A Vulnerable Account of Human Dignity

I once read an interview with a philosopher who proposed an account of personhood that ran roughly along these lines: fetuses are persons depending on whether other adult people value them as persons. If parents would miss a fetus in the event of a miscarriage, then that fetus was a person from the relevant moment, such as conception. If parents would choose to abort a fetus, ending its life, then it was never a person in the first place. 

The subtlety of the account was lost on most of my non-philosopher acquaintances, who found it rather mad. For my own part, the account looks sophistical; personhood, as we ordinarily understand it, is not something that our practices of valuation create. Appeal to what adults think of fetuses as a source of value looks circular or incoherent. Maybe the point is that there is no intrinsic value to the life of any person. Then, why should we care what non-persons think about fetuses? Conversely, if the adults are persons, and this is what made their judgments important, then the account merely stipulates implicitly that fetuses are not persons to begin with—which is just what is in dispute. Similarly, to turn the discussion into questions of whether we value a fetus as if it were a person is to change the subject. Thus, the aforementioned account of personhood strikes me as unhelpful, however subtle and sophisticated its exposition may be.

Colin Bird’s Human Dignity and Political Criticism attempts something similar on a larger scale, rejecting a traditional account of human dignity, but trying to rebuild something equivalent in an unconventional way. Bird’s account of human dignity, while sophisticated and insightful at many points, seems to change the subject. He builds a picture of dignity that is not equivalent in relevant respects to the traditional concepts. 

The point of Bird’s account of human dignity is to vindicate a political project of ‘dignitarian humanism.’ This is a family of views that include the classical liberal political aim to build a society based on respect of persons as free and equal. Bird therefore rejects consequentialism and similar communitarian positions that would sacrifice individuals for the sake of the collective. But he thinks traditional accounts in which dignity is inherent to persons ultimately undermined that dignitarian project. Identifying human dignity, for example, as being made ‘in the image of God’ seems to require a quasi-mystical appeal outside of the empirical world. Dignity becomes, on all traditional accounts, a sort of abstraction or idealization which cannot be affected by the real-world mistreatment of individuals. That undermines, Bird thinks, the basis of the humanistic political project by making the grounds of those political commitments inaccessible and eliminating the stakes to politics. There would be nothing to lose in a world where mistreatment leaves intact human dignity. 

Bird’s idea is then to give an alternative account of what it is to value people ‘for their own sake’ which does not require (what he takes to be) the problematic features of traditional accounts of human dignity. In a broad sense, then, he does hold that human beings have worth “distinct from and irreducible to exchange value,” which we aim to respect in our political processes. It is an entitlement owed to all that reflects basic human needs for recognition from others.

Bird distinguishes different sorts of accounts of human dignity. Some hold that dignity is intrinsic to individuals or ‘distributed among’ them by extrinsic relations. Traditionally, ‘human dignity’ was taken to be a property or characteristic intrinsic to human beings, which laid moral demands upon others to treat each person as someone with innate dignity. Others suggest that dignity is vulnerable to diminishment by the treatment an individual undergoes. Bird opts to combine vulnerability with the view that dignity is extrinsic to its bearers: human dignity is a “transient, vulnerable, and socially extended quality whose emergence depends on the character of concrete, organized, interaction under actually existing regimes.” 

Bird denies that dignity consists in an intrinsic but empirical property, which would suggest that some persons might lack it, or that it might come in degrees (like rationality). But he is particularly critical of those accounts on which dignity is an innate property that makes normative demands upon others, allowing dignity to be retained despite even the most degrading misconduct against persons. Bird spends most of his time attacking these latter views. He does not believe that human dignity can be an invulnerable property of persons, whether as an intrinsic property (being made in the ‘image and likeness of God’ or having Kantian ‘inner worth’) or as an extrinsic property that “consists in an idealized relation of equality” (contractarian accounts, e.g., Darwall and Rawls).      

