Circe and Her Swine by Briton Riviere, 1896
Ryszard Legutko on thin and thick views of human dignity, duty and obligation:
Man, feeling secure and enjoying the increasingly abundant benefits of a modern civilization, was slowly releasing himself from the compelling pressure of strict and demanding rules derived from religion and classical ethics. He was no longer in the mood to embark on a painful and uncertain journey to higher goals, on which John Stuart Mill elaborated with such hope. And his hopes were high. In a famous passage of his Utilitarianism, he said that although man aspires to satisfy his drive for pleasure, he will always prefer to be an unsatisfied Socrates rather than a satisfied pig. Why? The argument was the following: man is cognizant of both states–the Socratic and the swinish–and there is no way that reason and conscience will allow him to opt for being a pig. The argument thus assumes in a unequivocal way that some ways of life are objectively better than others, that the Socratic model is clearly superior to that of a common man, and that there is nothing in human nature that can make people oblivious to this fact.
This last assumption, however, has been challenged since the very beginning of modern times. In liberal democracy, especially in recent decades, a generally acknowledged moral directive forbids looking down on people’s moral priorities, because in the present society equality is the norm, not the hierarchy. But equality, as always, has its limitations. Mediocrity has been generally, though tacitly acknowledged as a noncontroversial, if not preferred model, whereas the Socratic model, though nominally viewed as equal among others, has lost its appeal and support from the democratic mainstream as too aristocratic and elitist. In theory the Socratic way is as good as any other; in practice, it is hopelessly at odds with modern preferences. From a new perspective, the pig would seem, on reflection, a stronger competitor.
The gradual process in which the higher aspirations were being replaced by the lower tells us, no doubt, something about human nature: namely, that unless met with strong resistance or an attractive inspiration it shows a powerful tendency to be lured by the common and the mediocre. “Common,” indeed, has ceased to be a word of disapproval in a liberal-democratic rhetoric, or rather, has ceased to be used at all. When so much is common, nothing really is. This change is but a small signal of a corruption of basic categories by which for centuries people described and evaluated their conduct.
Especially striking is a change in the meaning of the word “dignity,” which since antiquity has been used as a term of obligation. If one was presumed to have dignity, one was expected to behave in a proper way as required by his elevated status. Dignity was something to be earned, deserved, and confirmed by acting in accordance with the higher standards imposed by a community or religion–for instance, by empowering a certain person with higher responsibilities or by claiming that man was created in God’s image. Dignity was an attribute that ennobled those who acquired it. As noblesse oblige, dignity was an obligation to seek some form of self-improvement, however vaguely understood, but certainly closer to the Socratic way and further away from its opposite. The attribute was not bestowed forever; one could always lose it when acting in an undignified way.
At some point, the concept of dignity was given a different meaning, contrary to the original. This happened mainly through the intercession of the language of human rights, especially after the 1948 Universal Declaration. The idea of human beings having inalienable rights is counterintuitive and extremely difficult to justify. It may make some philosophical sense if derived from a strong theory of human nature such as one finds in classical metaphysics. However, when we accept a weak theory, attributing to human beings only elementary qualities, and deliberately disregarding strong metaphysical assumptions, then the idea of rights loses its plausibility. It may, of course, be sanctioned as a mere product of legislation through a Parliamentary or court ruling, which entitles people to make various claims called “rights,” but these claims will be no more than arbitrary decisions by particular groups or politicians or judges who choose to do this rather than that due to circumstances, ideology, or individual predilections or under pressure from interest groups. It would indeed be silly to call such claims “inalienable,” because inalienability by definition cannot be legislated.
Thus, in order to strengthen the unjustified and, within the accepted conceptual framework, unjustifiable notion of human rights, the concept of dignity was invoked, but in a peculiar way so as to make it seem to imply more than it actually did. This concept created an illusion of a strong view of human nature, and of endowing this nature with qualities nowhere explicitly specified but implying something noble, being an immortal soul, an innate desire for good, etc. But on the other hand, in using this concept, unaccompanied by other qualifications, the framers of the human rights documents apparently felt exempted from any need to present an explicit and serious philosophical interpretation of human nature to explain the grounds and the conditions on which one could conceive of its dignity. This operation–or more precisely, sleight of hand, and not very fair to boot–led to a sudden revival of the concept of human dignity, but with a radically different meaning.
