What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
In a New York Times essay published the day of his funeral on July 30, 2020, Congressman John Lewis wrote that his "last days and hours"—in which he watched widespread protests over George Floyd's murder and saw a square in downtown D.C. christened Black Lives Matter Plaza—filled him with hope. "Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity."
Human dignity is a powerful phrase invoked to peacefully protest against violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. But when we talk about human dignity, what do we mean?
The inherent worth of all human beings
Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.
Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect.
Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it.
But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.
From the 19th century to today
With Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.
We can also map human dignity against mentions of liberalism to see that discussion of human dignity increased with discussion of liberalism.
Then we can search through individual mentions to find how human dignity was discussed and understood over the last 200 years.
For example, German rabbi Dr. Samuel Hirsch gave a lecture in 1853 on "The Religion of Humanity" in which he condemned slavery. "That which we love in ourselves, our true human dignity, compels us to recognize and love the same human dignity in all others," Hirsh said. He wrote:
If I can look upon my brother-man as a creature, as a thing void of any will of his own, instead of as a free personality, that furnishes ample proof that I have not yet recognized the true human dignity in myself. To own slaves is spiritual suicide and homicide. This sin is in no way excusable on account of the kind treatment accorded to the slaves by their owner, as he never can treat them humanely. When man becomes a piece of property he is robbed of his human dignity.
In 1917, Kansas State Normal School published a journal on teaching that called for instructors to help each pupil "make completer use of his one lifetime" because "an abundant life, a life of awareness, a life of dignity is an undertaking worthy of gods."
Thomas Bell's 1941 novel Out of the Furnace centered on an immigrant Slovak family in Pennsylvania. A character muses that it wasn't "where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from" that mattered; instead,
It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law—the same law—for rich and poor, for the people you liked and the people you didn't like. About the right of every man to live his life as he thought best, his right to defend it if anyone tried to change it and his right to change it himself if he decided he liked some other way of living better…. About human dignity, which helped a man live proudly and distinguished his death from animals; and finally, about the value to be put on a human life, one's enemy's no less than one's own.
In a 1953 speech, then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles argued that communist countries might be able to achieve short-term material gain, but "results so produced are not a glory but a shame. They are achieved by desecrating the dignity of the human individual." Dulles believed human dignity meant being entitled to a life that included physical well-being and "freedom to think, to believe, and to communicate with one's fellows," "opportunities which permit some exercise of individual choices," and "the contemplation and enjoyment of what is beautiful."
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
One hundred years after U.S. law stopped allowing Black Americans to be treated as property, Black writer James Baldwin was still calling for Black Americans' dignity to be equally recognized. It was not enough, not nearly enough, that the 14th Amendment ensured equal protection of the laws; what mattered was how Black Americans were treated by their fellow human beings. In a 1960 Canadian television interview, Baldwin said, "I don't know what white people see, you know, when they look at a Negro anymore. But I do know very well—I realized when I was very young—that whatever he was looking at, it wasn't me… I was not a man."
In his seminal 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin seemed to echo Dr. Hirsh's argument from a century earlier:
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others debases himself.
This, then, is a common thread in our historic understanding of human dignity: Anyone who treats another human being as less than human undermines their own human dignity in addition to undermining the dignity of their victim.A 1964 New York University Law Review article argued that privacy was a key aspect of human dignity. "A man whose home may be entered at the will of another, whose conversation may be overheard at the will of another, whose marital and familial intimacies may be overseen at the will of another, is less of a man, has less human dignity, on that account," wrote author Edward J. Bloustein, who later became president of Rutgers University.
The future of dignity
Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."
The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all.
When we limit the clash of ideas, we ultimately hinder progress for the entire society.
- Pluralism is the idea that different people, traditions, and beliefs not only can coexist together in the same society but also should coexist together because society benefits from the vibrant workshopping of ideas.
- Cancel culture is a threat to a liberal society because it seeks to shape the available information rather than seek truth.
- Practicing toleration for those ideas does not mean merely putting up with them but actually acknowledging the ideas with an open spirit, as Chandran Kukathas, professor at Singapore Management University, says.
"Cancel culture now poses a real threat to intellectual freedom in the United States," Jonathan Rauch, distinguished fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, writes in Persuasion. Rauch cites a Cato Institute poll that found a third of Americans worry their careers will be harmed if they express their real political opinions. Canceling is different than healthy criticism, Rauch writes, because canceling "is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity[.]"
And conformity is a death knell for liberalism. In a homogenous society—one in which everyone has roughly the same background, religion, values, and goals—people will generally agree on what it means to be a good person and live a good life. But a key tenet of liberalism is pluralism: the idea that different people, traditions, and beliefs not only can coexist together in the same society but also should coexist together because society benefits from vibrant heterogeneity.
"Liberal thinking really arises out of a reflection on the fact that people disagree substantially about things," Chandran Kukathas, professor at Singapore Management University, says in a Big Think video on pluralism and toleration. "They have different ways of life."
[Cancel culture] is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity[.]
Throughout history, men and women who've changed the world have been living examples of pluralism—people whose lives and minds were unique products of a diverse, interconnected world. Alexander Hamilton was, as the musical Hamilton says, "a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean" before he came to the colonies. Marie Curie (neé Skłodowska) was the daughter of two Polish teachers, one atheist and one Catholic, and attended an underground university in Warsaw before immigrating to Paris. Sergey Brin was born in the Soviet Union to Jewish parents before his family fled persecution and came to the United States, where Brin co-founded Google.
A pluralistic society nourishes innovation and progress, where diverse people with unique life experiences develop and share ideas. If people stayed in discrete, homogenous communities, how many world-changing lives and ideas would never have existed?