Bird cannot fathom how people could retain their dignity when they are enslaved, or tossed into an oven like a piece of trash. In his eyes, these accounts of dignity as invulnerable are manifestly absurd. To him, it seems obvious that slaves, and other victims of mistreatment, literally cease to have human dignity. 

He argues further that dignity in the Kantian or Christian view, which consists in an inward and hidden property, would be disconnected from anything empirically discoverable. Conceptualizing dignity in this way “mystifies the concept, miring it in metaphysical and quasi-religious assumptions.” These views make dignity an abstraction, disconnected from any empirical property of persons, and they leave dignitarian political philosophy grounded upon significant, controversial metaphysics or religious beliefs. 

Putting these claims together, Bird thinks that the invulnerable view of dignity undermines dignitarian critiques of real-world institutions that undermine dignity, like slavery: “If slaves already possess their dignity whole and entire, and nothing a slave-owning society does can take it away, it is hard to see how an appeal to human dignity can figure in a non-question-begging criticism of the institution of slavery.” 

The upshot of the critique is therefore realist: Bird aims to reconceptualize dignity, not as an intrinsic quality that others might simply fail to acknowledge, but rather—borrowing from Marx and Hayek—as a kind of social property that emerges from the ‘performative interactions’ among people. This is similar, in a way, to the way that a price is constituted by distributed market interactions. The offering of respect is “performative”;  instead of reacting to or recognizing a dignity inherent in the object of respect, respectful actions “impart worth to people and their lives.” This value is not analogous to price, however, in that human beings are valued for their own sake and not instrumentally. 

This puts Bird in a difficult position, since he wants people to be valued for their own sake, but not on the basis of any local and intrinsic feature. He attempts to square the circle by appealing to Gerard Manley Hopkins (who describes his use of ‘sake’ briefly in a letter). Strikingly, Bird argues that someone can be valued for their own sake not because of any interior quality aimed at by our valuing (to which it could ‘correspond’), but because of a unique mode of valuation; our valuation ‘creates’ what it is to value something for its own sake. “The aspects the valued person elicits [a certain kind of] response and treatment—that is, evaluatively relevant characteristics—thereby become apparent in the valuer’s response.” 

I would argue that Bird’s revision merely changes the subject from what we owe others to how we actually treat others.

Bird’s position, then, is that human dignity emerges out of situations where people are regularly treated in ways that embody what Bird calls ‘timanthropic’ valuation of others. When we recognize others as having final or non-instrumental value as objects of love and respect, they become bearers of human dignity. 

The political account of dignity which Bird endorses aims to revise these traditional commitments, but to preserve the basic intuitions behind them, and then to employ his revisionary concept of human dignity in order to engage in more profound dignitarian criticism of our current political practices. As he puts it, “legitimate political institutions and practices must value people and their lives for their own sakes.” For example, Bird ends by resisting ‘epistocrats’ who argue that the majority of ordinary citizens are unworthy of civic participation; owing to a lack of education or ‘degradation,’ they should not have a voice in political affairs. Bird resists this by arguing that universal suffrage is “an absolutely fundamental power,” instantiating appropriate respect for other human beings. Democratic governance is thus essential to those performative acts of respecting ordinary citizens as equals. 

The book therefore ends by arguing that the revisionary concept allows us to focus on dignity, not an “innate, occult, inward quality, or as a fixed judicial status that remains unchanged regardless of how the lives of its bearers actually work out.” If we conceptualize dignity as “a nonlocal state of human relations, constituted by the de facto power to reliably elicit respectful attention from others” this allows us to “identify and eliminate those configurations [of power] that leave human lives radically forsaken, and to promote conditions in which, as far as possible, they enjoy, and we exercise, the powers on which their mattering for their own sakes depends.” Dignity, in other words, is not inherent to individuals at all. It emerges from the attitudes and behavior of others towards them.

