Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Remy Debes (ed.), Dignity: A History. Oxford philosophical concepts. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xix, 408. ISBN 9780199386000. $35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Nicholas R. Baima, Florida Atlantic University Honors College (NichBaima@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Dignity is a new book in the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series. The series seeks to contextualize philosophical concepts by explaining the ways in which they are shaped, altered, and defined by culture, history, and theory. To do this, the series draws from sources beyond the canon with the aim of re-examining standard narratives. Dignity makes good on the goals of the series. It draws from a diversity of sources, some of which are often overlooked in Western philosophy, such as Confucian, Buddhist, Islamic, and African thought. In addition, the book explores how art, music, literature, and religion shaped the concept of dignity. This results in a fascinating book that will enrich one's understanding of this important philosophical concept. Anyone interested in the history of dignity, or ethics in general, could benefit from this book.

The introduction provides the framework for the book. Remy Debes explains that the meaning of "dignity" has changed. Today, the term means something like "inherent or unearned worth." This is found most explicitly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let us call this the "moralistic conception of dignity." However, Debes points out that the moralistic conception of dignity was not always the dominant way of understanding the concept. In the past, dignity (and related words in other languages) primarily denoted merit or rank in society. This book seeks to uncover the cultural, historical, and theoretical influences that led to this change in meaning. In the process of exploring this issue, Dignity challenges four platitudes about dignity. Each chapter in the book can be seen as addressing a specific platitude.

The first platitude is that the moralistic conception of dignity comes from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century revolutionary thinkers. Documents like the American Declaration of Independence lend credence to this thought since it espouses that "all men are created equal" and that they have "certain unalienable Rights." Nevertheless, as Christine Dunn Henderson and Mike LaVaque-Manty show, the moralization of dignity developed from a number of complex economic and social changes—some of which came about in rather paradoxical ways. For example, in one of the more thought-provoking chapters of the book, LaVaque-Manty argues that the moralistic conception of human dignity developed from "making contingent and noninherent attributes of persons the grounds for why someone should be regarded as having dignity" (304). Bernard Boxill's chapter—though important and interesting in its own right—is lumped in with those challenging this platitude by Debes, but the article itself seems rather self-contained.

The second platitude is that the moralistic conception of dignity originates with Immanuel Kant. Perhaps the strongest evidence for thinking this is found in a well-known passage from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: "What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity" (4:434). However, Oliver Sensen argues that, for Kant, dignity does not mean inherent worth, but refers to a comparative value where x is raised above y. This is problematic for the platitude since elevated status does not give rise to duties or rights, but merely states something's relation to another thing. Furthermore, as Stephen Darwall and Remy Debes cogently argue in their respective chapters, the moralistic conception of dignity originates in the works of Samuel von Pufendorf and Denis Diderot. The chapters by Darwall and Sensen appear to summarize some of the extensive work each has done on the issues covered in their respective chapters.

The third platitude is that the moralistic conception of dignity developed from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man. It is thought that Pico drew from the medieval Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, which holds that humans have dignity in virtue of being made in the image of God. This book challenges this platitude in three ways. First, Brian Copenhaver convincingly argues that Pico is hardly the source of this moralized concept of dignity. Second, Bonnie Kent argues that the doctrine of the imago Dei does not support that moralized concept of dignity. Although dignity and this doctrine were widely discussed in the Latin West, most theologians and philosopher in this tradition held that after the Fall humankind became deformed and could further lose its dignity though sin. This is hardly the concept of dignity we find in something like the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Third, Mustafa Shah argues that something much closer to the moralized sense of dignity is found in Islamic scholarship from around the same period.

The fourth platitude is that the moralistic conception of dignity derives from Roman thinkers, perhaps most prominently Cicero. Miriam Griffin, nonetheless, argues that there is little support for interpreting dignitas to mean dignity in the moralized sense. Dignitas refers to something closer to merit or status. Griffin argues, moreover, that we cannot find the moralized concept of dignity in related terminology. The Romans focused more on what we are obligated to do and less on the entitlements of others. Interesting enough, Patrice Rankine argues that aspects of the moralized concept of dignity can be found in Homeric poetry—a very unlikely source. Since Plato and Aristotle are hardly known for espousing a moralized sense of dignity, a chapter focusing on aspects of their thought that highlight this conception would have been interesting and well within the scope of this book Furthermore, it would have provided greater balance to the book, since the other platitudes get more attention than this one.

The book as a whole is successful in its challenge to these platitudes. The chapters frequently touch on issues discussed in other chapters and because of this it makes sense to read the book in its presented order—though this certainly isn't required in order to comprehend any individual chapter. One thing that seems missing from the book, however, is a more detailed discussion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related documents. These documents are frequently referred to and are used as a standard against which one measures an account of dignity, but no detailed discussion of them is presented; a chapter, or at least a reflection, on these documents would have been helpful. Additionally, since the book seems motivated by the desire to undermine platitudes about human dignity, it would have been valuable to have a chapter that challenges the moralistic conception of dignity. Essentially, the chapters use the moralistic conception of dignity to assess various historical figures and movements; but why use this version of dignity as a yardstick? Do any of the other conceptions of dignity hold any merit? It would have been beneficial if more could be said on this issue.

