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Conceptual evolution of dignity across cultures

DING SANDONG | 2022-03-03 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Dignity was formerly regarded as a rare privilege in many cultures, but now it has been universally recognized as a right for all human beings. Photo: Sun Zhongwei/PROVIDED TO CSST


Dignity is one of the core concepts in contemporary thought and life. It appears extensively in people’s daily speech and behaviors, and in such domains as ethics, law, and politics. According to Article 38 of the Chinese Constitution, “The personal dignity of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable.” The very first article of Germany’s Basic Law is dedicated to dignity, stating “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” Dignity is also fundamental among the concepts in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) ratified by the United Nations. 

 
Cross-cultural origins
Dignity has an ancient pedigree in both Chinese and Western thought and practice. It is by no means a new concept in modern Europe. 
 
The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2014) not only examines the evolution of the notion in European intellectual history, from ancient Greece to the 19th century, but also sheds light on the conception and expression of dignity in cultural traditions aside from Europe, such as in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese Confucianism and Taoism. 
 
Dignity: A History (2017), a book in the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series, also traces the origins of dignity through the history of thought across cultures. As such, when Chinese scholar Zhang Pengchun (Peng-chun Chang) participated in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he proposed that the Declaration should not overemphasize the European roots of dignity, since the notion of benevolence (ren) in Chinese Confucianism also conveys the meaning of dignity. 
 
The intension of dignity evolves with time, like many other philosophical concepts. Whether in ancient China, ancient Greece, or ancient Rome, dignity was considered a privilege which only belonged to a few people. In modern times, however, it has become a right shared by all human beings. More importantly, the bases for dignity are different according to ancient and modern thinking and practice.
 
The Chinese equivalent of dignity is “zun-yan.” Zun (尊) is a word originally used to describe wine vessels for sacrificial purposes or for treating honored guests; later it came to mean “honor” (zungui). Yan first held the meaning of a reprimand or to punish with severe measures, which was later extended to mean “prestige” (weiyan) and “solemnness” (zhuangyan). The two words combined, zunyan, therefore connote “the state of being worthy of honor and prestige.”
 
In fact, zunyan appeared in pre-Qin (prior to 221 BCE) documents. The Confucian classic Liji, or the Book of Rites, mentioned “the commanding solemnness (zunyan qi) of heaven and earth.” Xunzi discussed four essential qualities for a teacher, including “awe-inspiring prestige” (zunyan er dan). 
 
Zunyan also appeared in Han-Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) works such as The Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Fanlu) and Dai the Greater’s Book of Rites (Dadai Liji), but in these contexts it was used to describe the emperor or nobility. 
 
Generally, in ancient Chinese texts, zunyan was reserved for people of high status and influence, or those of great virtue. Commoners, individuals of ill repute, or villains were not dignified at all. 
 
In ancient Greece and ancient Rome, dignity was conceptualized in a similar way to that in ancient China. The Latin root of the English word “dignity” largely aligns with someone’s “merit” and “excellent qualities,” so only the privileged, such as highbred, powerful, or virtuous people, enjoyed dignity. 
 
From hierarchy to equality
In both Chinese and Western traditional thought, the notion of dignity presupposes a hierarchy. It is concerned with levels of power or morality. In a religious context, it might be a ranking order for all beings, which was created and prescribed by God. A man’s position in this hierarchy determines whether he has dignity. He must possess adequate power levels or noble characteristics to deserve the quality. 
 
Because of this presupposition, dignity becomes a relative concept involving comparison. In a hierarchical dignity structure, A has a higher status than B, and B’s status is higher than C; they all pass a certain line in terms of status. However, D doesn’t pass this baseline. In this case, D has no dignity, B has more dignity than C, but is not as dignified as A. Interestingly, if D doesn’t know the baseline required for dignity, he will take for granted that what dignity demands is simply a comparably higher relative position, then he can derive an illusionary sense of dignity from those with a lower status than him. 
 
