Not all advocates of dignity, let alone its detractors, subscribe to a Kantian interpretation of this idea. It will help clarify the view I have just outlined if we compare it with a different conception of dignity, one that abjures Kantian origins. This will be easier to do if we provisionally diversify our terminology, and use not just the term dignity, but also two other quasicognates that play a role in this discussion: some use dignity as a synonym for or an extension of honor, whereas others consider dignity as equivalent to worth. The two terms are not quite symmetrical, however. Honor is an ordinary term, and its philosophical use is for the most part in keeping with its common usage. Worth is a more specialized term, deriving its meaning along such lines as I have just sketched primarily from Kant’s moral theory. This difference in provenance of the two terms signals a more substantive difference in the conception of dignity they each designate. By employing honor and worth to designate two contrasting poles, we can distinguish a range of senses with which dignity is used.

Honor and worth can be fruitfully contrasted along four dimensions: origin, scope, distribution, and grip. Honor is of social origin: it derives from and reflects one’s social position and the norms and attitudes that define it, whereas worth, at least as used by Kant, has metaphysical origins: the alleged radical autonomy of the noumenal self. Consequently, honor is in principle limited in scope, capable of privileging only those who occupy certain positions while excluding others who occupy different ones; whereas worth has a universal scope, applying to every human being as such. Relatedly, the distribution of honor is typically uneven and hierarchical, reflecting and indeed in part constituting social stratification; worth is evenly distributed over humanity as a whole. Finally, the grip that worth has on its possessors (or, conversely, the grip they have on it) is much stronger than the grip of honor. Honor is contingent, in the sense that it must be earned or granted, and so can be forfeited or withdrawn; whereas worth is categorical, attaching to all its possessors by virtue of their being human, no matter what. These contrasting clusters of attributes go hand in hand with a familiar claim, to the effect that the ascendance of dignity talk marks a trajectory from honor to worth. Since Kant, and with increasing momentum in the past few decades or so, honor has been superseded by worth as the favored interpretation of dignity.

But at least one prominent author, Professor Jeremy Waldron, has been swimming against this current. He advocates a conception of dignity as universalized high social rank, which amounts to tying dignity back to honor rather than to worth.15 To be sure, Waldron’s dignity-as-rank is not the same as honor itself. Waldron most emphatically does not advocate a return to a hierarchical social system of valuation in which people’s dignity varies with their social status, let alone to a state of affairs in which the dignity of some is built on the degradation of others. His conception of dignity is every bit as universal in scope and as egalitarian in distribution as that of the most devout Kantian. Waldron wholeheartedly endorses the universalization and equalization of dignity in the modern age. The question he raises and the challenge he poses concern only which notion, honor or worth, offers a sounder interpretive framework for these achievements. Since there is general agreement that the scope of dignity ought to be universal and its distribution egalitarian, the focus is on the two other dimensions of comparison, origin and grip. Waldron’s preference for tying dignity to the tradition of honor rather than to the philosophy of worth is first and foremost a view that universal and equal dignity is better anchored in evolving social practice than in Kantian philosophy.

One specific way Waldron proposes for ensuring a universal extension of a socially grounded conception of dignity links dignity to social roles. The stepping stones toward this universalization of dignity are the more distinctive and circumscribed dignities associated with certain elevated roles:

One might speak of the dignity of a judge, in regard to his judicial appointment ... Or one might speak of the dignity of a clergyman, such as a bishop, in terms of his responsibility for the administration of a diocese, or even the dignity of a rector, in terms of his elementary right to administer the sacraments or direct their administration in a particular parish.16

The connection between these discreet dignities and the ideal of universal dignity is forged by a notion of responsibility rights introduced by Waldron. He argues that many roles, such as those of parents, consist in part in rights assigned to their bearers, rights that are at the same time allocations of responsibility. Waldron sees a natural fit “between the idea of role-based dignity and the idea of responsibility-rights.” And so he proposes to explore “how far we can extend the responsibility analysis, moving step by step from specific roles like parenthood in the direction of certain responsibilities that people in general might be thought to have in relation to their human rights as such.” Along this trajectory, Waldron moves from the dignity he associates with the role of parents to that of citizenship. Proceeding even further, if somewhat hesitantly, he finally proposes to extend the same approach to encompass the dignity of humanity in support of universal human rights.

