of blacks, women and workers were being won across the nineteenth century, no one said it was because of human dignity. Outside of Kant, human rights in particular were unconnected to any theory of dignity until Catholics yoked them together at midcentury. Today, human dignity is a principle chiefly for those who admire judges and want them to have the power to check the state in the name of basic humanitarian values. Its currency is a sign that our morality has been redefined around the worst that can transpire in history rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle. A consensus about dignity may have become deep enough for us to insist that the state not torture, but it has proved far less helpful when some of us insist that our fellow humans care about one another’s broader welfare or collective emancipation. Isn’t that undignified?