Author’s note: This article is inspired by one of the themes explored in Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution” speech. As a result, riddled throughout this article are some of my favorite quotes from said speech. I’d started this piece on MLK day but never found the time to look at it, much less finish it. Until now! During this long COVID-19 quarantine, I have plenty of time to think and write.



Introduction

We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Generally, in keeping with my policy of maintaining a small identity, I avoid being publicly political or philosophical. But every now and then, musings and meditations of mine will get through. As my father says, “like it or not, everything is political”. Also, there are some topics for which you must have an opinion, for example “slavery is bad”.

This article is on human dignity and I’ve got two hopes, that: (1) I may convince you of the moral imperative to uphold the dignity of all people, everywhere, and (2) assuming I’ve succeeded at the former, that we commit henceforth to being these noble stewards of human dignity.

What is Dignity?

How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night? In Bombay more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta more than six hundred thousand sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in; they have no houses to go in. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than five hundred million people, some four hundred and eighty million make an annual income of less than ninety dollars a year? And most of them have never seen a doctor or a dentist. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Oxford dictionary’s definition is a good starting point.

Dignity: the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect – Oxford English Dictionary

But the definition’s use of “worthy” implies a responsibility that is one-way when it comes to the phrase “they treated her with dignity” – the object [her] must do something to be deserving of the subject’s [they] respectful treatment. I like my friend’s definition a bit better: “dignity is the right to chase [and demand] one’s own humanization” (insertion mine). I suspect however, just like how we’d point at the sky to describe the color blue, defining dignity is better served by providing examples of where it is and where it is not observed.

We can do the latter easily; there comes to mind many cases where dignity is abused or eroded:

  • A child who goes to bed hungry for lack of food is without their dignity.
  • A mother and son drafted or compelled to aid a war that neither of whom agree with are both deprived of their dignity.
  • To dehumanize another on the basis of race, privately held religious beliefs, sex, age, or origin is to treat them without dignity.

There is no definitive closed-form definition for dignity. Rather, in practice, there are the many unique and individual approximations for it that overlap just well enough that we may go about our day-to-day cordially. Disagreement is more common in courts of law and wherever fancy philosophers congregate. As William Binchy, a famous Irish lawyer, puts it: “[dignity’s] meaning depends greatly on the philosophical premises of those who invoke it; the range of such premises is so broad that ‘dignity’ can have completely opposing connotations”. We’ll deal with this fuzziness in definition just as we’ve come to mutual agreement regarding what constitutes ‘red’ or ‘anger’ notwithstanding our fundamental differences in vision and feeling. We march on, taking a cue from the engineer’s customary response to the mathematician’s protest that pi should not be rounded to 3.0: “it’s good enough!”

From the previous discussion, we know that a person’s dignity is made up of a few parts. These are:

  • Self. This describes the person’s mental state. Human beings are endowed with a consciousness that is self-aware and capable of differentiating between the individual and others. It also includes the faculties that directly impact others and the environment. For example, one can use their hands to erect for themselves a shelter or to hit someone else.
  • Others. Like the definition above for self, but not belonging to the person in question, but to “others”.
  • Physical environment. Everything else. This includes the material conditions and context of the times in which a person’s life is situated.

The natural question is then, where does dignity come from?

Where does Dignity come from?

No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

With no evidence beyond my own anecdotal experiences and observations, I assert that everybody belongs to either one of two camps, “Camp Innate” (Camp-I) or “Camp Relative” (Camp-R), when it comes to dignity’s origin. Camp-I believes that dignity is innate to all man, that so long as man exists there is dignity, in much the same way that the act of “being” drags along with it (dis)order. The other camp, Camp-R, believes dignity to be a purely relative thing, and as such, only ever meaningfully exists in multi-person settings, i.e. society, just as how tallness is only relevant if there are other things against which one can compare themselves. Since I think both are right, I’m going to cheat and say I straddle both camps. Let me give my reasoning by way of an illustration.

