Social Thought and Rival Claims to the Moral Ideal of Dignity

Social Thought and Rival Claims to the Moral Ideal of Dignity

by Philip Hodgkiss

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The relation between changes in society over historical time and the concomitant transformation of a concept that depicts something of intrinsic value in that society is complex and contingent. Social Thought and Rival Claims to the Moral Ideal of Dignity attempts to see if we can get any closer to a rounded, three-dimensional view of dignity by drawing on the historical record, on philosophy and social thought more widely and, finally, on contributions that present dignity in a rather more public and political light. In thus tracing the fortunes of human dignity we find that it has not always been viewed as a straightforwardly laudable principle. Social Thought and Rival Claims to the Moral Ideal of Dignity examines the reasons behind what turns out to be, really quite pronounced, the ambiguous status of the idea and ideal of dignity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783087860
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 433 KB

About the Author

Philip Hodgkiss is a sociologist who has been drawn increasingly to moral philosophy and ethics to research the origins of the idea and ideal of dignity. He is the author of The Making of the Modern Mind (2001) and has contributed chapters to various collections and edited volumes.

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Reverence for life and being, for otherness, is something which can be taught or suggested very early. 'Don't kill the poor spider, put him out in the garden'. Even a use of 'him' or 'her' instead of 'it' may help [...] Morality, as the ability or attempt to be good, rests upon deep areas of sensibility and creative imagination, upon removal from one state of mind to another, upon shift of attachments, upon love and respect for the contingent details of the world. (Murdoch 1992, 337)


Zygmunt Bauman has remarked quite astutely that a word has 'a feel' as well as a meaning (Bauman 2001, 1); we might be tempted to append that it has also a history. The relation between changes in society over historical time and the concomitant transformation of a concept that depicts something of intrinsic value in that society is complex and contingent. An attempt is made, here, to see if we can get any closer to a rounded, three-dimensional view of dignity by drawing on the historical record, on philosophy and social thought more widely and, finally, on contributions that present dignity in a rather more public and political light. We are at once faced with the question as to whether dignity is primarily an ethical–moral question, a politico–legal matter, a property of the normative order, an ontological phenomenon or, in itself, a force of nature. It may be all of these things at any one time, or, conspicuously, none of them. In considering what he calls the 'compass of moral value judgements', Friedrich Nietzsche lists dignity along with other 'virtues' he describes as being 'sweet-sounding words' (Nietzsche 2017, 210). If we were to take dignity as the case in point, he wonders whether it should be taken in itself, in its own right, or as seen from a certain perspective, or, even, in terms of its consequences (or, perhaps, its utility). Despite his disparagement of a 'virtue' like dignity, he is drawing out for us, here, the rounded, three-dimensional quality we might be looking for. At this point, however, answers to the questions he raises are not really forthcoming. What would seem certain is that dignity, as with the concept of alienation featured by Schacht (1971, 242), is actually what Alisdair MacIntyre called a 'contrast concept', so it is only through an implicit absence or negation that we come to be acquainted with it at all. Dignity is defined over and against what it is not, being conspicuous by its absence.

If we were to take the following as a quite startling illustration, certain features would begin to emerge. Clearly, we have in the following instance, dignity as the absence indicated by the 'contrast concept', but actually present are other significant dimensions that dignity has come to denote. C. L. R. James (1963) in The Black Jacobins paints the darkest of pictures of the purchase of slaves on the deck of a slave ship on arrival in the West Indies. Before making his purchase, the slave owner examined intimately each individual for any conceivable bodily defect, even stooping so far as to actually taste their perspiration (apparently, a sign of good health or otherwise): 'Then in order to restore the dignity which might have been lost by too intimate an examination, the purchaser spat in the face of the slave' (James 1963, 9). If there were to be a quintessential instance of a complete negation of dignity, then it may be sampled in this squalid exchange of bodily fluids. For, here, both parties are dispossessed of their humanity, and dignity is retained only by ravishing delusion (yet, the slave had some extrinsic value, and there will come a time in Western civilization, as we shall see, when even that will not pertain). Writing in 1790 on this same issue, Mary Wollstonecraft railed: 'because our ignorant forefathers, not understanding the native dignity of man, sanctioned a traffic that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion, we are to submit to the inhuman custom, and term an atrocious insult to humanity the love of our country, and a proper submission to the laws by which our property is secured' (Wollstonecraft 1995, 13). Quite remarkably for this period, Wollstonecraft uses the word dignity frequently in invective, and a quite startling range of meaning and inflexion ends up being deployed, sometimes perhaps even more nuanced in meaning than we could ever trace through here. Nevertheless, her idea of 'the native dignity of man' will become central.