Waldron’s view of dignity as universalized high social rank is linked to another theme: privileging law over morality as the primary habitat and dominant source of dignity. Though the alignment need not be perfect, we generally tend to view law as a social phenomenon. Tracking dignity to its legal provenance is an astute step that leaves open difficult conundrums of moral philosophy, while allowing us to make progress on the main practical issues associated with the concept of dignity today. And as Waldron demonstrates, by leveling up and expanding a notion of honor, dignity-as-rank is capable of underwriting an equal dignity for all.

But all these ways of grounding and expanding dignity-as-rank come at a price in the dimension of grip. As conceived by Waldron, the social origins of dignity cannot offer the grip that the Kantian position does. Expanding the scope of dignity and leveling it up are doubtlessly great social and legal achievements, but this is also their vulnerability: what is socially and legally granted can be socially and legally withdrawn. The worry is not about the fragility of dignity-as-rank in the face of changing winds of politics or brute force. Nothing is sturdy enough to withstand these kinds of adversities. The fragility in question is an argumentative one; it takes place in the space of reasons and justifications, not in the space of struggle and mayhem. It is here that a difference exists between, on the one hand, celebrating and cheering on the morphing of local and hierarchical honor into universal equal dignity, and, on the other hand, providing an argument in favor of this development that would give it some normative grounding. The challenge Waldron poses is accordingly quite formidable: can we retain the social origins of dignity while securing its categorical grip?

The approach I’ve outlined can be now seen as responding to this challenge, not by muting but by amplifying the social factor Waldron highlights. The theme of human self-creation takes us beyond the social origins of people’s status or value, which Waldron explores, to the social origins of people themselves. If the bearer of dignity is not a noumenal self, ensconced in an ethereal Kingdom of Ends located in a nether region of things-in-themselves, but a socially constructed self, the distance between dignity-as-rank and dignity-as-worth shrinks, and the two conceptions tend to converge. Interpreted along these lines, a socially grounded conception of dignity turns out to be universal, equal, and secured by categorical grip. How?

We can start from the end, the categorical grip. The problem we noted with a socially based conception of dignity is its apparent contingency: society may fail to confer equal dignity on all. This possibility does not arise under the constructive view. If the source of dignity is in human selfcreation, the process by which dignity is conferred is the very same one by which the human person is constituted, and so there can be no slippage between the two. Since self-creation is an attribute of humanity, dignity associated with self-creation is also universal in scope: it is coextensive with humanity as a whole. Finally, dignity acquired through self-creation is equal, since it accrues to us qua subjects of construction rather than as its products, and so irrespective of the content and variability of what is being produced.

The reassurance that the contours of dignity encompass the entire human race raises, however, an apparent discrepancy with the social orientation of Waldron’s approach. As I have already argued (in Chapters 1 and 5), human self-creation can be given a collective interpretation, as involving humanity as a whole, or a distributive interpretation, according to which each individual forges her own identity. The social construction of the self, which fixes on society as the arena of human self-creation, is intermediate between these poles. Now since Waldron dwells particularly on the social (and relatedly legal) origins of dignity, to bring the self-creation theme into alignment with his approach would seem to require that we adopt this third interpretation. But as I have also argued earlier, a choice between the universal, the social, and the individual as the site of self-creation is not necessary, or indeed possible, since each of these interpretations implies the others as well. To see the point, recall the picture introduced in the previous chapter of the social as intermediate between the individual and the universal. Intermediate in what dimension? One answer would be numerical, as many is intermediate between one and all. But the view of self-creation as manifesting human intelligibility and as occurring in the medium of meaning supports a different answer. Meanings are abstract, and so the difference can be conceived as a matter of levels of abstraction: the social is more abstract than the individual, and the universal, yet more abstract. Or stated in reverse, social meanings are a more concrete elaboration of universal meaning, and individual meanings a further and yet more concrete elaboration of social ones. Seen in these terms, “humanity” labels at a high level of abstraction the meaning that individual human beings express or enact in endlessly ramified and divergent ways. Within the same picture, the social designates a concatenation of meanings at an intermediate level of abstraction, between the individual and the universal. Focusing on it and privileging it, the way Waldron does, does not threaten to displace the universal or the individual standpoints. It only amounts to the view that the social is a particularly fecund source of meanings, and so is especially vital to the process of human self-creation and its study.

