What does it mean to have dignity?

What does it mean to have dignity?

It’s not hard to look around society today – through current events, social media, etc., but also offline in crime, poverty and homelessness, education and child well-being – and see that to have dignity seems to be missing. A homeless woman interacted with my objection to the idea that our local public transportation system be fully and permanently subsidized by the tax payer.

Since not having to pay for transportation herself was of value to her (I have no doubt it is) in her mind, I had a disregard for her human dignity. Ie. In her view, I wanted to take something from her that helped her – something that gave her dignity. So, what does it mean to have dignity?

What does it mean to have dignity?

While I have no doubt that homeless people are really only thinking about their next steps – survival, essentially – and freedom of movement is essential to survival, my thought was that she would be better served by opposing the numerous policies that are contributing/causing/making worse the impoverishment of our locality to begin with.

But her perspective and mine are very different. To her, the government is responsible to serve her immediate needs. To me, the government is responsible to get out of the way of the market serving her needs. But my perspective is with the long term in view. My view is, “how do we get this woman out of poverty?” while her view is, “I’m in poverty, how can my immediate needs be met?” Which one gives this woman her dignity?

What is dignity?

dignity (n.)

c. 1200, “state of being worthy,” from Old French dignite “dignity, privilege, honor,” from Latin dignitatem (nominative dignitas) “worthiness,” from dignus “worth (n.), worthy, proper, fitting,” from PIE *dek-no-, suffixed form of root *dek- “to take, accept.”

From c. 1300 as “an elevated office, civil or ecclesiastical,” also “honorable place or elevated rank.” From late 14c. as “gravity of countenance.”

Based on the etymology of the word, to have dignity is a state of being worthy, having privilege or honor, being accepted. But worthy of what? Having the privilege or honor to do, or be what? To be accepted for what? To show these questions don’t elicit obvious answers let me use some extreme responses.

Are we worthy of worship by others? Do we have the privilege to rule others? Should we be honored for destroying someone’s home? Should we be accepted for the evil we might do to someone else?

No, obviously not!

But behind our obvious objections to these extreme examples, we find more than a definition – we find a philosophical concept: human dignity.

The mercurial concept of human dignity features in ethical, legal, and political discourse as a foundational commitment to human value or human status. The source of that value, or the nature of that status, are contested.

The normative implications of the concept are also contested, and there are two partially, or even wholly, different deontic conceptions of human dignity implying virtue-based obligations on the one hand, and justice-based rights and principles on the other.

Added to this, the different practical and philosophical presuppositions of law, ethics, and politics mean that definitive adjudication between different meanings is frustrated by disciplinary incommensurabilities.

In other words, there is an ethical, legal, and political commitment to human dignity as the foundation for understanding human value and status. The source of the value, or the nature of the status, are contested. One conception of human dignity is based on virtue-based obligations, while the other is based on justice-based rights and principles. It is also difficult to adjudicate between meanings because of the different presuppositions of law, ethics, and politics.

What is due?

Virtue-based obligations (or what love, or degree of love, is due someone else from you) and justice-based rights and principles (or what civilly enforceable obligation is due someone else from you) really helps to clarify why the question of human dignity is not so clearcut.

  • What do you a owe a homeless person?
  • What does the homeless person owe you?
  • How do we arrive at the correct answer that respects the dignity of both parties?
  • And why should we care that humans have dignity at all?

These questions are important and ones that we must grapple with if we are to move on from a society that seems to be so lacking in human dignity.

I’m listening to Magatte Wade‘s new book, The Heart of the Cheetah. In the first chapter, Wade relays a story of an employee in her African company, based in Senegal, who discovered her own dignity. This employee had been persuaded through numerous influences, that Africans were inferior.

But when Wade reminded them of the rich history of African wealth, trade routes, and prosperity, and that the purpose of them making lip balm wasn’t for pity, or charity, or some other patronizing motive. the employee realized, she – as an African – was not inferior. Wade says, “I have just witnessed what it looks for a human being to regain her dignity.”

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Kerry Baldwin
B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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