So that we know exactly where we are going with this analysis, it is helpful to think of the idea of dignity as developing historically in three dimensions that largely coexist today. Traditionally, in common parlance, the major connotations appear to be: first, dignity as denoting an exclusive place or position in a social rank order approximating a status held by someone or, in effect, their social standing. The 'Prologue' to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has it that the two households of Montague and Capulet are 'both alike in dignity'. This is manifestly dignity as status or social standing – either term could have served to replace dignity and retain the same meaning. Thus, dignity was originally seen as the prerogative of the dominant in society and associated with privilege and exclusivity – it was, in effect, the touchstone of inequality. Thomas Hobbes supposes that the worth of a man is, like all things, 'his price', whereas the public worth of a man, the value placed on him by the commonwealth, is commonly called their 'DIGNITY' (Hobbes 1962, 115–16). While for Hobbes, dignity had denoted a distinction by name or title, Kant refers to 'civic dignities' (Kant 1991, 127) that amount to the titled positions and roles within the order of the state. The idea of someone being a 'dignitary' (a magistrate is Kierkegaard's example [Kierkegaard 1959, 1: 162]) suggests this, and the word 'dignitatum', quite literally, means an 'office' of some sort. Hegel (1971), for his part, proceeded to see dignity (honour) as stemming from what people are – their work, their trade, their position. Interestingly, and overlaying two of the connotations discussed here, Hegel refers at one point to the 'dignity of wifehood' (Hegel 1977, 288). This, however, is not just a static attribution as people act out the given social status. Dignity can come to be the pride that someone presumes and, in this sense, is something that someone might choose to 'stand on'. Rousseau in The Confessions, for example, refers at one point to having stood on his dignity (Rousseau 1996, 96). If someone maintains dignity, this amounts to 'the look', composure and bearing associated with, or expected of, a particular person (of a certain status, sex or age). The implication of this is that they are always in danger of losing such dignity in the eyes of others. We can see this in Aristotle (1998, 93), who refers to dignity in the context of one's bearing (a becoming display of honour and status) in relation to those superior or inferior to oneself. In modern times, and in contrast to his substantive definition that ties human dignity to respect for truth, Marcel (1963) has very aptly referred to a 'decorative conception' of human dignity to do with status, display and social distance. Why people see others as possessing dignity in this sense is a pre-eminently sociological question. More appropriately viewed as indicating status (social honour), certain largely occupational groups appear to monopolize prestigious positions such as doctors, lawyers, managing directors and so forth. There appears to be a rough and ready consensus on this in people's estimation, and though the refuse collector (dustman) may not be particularly highly regarded in terms of such a scaling, this does not extend to the evaluation of them as a person. Significantly, Rawls establishes a distinction between 'the moral worth' of persons, which depends upon the degree to which they comply with principles of justice, and dignity, which, in a Kantian sense, persons possess independently of their moral worth and concomitant actions (see Freeman 2007, 475–76).

