Thursday, 8 May 2008

Is dignity a useful concept?

royal insignia

When asked this question two months ago, I would have answered it with a clear yes: Of course, in humanist ethics, the concept of human dignity seems to be central. Dignity, according to Webster, is the "quality of being worthy of esteem or honor". It may be a matter of dispute whether all people, regardless of what they think and do, should be given such a quality. But such a dispute may be about how much, about a minimum of dignity that should be given to every human being.

But two weeks ago, a Swiss ethics commission has declared that not only human beings and animals but also plants have a dignity. This sounds quite out of place to me, and not only to me. It is so much out of place that I have asked myself whether the concept of dignity is useful in ethics at all.

Before going further into this reasoning, I want to make clear that I support without any doubt or reservation the ultimate goal of this concept: Respect of other human beings, and the application of the Golden Rule. I only doubt whether the concept of dignity is useful or necessary for this goal.

Dignity is assigned by a third party

My main problem with dignity is that it does not grow by itself but must be assigned by somebody. Royal dignity is a typical example. It always has been assigned by a superior authority. In earlier days, kings have claimed to have received it directly from God. Most European kings have been crowned by the Pope. Even today, many ethics experts derive their dignity concept from a theist or creationist point of view.

A dignity concept based on religious authority cannot be useful in secular humanism. Can dignity be assigned in a non-religious way and, if yes, by whom? Ethics commissions, of course, but in these, religious people always have their seats. We live in a democratic society, thus I do not find they must be excluded.

One big problem with any assigned property, such as dignity, is that it can be revoked. What can be given can always been taken away. It has been said that the prisoners of Abu Ghraib have been deprived of their human dignity. Every torturer argues in accordance with the human dignity concept, claiming that his victims have lost their dignity (by misbehaving) and therefore are no longer human beings.

In church history, we can find many such examples: "Heretics" and "witches" have been burnt alive because the church had withdrawn "dignity" from them. Even more, they twisted the concept in a way to state that the "dignity of the immortal soul" has been saved by burning the sinful bodies alive.

Rights is all we need

Of course it may flatter my ego when musing about my own dignity, a property that in earlier days has been reserved to kings. But I think that human rights do a better job, anyway. All the people now starving because of the new global hunger crisis do not need dignity at all. They need something to eat. They have a right to eat. At least they should have. That's all.

I prefer the concept of rights because their origin is in the free will of the individual persons. The persons decide themselves what to do, and the rights regulate this will, allowing some acts and restricting others. Individual freedom is the default, and the freedom of other people is the only useful limit.

I think that individual freedom, rights, and the Golden Rule are sufficient for an optimal humanism, and that the concept of dignity does not add any value. On the contrary, it may even be double-edged and subject of misuse. And the plant dignity example shows that it may even be pushed to a state of nonsense.

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