“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.”