I would argue that Bird’s revision merely changes the subject from what we owe others to how we actually treat others. The modes of evaluation Bird describes leave us with no clear normative basis from which to argue that anything has gone wrong when others are not valued for their own sakes. Although it seems to me the thrust of the position is that anything short of timanthropic valuation is wrong, Bird does not seem to defend that normative claim, even though it does all the work. He empties dignity itself of normative value, but fails to show why anyone would be obliged to rebuild it. The problems with this view become particularly glaring when Bird reaches the question of whether people actually become ‘worthless’ when they are treated as though they are worthless.      

In the Holocaust, large numbers of people were summarily executed by oppressors who believed their lives had no value. Under these conditions, Bird recognizes that his account might suggest that the victims’ human dignity effectively disappear. They were treated as though they had no worth, so perhaps the victims were indeed worthless. Bird wants to separate ethical criticism from the political. But that hardly seems possible here: while we normally consider the “dehumanizing” of other people to be deeply unethical, on Bird’s account we must consider the possibility that dehumanizing another person is no more intrinsically wrong than paying a low price for a widely-available consumer good.

He responds:

Judgments about human dignity reflect a dimension in which human beings can gain or lose value relative to each other; but to focus on that dimension need not imply that it is the only one in which we can and should attribute worth to them. …there is no reason for revisionists to deny that holocaust victims were, from any number of perspectives, of immense value independent of what happened to them…We don’t need the concept of dignity to recognize any of this; it is quite obvious and needs no philosophical defense. Like us, they were simply human beings for whom we should care for all these reasons and many more; that is all there is to it.

Bird seems to want to bite the bullet while also indicating that his account might be circular. He understands that on his revisionist account, Holocaust victims would seem to lack all human dignity, but nevertheless holds it is obvious that nothing about their mistreatment took other relevant kinds of worth away from them. Any relevant sort of worth, however, would seem to undergird normative claims: those victims should have been treated in another way precisely because they had intrinsic dignity.      

He argues that this is not problematic, because human dignity concerns the way in which others actually value that manifest worth. Nothing about the revisionist account requires denying manifest worth, he claims. The revisionist point is that the circumstances in which people lack human dignity are those under which that manifest worth “made no difference” to the way people paid attention to or actually treated a certain subgroup. 

Once again, he is changing the subject. We might certainly care how circumstances actually and descriptively affect our valuation of others, but the relevant question for political purposes concerns the normative basis on which we can criticize, reform, or modify those circumstances. In Bird’s response, it is clearly that other relevant worth of human beings which undergirds normative facts about treating persons a certain way. And that looks to be indistinguishable from the traditional or invulnerable concept of human dignity which Bird critiques earlier in the book. 

In the end, then, Bird’s proposal on human dignity fails to do the work it is supposed to do. Bird’s proposal might even be parasitic in its normative foundations upon the same traditional accounts of human dignity that he criticizes so stringently. 

Traditional religious claims about being made in the ‘image of God’ need not be interpreted as referring to an occult or inward property. They make a simple claim that anyone who is a member of the human species—an eminently empirically-discoverable property—deserves to be treated in certain ways. Indeed, this seems to align nicely with points that Bird himself affirmed: that human beings, by reason of being the sort of thing that can have “lives to lead, talents to offer, passions to pursue,” etc., have manifest worth that needs no philosophical defense. 

In fact, the traditional Christian view that men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, has benefits not shared by Bird’s account. Whereas Bird claims that corpses, for instance, have dignity only because of the way we treat them, the traditional perspective gives us a much better reason why the bodies of those who died in Nazi death camps should be memorialized, reburied, and honored. Those victims were human beings, like us, and what was done to them should never be done to anyone. Their corpses are what remain of their lives, talents, and passions. The remains need no recognition in order to be worthy of veneration. It is we, the living, who would fail to live up to our dignity if we did not recognize that lost worth, and mourn the injustice that was done to them. We would, to that extent, cease to resemble God. 

Looking at Bird’s project charitably, we can perhaps admire his eagerness to rescue human dignity from the ashes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Judged on its own terms, his attempt is not really successful. There’s some good news, though. The tradition is not really lying in ash.