Second, while dignity can be displayed in one's bearing as in Aristotle's account, it is also, quite crucially, a bearing on a moral compass. In fact, dignity has been viewed both as an intrinsic property of a particular individual and as an ethical phenomenon pertaining to humanity in a more abstract sense. Dignity can, thus, be a highly particularized facet of someone's personality not everyone is given to; in this guise, it remains merely suggestive of human dignity as a universal attribute. As we shall see, Marcus Aurelius uses dignity often in the sense of an intrinsic property of the esteemed individual person. In Concerning the Principles of Morals (1975), David Hume refers to what he calls the 'companionable' virtues and identifies, among other qualities, 'a noble dignity' (277) and a 'dignity of mind' (314) as typifying the best side of a man's character and conduct (see 252–53). On the rare occasions he mentions it, Adam Smith, too, sees dignity, or the lack of it, in terms of a man's character. Yet, extending out beyond this personal attribution, he remarks that the hope and expectation of the life to come so deeply rooted in human nature 'can alone support its lofty ideas of its own dignity' (Smith 2009, 154). Kierkegaard, for instance, was to remark that 'the experience of choosing imparts to a man's nature a solemnity, a quiet dignity, which never is entirely lost' (Kierkegaard 1959, 1: 181). In this regard, we might be given to resort to certain turns of phrases such as 'she bore adversity with a quiet dignity'. In addition, at this interpersonal level, there may be a more proactive assertion of the right to have one's dignity recognized, with an implicit, sometimes explicit, demand that one's intrinsic worth be admitted. In a great deal of recent literature (e.g. as reviewed by Bolton 2007), dignity is construed as the in trinsic feeling of being of worth, or, more ambitiously, the feeling of being a being of worth. This would seem to imply 'self-regard', 'self-respect' and even, perhaps, 'self-esteem'. Various situations or experiences affect the self to the extent of confirming or disconfirming their evaluative or qualitative sense of themselves. The point to bear in mind is that in this guise dignity is quite subjective, with everything directed inward towards the subject; the subject is not viewed as looking outward towards specific others – except to confirm their own thoughts on the matter. The effect of this very singular announcement of 'my dignity' is almost a rehearsal of the 'decorative' dimension of dignity indicated previously. In effect, the interplay between the various dimensions of dignity has a material effect itself. For example, it is the play (and pretence) of something approximating the 'decorative' description that can disguise the Other, hiding them from us and confounding our ability to participate in an ex trinsic 'declaration' that recognizes the dignity of the Other as the source of our own.

Thus, it is with a third, more universal property of dignity that the present study is primarily concerned, and it is in this, what we shall call, 'declarative' sense that dignity first takes on a moral and ethical significance and, then, assumes a well-defined political and legal status. This is dignity coming to be seen as inherent in humanity intrinsically and as embodying a propensity towards interpersonal recognition. This third dimension of dignity, whenever and wherever it is rehearsed, has an implicit normative and moral connotation. It suggests a certain quality, something of worth, something to be universally respected. At that moment, it comes to denote an abstract ethical ideal – in need of a quite independent interpretation in its own right. But to where might we trace the origins of this quite specific concern with the third dimension of dignity? As we have seen, Mary Wollstonecraft was employing the term in this sense in the last decade of the eighteenth century, but Schopenhauer (2010) claims in a footnote that the first systematic deployment of 'dignity' was by G. W. Block. (E. F. J. Payne, translator of Schopenhauer's On the Basis of Morality, confirms in a footnote that 'G.W. Block in his A New Foundation for the Philosophy of Morals [Neue Grundlegung zur Philosophie der Sitten], 1802, appears to have been the first to make the conception of the "dignity of man" expressly and exclusively the foundation stone of ethics, and accordingly to have built an ethical system on it' [Schopenhauer 1995, 100–101].) Nevertheless, there is some evidence that it is with Kant that the idea of dignity of man, at both an interpersonal and a universal level, had begun to develop an irresistible momentum. Just to really set us thinking about these distinctions in the meaning of dignity, Kant, at one point, refers to human dignity as if it were actually a status per se, announcing that 'humanity itself is a dignity' (Kant 1991, 225). Reflecting on Kant's lofty claim for 'humanity', perhaps we should be asking ourselves just how universally applicable this third dimension of dignity might actually turn out to be. We have seen that there might be a problem in this regard with the slave, but what of our fellow non-human creatures not blessed with any social standing or, even, any possible inclination to stand on their dignity? By way of a digression, then, we can allow ourselves to meet the living, breathing proof of what should be a genuinely universal constituency of the third dimension of dignity.

