Steven Pinker’s article says some interesting things about dignity which – at first glance – appear to clarify it, but in doing so may perpetuate the underlying assumptions which make dignity such a ‘tricky’ concept to deal with in the first place. In other words its a ‘false fix’.
It seems to me that dignity – not unlike self-esteem – is based on a certain set of unquestioned beliefs we have about human beings. These are that : a) people are ‘separate’ from the world and each other b) people have different levels of worth c) the worth that people have is ‘dependent’ on certain situations or states the person is in e.g. being in squalor, out of ‘control’, smelly etc., d) that people deserve at least some ‘minimum’ level of worth as determined by their surrounding situation or personal behaviour.
It is only when I project these beliefs on to others that I think that some people have less dignity than others. A smelly drunk ‘seems’ to have less dignity BECAUSE I have learned to value people in certain ways based on their situation (smelly, dishevelled) or behaviour (socially inappropriate/out of control, slurring speech etc.).
Consequently, if I want to ‘give people back’ their dignity, I merely need to stop taking their dignity away from them – by ceasing to project my beliefs on to them.
After I have stopped taking their dignity away from them by no longer seeing their worth as dependent on their situation or behaviour, I can help them change their situation or behaviour, if appropriate.