When it comes to the “culture wars,” the sparring sides often evaluate their words or phrases less for accuracy than for emotional punch. For that reason some words, like life or choice, stick. They resonate. Others feel clunky—true but unhelpful. Take conjugal, for example; it may be an accurate description of real marriage, but that dog won’t hunt.
Occasionally, however, the warring parties fight over the same word, as they are now doing over dignity. This shouldn’t surprise us. Dignity can be confusing. Is it something you have? Is it a way you act? Something you can gain or lose? There are people we call dignitaries—does that mean they have more dignity than the rest of us?
Part of the reason dignity is confusing is because a new definition of the word has emerged to stimulate rather than salve cultural conflict. Let me explain.
Dignity 1.0, the older conception shared by Christians, natural law theorists and others, refers to the idea that humans have “inherent worth of immeasurable value that is deserving of certain morally appropriate responses.” Understood in this way, dignity is an inalienable value. It’s a reality. Human dignity does not become real when you start to believe in it. It remains real even when neglected or violated. It may be discerned differently across eras, but it’s not arbitrary, to be socially constructed in unique ways by collective will or vote.
In the mid-400s, Leo the Great wrote the following admonition, which is now quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.
Of course, dignity was not invented by organized religion. Still, the Church has arguably done a better job than most of detecting it, if not always of respecting it.
From Leo to Immanuel Kant to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this older model of dignity held sway for centuries. Literary use of the word, however, declined during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1990s, use of the word bottomed out. From disuse, however, a new understanding of the concept has emerged: Dignity 2.0.
I didn’t realize I was confused about dignity until it became an embattled word in legal contests over marriage. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is now famous—or infamous—for aligning dignity more closely with human autonomy and the right to define oneself, one’s own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The justice employed the word at least ten times in his 2013 Defense of Marriage Act decision. And in his vigorous dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia cited it nearly as often. But even decades before Kennedy’s writings, an organization called “Dignity USA” was founded to shift Catholic attitudes and practices toward greater acceptance of same-sex relationships. There’s a similar contest going on over at the euthanasia debate, where proponents of assisted suicide hold that what they’re fostering is “death with dignity.”
To be sure, Dignity 2.0 exhibits some similarities with its predecessor. Each has to do with inherent worth. Each implies the reality of the good. Each understands that rights flow from dignity. But Dignity 2.0 entrusts individuals to determine their own standards. Wants could become needs. Freedom, under Dignity 1.0, did not mean the ability to do as one wishes but—as Christian Smith writes—the ability to “flourish as the person one is and should become” and to help other persons to do the same. Standards came from somewhere else.
Hence, when the Church speaks of “the dignity of the human person in sexual matters,” it is Dignity 1.0 that it has in mind—not an absolute freedom or autonomy of the person in sexual matters. Indeed, she holds that chastity is not simply related to dignity but serves as its prime protector. Persons who strive to be chaste are those whose “gaze can genuinely behold and affirm the dignity of the other.” That’s a claim well afield of the Catholic Kennedy’s evolved definition of dignity.
Sociology and Dignity
But why should a sociologist care about dignity? Isn’t it something that ethicists and political theorists pay attention to? Sociologists seem to study dignity about as much as we study beauty, the “heart,” joy, and other human-but-hard-to-measure phenomena.
In reality, I must assume the existence of dignity to begin collecting data on persons. I’m not referring to ethics boards that safeguard human subjects from invasive scholars. I mean that human social life and interaction is animated by popular concern with dignity and the good. If it matters to those I study, it ought to matter to me.
Other sociologists agree. Social theorist Margaret Archer, for example, holds that dignity is of the utmost importance. She goes so far as to argue that the “single most important question to ask and to answer, in any social epoch, is that of the basis upon which the dignity of every person rests.” If we don’t ask this question and answer it satisfactorily, she holds, practices can emerge that are advantageous only to the (culturally) powerful, hurting the disenfranchised. Over time, they can “become entrenched as local custom and practice,” and resistant to question or challenge by all but a major social upheaval.
Witness, as an example, what is happening to marriage in the West, where the power elite has aligned behind Dignity 2.0 and its novel conclusions about the nature and structure of a timeless institution. The basis for Dignity 2.0 in the West does not rest on external standards, on traditional restraints such as kinship, neighborhood, religion, or nation, which are all stable sources of the self. Rather, it is based upon the dis-integrated, shifting “me,” subject to renegotiation, reinvention, and reconstruction, reinforced by expansive conditions and regulations. It’s exhausting—though profitable to attorneys. And Facebook. But it also explains my confusion: there are rival forms of dignity, and the version you employ matters a great deal.
Social justice, however, should not cry out for marriage “equality,” because the Dignity (1.0) of persons is not at stake. Resistance to others’ wish to marry someone of the same sex may harm their sense of dignity, but that’s quite distinct from damaging or compromising their real dignity. We can recognize the dignity of persons by acknowledging and respecting their freedom to form relationships, or their rights as parents. Indeed, we do. It is neither animus nor an indignity, however, to identify one relationship as a marriage, and another as not.
Flourishing vs. Freedom
Finally, Dignity 2.0 seems to disregard flourishing in favor of freedom. This shift is both odd and ironic. Indeed, real dignity has often been a politicized matter—sometimes appropriately so—because of its connection to flourishing. Think, for example, of debates about health care and social security, considered by many to be basic rights that are needed for human flourishing.
Dignity, rightly understood, has less to do with autonomy or independence than with the ability to flourish. And “flourishing personhood,” as sociologist Christian Smith writes, does not fare equally well under every set of social conditions. Rather, “it is fostered by certain social practices, institutions, and structures and hampered and damaged by others.”
Discerning “which social conditions, practices, and institutions promote which kinds of outcomes” is more an empirical question than an ethical one. It’s oneI’ve weighed in on, at considerable cost. Were it not for its practitioners, then, the discipline of sociology might be the best equipped to produce such empirical knowledge. But as Smith asserts, a blend of “antirealist storytelling and identity posturing” has left the discipline embattled, unified only by a shared progressive politics (which favors Dignity 2.0). This, in turn, courts knee-jerk rejection by conservatives, who are then accused of being anti-science. It’s an unfortunate but predictable cycle—one that might be avoided if the mission creep of dignity were recognized and resisted.
Dignity 1.0 is more than good enough for all—it’s the real thing.
Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, research associate at its Population Research Center, and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. This article has been republished from Public Discourse, with permission.