In the later sixteenth century, in his essay 'On Cruelty', Montaigne rehearsed his feeling of distress at wanton cruelty to animals: 'Considering that one and the same Master has lodged us in this place to serve Him, and that they as well as we are of His family, it is justified in enjoining us to show them some regard and affection' (Montaigne 1993, 187). He continues: 'We owe justice to men, and kindness and benevolence to all other creatures who may be susceptible of it' (189). Yet, at this time in France, sack loads of cats could be tipped out onto a bonfire at a festival celebration, and not long afterwards Descartes was reputedly to have thrown a cat out of a window in demonstration of the fact that such a creature worked only in mechanical terms and was, in effect, a soulless automaton. Before the end of the seventeenth century, and in stark contrast to Descartes, Leibniz was to affirm that 'all creatures have impressed on them a certain mark of the divine infinity, and that this is the source of many wonders which amaze the human mind' (Leibniz 1973, 108). In the middle of the eighteenth century, Rousseau advises us that being destitute of intelligence and liberty, animals cannot recognize natural law, but as they partake in

some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they ought to partake of natural right; so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes. It appears, in fact, that if I am bound to do no injury to my fellowcreatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former. (Rousseau 1968, 158)

While in the late eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham made a strong pro-animal case stating that the question to ask was not whether animals could reason but whether they could suffer, Schopenhauer, in the nineteenth, berated both Kant and Christianity for excluding animals from the moral order. In his view, both parties had conspicuously failed to recognize the eternal essence existing in every living thing, shining forth, as he holds forth in a dazzling phrase, 'with inscrutable insignificance from all eyes that see the sun!' (Schopenhauer 1995, 96). Theodor Adorno, too, saw 'the lightening up of an eye or some tail-wagging as fractures in total negativity that point beyond themselves [... which] disperses the context of immanence, creation, and in revealing an animal solidarity (affinity) opens a space of possibility which no intentional doing can by itself bring about: creaturliness as the material a priori of humanity' (Bernstein 2001, 440).

Rachels's (1990) case was that Darwinian evolutionism had exposed the tendency in philosophy and elsewhere to work to an entrenched speciesism based on the premise that human beings have exclusive claim to moral dignity. While Rachels sees this as based on the belief that man is a being made in God's image and that reason distinguishes man from animals, he holds that human beings differ from animals in having both rights and duties, while animals have only the former. Following up on this, Raphael observes, quite astutely:

When the concept of human dignity is used nowadays, as for example in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it refers to the having of duties as well as rights; and while many people jib at speaking of animal rights they do not deny that human beings owe duties to animals. It would never enter their heads to think that dignity is required for being the object of a duty. (Raphael 1994, 128)


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Table of Contents

Preface and Note on Text Structure; Acknowledgements; 1. Introduction: The Distinction of Dignity; 2. Dignity, Freedom and Reason – From Ancient Greece to Early Modernity; 3. The Sense of Dignity in Moral Philosophy – From the Ethical Intuitionists to the Irrationalists; 4. Marx’s Critique of Morality – Natural Law, the State and Citizenship; 5. Classical Sociology’s Regard for Human Dignity; 6. The Human Face of Dignity Reflected in Phenomenol ogy and Existentialism; 7. Fresh Terms for Dignity Attending the Frankfurt School (Both ‘Old’ and ‘Young’); 8. Notes Sampling Research and Practice: Making Dignity Work; Making Dignity Care; 9. The Slighting of Dignity – The Critics Charter; 10. Conclusion: After the Recognition of Dignity; Notes; Bibliography; Index.

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‘In this illuminating and detailed exploration of the concept of dignity, Hodgkiss discusses it in relation to the history of moral thought from Ancient Greece to the present day. He provides us with an invaluable philosophical and political account of its development and of the challenges we face in pursuing a dignified life.’

—Ken McLaughlin, Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

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