Similar comments apply to the link Waldron draws between human rights and social roles. Here the alternative, worth-based conception of dignity I favor is not so much in the form of an alternate route to the same destination as a suggestion that we reverse the direction of travel. As we have seen, Waldron’s procedure is to start with concrete roles, each vested with a certain dignity, and build his way up, through increasing abstraction, to the universal standpoint of humanity as a whole, where human rights come into view. On this approach, the dignity of a human being is modeled on, or derived from, that of parents or citizens. In a more Kantian picture, by contrast, the primary bearer of dignity is the person, abstractly conceived: Kantian dignity resides in the first place in our shared humanity. Relatedly, the order of derivation regarding the dignity attached to more specific roles is reversed. No dignity attaches to the roles as such; to speak of the dignity of an office or a role would be a category mistake.17 Rather, an elevated value accrues to a role because of its integration within a person’s life. The dignity of a parent, for example, is not to be understood as a worth that resides in the parental role, and which the parents themselves have in part by virtue of assuming this role. It is the other way around: performing the parental role is a site of dignity and calls for respect because of the way it fits into the parents’ life and identity. The person’s dignity comes first; that of the role is derivative or secondary.

What difference does it make, though, whether the role borrows its value from the value of its holder or instead bestows that value on her? As a practical matter, do these two not come down to the same thing? After all, roles do not exist separately from people who occupy them, and so cannot realize whatever value we associate with them other than in conjunction with the role-holder, on whom in Waldron’s view they bestow dignity. And vice versa: people’s identity, or as I put it earlier, meaning, derives at least in part from the roles they hold, and so their worth must be realized and recognized in connection with their performance of these roles. Even so, the order in which we proceed, upward or downward, matters. Though the two pictures, Waldron’s and the Kantian, broadly overlap, there are some significant differences nonetheless. I will mention three. The first concerns the universality of dignity. As I have already noted, Waldron acknowledges a “strain” in extending the role-based conception of dignity to the universal standpoint of humanity. For those, like Waldron himself, who care much about human rights, and who, like him, link them to the notion of dignity, the strain should be a worry: it makes universal human rights seem rather precarious. This worry is allayed when dignity is vested in humanity from the start: being human is all it takes to have an elevated moral worth.

But ascribing dignity to humanity may seem to raise a corresponding worry, associated with another possible strain: how do we move from the alleged moral worth of the species to that of each of its individual members? Isn’t ascribing dignity to abstract humanity bound to eclipse the value of individual lives and their concrete engagement with the kinds of specific roles that form Waldron’s starting point? However, this worry too is the product of thinking of human beings in biological terms, and so envisaging the relationship of Homo sapiens to individual human beings as akin to that between, say, Loxodonta africana and individual elephants. But when we think of the human self, along the lines I have been following, as intelligible and constituted by meaning, the value of abstract humanity and of the concrete individual is the same value, since it is the value of one and the same subject conceived at different levels of abstraction. And so to talk about someone’s dignity as an individual, as a parent, and as a person is to designate at different levels of abstraction the same subject’s moral worth.

Finally, insisting that the only proper subject of dignity is the human person also draws our attention to the possibility that not all roles, no matter how important, are sites of dignity. To be such a site, a role must be integrated into our lives: only when a role falls within the boundaries of the self does its performance become an occasion for the exercise of autonomy and a basis for personal responsibility. But not all roles are enacted in this way. As I have observed earlier, some are enacted in a detached, impersonal, and strategic manner. We engage in them only due to some external inducement, a threat or a reward, but otherwise maintain them outside the scope of our identifications and on the periphery of the self.18 The performance of such roles falls outside the scope of the person’s dignity as well. These variations in how different roles relate to their bearers apply to all roles, and so in particular to what I have earlier (in Chapter 1) called affiliations, that is roles (or aspects of roles) that tie the bearer to one collectivity or another. The implications just mentioned of variations in role-distance on the dignitary significance of a role accordingly raise a further question regarding the collective reach of dignity, which I consider in Chapter 8.

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