In the modern age, by contrast, dignity has been recognized as a right for all, be it ordinary people, the poor, or even immoral and heinous criminals. That a man has dignity means he is worthy of respect in one way or another, and cannot be hurt or humiliated without an ethical baseline and restrictions. There is no bar to having dignity. It applies to everyone unconditionally, and its substantive connotation is narrowed to a great extent, as it no longer requires a man to excel in any particular aspect. 
 
As mentioned above, dignity in the traditional sense is a relative concept involving comparison, which actually implies inequality between humans. On the contrary, modern dignity suggests that all men are equally dignified. It is inappropriate to say that one man has more dignity than another. This equality partly originated from Christian thought. As it’s said in Jane Eyre, a novel underpinned by Christian themes, “Just as if both (men and women) had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal—as we are!” 
 
The equality no longer relies on this religious background. It is simply because all men are human, and a man has dignity as a result of his humanity, that each man is dignified whether he is outstanding or not. 
 
From the perspective of the history of thought, the idea that all men share dignity equally was not put forward until the late 18th century. One of the most famous advocates is German luminary Immanuel Kant. In his seminal moral work, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes, “if something makes it possible—and is the only thing that makes it possible—for something to be an end in itself, then it doesn’t have mere relative value (a price) but has intrinsic value (i.e. dignity).” 
 
Here Kant contrasted dignity with price: Dignity is an intrinsic value based on the dignified themselves, not on others. Also dignity is an absolute value. It cannot be priced, so there is no so-called fungible equivalent for dignity. 
 
From Kant’s viewpoint, all men inherently enjoy equal dignity in that they are all rational beings who make their own decisions and make rules for themselves. “Autonomy is thus the basis for the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature,” Kant said. 
 
Certainly in real life, not all men can be autonomous or self-disciplined, such as one who cannot regulate himself due to physical limits or weak will, one who is in a persistent vegetative state and lost his ability to reason, or one who is merely an infant and has no reason yet. Nevertheless, all these conditions cannot deprive one of dignity, because they are human by nature, with the potential for reason. 
 
Status of rational beings
One of the very significant philosophical contributions made by Kant, is that he laid a heavy emphasis on the concept of “person.” The concept had been raised in ancient Rome, but Kant first associated this with reason. “Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature, if they are not rational beings, have only relative value as means, and are therefore called ‘things;’ whereas rational beings are called ‘persons,’ because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves (i.e. as not to be used merely as means),” he said. 
 
As rational beings, humans are persons, distinct from things. We can dispose of things as means at will. Once things are depleted, we can completely leave them behind. However, we cannot treat humans in this way. Every human, as a person, is not a means for other purposes. He is a purpose himself. With dignity, every human is valuable not because he is useful or can create value. He has “an unconditional and incomparable value” in himself. 
 
Kant noted that a man is a person and has dignity because he is a rational being. Both personhood and dignity are bonded to autonomous reason. Personhood, in particular, is concerned only with reason. As such, even a being that is not human, such as extraterrestrials, as Kant imagined, and robots, which were beyond his imagination, is a person—as long as it’s rational. 
 
By clarifying and extending the connotation of person in the Kantian philosophy, we can further advance and supplement Kant’s conception of dignity. Kant tied dignity to our status as rational beings, but every rational being naturally takes a place in the social space of reason, or the “realm of ends” in Kant’s terms. Therefore, every man was born with equal dignity. 
 
Here we can downplay the status of rational beings—the basis for dignity in the Kantian theory—while underlining the indefeasible and irreplaceable personhood in the social space of reason, as the basis for dignity. As a product of reason, social spaces can surely regulate realities, and every man (as a rational being) inherently has dignity as a person in social space. However, the real social space, according to Kant, is empirical. Everyone has to strive, even struggle for personhood in that space. The reasonable demand for dignity should be coupled with practical endeavors, and humanity’s push for dignity expands the reasonability of the real social space. 
 
Ding Sandong is a professor of philosophy from the Yuelu Academy at Hunan University.  
 
 
 
 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG