Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 44. Thinking about dignity

QA 44. Thinking about dignity

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On August 24, 2013
  • Chögyam Trungpa, dignity, Franz Kafka, honour, human rights, Khaya Dlanga, respect

dig ni ty [L. dignus ‘worthy’] n. the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect

“Dignity comes from using your inherent human resources, by doing things with your own bare hands – on the spot, properly and beautifully. You can do that even in the worst of the worst situations, you can still make your life elegant.” Chögyam Trungpa

“Sometimes I feel that the more we feel like moral failures the more material possessions we adorn ourselves with. Yes, me included.” Khaya Dlanga

“Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible element in oneself and not striving towards it.” Franz Kafka

Dignity is inherent in human being. Self-evident and immeasurable, it is an aspect of the wonder of life which calls for honour and respect. There is dignity in one’s bearing, how one carries oneself. To have dignity is to have face. It shows in your eyes.

And yet dignity is vulnerable to insult, violence and loss. How is this possible?

It’s because we can be mistaken about ourselves and each other. We get mixed up between two different orders of value. The true value of our life – its meaning, its moral significance – is reduced to calculations and accounting. Incomparable worth is reduced to exchange value with all the logical force of a mathematical equation. This impetus, detached and inhuman, drives the violence of our political order and justifies its hierarchies. “Some lives are cheap,” we say, as we try to account for the squander.

Another source of confusion is that our dignity is vested differently in the different roles we occupy. As inherent, self-evident and immeasurable, dignity is our birthright, and every other right devolves from it. But the dignity of a student (to learn) is not the same as the dignity of a teacher (to teach). The dignity of a president (to legislate) is not the dignity of a citizen (to abide by the law). There are natural inequalities of power in these roles, and they can be performed with more or less elegance, but one is not more deserving of honour and respect, nor is the other less so. The different dignities or virtues of our role-playing are like costumes. They do not contradict the original naked dignity of the face, which is older and takes precedence over any position we assume.

No one in any position should try to rob another of his or her dignity. No one need surrender it. And yet we make these mistakes. Believing that dignity might be conditional and comparative, those in high position become arrogant and cruel or pompous and ludicrous, lost in the trappings of dignity even as they lose its substance. Those who are wounded in their dignity respond with various strategies of shame, submission, compensation and retribution.

Kafka’s words show the way to escape this confusion and return to true life: dignity is an indestructible element in oneself. We believe it, without striving, when we find and respond to the dignity in each other’s face. Happiness is possible. Resistance is possible. (Theoretically.)



David Glidden
I find this distinction you raise very helpful. There is all the difference between the dignity of life and the dignities afforded some or taken from others based on conventions and arbitrary prejudices. Yet, to act with dignity can be confused that same way, between acting worthily as a living being and acting with the presumption of some special status. Thanks!
    Confucianism was in the back of my mind as I was thinking about this. It seems to take the dignity of position as an ethical as well as political matter. As in the I Ching hexagrams where situations unfold more smoothly when the different roles are in the appropriate relation to each other. I think that's interesting. (it's certainly open to abuse and confusion, which isn't so interesting :-))

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