II. WHAT DIGNITY IS

As I have already noted, the term dignity has acquired great prominence in recent years, both in public discourse and in the philosophical literature. And where there is prominence there is often also notoriety. Dignity has many ardent devotees as well as some vocal detractors. But though all sides use the same term, it is not clear that they always address the same topic or have in mind the same concept. Dignity has come to mean different things to different people.

Take, for example, a recent article, provocatively entitled The Stupidity of Dignity, in which Stephen Pinker laments the ascendance of dignity in public discourse. As it turns out, however, Pinker is talking about what he describes as a psychological concept of dignity:

Dignity is a phenomenon of human perception ... [C]ertain features in another human being trigger ascriptions of worth. These features include signs of composure, cleanliness, maturity, attractiveness, and control of the body. The perception of dignity in turn elicits a response in the perceiver. Just as the smell of baking bread triggers a desire to eat it, and the sight of a baby’s face triggers a desire to protect it, the appearance of dignity triggers a desire to esteem and respect the dignified person.3

Pinker juxtaposes this psychological notion of dignity with the distinctly moral ideal of respect for persons. However, it is precisely the latter notion that many others identify with the concept of dignity. To assume that there is just one concept here, and then call it stupid or wise, is a trap we should be careful to avoid. There appear to be a number of concepts of dignity in circulation, too dissimilar even to be thought of as different conceptions of one concept.4 In seeking an account of dignity, it is accordingly prudent to replace the definite article with the indefinite article and speak about a concept of dignity. Dignity, as I’ll use the term, stands for an affirmation of the equal, or perhaps rather unique, and supreme moral worth of every human being, an affirmation designed to play a foundational role in morality and by extension in law as well.

 
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