Dignity

Dignity seems like an under-developed concept in political discussions relative to its importance in basic human interactions.

Dignity is close to honor.

There are many polls and quizes that attempt to determine your political values or orientations along axes like Tradition vs Choice or Authority vs Freedom.  Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes highlights five realms:

• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Authority/respect gets closest to what I mean by dignity, but in the US, we tend only to think in terms of respecting those higher than us in the social order.

I am thinking of a more comprehensive respect; an essential dignity that all people possess or should be encouraged to possess.

When you talk to the poor, the aged, the infirm, what do they want? An end to suffering, of course–but also dignity.

Our desire for dignity explains a variety of otherwise inexplicable political phenomena. Why do whites focus more on the actions of a New Zealander who kills Muslims than a Nigerian who kills Muslims, for example? Because whites feel that the misbehavior of the New Zealander reflects badly on them; their collective dignity has been lowered. The actions of a Muslim or a Nigerian don’t reflect on non-Muslims or non-Nigerians; whites feel no collective shame or guilt over these incidents.

(Note: “white” and “Muslim” are not exclusive categories and plenty of Muslims have pale skin, but I lack better terminology.)

Similarly, much of the liberal opposition to Trump probably stems from a perception that he is undignified.

People don’t need to be at the top of the hierarchy to be treated with dignity; good social norms, I suspect, can help people respond to and treat people lower than themselves with respect, as well.

Our society seems to be engaged in an absurd dance where people fight for honor and respect by demanding it from people significantly lower than themselves on the social totem pole. For example, a female professor complains about a university janitor who assumed she was merely the wife of a male professor; a black woman complains that the minimum wage shop employees didn’t let her into the shop after closing time; another professor harasses road crew laborers over a “men at work” sign. These absurd cases all involve women trying to assert power over people who have far less power than themselves in the first place, like a prince having a peasant executed for getting mud on his boots.

Of course, our system doesn’t simply content itself with declaring divine right; it insults us by also claiming that these peasants are the ones with the real power.

Since these folks are not actually princes, though, they probably aren’t just on run-away power trips; I suspect instead that they feel a mis-match between the level of respect they want from society vs the level they get. Since they can’t get any more respect from normal avenues/their peers, they’ve turned instead to targeting the weak, like a D&D player pouring boiling water on an anthill to grind XP. 

Such behavior should be called out for the undignified farce that it is.

That said, much of modern life feels designed to humiliate and degrade; the Cabrini Green housing projects were so ugly they seem intentionally soul-crushing.

RationalRevolution has an interesting article on capital redistribution with a few points of relevance to our current discussion:

us_income_1800_2010
From Rational Revolution

Capital ownership has become increasingly concentrated throughout American history. When the country was founded roughly 90% of citizen families owned meaningful capital from which they derived income, primarily land. Today less than 10% of American families own meaningful capital from which they derive income prior to retirement. …

The other important fact that is often overlooked is the fact that over that past 100 years the portion of the population directly owning their own capital has declined at a pace that exceeds the rate of financial asset acquisition. In other words, 100 years ago a far greater portion of people owned their own business and worked for themselves or within a family owned business. The largest portion of these people were farmers who owned their own land and equipment. As small businesses were overtaken by larger corporations, more people became wage-laborers. Some of these people acquired stock or other financial assets, but the acquisition of financial assets has not offset the decline of directly owned capital assets by individuals over time. Even today, the majority of self-employed people have no meaningful capital assets. The majority of the self-employed today are primarily selling their labor, as consultants, contractors or service workers.

In other words, back in the 1800s, the vast majority of Americans were self-employed; most owned their own small farms. To be self-employed is to be your own master. Since then, the number of self-employed has declined steadily, while the number employed has generally increased. (Admittedly, the increase in people receiving wages around 1865 has nothing to do with a decline in small business ownership.) Who knows what the Uber-Revolution holds, but for now, we have transitioned from a nation of self-employed farmers to a nation of employees, and I think it’s getting to people.

Man or beast, even in poverty we can feel dignified if we have the respect of our neighbors, and even in wealth we can be degraded, degenerate.

There are a lot of political issues that hinge, to me, on dignity. Restrictions on speech are restrictions on dignity, for a free man can speak his mind and a slave cannot. A revolution in social norms, either because of technology or regime change, leaves people unsure of what commands respect from their neighbors. And in a sort of moral, spiritual sense, when we expect people to violate their own natures, we violate some essence of human dignity. Humans are not infinitely malleable; each of us has our own particular nature. A fish cannot be expected to swim, nor a chicken to fly; we recognize something cruel in expecting a rooster not to crow or a dog not to bark.

I admit this isn’t exactly fully fleshed-out philosophy.

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