A brief history of human dignity
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.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
A new study looks at why mysterious voices are sometimes taken as spirits and other times as symptoms of mental health issues.
- Both spiritualist mediums and schizophrenics hear voices.
- For the former, this constitutes a gift; for the latter, mental illness.
- A study explores what the two phenomena have in common.
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ5Nzc1OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTU1ODQwOX0.wlQLO9cjh2hFAz9BXwf2DpaqwepAlybru_OH6J4ZwzI/img.jpg?width=980" id="d04f9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0534bcc03c74a09cc45445de779df40" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1373" />
Credit: Camila Quintero Franco/Unsplash<p>The researchers, led by <a href="https://www.dur.ac.uk/research/directory/staff/?mode=staff&id=15156" target="_blank">Adam Powell</a> of Durham University's Hearing the Voice project and Department of Theology and Religion interviewed conducted online surveys of 65 clairaudient mediums they found through contact with spiritualist communities. The survey also included 143 people from the general population who responded in the affirmative to the question "Have you ever had an experience you would describe as 'clairaudient?'" posed through an online study recruitment tool.</p><p>All participants spoke English and were aged 18-75. 84.4% were from the U.K.with the rest mostly from the North Americas, Europe, or Australasia.</p><p>Of the spiritualists surveyed, 79% said hearing voices was a normal part of their lives at church and at home, while 44.6% said that they heard voices every day. Most respondents reported the voices as being inside their heads, though 31.7% said they came from outside their bodies.</p><p>Not surprisingly, more spiritualists reported believing in the paranormal than did the general population participants. They also cared less about what others thought of them.</p><p>Both groups were prone to visual hallucinations as well.</p>
Youth and absorption<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ5Nzc2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzE3MTUyNn0.BsqsYO4KFNF9RX9O6TXYE14RysJgiwXua7FegMBf8Ss/img.jpg?width=980" id="5fe11" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6fb24471c94f7e69617c763927c1dc0e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1080" />
Credit: Tanner Boriack/Unsplash<p>Spiritualist clairaudients reported their first experiences with other voices early in life. Of these participants, 18% said they had heard voices for as long as they remembered. The average age, however, for first hearing voices was 21.7 years. Schizophrenia typically presents when a person is somewhat older than this, in the <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-schizophrenia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354483" target="_blank">late 20s</a>.</p><p>Significantly, 71% said their experience with voices pre-dated their awareness of spiritualism. Rather than religion prompting the hearing of voices, it seems that it's more like the other way around — voices led them to religion.</p><p>Says Powell, "Our findings say a lot about 'learning and yearning.' For our participants, the tenets of spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practicing mediums."</p><p>Still, the voices came first he says, so "all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough."</p><p>The more likely factor is spiritualist clairaudients' relationship with absorption. Responses to questions based on the 34-point <a href="https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~jfkihlstrom/TAS.htm" target="_blank">Tellegen Absorption Scale</a> revealed that these people tended toward absorptive personality characteristics. These are described by the study's authors as "being readily captured by entrancing stimuli, reporting vivid mental imagery, becoming immersed in one's own thoughts."</p><p>Some, though not all, voice-hearing individuals from the general population were found to exhibit high levels of absorption — those that did were more likely to believe in the paranormal than others.</p>
Implications<p>The study's finding regarding the relative young ages at which spiritualist clairaudients begin hearing voices suggests that these individuals' more welcoming attitude toward the phenomenon may have to do with malleability of youth — a belief in the fantastical is part of being young.</p><p>Says co-author <a href="https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/our-staff/m/peter-moseley/" target="_blank">Peter Moseley</a> of Northumbria University, "Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control. Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too."</p><p>The authors of the study do note, however, that their findings leave two big unanswered questions: Does a tendency toward absorption reveal "a predisposition to having RSEs or a belief in the plausibility of having RSEs?"</p><p>The other obvious big question? It's beyond the scope of this survey, but are those really the voices of the dead?</p>
Dr. Eric Lander is a pioneer in genomics. What role will he play in the new administration?
- Dr. Lander is a mathematician and geneticist who's best known for his leading role in the Human Genome Project.
- Biden nominated Dr. Lander to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy and also serve as a cabinet-level science adviser, marking the first time the position has been part of the presidential cabinet.
- In an open letter, Biden said it's essential for the U.S. to "refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years."
Who is Dr. Eric Lander?<p>Born in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Lander started his academic career as a mathematician, often arriving at high school an hour early to do math. He won multiple awards in mathematics in his teens, including the Mathematical Olympiad in 1974.<br></p><p>Finding mathematics "too monastic" to pursue as a career, he began teaching managerial economics at Harvard Business School. Then, at the <a href="https://www.worldsciencefestival.com/videos/eric-lander-the-genesis-of-genius/" target="_blank">encouragement of his brother</a>, a neurobiologist, Dr. Lander became interested in studying neurobiology and microbiology. This pushed him to his main lifelong pursuit: unraveling the mysteries of the human genome.</p><p>Dr. Lander spent more than a decade as a leader within the Human Genome Project, which provided the world a complete map of all human genes in 2003. In 2004, he founded the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic nonprofit research center that partners with M.I.T. and Harvard University.</p>
Pixabay<p>Broad's <a href="https://www.broadinstitute.org/news-multimedia/basic-q-about-broad-institute" target="_blank">mission</a> is to "fulfill the promise of genomics by creating comprehensive tools for biology and medicine, making them broadly available to the world and applying them to the understanding of human biology and the diagnosis, treatment, and cure of human diseases." The institute aims to diminish diseases by better understanding cellular mechanisms, rather than simply treating symptoms.</p><p>Despite some <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2016/01/25/why-eric-lander-morphed/" target="_blank">minor controversies and patent disputes</a>, Dr. Lander remains a monumental figure in American science, and also previously served as co-chairman of former President Barack Obama's science advisory council.</p>
What will Dr. Lander do in the Biden administration?<p>If confirmed by the Senate, it's not exactly clear what Dr. Lander will do in his role as cabinet science adviser and head of the OSTP. But his primary focus likely won't be COVID-19, considering Biden has already established a task force dedicated to shaping policy and recommendations related to the pandemic.<br></p><p>But Biden revealed some of his expectation in an <a href="https://buildbackbetter.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/OSTP-Appointment.pdf" target="_blank">open letter</a> that posed five questions for the Office of Science and Technology Policy to explore:</p><ol><li>What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?</li><li>How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change—propelling market-driven change, jump-starting economic growth, improving health, and growing jobs, especially in communities that have been left behind?</li><li>How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?</li><li>How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?</li><li>How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?</li></ol><p>The president-elect wrote that it's essential to "refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years," concluding:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I believe that the answers to these questions will be instrumental in helping our nation embark on a new path in the years ahead—a path of dignity and respect, of prosperity and security, of progress and common purpose. They are big questions, to be sure, but not as big as America's capacity to address them. I look forward to receiving your recommendations—and to working with you, your team, and the broader scientific community to turn them into solutions that ease everyday burdens for the American people, spark new jobs and opportunities, and restore American leadership on the world stage."</p>
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