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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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.

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.

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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.”

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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?