Dignity, on land, at sea, in us

February 23, 2013 

My late father used to say that no quality of human life was more important than dignity. That wisdom came to mind the other night when I sat with my wife watching CNN as the exhausted passengers finally began debarking from the cruise ship Carnival Triumph.

The ship had been adrift five days in the Gulf of Mexico. A fire cut the power, and that meant no propulsion, no air conditioning, no communications, no sanitation.

Think of that: no sanitation. Social historians tell us that no inventions have been more vital to extending human life than the flush toilet and the closed sewer. In the United States, we can scarcely imagine life without them. But the passengers on the Carnival Triumph had no choice. The CNN anchor, commenting on the ordeal, said in passing that she was sure those leaving the ship were looking forward to a little dignity.

The word isn’t much used today, perhaps because it conjures images of stuffiness. That’s too bad, because my father was right. Dignity is crucial to human flourishing. We need more of it.

Alas, we live in an era largely bereft of dignity. We inhabit instead a world of shabby entertainment, of nasty and unserious politics. (I assume that I need cite no examples.)

To be sure, entertainers and politicians, along with their apologists, will tell you that they are limited by the public’s taste.

This feeble excuse is nothing new and hasn’t improved with age. Thus we find a critic writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1836: “It is undignified to pander to a weak and depraved taste, and then querulously to lament that it is no higher.”

Dignity in this sense comes into English from French, but its ultimate root is the Latin dignus, meaning “worthy.” Thus the Oxford English Dictionary, as its top-line definition, offers the following: “The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence.”

Alas, this sense of the word dignity is the one that has largely faded. But there is another sense of the word dignity, popularized by philosophers, that ought still to engage our interest. That is the notion of dignity as attaching not to a particular mode of behavior but to our very humanity.

In his final book, “Justice for Hedgehogs,” legal theorist Ronald Dworkin called for a closer attention to the ethics of dignity. Our search for the good life, he argued, should always be governed by an important constraint: “Acts are wrong if they insult the dignity of others.”

My father would have agreed. He spent his career battling against the ravages of poverty – because it was an insult to dignity. He explained his opposition to the death penalty by pointing to the indignity: the helplessness, the weeping, even the loss of control of bodily functions.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan contended that capital punishment was inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment’s premise “that even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.”

I don’t mean to suggest that all who care about dignity will reach the same conclusions. In his book “For Capital Punishment,” political philosopher Walter Berns wrote in a reply to Brennan that the justice’s argument ignored important moral differences between men such as Abraham Lincoln and those such as Charles Manson: “To say that these men, some great and some unspeakably vile, equally possess human dignity is to demonstrate an inability to make a moral judgment derived from or based on the idea of human dignity.”

Notice that Berns is using the word in the OED sense of an aspect that is earned; whereas Brennan is using it in Dworkin’s sense of an aspect of personhood. But they aren’t really talking past each other. The two senses converge – and that convergence is important for our politics.

The Carnival passengers lacked dignity in both senses. They were forced by the conditions aboard ship to behave in a manner that was undignified, and the conditions themselves constituted an affront to their human dignity.

Dignity isn’t stuffy. Dignity is crucial to the idea of civilization. Dworkin worried that we have corrupted the word by allowing it to slip into every party platform or covenant. But the basic concept, in both of its senses, should be the centerpiece of political and ethical conversation.

This shouldn’t be a left-right issue. A closer attention to dignity would change only the terms of our debates, not necessarily their outcomes: Does abortion protect the dignity of the pregnant woman or invade the dignity of the unborn child? Do union seniority rules preserve the dignity of those who have put in long careers or curtail the dignity of those starting out?

A politics centered on dignity would mark a vast improvement over the kindergarten babble that passes for serious argument these days. Indeed, we could do a lot worse than choosing our leaders based on who carries themselves with the greatest degree of dignity. And we could do a lot worse than making policy based on its effect on the dignity of those whose lives and futures it would affect.

Bloomberg News

Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service