Getting Dignity Right


Michael Rosen’s effort to clarify the history and meaning of dignity ignores Christianity’s important philosophical contributions.

In his new book, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Harvard professor of government Michael Rosen aims to clarify one of the central concepts that informs contemporary thought about human rights and bioethics. For Rosen, dignity is an under-theorized concept, and this fact helps explain the disdain some recent commentators have shown it. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, for example, famously derided the “stupidity of dignity.” (Christopher Kaczor’s very able response to Pinker in the pages of Public Discourse can be found here.) Rosen is no such foe of dignity, though he argues that many, if not most, invocations of dignity today are shrouded in ambiguity and equivocation—which leads to public policy informed by inflated notions of the concept. Rosen sets out to clear these muddy conceptual waters by writing a treatment pitched to the well-informed general reader, not an academic treatise. Yet in the end, he only succeeds marginally in writing a work that is both generally accessible and adequately treats the issues at stake.

Rosen’s short book is divided into three chapters. In the first, he explores the history of Western thinking about dignity and categorizes four different meanings. In the second, he uses this schema to analyze a number of court cases adjudicating dignity. Finally, in the third, he considers how his own favored notion of dignity—dignity as expressions of respect for humanity—raises an ethical puzzle: how do we understand our duty to treat human corpses with dignity when such treatment is of no benefit to the deceased?

Rosen argues that we too often see the history of dignity as a simplistic “expanding circle” narrative. “From this perspective,” he writes, “the quality of dignity, once the property of a social elite, has, like the idea of rights, been extended outward and downward until it has come to apply to all human beings.” In Rosen’s view, this is a crude account for two reasons. First, it assumes a univocal meaning of dignity and merely traces its expansion, but he argues that the idea has carried a range of importantly diverse meanings. Second, the standard narrative supposes a linear trajectory of expanding human worth, but he argues that Roman Catholicism (a tradition central to developing the concept) underwent a sea change from a “fiercely anti-egalitarian discourse” in the nineteenth century to a focus on universal human rights in the twentieth.

As to his first claim, Rosen is certainly on solid ground; his survey of Western philosophy, though brief, helpfully begins to disentangle various senses of dignity. I say begins because (as his second claim leads one to expect), Rosen’s schema demonstrates a marked inattentiveness to resources available within Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophy. This problem not only leaves his historical account of dignity incomplete; it also creates an important gap in his theoretical analysis that renders him unable to account for deep political disagreements about the character of human dignity.

The first strand of meaning Rosen identifies is dignity as status. In the classical world, dignity of status predominantly referred to social rank, the elevated position of the aristocracy. Stoic thought expanded this concept by considering the status of all mankind in the order of the universe—giving dignity as status both particular and universal dimensions. The universal dimension of status is closely related to the second and central strand of dignity’s meaning, that is, dignity as intrinsic value. The advent of Christianity brings this sense of dignity to the fore with its understanding of the human soul as bearing the imago dei, the image of God. All men, regardless of social station, are image bearers and therefore equal in basic worth. Moreover, traditional status distinctions are upended by the humility of Christ and the lowliness of all men relative to their Creator. Rosen shows some awareness that this theological account of dignity is complemented in the Christian tradition by a philosophical account of human worth. He briefly cites Thomas Aquinas’s opinion that “dignity signifies something’s goodness on account of itself,” and notes that this intrinsic worth is revealed not only in Scripture but also through natural law. However, after this nod in the direction of human nature, Rosen abruptly moves on to center his discussion of dignity as intrinsic value on the Kantian idea of autonomous self-legislation.

Rosen’s remaining two strands of meaning are really opposite sides of the same coin: dignity in practice. On one side, we speak of someone’s dignified behavior or bearing. Here Rosen has in mind the personal gravitas of a George Washington. On the other, we also point to dignity in someone’s actions toward others. When we treat others as persons having real value, we practice dignity as respectfulness. So all told, Rosen’s account identifies these four basic strands of meaning: dignity as status, as intrinsic value, as a dignified manner, and as respectfulness.

In order to assess the sufficiency of Rosen’s analysis, let us return to the idea of dignity as intrinsic value—and in particular, the philosophical dimension of the Christian tradition that he leaves unconsidered. Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophy distinguishes God’s special revelation known through Scripture from His general revelation, which is discernible through our rational reflection on the universe’s order and structure. Human dignity grounded in the imago dei is known through special revelation, but human dignity understood as personhood is grasped by rational reflection on human nature. We can understand the basic goodness, and therefore worth, of a complete and distinct being of a rational nature.

Moreover, the human person is characterized by other fundamental capacities such as procreation, friendship, and creativity, whose goodness is self-evident and whose reasoned cultivation expands the scope of human excellence. A child may be born with a basic capacity for love and affection, but years of practice are necessary to cultivate the empathy, loyalty, and wisdom of a mature friend. Thus, reflection on human nature develops our understanding of dignity in two related but distinct ways: First, by identifying those basic goods and characteristics essential to the human species, which thus ground a value possessed equally by all people in virtue of a common humanity. Second, by reflecting on the best cultivation of capacities essential to that shared nature, which leads to a notion of dignity only reached as real human excellences are attained. Accordingly, philosophical reflection on the intrinsic value shared equally by all people points us to another sense of dignity possessed in varying degrees.