Since the issue of the Universal Declaration dignity has no longer been about obligation, but about claims and entitlements. The new dignity did not oblige people to strive for any moral merits or deserts; it allowed them to submit whatever claims they wished, and to justify these claims by referring to a dignity that they possessed by the mere fact of being born without any moral achievement or effort. A person who desired to achieve the satisfaction of a pig was thus equally entitled to appeal to dignity to justify his goals as another who tried to follow the path of Socrates, and each time, for a pig and for a Socrates, this was the same dignity. A right to be a pig and a right to be a Socrates were, in fact, equal and stemmed from the same moral (or rather nonmoral, as the new dignity practically broke off with morality) source.
Having armed himself with rights, modern man found himself in a most comfortable situation with no precedent: he no longer had to justify his claims and actions as long as he qualified them as rights. Regardless of what demands he would make on the basis of those rights and for what purpose he would use them, he did not and, in fact, could not lose his dignity, which he had acquired for life simply by being born human. And since having this dignity carried no obligation to do anything particularly good or worthy, he could, while constantly invoking it, make claims that were increasingly absurd and demand justification for ever more questionable activities. Sinking more and more into arrogant vulgarity, he could argue that this vulgarity not only did not contradict his inborn dignity, but it could even, by a stretch of the imagination, be treated as some sort of an achievement. After all, can a dignity that is inborn and constitutes the essence of humanness, generate anything that would be essentially undignified and nonhuman? The dignity-based notion of human rights was thus both a powerful factor to legitimize a minimalist concept of human nature, and its legitimate child. Moreover, it equipped modern anthropological minimalism with the instruments of self-perpetuation, the most efficient instruments of this kind ever devised in the history of Western societies. (The Demon in Democracy, 30-33)
As a post-script, I should note that Legutko’s point might be better made by going back even further in history than Socrates. He’s left us with a distaste for “modern anthropological minimalism,” but hasn’t sketched an alternative conceptual framework that would yield a better understanding of man’s nature and purpose. I begin my own understanding of these things with Genesis 1-3, and think these chapters could have strengthened Legutko’s valid points and saved him from error with respect to his criticisms of the 1948 Universal Declaration.
When Adam sinned in the garden of Eden, he rebelled against the obligations and duties that were on him by virtue of his being made in God’s image. God required obedience of his creature, but in an “essentially undignified and nonhuman” response to God, Adam disobeyed. As a result, we now inherit a fallen human nature from our father Adam (Rom. 5:12ff), but still have a species of inborn dignity given to us by our Creator (see Gen. 9:5-6 for the endurance of the image of God in man after the fall). We’re born rebelling against that dignity and that Creator, but redemption is about becoming a true man, learning to be a creature in a right relationship with our Creator.
Understanding this development in human nature protects Legutko’s point about the ethical obligations inherent in being a man–that is, the responsibility before God not to bear his image in vain–and avoids the error of adopting the (ironically modern) position that a man can be a pig if he wants–that is, the error in denying any kind of dignity essential of humanness, denying anything that would separate man from beast. The image of God in man has been corrupted so severely that the Son of God had to go to the cross so that he might make real men of us, but the piggish man is still a man with inborn dignity because of the image of God, no matter how convincing his prosthetic nose and curlicue tail.
There’s much insight to Legutko’s account, but he seems to let people off too easily. If dignity is never inborn, must be earned, and may be lost, then a man who has lost that virtue or never earned it could understandably argue that he was under no obligation to live up to an “elevated status” which he did not possess. However, an inborn dignity that lays claim on every man with respect to how he should live in relation to God and to his neighbors offers no quarter to swines, and will not even grant that they’re swines in the first place.