The classical concept of "dignity" is out of place in our increasingly egalitarian culture. In prior, more vertically structured and hierarchical times, to be "dignified" was to be recognized as "above" others. To be acting in a dignified fashion was to be acting in a better way than others acted.
To be dignified was to have one’s emotions in check, to be reserved, to follow the proprieties. To be dignified was to act in “superior ways,” and the people who act in "superior ways" are, by Mind 2 definition, "the superior people." People who act in "worse ways" are lesser or "worse people." They come from the lower orders. How you act is who you are.
Such thinking is hardly tolerated today.
In an increasingly egalitarian world, we are not distinguished vertically as better or worse; we are distinguished horizontally, as one simply different from another. The definition of the term “distinguished” has been altered as well. To be distinguished is not to be “better than”; it is just to be “different-from.” Today we are distinguished from others by our looks, hobbies, personality, and habits. No one is higher or lower; everyone follows his own interests, and we view each other as equals.
"DON'T JUDGE ME" is an often heard mantra of our day.
It is worn on shirts or falls from the lips of people who wish to be understood as social non-conformists, free to do things differently than others – usually doing the things traditionalists would “look down” upon.
But in the modern egalitarian environment we neither “look down” nor “look up.” We have neither riff-raff nor heroes. We are all simply different.
The word “dignity” or “dignified” has been re-branded and redefined to find a place in the new order of things. Today everyone has dignity. Dignity is synonymous with mere personhood.
The concept of being dignified, in the Mind 2 sense of being recognized as “better than,” will eventually fall completely out of use and go the way of other Mind 2 concepts used to define vertical superiority, such as "honor" and "virtue." These are atavistic terms of a bygone Western culture, which had a place when "place" and "social standing" meant something.
Who is dishonorable now? Who is virtuous and who is not today?
“DON'T JUDGE ME” has taken their place.
Of course, our Mind 1 egalitarians “judge” criticize and condemn others all the time. But the judgement or condemnation is based on different grounds. Today we are “judged” as a racist, sexist, fascist or chauvinist if we hold on to the old concepts of place or manner or tradition too tightly or if we, in any way, suggest one group of people can be looked upon in any way but equal with all other groups.
The simple and universally accepted definition of dignity is “worthy of respect.”
What changed between the past and the present is the way people decide who is worthy of respect, and for what reason. Is everybody worthy of respect, or just some people? And what makes us “worthy?”
In Mind 2 times – hard times, brought about by conditions of scarcity or danger – cultural practices that align everyone from top to bottom, from best to worst, from necessary to expendable, need to be in place and followed. In such times, society does not benefit by seeing everyone as equally valuable. Under conditions where not all can survive, seeing everyone as equals is detrimental. With limited resources, an “unequal” distribution of goods and social protections is what guarantees that the most indispensable members of the group are the ones most likely to survive.
Thus in the Mind 2 conditions of times of the past, not everybody was considered worthy of the highest forms of respect. When “respect” and “dignity” were terms that served to distinguish better from worse, not everybody could have equal “dignity.” In harsh Mind 2 times, dignity was merit-based; it was “earned respect.”
A person had dignity as a result of his superior social class (leadership), his superior character (virtues), or his superior behavior (ability). In hard times, respect was usually afforded for martial exploits or displays of personal leadership. The notion of a “dignified person” comprised a number of related qualities that were admired and respected – aloof, cultured, emotionally controlled, well-mannered, well-spoken, honorable, noble, etc.
When we describe some lordly ruler as having “dignity,” we are using the merit-based sense. We make an appraisal of his conduct or social standing or character, and decide how much respect he is due.
In this conception, anyone (prince or pauper) who acts in some awful manner strips himself of his dignity, and we owe him no respect at all. In such societies, the prince has a long way to fall and a lot to lose if he is made to seem contemptible, so it is doubly important for him to be seen as acting in an exemplary manner.
In democratic and egalitarian cultures, we can still use words like “majestic” or “regal” to describe mountains or bald eagles, but it is awkward and a bit out of place to use such terms to describe people.
Today, in our richer and safer horizontal and Mind 1 culture, the understanding of “dignity” as “having more inherent worth” has no real place. When there is enough for all, all should have enough. And to suggest there may be some who deserve less or none at all does more harm than good in our times.
Dignity is now understood in a quite different sense, and refers to the “unearned worth” that all humans share by virtue of their common humanity. It is understood to be the moral basis of human rights. This is the notion of universal human dignity, which pertains to all human beings to the same extent; it cannot be increased, decreased or stripped away, as merit-based dignity can.
One of the first explicit formulations of the Mind 1 notion of universal human dignity is found in the Charter of the United Nations (1945), where it is stated that:
“We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, … and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small …”
However, a century before the various human rights declarations, the notion of universal human dignity was implicitly present in the works of Kant, and specifically in his notion of the human person, who must always be treated as an “end-in-himself,” never as a “means to an end.” This is because, according to Kant, a human being has “würde,” which, literally translated, means “worth.” However, because of the concurrent association of “worth” with “price” (monetary value), which was subjective and not what Kant intended to mean, the English translators of Kant chose to translate “würde” as “dignity.” (Remy Debes, The History of Human Dignity, < https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/theforum/a-history-of-human-dignity/ >)
So the notion of universal human dignity goes back to the mid-19th century at least, and since the mid-20th century, the concept of human dignity as the inherent worth of all human beings by virtue of their shared humanity has prevailed.
The common definition of what dignity is, and to whom it applies, has changed to better reflect who we are today. Understanding who we are requires we grasp how and why such definitions come about, why they change, and when it is best to use one over another. Our dual morality allows us to accomplish this.
|Mind 1 Dignity||Mind 2 Dignity|
|Dignity is unearned. It is inherent in every human being.>||Dignity is earned (merit-based)|
|Universal: All human beings have dignity and deserve respect by virtue of their humanity.||Particular: Only some people (the superior people) are “dignified,” by virtue of their social status, their character or their behavior.|
|Human dignity cannot be lost or taken away.||A person can be stripped of his dignity.|
|Dignity is the group’s judgment of the equality of all individuals.||Dignity is the group’s judgment of the superiority of some individuals over others.|