Let’s assume that humanists are not fools and that they are as aware as anyone else of the good and evil that shapes human history. What then can the humanist mean by the phrase, “inherent worth and dignity?” With that, we move on to the third term in the humanist core value.
When we use the word, “dignity” we think of words like respect, esteem, honor, trust, etc. We think too of their opposite like undignified, demeaning. Dignity language signals that personhood is an activity and not, as with inherent worth, a state of being. It also signals that personhood is a social phenomenon, not just an individual one. Reason and freedom from constraint can be exercised in private – the scholar in the study, that artist in the studio, the prophet in the desert. The castaway, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, explores his island, meets the needs of survival, and acts freely. All alone, he exhibits rationality and freedom. Dignity, however, enters dramatically with the appearance of Friday. A relationship comes into existence. A basic question of dignity is posed and explored, i.e. is Friday a person? Now questions appear that didn’t arise when Crusoe thought he was alone on the island. We talk of “mutual respect,” resent it when we are disrespected, and are resented when we fail to respect the other.
With sociability, we learn that the idea of dignity applies to ourselves as well as in self-respect and self esteem. We remember, reflect, and predict. An “inner” dialogue – the moral imagination – appears. So, all alone, we can ask how might I appear to another and how ought I appear to another? The dialogue yields clues to how we are to conduct ourselves not just toward others but also toward ourselves. As we say, we recognize our “better” self, we talk about being “true to ourselves,” and we can be surprised or appalled by ourselves. Thus, we can say that I am undignified when I do not exhibit moral integrity or knowingly lie to myself. Dignity thus stirs self-criticism. The human being has what we might call a multilayered self.
We may extend the idea of dignity toward some kinds of objects as when we say “nature commands respect.” We exhibit freedom and rationality in this way too. Environmental concern, for example, means do not abuse nature’s beauty or usefulness, do not be wasteful, etc. We can also extend dignity to an artwork as when we think of it as irreplaceable and unique, experiencing regret when we witness its violation or loss. We thus assign dignity to objects that, as we say, deserve respect. Someone with a traditional inspiration may derive this respect from an appreciation of “God’s handiwork.” Others take a related but different path. Nature for them may call for respecting the god in the thing or god’s echo in the thing. Two humanist examples are Spinoza’s “pantheism” and Emerson’s “transcendentalism.” In fact, the neat, almost mechanistic, separation of thing and person is revisited over and over again in the history and philosophy. The humanist too is troubled by that separation and its consequences. Like the traditionalist, he or she is also looking for a respectful and not just a manipulative relationship to the world. The aim is to minimize if not eliminate an ethics of disposability and aesthetics of indifference to the world, a goal made, even more urgent in our time when environmental issues are on the agenda. By the way, we’ll explore this notion further when we look at nature and naturalism in the next section.
In short, dignity is a rich and complicated idea and these few remarks can only open it up for further reflection. Whatever the instance – interpersonal, self-exploratory, aesthetic, technological, or naturalistic – dignity announces a turn to moral conducts, i.e. moves from metaphysics to ethics. It names the way that inherent worth is to be exhibited in behavior and attitude. When we do this, we transform world and thing into our world and thing. The transaction, between subject and object becomes interactive. Think about how an ocean or mountain or sunset becomes a landscape or seascape.
But we still have to deal with the many ways human beings exhibit unworthy behavior, denying in their conduct the claim that inherent worth is a core humanist value. In making the claim, the humanist is setting up a moral and, by the way, an aesthetic expectation. He or she is committing to a “norm” or standard – and “ought.” – that is to guide judgment and decision. When we’re told to “treat” each person including ourselves as having “inherent worth and dignity,” we’re committing ourselves to act toward each other as persons, to judge our behavior by how it meets or fails to meet the standard this commitment establishes. So far, so good! But where does this standard come from and what justifies it?
We know that the traditionalist – in the West at least – justifies the moral standard by faith and justifies faith by its source. Norms, standards, moral laws are God-given, God-created, or God-legislated. Thus, the Ten Commandments or Jesus’ admonition to “love one another and thy neighbor as thyself.” When asked why, the religionist answers by referring to divine authority or divine goodness.
