Thursday, August 15, 2013

What is dignity? Some very rough and ready thoughts

It is something that only living things (or recently deceased) can possess, but which is not possessed by all living things. We would say pill bugs do not possess dignity, while humans or other higher animals do.

There seems to be a rough correlation between cognitive/mental/emotional, and perhaps social sophistication and possession of dignity. I say ‘rough’ because most people normally would say infants have dignity, as do the demented. It would appear, from normal practices, to be the case that being a member of a species individuals of which normally have the requisite level of sophistication is sufficient to impart dignity.

Dignity is something that requires that its possessors be treated respectfully.

It is something that to some degree, humans can enhance or degrade in their own person, by their actions or habits. It does not appear to be the case that any other species is liable to this.

It is an open question whether such degradation can reach a level where there is an utter lack of dignity, but intuitions are that this is not the case.

In general, we think human beings are deserving of a higher number of respectful sorts of behavior than lower animals. This would seem to indicate they have more dignity.

Humans have more dignity, because they have more dignity-imparting properties.

Among dignity-imparting properties are:
1. Capacity to suffer
2. Capacity for empathy
3. Capacity to reason
4. Capacity for self-consciousness
5. Capacity to care or tend for self and others
6. Capacity for sociability

For any dignified being, we can provide specific forms of respect that each property calls for:

1’. Refraining from harming that being
2’. Refraining from harming beings related to this being by empathy
3’. Respect that being’s rational autonomy
4’. Respect that being’s power over self, call this ‘personal autonomy’.
5’. Respect the beings for which the dignified being cares. Respect his loved ones or friends.
6. Respect the being’s social group(s) / culture(s)

When a dignified being violates the dignity of other dignified beings, respect dictates that any responses against any of these 6 aspects of his person cannot show flagrant disregard. This is true even if he has shown flagrant disregard in his acts.

Dignity is somehow connected to possession of rights.

Rights are claims upon moral agents; obligations moral agents have toward other moral agents. Rights come in two varieties; positive and negative; the former, rights of recipience, the latter, rights of non-interference.

It is generally agreed that one can forfeit rights. This typically happens when one proves a danger to the rights of others, a potential or actual harm to others.

This, again, is due to actions.

So, while dignity can be reduced but not extirpated, rights can be forfeited. To forfeit something is to lose all claims to it. One can lose all claims to one’s life, liberty or property by undertaking certain actions against others. One cannot totally lose dignity by actions. IOW: One cannot totally lose that property whereby there is a requirement on the part of others to treat him with respect, even if they can deprive him of life, liberty or property.

Ultimately, one has rights for the same reasons one has dignity; possession of one or more of the 6 characteristics noted above. (Or, being a member of a species that typically does possess these things).

So, the six capacities are antecedent properties, grounding and accounting for the possession of dignity and rights; consequent properties.

Now, in any case where a set of antecedent properties makes it the case that an entity has some other consequent properties, one of the following is true:

A. The antecedent and consequent properties are in fact identical

B. Antecedent and consequent properties are not identical but the two or more consequent properties are identical

C. The two or more C properties are not identical and: There is no order of priority or dependence in the consequent properties, such that none depend on other members of that group of consequent properties as being the more basic and explanatory of the existence of the others,


D. They are not identical and: There are such orders of priority; there are such dependency relations.

If there is such a hierarchy in the consequent properties, it will not be possible to explain the dependent properties’ existence save through reference to the more basic properties.

Example A: Color and weight are both consequent properties of collections of atoms. One can explain color without having to make reference to weight. So, this pair of consequent properties is of the first sort. One does not depend on the other, while both depend on the existence of collections of atoms.

Example B: Electro-motive force and electron flow. One cannot explain how an electric motor moves without making reference to electron flow. So, there is an order of priority, a dependency relation. While both depend on there being hunks of stuff, those hunks of stuff better include electron flow if they are also going to be electric motors.

