:: Article

Searching high, searching low

By Richard Marshall.


Dignity, Michael Rosen, Harvard University Press 2012
Dignity can mean top rank and high status. It’s a snob term. It can mean a way of behaving, often in a manly, stuffed-shirt manner that asks for respect but sometimes deserves mockery.  It can be used to designate our place in the universe. Roman Catholics put us above animals but below angels. It can mean what is of ultimate value in humanity. People are stewards of their ultimate meaning to secular Kantians as well as Catholic theologians.
Germany takes dignity so seriously it is written into their constitution. The United Nations too. But Steven Pinker and Ruth Macklin think that dignity is stupid. Pinker complains that it is morally inert and ‘squishy.’ It adds nothing to the concept of autonomy and is used by reactionary forces to stop scientific research. Catholics used to use dignity to defend unequal rights. Since 1988 they use it to defend equal rights. The Catholic unenlightened argument against abortion is a result of this more enlightened theology. Germany banned dwarf-throwing as a violation of dignity against the wishes of a dwarf. Preservation of dignity has overridden more important values at times in German law. The secular version of dignity defended by Korsgaard out of Kant gives traction to arguments about euthanasia and elected suicides that the religious version opposes. Rosen gives the history of all this in swift, sharp prose. He suggests that the idea of dignity is complex not stupid.
Rosen ranks dignity as having a middling moral priority. Murder is worse than indignity, but indignity is nevertheless immoral in certain circumstances. Abu Ghraib is non-trivially morally repulsive and not just distasteful. Rosen is careful in arguing for a position that allows for such a distinction. Dignity survives his analysis and historical narration but not fully intact. Secular and theological underpinnings are erased.
The book has a shocking ending. Rosen adopts a radical stance because considerations of dignity and the subtle errors of the religious and secular defenders of dignity suggests that no less extreme view is available. Rosen takes a refreshingly modest stance towards his extreme conclusion. His downbeat style belies his controversial finale.
What is his shocking conclusion?  He takes up the challenge of a moral landscape labeled by Joseph Raz as humanistic. In The Morality of Freedom Raz writes: ‘To simplify discussion I will endorse right away the humanistic principle which claims that the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derives ultimately from it contribution, actual or possible, to human life and dignity.’ The Razian humanistic principle is the view that whatever is morally good is good because people benefit.
Utilitarianism is an obvious example of this. But Kant also fits, as what practical reason does is ensure that we benefit from the rational choice we make. People are ends in themselves, not means, and so this secular holiness within is what we pay our respects to when making moral decisions. Catholicism also appeals to this sense of the holiness of humanity, albeit from a non-secular justificatory metaphysics. A Platonic idea of timeless personified ideal value justifies the religious perspective.
Rosen finds the notion of the inviolable holiness of humanity dubious if it requires the truth-makers on offer in Kantian and theological accounts. Religious and Kantian metaphysics he finds uncompelling in themselves, but if shorn of such underpinnings, what can recommend the fact of anything like a holiness in humanity? Usually the absence of anything that makes a claim true cancels the right of anyone to make such a claim.
Rosen’s shocking conclusion is that he ploughs on beyond this generally accepted prohibition. He finds value in taking humanity as an ultimate value even in the absence of its truthmaker. The strangeness of this claim matches the strangeness of common practice. Rosen considers the common practice of honouring the dignity of the dead. If Raz is right, then we must answer the question: who benefits from such practice? Certainly not the dead, for how could a dead person care about anything? If there is no answer then from the Razian perspective the rituals are empty.
We can brood further. Lars von Trier’s trippy Melancholia presents characters just before the whole of human existence ends. Imagining that we are absolutely alone in the universe and the giant planet Melancholia is about to destroy earth, the film imagines the absolute end of everything. So how should we react in such a situation? Does everything become meaningless? We follow the two sisters – Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire who thrives in the world, and Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, who is a melancholic who has throughout her life assumed life to be but a sequence of empty rituals. Yet Justine finds significance in her life and those with her as the world ends. The beauty of the film is ‘on the edge of plastic’ according to the director. Justin finds genuine value in her life and activities as everything ends forever and no sense can be made of this from Raz’s humanistic principle recommending only things that benefit humans.
Von Trier says, ‘If there’s some value beyond rituals, that’s fine. The ritual is like a film. There has to be something in the film. And the film’s plot is the ritual that leads us to what’s inside. And if there’s something inside and beyond, I can relate to the ritual. But if the rituals are empty, that is: if its no longer fun to get Christmas presents or see the joy of the kids, then the whole ritual about dragging a tree inside the living room becomes empty… Is the emperor wearing any clothes at all? Is there a content? And there isn’t. That’s what Justine sees every time she looks at that fucking wedding… She has submitted to a ritual without meaning.’ Where is dignity? is what Justine is asking. She is longing for true value. In this film we imagine a situation where all human benefit ends forever.  
If we answer by drawing on a Razian humanistic principle we become absurd. Rosen narrows his eyes and bites the bullet. He expels the Razian humanistic principle as the ground of dignity and value. Justine restores her sister and child to a state of ultimate value as everything ends. Expressing the human as an ultimate value can benefit no one in this vivid context. But Rosen argues that Justine is not absurd. Rather, attempts to find values elsewhere is the absurd response. Justine finds meaning in herself even as everything ends because if she hadn’t then she would contradict the sort of creature we are. Like Cassirer of old, who attempts to resurrect value after mythic language is no longer available, Rosen refuses to buckle to skepticism about value even in the face of the absolute end.
