An advantage of living through a major political disruption is that, if you are strong enough, you may gain an opportunity to affirm a political order that lines up with your most basic values. It is thus highly appropriate for us, at this moment, to examine what those values are. In a brief discussion on Twitter last night, an excellent question came up that deserves a full response.
First, the discussion:
And now, the question:
The first issue is that both “honor” and “dignity” can mean different things. “Honor,” when Achilles uses it, means the respect that others show him for his actions. “Honor” when Aristotle uses it is a lodestone internal to the right kind of person: the virtuous can see what is most worthy of honor, and by doing that, reliably does the best possible thing. Whether or not others are wise enough to ‘pay honors’ to this ‘honorable action’ by the ‘man of honor’ is of no importance to the virtuous actor. He (for Aristotle, probably a ‘he’) does the thing people would honor if they were wise enough to understand what is best and most worthy. His sense of honor drives and directs his actions.
“Dignity,” similarly, can mean several things. It can be a special kind of respect reserved for special people, such as when we speak of someone having ‘the dignity of office’ when they are a judge or a Senator. These offices are sometimes called “honors” by Plato and Aristotle, so the ambiguity can be confusing. (I have previously written about this sort of honor/dignity here.)
That is not the kind of dignity we are discussing today. We are talking about basic human dignity, that is, the quality that separates human beings from things like sticks and stones. One important feature about this sort of dignity is that it cannot be lost. To see why, you should inquire into what exactly it is that makes you entitled to dignity in the first place. We had this discussion in an earlier Security Studies Group series on Free Speech.
Why are human beings due a basic dignity at all? We have two different answers from the Enlightenment. The first, in our Declaration of Independence, is that humans were endowed with dignity by their Creator, who bestowed on all of them an equality of rights. This religious answer is satisfying to many Americans, and for them that answer suffices.
Under the First Amendment, however, one is not required to be religious or, therefore, to accept religious answers. The second answer, from philosopher Immanuel Kant, is that human beings have dignity because they are free. Kant did not mean politically free. He meant that, unlike a stick or a stone, you can reason for yourself and decide how you will behave. Your ability to think for yourself and come to your own decisions thus sets you above sticks, or stones, or most other objects in the universe. It is why you have dignity.
What does it mean to have dignity? It means that you are due a certain respect that is not due to sticks or stones. For example, a person is due the respect of not being harmed without good reason. Not everything has that dignity. Anyone can pick a stick up off the ground and break it without it being thought to violate the stick’s dignity. No one may similarly grab another person and break their arm without having committed an affront.
If your dignity arises from your capability of thinking for yourself, respecting your dignity requires respecting your thoughts. “Respecting your thoughts” does not mean “agreeing with your thoughts,” for requiring agreement would itself be disrespectful of everyone else’s ability to have their own thoughts. It does, however, mean respecting your right to think things through for yourself. Your free thoughts cannot be prohibited without violating your dignity as a human being – indeed, if Kant is right, such a prohibition is a violation of the most basic source of your dignity as a human being.
Americans are free to choose whether they are satisfied with the religious understanding adopted in our most basic founding document, or if they want to prefer the non-religious philosophical understanding. Under either, however, dignity is a kind of equality that cannot be lost. If God is the creator of the world and its natural laws, then the endowment by God of equality is a decision no one has standing to challenge. If, on the other hand, you prefer to omit the divine, you are left with the fact that you encounter other beings in the world who can think and choose for themselves just as you can. In this way you are both the same, i.e., equals. You owe them a respect you do not owe to unthinking things like sticks and stones.
So, to answer the question, it turns out that dignity and honor can come apart. They can do so in different ways.
Insofar as “honor” is Achilles’ honor — the respect others pay you — dignity can come apart from honor if people treat you with less respect than you deserve. That America did this to many people during the course of its founding is, in fact, the fundamental complaint being raised against America today. We have sufficient grounds here in this piece of analysis to see that this was wrong, and indeed to say exactly why.
Socrates was not shown honor in Achilles’ sense, but he decided he did not need it. He died with dignity, but not with the respect of his society: they put him to death as a criminal. Honor for Socrates, of course, came from his friends who sat by his bedside as he died, and also from us, who have for millennia honored what he did and how he lived.
Aristotle’s honor, meanwhile, is quite apart from dignity. Everyone has dignity, but not everyone has the kind of virtue that you need to pursue what he calls magnanimity. Only the most virtuous can do it, because only someone who has the virtues — courage, wisdom, self-mastery, and so forth — can truly achieve what is most worthy. Indeed, Aristotle argues that they may be the only ones who can even see what is most worthy clearly.
What does all that mean?
A decent society needs to respect the basic human dignity to which all people are entitled. Though America failed to do that practically in its Founding, American principles pointed to it clearly from the Declaration of Independence. American society is thus not fundamentally flawed in its principles. The American project is fundamentally aligned with human dignity. We have to be careful that our principles are carried out practically, but we should not abandon our founding principles.
However, dignity is also not enough for a strong society. Dignity is only the baseline. There needs to be room for people to strive to do what is best — to strive for honor. There needs to be room for them to do it even when others disagree about what is best, because it may be the person striving against the mob is the one person who can really see it right.
The best sort of person will do what he or she thinks is most worthy, and will do it regardless of whether the baying mob approves or does not approve. The mob, meanwhile, is unlikely to know what is best; for one thing, mobs by nature lack at least some of the virtues. It is not courageous to join a mob, nor are people who join mobs noted for self-mastery. The wisdom of the mob is debatable every way except practically. There is no chance that a mob is right about what is most worthy because they lack the necessary conditions for seeing what is right in the first place.
A good society therefore controls mobs, and makes wide latitude for people to make decisions for themselves. The ones who really can see the right then can do the things that are most worthy. Others may find that they develop virtues they did not have before just by being free to rub up against the consequences of their actions. They may gain the capacity to see the most worthy things and do them by being free and responsible for their decisions.
Because more of these most-worthy things get done in such a society, the society rises and grows great. Recognizing this truth, the wise society does not permit mobs, but rather ensures individual liberty.
The Founders had a lot to say about the dangers of the mob as well. For those who want to follow the argument much further, James Madison’s Federalist Number 10 is a good place to start. If you are drawn to a deeper study of honor, begin here.