Human Exceptionalism

The Dilution of Human Dignity

The term “human dignity”–properly understood–embodies the objective principle of equal and intrinsic moral worth of every human being.

These days, it is too often conflated with subjective notions of behavior, aesthetics, and now in the same sex marriage case, a newly coined constitutional right to self-identity.

Clarence Thomas made the point in his dissent that whatever laws exist, abuses that take place, and.or evil sare imposed, our human dignity indissolubly remains intact. George Takei attacked Thomas, wrongly claiming that the justice called slavery ‘dignified.’ So I decided to straighten things out. From, “What Clarence Thomas Meant:” 

In the public square, many misuse the word “dignity” by conflating its subjective and objective meanings. Some see it as descriptive of behavior, an idiosyncratic concept that can vary widely across cultures. Thus, when I am on the dance floor, few would say I exhibit dignity. But my herky-jerky movements and the crunching of my wife’s toes do not detract from my human dignity in the objective sense—my intrinsic moral worth.

The term “dignity” is also sometimes used as a synonym for pleasing aesthetics. This is what assisted-suicide advocates mean when they speak of self-destruction in the face of illness or disability as “death with dignity.” They believe that in cases of “pointless suffering,” dying from a drug overdose is the more appealing alternative to a natural death. Whatever one thinks of that argument—I oppose it vehemently—even the most painful life or the messiest manner of death does not detract from one’s intrinsic human dignity.

And now, in Obergefell v. Hodges—which established a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry—Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has sowed further confusion by inventing a “right to dignity” that covers the subjective crafting of self-identity.

I get into Kennedy’s text, and what it might mean for the future. I take on Takei’s misinterpretation of Thomas, and quote a bioethics journal article that succinctly and accurately defines the meaning of the term as Thomas referenced it. I then weigh in with my own conclusions:

In this sense, slavery cannot strip its victims of their inherent dignity, and yet it is evil because it denies the inherent human dignity that each of its victims possesses. Similarly, Holocaust victims did not lose their dignity by being numbered and tortured, worked, starved, and gassed to death. That is why we transformed death camps such as Auschwitz into solemn monuments for homage and pilgrimage. And, of course, each and every LGBT person is equally endowed with the same human dignity, which, as Thomas reminds us, exists regardless of the state’s laws governing domestic relations.

Using human dignity too widely actually dilutes the term:

As the definition of “dignity” becomes more and more elastic in the rights context, the core principle of Western Civilization that we each possess objective dignity is being diluted by its conflation with subjective notions of behavior and life-style preferences. Thomas has done us all a great service by refocusing our understanding of human dignity as an intrinsic attribute with which we are all infused—an inalienable and inherent moral value that can never be lost, stolen, or given away.

Dignity is inherent to universal human rights. Ironically, some of the very people who push the subjective versions of the term are the very ones who deny its essential nature.


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