He writes, ‘Our duty to respect the dignity of humanity is – on this I agree with Kant – fundamentally a duty toward ourselves. By which I mean, not that we are benefited when we observe our duties, but that our duties are so deep a part of us that we could not be the people that we are without having them. In failing to respect the humanity of others we actually undermine humanity in ourselves.’ At first this might seem like a faith agenda, one that is ultimately irrational. But Rosen’s is a complex assertion.
Rosen denies that respecting dignity is a fundamental right: ‘The worst of what the Nazi state did to the Jews was not the humiliation of herding them into cattle trucks and forcing them to live in conditions of unimaginable squalor; it was to murder them.’ So it is not the highest ranking moral value. But he denies that it is always morally trivial.
But how does Rosen’s dignity survive the scrutiny of skeptics who wonder what can justify making humanity ultimate? Once the metaphysics of a religious theology or of a Kantian noumenal universe are removed what’s left over? Nice nihilists like Alex Rosenberg and others argue that speaking about there being any sort of ‘inviolate holiness’ to humanity is merely backwash talk from discarded metaphysical commitments. Schwitzgebel might growl about being in the grip of systematic ignorance about our own thoughts and advise splintered skepticism all over. We shouldn’t trust compelling intuitions. Bracing in his naturalistic zeal, Rosenberg says that the nihilism of modernity might be supposed to be a threat to our moral well-being were it not for the naturalistic fact that we are selected to be social, cooperative and so forth. We don’t have any nihilistic dilemma of choice because we have the basic hard wiring that enables good social living. Churchland’s social brain thesis supports this.
Rosenberg is bracing but Rosen is refined. He takes science seriously. He dismisses arguments from theology and Kantian metaphysics because they lead to unlikely conclusions. Yet the Abu Graib images strike him as being more than revolting. The humiliation they depict seems immoral. The violation of dignity in the images needs explaining, not explaining away. Von Trier’s scientist commits suicide when he realises everything is ending. But Rosen articulates Justine’s case. To treat ourselves as ends is who we are. How?
Perhaps I take him to be working in the same strangely fecund space of paradox and illusion as the killer philosopher of language Roy Sorensen is. Sorensen argues that many of the commitments of competent language use, competent perception, competent cognitive computation produce bi-products. He takes the naturalistic claims of evolutionary theory seriously. A colour spectrum gives the impression of borderless transition from red to orange. Modularity of mind explains that one computation attends to the whole spectrum and identifies change, another makes micro-comparisons between adjacent colour patches and identifies continuity. Insularity of modules means that the brain both identifies change and continuity simultaneously. The perceptual contradiction results in a visual illusion that survives knowing its cause. The response is hardwired.
Hardwired anomalous effects extend beyond perception. Vagueness is explained by Sorensen in terms of commitments to bivalence that clash with other a priori commitments in language. Any attempt to identify the last second of youth is doomed because any adjacent second strikes the competent language user as equally justified. The identity strikes us as tautologous. Sorensen puts this down to a priori habits of rounding off. The selected-for tolerance of inexactitude brings benefits of computational speed and expressive power at the cost of commitment to an infinite number of a priori analytical falsehoods. The vague borderline case of youth is unknowable because there is no fact we can imagine that would make any identified second the true one. There is no violation of classical logic but there is an absence of a truthmaker. Sorensen thinks the shock of this news should be dialed down once we consider evolution and our diddy place in the vastness of nature. Sorensen thinks fallibility is what we ought to expect. Knowledge is spotty and distributes unevenly and belies the heroic bathos of tidiness and universal accessibility assumed by non-fallibilists. Knowledge is our knowledge and like our evolved selves is a pretty jimcrack affair of ad hoc improvisations cobbled together over vast time.
I wonder about Rosen’s commitments and detect an underlying but suppressed Sorensen’s strategy. Rosen makes dignity a bi-product of moral thinking. It is metaphysically inert but normatively persuasive. More, it is normatively compelling in the same way that norms of language use are. He can therefore bypass theological and Kantian systems. Justification is supposedly required because there would be no constraints without such reasons. But the facts supporting those reasons are too dubious. Rosen is undeterred. A bi-product of having social brains as we do is a commitment to morality and a bi-product of that is the idea of dignity, the inherent holy value of humanity. So respect for the dignity of humanity is unavoidable because it is a side effect of morality, which itself is a bi-product of being a creature evolved for social life. Dignity is an a priori commitment. This makes it resilient to counterexamples. Paradoxically, naturalistic science and philosophy that erodes belief in theological or Kantian underpinnings provides the explanation for why it survives their absence.
Stephen Jay Gould discussed spandrels. These were the roughly triangular spaces between the left or right exterior curves of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it that were formed in medieval architecture. They were the unintended beautiful bi-products of an engineering solution. That they were unintended bi-products doesn’t trivialise their important aesthetic contribution to the meaning of the architecture even though they are purposeless. But it is a reason for ending enquiries into their original teleology. Bivalence is a spandrel of propositional attitudes for Sorensen. Dignity is morality’s spandrel. Morality is the spandrel of social life. They are unintended bi-products of engineering solutions formed in Churchland’s social brain.
Rosen has shown dignity has some kind of a serious moral role, whilst at the same time showing that it can’t justify as much as Catholics and Kantians want it to. It has a dramatic parasitical quality, so that it seems tangible and magnificent but also often foolhardy and empty. It is a value that appears powerful but often is less than it seems. Rosen’s brilliant book gives us dignity’s history and a cunningly disguised radical ending that might even accommodate my Sorensenian musings. Even if it doesn’t, Rosen’s narrative illuminates a subject that as he notes himself has eluded serious analysis for too long.
Bob Dylan recorded the weird song ‘Dignity’ in a 1989 session recording for the album Oh Mercy but it never appeared there. The song captures the sense of dignity’s elusiveness, its chthonic, vampiric quality that Rosen narrates, in one image where a ‘drinkin man listens to the voice he hears, in a crowded room full of covered up mirrors.’


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 12th, 2012.