I am currently a bit ambivalent about the title of my upcoming master thesis. At first, it was supposed to be “Categorization and Human Dignity”. In Swedish “Kategorisering och människovärde”.
However, I am leaning more and more towards replacing “Human Dignity” with “Human Rights”. And I´m also starting to lean towards renaming the Swedish version in the same way, calling it “Kategorisering och mänskliga rättigheter”.
Initially, I decided on “människovärde” because it was emotionally stronger and also because it was shorter. “Human Dignity” came into it as being the closest translation of “människovärde”.
So, what is the problem with “människovärde” and “human dignity”? Well, who is to decide what is dignified and what is not?
With “Human Rights”, we have a very clear basis in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related documents. Human Dignity is much harder to define, and this weakness is often exploited. The concept of “dignity” is misused to condemn actions that are good for everyone involved, actions that doesn’t hurt or violate anyone.
The first time I encountered this problem I was 19 or 20. A powerful local politician was condemning a totally innocent expression of sensuality. The act of dropping some jam or yoghurt on your lovers torso, and then licking it off. If a married couple does this in the privacy of their own home, why would anyone have reason to condemn them? Well, his argument for condemning them was that their actions would be against human dignity. This was also his argument for condemning anyone who would not agree with condemning the hypothetical couple. He considered the sensual act to be undignified, and he also considered the act of refusing to condemn it to be undignified. If you would not condemn this innocent couple, then you were clearly against human dignity.
Interestingly enough, this politician was neither conservative nor religious. On the contrary, he prided himself in being radical and progressive. By sticking to his view on human dignity, he could defend his bigotry – in his own eyes, as well as in the eyes of others. Sadly, he is not alone. I recently read about a secular argument against stem cell research, an argument based squarely on the notion that it would somehow be against human dignity.
My conclusion is that while the concept of equal dignity for all humans is a concept we must defend, it is not a concept we can rely on. It is easily misused, and thus treacherous.
In my post about Universal Morality, I proposed three principles. As an act of gross oversimplification, I named this principles Empathy, Respect and Maximization. The problem here discussed is one of respect.
The principle of Respect is the kind of morality that is here being played and misused. The principle include principles such as The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. This principle is reasonable only as long as you have a reasonable interpretation of what it means to be another person. The rule itself provides no guidance for this. If you stick only to the literal wording of the rule, it is perfectly fine to murder someone of you want die, or to sexually violate someone you are attracted to: You would like them to treat you the same way, so it is entirely in compliance with the literal wording of the rule.
This problem with the Golden Rule is the same basic problem as the problem with Human Dignity: It is entirely subjective what is desirable/dignified and what is not. Kant’s Categorical Imperative solves much of this problem for the respect morality. But that’s only if you go deep in the philosophy, so the risk for misuse is still there in a regular debate. And I don’t know if it’s even possible to do the same for the concept of dignity – much less get people to agree on it.
A “dignity” based on rules for what preferences people ought to have is plain old oppression, nothing more. This is closely related to the destructive concept of purity, which I will return to in a later post.