Democracy’s Dignity Deficit

I am starting to think that US democracy has a dignity deficit. We talk endlessly about freedom, we talk a lot about equality, but we almost never talk about dignity.  Why not?

The answer  has a lot to do with the way we imagine the meaning of “equality.” But before I explain why, I want to spend a moment establishing the premise – that democracy has a great deal to do with dignity whether we talk about it or not.

If we imagine a democracy functioning effectively, don’t we assume that its citizens will have dignity? Conversely, if we try to imagine a democracy in which most citizens lack a sense of dignity, don’t we immediately feel a self-contradiction?  Why should all persons be free and equal if they are not all worth something? Why would each of us care about our own personal freedom and equality  if we did not feel that we – each of us – had value? Conversely, if we took a deeply cynical view of humans and human nature, wouldn’t we be indifferent to the matter of how people are governed?

So, if democracy is bound up with the idea of dignity (as I think it is) why do we hardly ever talk about it?

Why Not Dignity?

Why Not Dignity?

The answer is that we take dignity for granted. And the main reason we do so is that we suppose it comes along automatically with freedom and equality – but especially, I would argue, with equality. For we can imagine a free people refusing to concede each other’s dignity. But it’s much harder to imagine a people who have agreed to see themselves as equal not agreeing also to consider themselves being equal in dignity.

Equality seems to entail dignity. But for that very reason we are tempted to assume that equality guarantees dignity. And that’s a mistake.

Many marriage vows are imbued with the belief that marriage has a lot to do with love. But we know (after a while) that those vows don’t guarantee love. Likewise (a subtler analogy here), most of us imagine that “justice” also means “fairness.” But in actual practice, justice is not always fair. And as legal philosophers know, some systems of justice are much more explicitly and deliberately concerned with fairness than others.

So if you want your marriage to nurture and be nurtured by love, you have to work to make it do so. If you want a just system of justice to produce fairness, you have to work to make it do so.

And if we – “we the people” —  really want democratic equality to produce democratic dignity, we have to do something. But what?

The answer will have everything to do with what we take  “equality” and “dignity” to mean. And that’s a long conversation. But for the moment it’s fair to say that we should simply talk more about dignity when we talk about democracy. Look at the contemporary political scene: isn’t one of our main problems that we frame policy issues exclusively in terms of freedom and equality? What if the debates over health care were explicitly about citizens’ and patients’ dignity? What if the debates over Voter ID laws were not just about  equality and freedom, but about the ways such laws jeopardize citizens’ dignity? What if the debates over wealth inequality hinged not just on the tension between equality and freedom but on an agreed commitment to value each others’ dignity?

Personally, I think this is a word progressives in general, and the Democratic Party in particular,  need to grab hold of and “own” – now.

Meanwhile, we should at least spend some time thinking about dignity and its relation to equality in democracy. I’ll take these matter up in later blog postings, and  any thoughts and comments you might have would be most welcome. (See “Leave a Comment” below.)


One thought on “Democracy’s Dignity Deficit

  1. You seem to share some of the views espoused by Charles Foster on his Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law, as he considers dignity to be the foundational value behind all the hard cases of bioethics. I guess that here as well one could argue that on the one hand we have autonomous rights of an individual (the traditional freedom, liberty, etc. narrative) and on the other hand our respect of other human beings merely as such (their dignity). There are obvious short-comings with such a reading as well that maybe German scholars would be able to reveal.

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