Human Dignity: A Way of Living
February 2017, Polity
Dignity is humanity s most prized possession. We experience the loss of dignity as a terrible humiliation: when we lose our dignity we feel deprived of something without which life no longer seems worth living. But what exactly is this trait that we value so highly?
In this important new book, distinguished philosopher Peter Bieri looks afresh at the notion of human dignity. In contrast to most traditional views, he argues that dignity is not an innate quality of human beings or a right that we possess by virtue of being human. Rather, dignity is a certain way to lead one s life. It is a pattern of thought, experience and action in other words, a way of living.
In Bieri s account, there are three key dimensions to dignity as a way of living. The first is the way I am treated by others: they can treat me in a way that leaves my dignity intact or they can destroy my dignity. The second dimension concerns the way that I treat other people: do I treat them in a way that allows me to live a dignified life? The third dimension concerns the view that I have of myself: which ways of seeing and treating myself allow me to maintain a sense of dignity? In the actual flow of day-to-day life these three dimensions of dignity are often interwoven, and this accounts in part for the complexity of the situations and experiences in which our dignity is at stake.
So, why did we invent dignity and what role does it play in our lives? As thinking and acting beings, our lives are fragile and constantly under threat. A dignified way of living, argues Bieri, is humanity s way of coping with this threat. In our constantly endangered lives, it is important to stand our ground with confidence. Thus a dignified way of living is not any way of living: it is a particular way of responding to the existential experience of being under threat. It is also a particular way of answering the question: What kind of life do we wish to live?
This beautifully written reflection on our most cherished human value will be of interest to a wide readership.
1. Dignity as autonomy
Being a subject
Being an end in itself
What if it is voluntary?
Humiliation as demonstrated powerlessness
Escaping to an inner fortress
Respect for alterity and conviction
Dependence: asking and begging
Begging for feelings
Inner autonomy: thought
Inner autonomy: wanting and deciding
Inner autonomy: emotions
Inner autonomy: self-image and censorship
Humiliation through serfdom
Autonomy through self-knowledge
Dignity through work
2. Dignity as encounter
When subjects encounter each other
Commitment and distancing
Putting someone on display
Talk to me!
Laughing at someone
Working with a therapist
No pity, thank you!
Encounters between autonomous individuals
Leaving an open future to the other
3. Dignity as respect for intimacy
The dual need for intimacy
Feeling the other’s gaze
What is a defect?
The logic of shame
Shame as humiliation
Dignity as conquered shame
The intimate space
The innermost zone
Betrayed intimacy as lost dignity
A challenge: Intimacy as a lack of courage
4. Dignity as truthfulness
Lying to others
Lying to oneself
Honesty and its limits
Calling things by their proper name
Saving one’s face
5. Dignity as self-respect
Dignity through limits
Responsibility for oneself
6. Dignity as moral integrity
Dignity in guilt and forgiveness
Punishment: Development instead of destruction
Absolute moral boundaries?
7. Dignity as a sense for what matters
Meaning of life
One’s own voice
Equanimity as a sense of proportion
The view from the end
8. Dignity as the acceptance of finitude
When others lose themselves
Losing oneself: Resistance
Losing oneself: Accepting the journey into darkness
Letting someone die
Ending one’s life
Responsibility towards the dead
References & Further Reading
Nigel Warburton, author of A Little History of Philosophy
"Human Dignity shows a rich and insightful exploration of the idea of human dignity from various angles and at several levels. Bieri carefully distinguishes dignity from other similar looking but really quite different concepts and deals with such important questions as how to live and die with dignity. This is an important book."
Bhikhu Parekh, House of Lords
"An important and beautiful book, thoroughly worth reading."
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung