If dignity is inherent, can it be harmed?

If dignity is inherent, can it be harmed?

What do we mean when we talk about the UU First Principle and inherent dignity?

Myriam Renaud
Illustration of 3 faces in profile

(© Cargo/Imagezoo/Corbis)

© Cargo/Imagezoo/Corbis


In Indonesia, any woman who is not married must pass the two-finger test before she can serve as a police officer or military recruit. (Married women are barred from these professions.) If the test seems to indicate that her hymen is broken, the woman is judged a prostitute. Only virgins are hired.

Many consider the two-finger test an assault on the dignity of women. Human dignity is a cherished idea. It is the foundation for important moral claims and for human rights. But can the idea of dignity bear this load?

We might ask, for example: If dignity is inherent, as the Unitarian Universalist First Principle declares, how can it be harmed? There’s an internal tension in the idea of dignity that makes it unstable.

In his 2008 New Republic article, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” philosopher Steven Pinker argues that two ideas are more useful than dignity: the idea of autonomy—our ability to choose for ourselves and to act on our choices—and the idea of respect for that autonomy. Following Pinker, we could insist that the Indonesian government respect the autonomy of women by giving them the option to refuse the test. However, not all societies privilege a notion of autonomy. And how autonomous are these Indonesian women who are so desperate for work that they consent to such a test?

Human dignity as we understand it entered the moral culture of Western society when the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant invoked it in his writings on ethics. Kant wrote that we human beings have dignity because we have the ability to reason and to make moral decisions.

After Kant, the term “dignity” faded from conversation but returned to prominence when it was enshrined in the preamble of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. We owe its inclusion to Virginia Gildersleeve, then-president of Barnard College. Another contributor to the preamble commented that dignity captures the understanding that we possess “more grandeur” as well as “more duties” than other creatures. For Gildersleeve and her co-authors, the word dignity signals the special responsibilities we have by virtue of being human.

Based on our exploration of dignity so far, we can say this of an aspiring Indonesian policewoman: she has inherent dignity because she can reason and make moral decisions and because she has more responsibilities than non-human animals.

Obviously, we want to say more. We want to say that the two-finger test is an affront to human dignity. But we’ve come full circle. Why is this test an affront if dignity is inherent?

The philosopher Michael Rosen helps us put the idea of dignity to work so it can do some good. Rosen has identified four strands of meaning that contribute to this ambiguous idea:

First: Dignity means “status” or “rank” as captured by the word “dignitary.”

Second: Dignity indicates “value.” To say that a person has dignity is to attribute value to that person.

Third: Dignity describes a certain sort of conduct. We behave in a “dignified” manner if we act with composure, calmness, and self-possession.

Fourth: Dignity captures the idea that, by virtue of our capacity to act with dignity, we deserve to be treated with respect and not subjected to humiliating or degrading conduct.

Based on Rosen’s third and fourth strands, we can conclude: “inherent dignity” can be understood as our inborn capacity to act with dignity. Now we have a solid, unambiguous way to understand this idea.

Theologian Katie Cannon, author of Black Womanist Ethics, seems to agree. She writes that no matter what happens to black women, they retain a sense of what dignity requires: dignified behavior.

Even Pinker concedes that the idea of “acting with dignity” can carry moral weight. Dignified people, he finds, trigger our esteem and cause us to respect their rights and interests.

What about the Indonesian woman? Like all people, she deserves to be treated in a way that allows her to act with dignity. The two-finger test harms this ability.

Since every human being has the capacity for dignified behavior, we are tasked with creating the conditions that foster this capacity.

To protect the inherent dignity of each person, then, we must act in solidarity with those whose ability to act dignified is threatened or attacked, support legal and social prohibitions against violent and degrading conduct, and protect the prohibitions already in place.

A tall order, but if we act with dignity and ensure others can too, we make the world more humane.

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