Suppose there is some regular ol’ gentleman-hermit, Adam, who in all his life, has never interacted with another sentient living thing – a terrifyingly lonely existence1. Since there’s nobody to keep Adam company2, those belonging to the Camp-R would argue that Adam has no conception of dignity. I agree, but only partially. Because Adam is a human being for whom time is an absolute, perceptible and unidirectional construct3, at any instance, Adam has some memory of his past self a number of days ago and the material conditions in which this “past self” lived. Likewise, Adam also has a “future self” that can be extrapolated from his past and present selves together. Voila! Here are the “others” that Adam needs along with his “self” and physical environment to ascertain whether his present self is living in comparative dignity or squalor. In this crude sense, both camps are correct. This to me affirms an additional intrinsic link between dignity, progress and the chasing of one’s own humanization.

The sharp-eyed reader might have the following misgiving: that because Adam’s past and future selves are incapable of directly impacting present Adam’s perceptions, that Camp-I and Camp-R are not one and the same. This is true but not invalidating; in fact, we can construct the contrived case where Adam constructs a robot, programs it with instructions to randomly interfere with his environment, then permits the robot to run amok and terrorize his future self. Adam would then destroy any evidence of his creating the robot and then deliberately bonk himself on the head so that he forgets ever creating it. In this way, it’s apparent that Adam’s past self can have some material and lasting impact upon his present and future, but I digress. Let’s bail out on Adam. I’m already getting a headache!

It’s fair to say that dignity and freedom aren’t clearly defined, and yet, we are capable of recognizing when others are treated with dignity and we can, usually by testing boundaries, establish the degree of our personal autonomy. Whether these abilities are innate, a natural result of human evolution and thus reproducible in other species, or whether this was bequeathed to us, like the concept of democracy, by some enlightened fellow(s) many years ago, isn’t particularly relevant here. Because no matter the driving force, the end result is the same: it is quite simply by virtue of being human, that we deserve enduring dignified treatment – if not as a right, like my friend suggests, then as a moral principle.

Brief Interlude. Rights vs. Principles

In my view, a principle is an overarching, self-contained and general category. A norm becomes a principle if it is widely applied and universally accepted across scenarios and maintains similar broad applicability at the different scales, i.e. the family unit vs. the state – honesty is the best policy. Rights are derived from these principles as a proxy but may sometimes be in conflict – generally, rights concern the individual and may be temporarily overridden to reconcile the tension that undergirds interactions between an individual and society (individual welfare vs. societal welfare). Ideally, all rights and the principles that they are derived from are observed at all times, but realistically, rights are those requirements society, a collection of individuals, optimize for and accord different weightings.

Does Everybody have Dignity?

I can anticipate the unease of some readers, are murderers deserving of dignified treatment? Ultimately, human beings are self-directed, and as such, singly responsible for the success and failure of his or her own moral enterprise – this is true even if some of the blame can be deflected to external factors like abuse, circumstance or neglect. The only time which I reject fully this notion of individualistic personal responsibility is in cases of severely bounded rationality such as coercion at gunpoint.

In the case of a murderer, their crime has almost by definition violated the dignity of another human being. If dignity is not something to be accorded to all human beings then what crime has the murderer committed? For subjectively speaking, there are those that will say no crime has been committed, e.g. a soldier killing an enemy combatant. Conversely, if dignity belongs to all people, then must society continue to give the murderer the same dignified treatment they enjoyed before their wicked act? Wouldn’t doing otherwise be antithetical to the notion that human rights are derived from human dignity? Here lies the conundrum that concerns punishment, treatment, criminality and dignity.

According to Plato’s Laws, a punishment should cause a criminal to emerge “a better man, or failing this, less of a wretch”. Those in favor of capital punishment will be quick to point out that a dead criminal is indeed less of a wretch, but that’s probably not what Plato meant. I personally believe that even those responsible for the most heinous of crimes ought to still have their dignity respected. I’m not a judge, a rehabilitation expert, nor am I well versed in law, so I haven’t a clue as to what is the appropriate punishment for a given crime4; that is, with respect to what is good for the victim(s), society and the criminal. What I will say however, is that care must be taken so that a punishment does not excessively damage or extinguish the hope for change – this is true whether that hope for change is within the criminal themself or the victim(s) and society at large. As such, this necessarily precludes the death penalty as a “reasonable” punishment. What to do instead? Until we discover a method to rehabilitate (read: reprogram) a criminal’s mind in such a way that everyone deems ethical and acceptable, we can only continue what it is we currently do, locking people up indefinitely.