The humanist, whatever his or her view of the universe, offers a different answer to the “why” question. Like his or her fellow human beings, he or she needs a justification that does the moral work for him or her in the ways that God-belief does for the believer. One way of meeting this question was suggested by Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Societies. “I do not find worth in human being, I attribute it to him.” Inherent worth spells out the attribute and dignity, by demonstrating how seriously we take it, tells how well our conduct meets the norm.
Inherent worth is not a fact that we can point to. It is a basic assumption. We are led to it by looking at how we human beings respond to being treated as things, i.e. as lacking in inherent worth. We resent being dismissed, lied to, manipulated, used, etc. We react with anger when we’re treated as disposable. We work very hard to find excuses for ourselves when we behave toward others as if they were objects. Indeed, the word “excuse,” the need to explain, explain away, or justify, tells us that we are doubtful, troubled, even ashamed, when our behavior toward others is challenged as treating them as objects.
The history of our excuses for indignity is long and comprehensive. It ranges from what we call “rationalizations” to elaborate moral and political theories that view some human beings as non-persons or lesser persons. Some regimes even use non-person as a classification. For the 5th century Greek, there were “Greeks and barbarians.” For authoritarian regimes there were people and non-people as in the Nazi treatment of Jews and Gypsies. For the Hindu there were castes and outcastes. For tribal culture, as we find in studying local languages, there are words for ourselves, the “people,” and different words for the “others,” who are, by implication, not people. In short, the attribution Adler talks about finds corroboration in our experience. At the same time it remains an attribution, for some humanists an assumption, for other humanists a commitment as strong as any religious faith.
Now we remember, I hope, from when we studied Euclidian geometry in 10th grade, that assumptions are starting points for doing the work of reason. We don’t prove assumptions, we use them to prove other things. Are we stuck then with a hidden notion of faith and belief? Or, are we stuck with relativism since any assumption, being unprovable, is as good or as bad as any other? Or are we simply sentimental, as when we call assumptions “first principles” that from repetition seems to convey a truth when all we’re doing is reinforcing our convictions?
Several kinds of questions, none leading to proof, help us choose among assumptions or to invent new ones. The first is whether or not an assumption fits with things we already know, with the relationships we already have, with the history we’ve already studied? Does it move us further along toward formulating and achieving whatever goals we’ve set? Does it help us criticize and correct what we think we know? The second is richness. Is it going to result in premature closure leaving untouched the things we’re worried about or nosy about or interested? Or is it going to open up the world around us and, perhaps, new worlds as well?
We ask, how fruitful is the assumption in helping solve the problems we have or that we know about. Just like Euclid who wanted assumptions that enabled the proof of theorems that in turn helped him see the world more clearly, so we need assumptions that enable moral knowledge, judgment, and practice. By the way, faith asks the faithful the very same questions. In fact, the reference to God only pushes these same questions back a step or two. The humanist and the religionist are in the same boat – except that the tradition carries institutional and historic baggage and, typically, closes in on our freedom to explore and inquire. The word, “assumption,” is neutral and that is both its strength and its weakness. It is unlikely to stir the passions that block us from doing our own moral thinking. On the other hand, the beauties of music, poetry, art, and architecture once motivated by faith are hardly likely to be inspired by an assumption.
The humanist, in other words, has a touch aesthetic challenge to meet. But on reflection, we realize that an assumption is also an aesthetic idea. It asks us to exercise our imagination. For example, inherent worth and dignity leads us to ask, what kind of world would result if that were our starting point; what kinds of relationships would be called “evil?” The answers to these questions and others we can think of are the source of the humanist’s commitment – not to a fact but to an assumption. It frees us to imagine alternative moral worlds and to test them in our experience. By contrast, for all their achieved beauty, traditions close off person and world.
Reflection: With these questions in mind, consider “inherent worth and dignity” as an assumption about yourself, the people you know, and the things you know about in human history. What would be different in inherent worth and dignity was in fact a norm, a standard, for relationships and for politics?