The word dignity can mean bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality of the occasion. It is also associated with elevated character, worthiness, or a sign of respect as found with popes, queens, presidents, chiefs, or prime ministers. But dignity is also found in the faces of indigenous people. Dignity is granted because people have the potential to do good. It is their human potential that matters, not what they deserve or have done. The concept of dignity can be explored within the context of ethics by considering problems with dignity, treating people as an end, the importance of autonomy, and the manifestation of dignity through respect.
The criminal justice system brings a great deal of power to bear on the public, which can be expressed in either a dignified or an undignified manner. The authority of the state is exercised by various actors who act with unencumbered discretion as, for example, each police officer or corrections officer operates as a criminal justice system unto him or herself. The police are expected to treat the public with a measure of respect. This is all to take place under difficult circumstances and with ever-changing populations. There is the issue of the symbolic assailant where police officers come to expect certain behaviors from certain stereotyped offenders. There is the abuse of authority and violations of offender rights.
The dignity of the courts is expressed in the ceremony of the proceedings. Nevertheless, the true nature of the proceedings is determined by how the least of defendants is treated in the courtroom. It is axiomatic that anyone who can afford an attorney will receive a lighter sentence, and quite possibly have the offense removed from their record, which will allow them to fully participate in civil society. One also knows that minority and poor defendants are often encouraged to plead guilty to an offense, despite their apparent innocence, because the courtroom work group needs to move the case along. The defendant’s dignity is denied and his or her worth is measured in compliance and not innocence. The situation of poor defendants is a classic example of being treated as a means rather than an end; that is, their value and worth are measured only by pleas negotiated and the number of convictions.
Even in the United States, defenders of the rights of prisoners have long waged a campaign to establish in the courts and in the public mind the fact that prisoners have certain rights of privacy and rights of private property. Richard Posner says that prisoners are not a different species devoid of human dignity or deserving of any respect. Despite any distinction between the respectable and the criminal members of society, one cannot overlook either’s essential humanity. Critics contend that the institution of imprisonment is incompatible with basic human dignity and respect. Limiting a person’s freedom for a period of time does not express the view that this person is not fully human. Reformers advocate the humanization of prisons and the protection of certain basic rights of inmates. To deny someone their dignity through ill treatment is to deny that their life has meaning and purpose and value. Such treatment sends the message that the incarcerated are not important and of little consequence. It is by virtue of humanity’s shared dignity that members of society in good standing acknowledge those convicted of having committed crime, and acknowledge themselves as bearers of rights. Those rights are the social and legal conditions through which dignity is maintained.
The most influential position on these issues is found in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view the rational human exemplifies the law, but it is the moral law that primarily deserves respect. Humans deserve respect only derivatively as a reflected glory from the moral law. Respect for human beings is recognized through their potential to create moral law. All rational and reasonable humans have the potential of being legislators of the universal moral laws. In Kant’s scheme humans are the functional equivalent of the divine lawgiver in the religious scheme. It is not humans that an individual is meant to respect but the humanity in the individual and in others; the capacity to be rational or at least reasonable in order to be legislators of the moral law. The rational nature of persons constitutes the supreme limiting condition of the freedom of action of every human being; it puts an absolute limit on how individuals can treat others.
According to Kant, one formulation of the Categorical Imperative, which is the supreme principle of morality, commands that our actions express due respect for the worth of persons. Kant famously said: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.” He argues that all rational beings are the only entities that are ends in themselves, which can also mean a limit or constraint on action. The concept of an end has several meanings. In one sense, to be an end is to have some kind of value or worth; it is intrinsic to it, unconditional, incomparable, and objective. Kant calls this distinctive worth that only ends in themselves possess “dignity.”
Dignity is also absolute and incomparable worth: It cannot be compared with, exchanged for, or replaced by any other value. And dignity is objective worth, which means that it is a value that everyone has compelling reason to acknowledge, regardless of their antecedent desires, interests, or affections. The second sense of dignity is the supreme value; thus, ends in themselves are to be valued morally above all other entities. It is not wrong to treat someone as a means to an end in the broader sense of the value of their talents, abilities, service, and labor of other people. What an individual must not do is to treat persons as if their only value is their usefulness to others.
Kant’s theory of morality is secured by his concept of autonomy of the human will. Autonomy establishes the authority of any ethical requirements. Autonomy assures that people are bound by laws that are of their own making. Thus laws have unequaled authority, especially as the authority of the law is internal rather than external to the people. As with the autonomous individual, the autonomous state passes laws that gain their legitimacy as reflecting the will of the people. The implication is that people should be free from the control of others, be able to make choices, and have some control over their lives. This notion also imposes restrictions on other human and social institutions attempting to suppress people’s freedom for the benefit of particular social groups. In response to the need for learning and the exercise of freedom of choice, social institutions have to provide sound justification for the limitations of freedom. To respect people’s autonomy is to grant them a least the opportunity to make their crucial life-affecting choices in a rational manner. This means that any control over people’s behavior should be based on the benefits to them and to enhance their rationality and mutuality.
The autonomous person is bound by his or her own will and not the will of another. The authority binding his or her will is internal and consistent with what the person has willed. Kant’s view is that the moral law is just such a principle. Hence, the moral legitimacy of the categorical imperative is grounded in the expression of each person’s rational will. Each person is a legislator and executor of the moral law that is authoritative for him or her. Rational will responds to reasoning. There can be some distance between the categorical imperative where people are limited by rule in what they are allowed to do and what they would like to do based on their autonomous capabilities. Human dignity respects the fact that people possess autonomy. Autonomy is aided by rational thought that enables people to understand the world they live in and how to maximize their self-interests within it but also understand their obligations to others.
Respect is the operationalization, actualization, and public manifestation of the person’s dignity. It signifies recognition of the value of the person. It puts into effect the importance of acknowledging the dignity of the person. Respect is morally and unconditionally required for all persons. To respect all persons is to regard them as absolutely, unconditionally, and incomparably valuable. Their dignity imposes absolute constraints on society’s treatment of them. Equal human dignity also requires that ill-treatment be eliminated. If the core concept of human dignity is based on compassion and justice, a national consensus on equal human dignity could be the most authentic expression of a just society.
- Gutterman, Melvin. “Prison Objectives and Human Dignity: Reaching a Mutual Accommodation.” Brigham Young Law Review. http://lawreview.byu.edu/archives/1992/4/gut.pdf (Accessed September 2013).
- Perlin, Michael L. A Prescription for Dignity: Rethinking Criminal Justice and Mental Disability Law. London: Ashgate, 2013.
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