I would like to focus on Patrice Rankine's treatment of the Iliad in the chapter, "Dignity in Homer and Classical Greece," since it will likely be of great interest to the readers of Bryn Mawr Classical Review. At first glance, Homeric epic is a surprising place to look to find a moralistic conception of dignity. After all, the opening of the Iliad treats human beings as objects that can be traded and used to display one's status. Moreover, the Achaeans seem to have no qualms about engaging in bloody battles and sacking cities. Rankine, however, argues that by looking at various normative practices we can find that the "Greeks expressed a belief in human dignity" (21). To be clear, Rankine does not think that the expression comes via explicit theorizing; but, rather, he argues it is embedded in the cultural practices.

Rankine draws from perhaps the strongest example of expressed human dignity in Homeric epic: the reconciliation between Achilles and Priam. Rankine's argument can be broken down into four points. First, Rankine argues that by dragging Hector's corpse around Achilles is implicitly violating "the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation" and this is a violation of human dignity (27). Second, Rankine suggests that, when Priam encounters Achilles, the poet hints at an inversion between the roles played by the two men: Achilles, the murderer, occupies the place of the man of wealth, while Priam, the great, comes into his presence like the murderer outcast in the simile of 24.477-84. Despite the difference is status, both men stare at each other in mutual amazement. Rankine argues that this mutual amazement displays a value that goes beyond status (29-30). Third, Rankine argues that despite the losses and humiliation each individual has experienced, their underlying value has not changed, thereby suggesting that the kind of value they have does not depend on these external factors (32). Fourth, both Priam and Achilles share—through the working of reason—a sense of shame (aidōs), which allows them to recognize their mutual suffering, and through this, they come to see each other as equal (33).

Overall, Rankine makes a strong case for his argument; nevertheless, there are three aspects to his argument that require further consideration. First, Rankine's interpretation of the exchange between Priam and Achilles requires more unpacking, especially since it is a little removed from what the text literally says and many of the readers of this book will lack a background in Classics or literary theory. Second, a general problem with the example is that one of the main reasons that the gods are so upset at Achilles' behavior is that he is mistreating a hero who was dear to them (see 24.30-8, 65-70, 425-8). Additionally, part of the reason Priam is so distraught is that Hector was his greatest son (see 24.240-62, 380-5, 485-505). In other words, the context for this encounter is brought about because of the special status of the individuals involved. This muddies the water for making the case that it is simply in virtue of being human that one has dignity. Third, while I agree that shame (aidōs) is one of the key features that leads Achilles to release Hector, shame—though an important moral emotion—is not like Kantian (or as this book convinced me, Puffendorfian) dignity. There is nothing impersonal or inherent about shame; shame is intricately tied to the values and standards that one sets for oneself and these are formed via one's environment. Indeed, according to Bernard Williams, it is the fact that shame is personal that makes it almost a more important ethical emotion than something like guilt, which is impersonal.1] If the moralistic conception of dignity is found in this example, shame is not the right place to go looking for it.

Authors and Titles

Patrice Rankine: "Dignity in Homer and Classical Greece"
Miriam Griffin: "Dignity in Roman and Stoic Thought"
David B. Wong: Reflection "Dignity in Confucian and Buddhist Thought"
Bonnie Kent: "In the Image of God: Human Dignity after the Fall"
Mustafa Shah: "Islamic Conceptions of Dignity: Historical Trajectories and Paradigms"
Brian Copenhaver: "Dignity, Vile Bodies, and Nakedness: Giovanni Pico and Giannozzo Manetti"
Edward Town: Reflection "Portraiture, Social Positioning, and Displays of Dignity in Early Modern London"
Stephen Darwall: "Equal Dignity and Rights"
Remy Debes: "Human Dignity Before Kant: Denis Diderot's Passionate Person"
Oliver Sensen: "Dignity: Kant's Revolutionary Conception"
Charles W. Mills: Reflection "A Time for Dignity"
Christine Dunn Henderson: "On Bourgeois Dignity: Making the Self-Made Man"
Somogy Varga: Reflection "Taking Refuge from History in Morality: Marx, Morality, and Dignity"
Mika LaVaque-Manty: "Universalizing Dignity in the Nineteenth Century"
Marcus Düwell: Reflection "Why Bioethics Isn't Ready for Human Dignity"
Bernard Boxill: "Sympathy and Dignity in Early Africana Philosophy"
Emma Kaufman: Reflection "Death and Dignity in American Law"


1.   Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkley: University of California Press, 1993); see esp. chap. 4.

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