As an answer, it’s not very satisfying, but I fear it’s one of those things that we’ll continue to wrestle with. You’d think that some clever bloke would have an answer, and would have created a religion around it. Even religions with their talk of afterlife don’t have any punishment that is final; bad people go to hell, and even there, God himself does not utterly smite sinners from existence.

Why should You be a Steward of Dignity?

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So, we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Much of international law and its charters are all predicated on the notion that all the rights we enjoy as humans flow from our dignity as humans. Just as we struggle against the disorder that the universe would like to force upon us, we also struggle against dehumanization and the rejection of human dignity with the knowledge that it comes sometimes at the hands of our own people.

We must recognize that progress is reversible and that dignity is something that can be violated. Just as we can step forward, we can take steps back and stumble back down to whence we came. Our journey is set on a mountain, with its long climb ahead to reach a lofty peak that we know exists but can’t fully make out through the clouds.

And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, “I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.” And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’re probably wondering how the hell any of this applies to you. On paper, it seems like it’s too much. Perhaps, you say, dignity is just rhetorical flourish, something that humanitarians say to convince themselves that what it is they do has meaning, or that philosophers and those on the periphery bandy around to sound smart and enlightened.

But let us recount the lessons.

Whether we belong to Camp-I or Camp-R, we know that dignity isn’t contextual, it’s not an inside joke. We know that dignity belongs to all and is based in our own perceptions, our interactions with others and our particular circumstances. What ties man to woman to child to person is the right to chase their own humanization and to demand it from others – we are not playing solitaire. We know that the things that human dignity has afforded us are not permanent fixtures; although dignity isn’t a belief, there are those seeking to undermine it so that they may dehumanize and oppress their fellow man, just as there are those that will lie and bend the facts to get their way.

Martin Luther King bears repeating:

We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let us all strive to be noble stewards of dignity.


Labels, Labels and more Labels

Some of you might after reading this say to yourself, “Why, Bella’s a [insert label here] and that’s good/bad for so and so reasons . . .”

Let me be clear, I don’t want to be identified by any label whatsoever, e.g. libertarian, socialist, republican, democrat or etc.. It’s a legitimate fear of mine that how I describe myself today will be perverted to mean something else tomorrow. To those that I’ve disappointed now wagging their finger in disgust “Bella, you’re a coward!” I say, I’m not a coward, I’m just prudent. In these days of much learning and unlearning and shifting connotations and word reclaiming and the bastardization and perversions of words, I do not want to be misinterpreted simply because I failed to revise my opinion using the correct labels of the time. Simply, I don’t trust language anymore, it’s not as enduring as it once was5. Define me by what I say, write and do; that is surer to be me than the charter of some tribe that I am unwittingly a member of.

Thanks to Mauricio Fortuna (the aforementioned friend) for reading a draft of this and providing much appreciated and insightful commentary.



Endnotes

  1. If you guessed that our Adam is inspired by the same Adam in the Abrahamic religions, you’d be correct. Adam just has to “be” because no human is born in isolation without tacit permission of another human being. 

  2. Speaking of others, go read my poem on a man talking with his “other”

  3. Interestingly, there is no such thing as “absolute time”. When moving at relativistic speeds, it apparently becomes nonsensical to discuss time in the normal way. You have Einstein and his theory of relativity to thank for this “strange idea”. 

  4. This is not an endorsement of the present incarceration system and its experts. Although I think there are good-intentioned experts and stakeholders acting in good faith everywhere, I cannot deny that dehumanization and oppression runs rampant today. 

  5. To really beat this dead horse deader, it’s like a man pre-World War 2, who after an amazing trip to India, erects a large swastika in his front yard, then goes on a 10-year sabbatical with no access to the outside world. Imagine his shock when he learns that the symbol he’d erected as a monument of his appreciation of Indian religions now constitutes a hate symbol. Naturally, his neighbors despise him and suspect him of being a Nazi, even though he isn’t. An exaggeration, I know, but it gets the point across that you have to be vigilant that the labels you assign yourself aren’t co-opted to mean something you don’t intend later.