Dignity is the ethical idea behind human rights, civil rights, and democracy.
The dignity between us is our relationship with each other. “Dignity for the dead” does not need a moral authority figure - it is enough to have really loved someone - who is now gone - to have compassion for the living and respect for the unknown journey we share in death.
The idea of “dignity” is ancient and has evolved through languages, cultures, constitutions and treaties. Dignity can mean many things:
- Quality of an Idea - A dignified speech
- Privilege - “Yes, your Majesty”
- Duty - Respect for the dead
- Behavior - They handled their breakup with dignity
- Right - “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided.”
The Renaissance questioned what it meant to be human, and dignity tumbled from philosophical to undeniable with “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood” during the French Revolution (1789) and the curious idea that a country did not need a king or a pope.
At the time, dignity often meant privilege and respect for high social status and class. Each year, the Pope sends a newsletter to the Catholic Church. Pope Leo XII’s encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris (1878) carried this meaning of dignity as respect for noble status and class:
Thus, as even in the kingdom of heaven He hath willed that the choirs of angels be distinct and some subject to others,
and also in the Church has instituted various orders and a diversity of offices, so that all are not apostles or doctors or pastors,
so also has He appointed that there should be various orders in civil society, differing in dignity, rights, and power whereby the State, like the Church should be one body, consisting of many members, some nobler than others, but all necessary to each other and solicitous for the common good.
This is a dignity of society, living in a “common good”, but very different from the idea of human dignity today. More on Pope Francis’s much different 2003 encyclical below.
It’s not my intent to shame people - shaming strangers or their dead is very destructive to my own dignity and theirs. We do come from a violent past - whether you believe in literal creation stories or we evolved from dinosaurs. If human dignity is what separates us from animals, then the dignity of working toward a “common good” seems a worthy start.
And, I prefer to remember but not judge, because we will be remembered as a society that punished poor people with hunger, crime, curable disease, and inadequate education - while threatening everyone else with it, by forcing them to watch.
The U.S. Constitution (1787) is a set of civil rights granted by the state - not human rights. The Bill of Rights (1791) was influenced by the human rights thinking of the French Revolution, but is different from our modern “post-War” idea of basic human rights.
The U.S. Constitution as a compromise danced around the issue of human rights and slavery - although the idea of slaves and indigenous people as human beings (instead of animals) was not controversial in Europe or the Americas at the time - the brutal Spanish conquest of the Americas was moralized by the duty to bring God to the people who lived there.
The horrors of World War II (revealed by new technologies of film and radio) dramatically changed the idea of human dignity for the Western world and resulted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Geneva Convention (1949), and the German constitution (1949).
“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” - German Constitution Article 1, paragraph 1
It’s notable that after the war the German people didn’t make this a civil right granted by the state to citizens, but a human right granted by just being a person. That was new.
It’s worth noting the U.S. Constitution does not include human rights or human dignity, but was updated to abolish slavery after the Civil War (1868). The story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, includes JFK’s assassination in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, and the escalation of the Vietnam War (1955-1975).
After World War II the Catholic Church moved towards the modern secular idea of human rights (Jacques Maritain), although Catholic belief still sees those rights come from God. In 2003 when Pope Francis said atheists can go to heaven he changed salvation from a “civil right” (granted by God through the church) to a “human right” (granted by God to all humanity). That is a huge clarification of God’s creation, and I respect Pope Francis for this contribution to human dignity. If the Catholic Church can change, so can the rest of us. Think about it, the Pope just wrote a letter.
The U.S. Constitution grants civil rights from the state, the Catholic Church sees human dignity as God’s creation, and the German Constitution and Universal Declaration of Human Rights sees human dignity coming through our human heritage that started before history itself.
It’s 2017, and Nationalism is on the rise globally. Nationalism is a shift away from human rights (“because we can’t afford them”), and to replace them with civil rights (afforded exclusively to citizens). If we can’t take care of everyone - we can take care of our own.
Nationalism changes human dignity from a dignity of duty and behavior, to a privilege of social status. Our economy needs illegal immigrants to do migrant farm labor.
Absolutely I deny that we can’t afford human rights. I deny that people should suffer the indignity of degrading their neighbors to afford their own food, safety, healthcare, and education. If human dignity can’t be withheld by the Pope, or the state, then why can it be withheld by budgets and bank accounts?
The 2017 U.S. Presidential election was an upset. My candidate didn’t win either.
What was shocking to me was how my Facebook friends reacted. They lashed out at half of our fellow Americans as ignorant racists, and me for voting independent - in Texas thank-you-very-much. I remember fb-shouting at one of my friends that we were a democracy and people could vote for whomever they goddamn want, and that’s when I quick Facebook. “Colbert Nation” and “Last Week Tonight” are entertaining, but is that enough? Is there more to society than entertainment?
I needed something more - a modern moral compass. A way to make choices and be at peace with them in the face of obstacles and anger. I though we could all use a bit of dignity at the moment.
I think we need something we shared between us - a shared human dignity. As communities, nations, and global neighbors.
“In the kingdom of ends, everything has a price or a dignity.” - Immanuel Kant
This blog is about what we choose to afford as a society - those choices are our “economy”.
The U.S. economy chose to afford the abolishment of slavery - it can (and must) now afford to abolish poverty. We can meet the world’s material needs and wants without coercing people into shitty jobs, homelessness, refugee camps, or mass graves through a poverty culture of indignity, hunger, and fear.
I believe in our Human Dignity and that we have a right to:
- Live in peace with our neighbors
- Contribute meaningfully to our society and economy
- Experiment with new ideas and enterprises
- Fail experiments, make mistakes, make poor choices, and not be thrown away as people
- Live in a world without disposable people
Not because we are better people, but because we have access to new technology. Our society is building a new economy - I think human dignity is a good guide to the why.
Seeing poverty as an outdated economic technology lets us choose to abolish it - like we abolished slavery. There is a moral argument.
There is also a practical argument. What is the point of automation and technology if we use it to make people disposable? Why do we diminish our own dignity?
Someone will have to stand up for poverty - just like someone had to stand up for slavery: “How can our society function without this?! What about the budget?!” It is a service to human dignity to speak up for practicality - even as this economic technology is becoming obsolete.
We no longer struggle for material security - we make so much more food than we can eat, and so much junk our dumps are bursting.
We crave security and protection from our neighbors - because we insist on their poverty, because we fear our own. Do you really think we can win the “war on terror” if force poverty on our neighbors?
This blog is to explore these topics, among other things. For a more complete history and meaning of dignity, check out Dignity: It’s history and Meaning by Michael Rosen.