In the contemporary philosophical debate on human dignity exists a view that understands it as self-respect. This concept can roughly be said to have its origins in Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society and centers on a discussion of humiliation. The definition of dignity as something that can be lost and has to be protected is closely linked to the discussion of human rights. The link between dignity, human rights and humiliation is also discussed in other disciplines. The theoretical definition is usually approached ex negativo, i.e. as an attempt to show how humiliation is the negation of self-respect. I think a shift in perspective needs to be integrated in this view, as the negation of self-respect can only be self-humiliation.
Philosophers tend to establish an objective perspective that is not linked to the individual feelings of a person who is humiliated. Self-esteem or self-worth seem to get in the way of a neutral understanding of what humiliation is supposed to mean. It is often sketched as an assault on an attitude all human beings share – like a wish to be respected as individuals or a belief that we should have normative authority over ourselves. Yet, this does not seem to be what self-respect usually denotes; and in whatever way humiliating experiences actually affect the self-respect of the afflicted person – her persuasion that she is worth just as much as all her fellow human beings cannot simply be destroyed from the outside. I do not want to imply that anyone could develop a feeling of self-worth without a (to a certain extent) positive social environment. However, a negative influence like humiliation is not enough to explain how self-respect is corrupted.
I believe that an inside perspective, heeding the psychological dimension of what happens when someone feels humiliated and loses self-respect, needs to be developed. Moreover, the crucial experience that endangers dignity is not humiliation as such, but self-degradation. Someone can only lose self-respect by denying this respect to herself. And this can ultimately only be done by herself. Once this inner process is focused we can ask for the prototypical situations that negate human dignity as self-respect. My suggestion is that these are moments of extreme shame in the way they are defined by Brené Brown (cf. Brown, 2012 71-74). Of course, shame is a cultural phenomenon and differs in diverse sociohistorical contexts. We really need to focus on the involved fear of social exclusion and the processes that undermine self-worth. Yet, in western cultures the analysis of shame seems to be an extremely fruitful area to understand how dignity is impaired by certain social practices. It also allows us to think about the vital perspectives we should take on life to enable us to live in dignity.
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly – How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live,Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham, 2012.
Margalit, Avishai. The Decent Society (transl. Naomi Goldblum). Cambridge/Mass. Harvard UP, 1996.