Now; how are rights and dignity related? Is either or both in fact identical to the 6 antecedent properties? Are they both consequent properties? Is there a dependency relation?

If possession of rights and possession of dignity are identical to each other, then in all cases, our actions effect on what they require should be identical. But, as we have noted, that is not the case. Therefore, possession of rights and possession of dignity are not the same things.

Similarly, using transitivity of identity, if the antecedent properties (A) are in fact identical to both the consequent properties (B) (C), then there should be no divergence in what is required by A B and C. But there is such divergence. At one and the same time, it is possible for a being to have forfeited a right, but not dignity, while it also retains possession of the requisite antecedent conditions. But for a being to have this sort of contradictory state of affairs going on at one and the same time with regard to the same ‘object’ and in the same respect (to use Aristotelian language) is not logically possible. Therefore, the identity relation does not hold between antecedent properties and consequent properties, and in fact the contrary requirements are based in two different consequent properties.

So, now we have to determine the relationship that exists between these two consequent properties. Are they independent of each other, like color and weight, or dependent like electro-motive force is upon electron flow?

A case for dependency of rights upon dignity might go like this:

When we talk about the basis of rights, we make reference to the 6 properties, but we also make reference to dignity. When we talk about the basis of dignity, we talk about the 6 properties, but do not always, and in every case have to make reference to rights. We usually say humans have rights because we have dignity. Respecting rights are ways to show humans the respect their dignity demands.

It is not universally agreed that certain higher animals have rights, but there is more unanimity in the claim that they are deserving of humane treatment, or even protection. This would seem to indicate that they have dignity.

Even in the case of lower animals, we frown upon infliction of pain for insufficient reason. This again shows that they possess some level of dignity, even if they have no rights.

So, it would seem to always be the case that beings have rights because they have dignity, while the reverse is not always the case; beings do not necessarily have dignity because they possess rights.
In the human case, the dependency relation runs from the basic 6 properties through dignity and finally to rights.

This can explain how a criminal can lose rights but maintain dignity. I may kill Fred, take Barney’s property, swindle Wilma and otherwise trouble Betty, Bam-Bam, Pebbles, Mr. Slate and the polis of Bedrock. I will have thereby forfeited my right to life, liberty and property, but, because I am still a human being, a member of a species members of which typically possess the 6 capacities, I still have dignity, and the denizens of Bedrock cannot treat me in any old way they please as they deprive me of these.

If possession of rights was simply identical to possession of dignity, then it would be the case that anyone that has forfeited all his rights would also forfeit all of his dignity. We seem to have a notion that the latter is not possible, while the former is.

This would seem to indicate a dependency relation, dignity being the more basic of the two consequent properties, both of which themselves, rely on the antecedent 6 capacities.

Thought experiments and questions:

1. Suppose an AI android of a sort that has self-consciousness, cognition of moral codes, cognition that humans can suffer and do not want to, but is unable to experience emotions and, in particular, empathy or sympathy. Would this being be a moral agent, and would it have any sort of dignity?

2. Suppose a person with brain damage, such that he fits the above description. Would he be a moral agent or have dignity?

3. Suppose a person that has systematically, and over time, taken steps to kill his capacity for empathizing or sympathizing; someone like Hitler, Manson or Dahmer. Suppose, as well, that this person has committed heinous acts on a regular basis to further his self-destructive project (as Hitler did on a massive scale, Manson, Dahmer on a smaller scale). Has this person extirpated all of his personal dignity?

4. When we punish such people in ways that minimize their suffering, do we do this for the sake of their dignity, human dignity, for ourselves?

5. We sometimes describe animals as being dignified. Is this just a fa├žon de parler?

6. Of the six dignity-imparting properties, which are more important? Are there too many on this list?

7. Can beings that lack self-consciousness be moral agents? Can they have dignity?

8. How important is it to possession of dignity that beings are capable of caring for and tending to the well-being of others?

9. Do infants have dignity?

10. Do humans lose dignity when they die?

11. Are ants dignified? How about elephants? Why or why not?