Critics might say: It's one thing to welcome people from diverse backgrounds into your society; it's another to welcome diverse ideas, even if some are offensive or harmful.
But our vibrant, evolving world depends on diverse ideas and cultures. In a homogenous society, ideas and customs can be stagnant for generations. But in a pluralistic society, ideas and customs evolve by being brought into constant contact with alternative ideas and customs. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes:
…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
For humanity to benefit from pluralism—to benefit from the exchange of cultures and the collision of ideas—we must practice toleration. We must respect the rights of our colleagues and neighbors to think and live differently than we do.
When someone practices toleration, Kukathas says, they don't just put up with something but actually acknowledge it "with a kind of open spirit." Intentional, meaningful tolerance includes making an effort to understand others' points of view. We don't have to agree, but we should seek to understand. And, ultimately, we have to tolerate ideas we disagree with if we want to live in a flourishing and peaceful society.
This is what cancel culture robs society of—the healthy and essential practice of toleration, without which pluralism and a peaceful society cannot be sustained.
Price gouging is prohibited in 34 US states and Washington D.C. But two scholars ask whether that's the way it should be.
- Paper products, hand sanitizer, masks, and cleaning wipes—all are in high demand and short supply during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Price gougers are viewed as villains in this crisis—but two scholars argue that price gouging is, in most cases, morally permissible.
- Increased prices prevent unnecessary hoarding. Buyers purchase only what they need when they need it. Also, producers are incentivized to make more. When the supply rises, prices will fall.
At the Safeway grocery store in Southwest Washington, D.C., the toilet paper and paper towels section has been empty for most of the last two months. When the store does restock, supplies don't last long on the shelves. "Do you know if they have paper towels?" a pedestrian outside the store asked a stranger exiting the Safeway in late April. The answer was no: "Still out."
Paper products, hand sanitizer, masks, and cleaning wipes—all are in high demand and short supply during the COVID-19 crisis. Shoppers across the country are facing empty shelves and out-of-stock signs.
But any seller who reacts to current crisis conditions by increasing prices on in-demand products may be committing a crime. Thirty-four states have laws against price gouging. In March, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general wrote a letter urging online marketplaces to crack down on price spikes.
"[W]hile we appreciate reports of the efforts made by platforms and online retailers to crack down on price gouging as the American community faces an unprecedented public health crisis, we are calling on you to do more at a time that requires national unity," the letter said.
A price gouger makes a good temporary boogeyman. One could look at high prices during an emergency and think: They're trying to profit off of my desperation.
What exactly is price gouging, and what distinguishes it from a normal price increase? New York Attorney General Letitia James told NPR that "there's no definitive answer" but "you know it when you see it—[it's] when individuals are taking advantage of the market, particularly when a neighboring store is selling the same product for much less." New York's price gouging complaint form, which consumers can use to report retailers, defines it as "unconscionably excessive pricing of necessary consumer goods and services during any abnormal disruption of the market." However different states might define it, price gouging is widely understood to be exploitative, sleazy, and heartless. Laws against it are popular.
But Michael Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, says that high prices are a crucial part of dealing with scarcity during an emergency.
"If you use the police to keep prices artificially low, it makes the problem of scarcity much worse," Munger says in a short Institute for Humane Studies video on price gouging. Price gouging during an emergency allows more people to get what they need as soon as possible. "And that's true even for those who can't afford the gouger's prices," Munger explains.
How? Increased prices prevent unnecessary hoarding. Buyers purchase only what they need when they need it. Also, producers are incentivized to make more. When the supply rises, prices will fall.
"Price gouging laws keep the shelves empty longer," Munger says.
Matt Zwolinski, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, argues in his paper "The Ethics of Price Gouging" that "most, though not all, cases of price gouging are at least morally permissible, if not morally praise-worthy."
"Relative to the baseline of no exchange at all, the gouger's proposal stands to improve the lot of the buyer, not to worsen it," Zwolinski writes. If a buyer purchases a product at an exceptionally high price during an emergency, the buyer has decided that their emergency need justifies the high price. As Zwolinski puts it: "[W]hile the price of generators might rise dramatically in the wake of a disaster which knocks out power to a certain population, so too does the need people have for generators." A seller who raises prices did not create the buyer's increased need; he or she is merely reacting to it.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the price gouger is motivated by altruism. "[T]he fact that there are good arguments to be made for the moral permissibility of price gouging in certain cases does not mean that those who actually engage in the practice are motivated by these considerations," Zwolinski writes. But that's also true of normal market activity: As Adam Smith says in The Wealth of Nations, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." A price gouger makes a good temporary boogeyman. One could look at high prices during an emergency and think: They're trying to profit off of my desperation.
But if we heed the work of scholars like Michael Munger and Matt Zwolinski, we might begin to see price gouging as a rational and necessary part of emergency response. During normal times, a pack of hand sanitizer might cost the same as a bottle of red wine. But right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, does anyone place nearly the same value on a bottle of wine as on a pack of hand sanitizer? By using the law to forcefully keep prices below what people would pay in an emergency, states enable hoarding. For Americans who would like to buy hand sanitizer—or paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning wipes, or masks—and can't find any, price gouging laws are a cold comfort. Most would rather have the option of paying increased prices than no options at all.
The associations of civil society give us freedom to find systems that meet our needs.
- There are three subsets of civil society: primary, secondary, and tertiary associations.
- Rochester Institute of Technology professor Lauren Hall says there are two arguments for expanding civil society and limiting the power of government, and they include elements of efficiency, morality, and coercion.
- Ideally in civil society, secondary associations give you more freedom to meet your needs in various ways. If we relied more heavily on civil society rather than government, we'd have more wiggle room to find systems that work for us.