The remarkable upshot of Rosen’s failure to address this nature-grounded view of dignity at length is that he leaves out of his categorization any account of dignity as flourishing—as a greater worth or deserving based on degrees of human excellence. This oversight is important not simply as a matter of historical completeness; it is also central to understanding political debates about such things as economic entitlements—contests in which demands for resources necessary to sustain basic human dignity (a secure retirement, healthcare, and so on) are pitted against assertions of superior merit due to greater industry, enterprise, or raw talent. Debates in bioethics, as well, often concern the distinction between human capacities possessed in some potential, incipient, or diminished form and human capacities exercised beyond a particular threshold competency. Conflicts such as these turn on a fundamental tension between the intrinsic and developmental dimensions of human dignity, yet Rosen’s analysis cannot adequately account for or assess them.

This inattention to human nature as the foundation of clear thinking about dignity is not unrelated to Rosen’s (mis)characterization of Roman Catholicism’s contributions to our understanding of dignity. Throughout the book Rosen unwinds a familiar narrative according to which the fiercely hierarchical Catholic Church of the nineteenth century reinvents itself as a preeminent guardian of universal human rights and equality in the twentieth. Rosen argues, for example, that the dignity of labor defended in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) articulates a dignity primarily found in fulfilling one’s role within a divinely-revealed social hierarchy. In contrast, he adduces John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor (1993), which is replete with the language of universal human rights and basic equality—“something that would have been quite unthinkable a century previously.” This shift indicates a radical transformation in the history of dignity.

There are a couple of immediate responses to this story. In the first place, Rosen seems to make no distinction at all between notions of basic human equality and social or political egalitarianism. Yet it is perfectly consistent to affirm, even champion, the former while resisting the latter. For example, one may consistently affirm the basic right to life of all human persons and reject a redistributive economic policy. One may even hold that labor conditions must meet certain basic standards to be consistent with human dignity and not think that this entails general economic parity. To say that people are equal in some basic respects does not mean that they are equal in all respects. Parsing these similarities and differences requires consideration of the deeper distinction between dignity as intrinsic worth and dignity as flourishing, but this is a line of analysis to which Rosen is not attuned.

In the second place, it is manifestly false to say that the idea of universal human rights was “quite unthinkable” in papal teaching before the supposed transmutation of the mid-twentieth century. Rosen casts Rerum Novarum as a palladium of social hierarchy, yet it is filled with appeals to natural human rights that the state is obligated to protect. Indeed, a central concern of the encyclical is to ensure that the basic dignity of laborers (based on a universal human nature) is not run over roughshod with the advent of modern industrialization. At the same time, Leo XIII is sensitive to Aquinas’s basic observation that dignity is keyed to intrinsic human goods. This requires that a defense of individual rights be situated within a larger account of human flourishing that duly recognizes man’s social nature. Hence the basic principle of personal dignity in Catholic social thought is accompanied by irreducibly social concepts such as solidarity and the common good.

Beyond identifying several strands of dignity, Rosen also uses his conceptual schema to analyze legal treatments of dignity. He is skeptical that courts have been able to consistently find a “cogent route” from principle to practice, and thus favors an analysis based on his fourth strand of meaning, dignity as respectfulness. This decision seems of a piece with his reluctance to theorize human nature in his conceptual schema, and here again the results are largely disappointing. Take, for example, his analysis of the infamous dwarf-tossing case. Is it an affront to human dignity for partiers at a club to amuse themselves by competing to see who can throw a dwarf the farthest? (The dwarf, one Manuel Wackenheim, wore protective gear and landed on an airbed. He was also pleased enough with the arrangement that he initiated a lawsuit when a local ordinance banned his new-found employment.) Rosen treats this situation simply as a matter of undignified conduct. He wants to know why the state should prevent people from making fools of themselves, especially when doing so limits their ability to choose their employment. Now, clearly the activity in question is undignified, but there seems to be a qualitative difference between dwarf-throwing and, say, wearing a monkey suit to the office. Dwarf-throwing involves treating a human person as an instrument, a projectile, on the basis of an abnormality. What is done, not only to the person thrown, but to all those involved in the spectacle, when a person is instrumentalized, and thus dehumanized, precisely on the basis of a handicap? Rosen does not engage this issue of objectification and thus neglects the root of the difficulty.

In his final chapter, Rosen considers the obligation to treat the dead with dignity. It is a worthwhile question, both for its own sake and because many quandaries involving dignity do not involve an obvious beneficiary. However, Rosen centers his discussion on disputes in Kantian interpretation. This approach is unfortunate because it completely undercuts the book’s aim at a non-specialized audience. It is also puzzling since Rosen rejects, without any argument, key elements of Kant’s notion of obligation to oneself. If it is worth the effort to get Kant right, isn’t it worth explaining why some of his system should be jettisoned?

For those interested in a short historical survey of some key ideas in the development of contemporary notions of dignity, as well as discussion of a number of interesting cases involving legal appeals to dignity, Michael Rosen’s book may be of interest. Those more interested in clearly parsing the philosophy and content of human dignity would be better served by picking up Gilbert Meilaender’s Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person.

Matthew D. Wright is an Assistant Professor in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, La Mirada, California.


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