Recently, Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader (D-CA), publicly argued that any cuts to congressional pay would undermine “…the dignity of the job that we have rewarded.”

It is mildly amusing that Pelosi would point to the job that she and the rest of Congress are doing as her support for not cutting congressional pay while the rest of us suffer under the crushing weight of the fiscal leviathan and bloated federal bureaucracy. 

However, Pelosi is simply echoing what civic religion teaches: All good citizens should revere members of government with an extra-special kind of dignity because of their position. 
I admit that “dignity” and “Nancy Pelosi” might not be my first pairing in a word association exercise, but her comments did get me thinking about the concept.  What is dignity? Is it something you can earn or lose? Do some people deserve (or have) more dignity than others?

As usually understood, dignity is a concept pertaining to worth and value. It is often used to signify that someone has a certain right to be valued and her treatment by others should reflect this right. Moreover, the term is frequently used to suggest that a person is not receiving the respect deserved, as exemplified by the Congresswoman’s comments that forced congressional pay cuts are beneath her ‘dignity’.

Nancy Pelosi is correct that dignity is closely related to our ideas about respect. But how and why are the concepts of respect and dignity related?

Let’s start by exploring two popular, but unsatisfactory, views about dignity that are both based on the idea that human value is a comparable value, kind of like prices at the supermarket. The first is the idea that dignity is something to be deserved according to individual accomplishments, wealth, title, status, or social rank. In this view, certain people are alleged to have more innate value than others because of who they are or the merits of what they do.

The second is the idea that human value, and ultimately dignity, is dependent upon the judgment of others. This would mean that people derive their value as human beings from how they are valued by other people.

Note that both of these views rest on the idea that human beings can and should be valued differently from one another and that the value of individual people can change from one point in time to the next. Put simply, this notion holds that some people are worth more than others. That seems strange to me.

In fact, the primitive idea of comparable human worth has been used throughout history to justify some of the worst acts of humanity. Oppression, slavery, and even genocide have occurred when enough individuals in society grant credence to the idea that some people are worth more than others and can be used as mere means to some higher ends.

Preposterous as it may seem that anyone could still explicitly say that some persons are worth more than others, indeed all government officials, including Nancy Pelosi, maintain positions of political power precisely because most people at least implicitly believe exactly that.

Enough people in society have internalized the primitive thought that political status gives certain individuals the moral authority to rule over others. Similar to the days of rule by the divine right of kings, the perceived sanctity of political office affords today’s elected officials a higher-level of dignity not accessible to us mere mortals. We see evidence of this when we hear the average person deferentially referencing their “respect for the office” or when Nancy Pelosi is demanding the “respect for the office” she thinks she is owed. 

In a moment I will explain why having respect for a government office may be misplaced, but presently I will merely suggest that whether or not our rulers are popularly elected has no bearing on the fact that political power is still used to treat some people as mere means to a higher ends in a system that establishes a hierarchical relationship of rulers and subjects.

The primitive idea that some people are worth more than others has maintained a stronghold on human thought for most of history. Fortunately, that is beginning to change. 

We are beginning to understand, as the great 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, explains that human value and dignity are universal to all persons. For Kant, dignity is a distinctive kind of moral worth that all persons have. All persons are ends in themselves and the intrinsic value of one person cannot be compared against that of another. Dignity is an absolute and incomparable worth. It is not conditional. It is not a derivative of another higher value. For Kant, dignity is the supreme value.

Furthermore, dignity is closely related to our conceptions of personhood. Our rational capacities, as Kant argues, form the basis of our dignity (or absolute worth). As rational beings, we have the capacity to imagine different possible futures. We have the capacity to use our rational judgment to evaluate and choose. We have the capacity to act on reasons we believe to be our own. We have the capacity to value other rational beings as ends in themselves deserving of respect. Persons with rational capacities then are universally ends in themselves with an absolute dignity. 

Robin S. Dillon, further explains Kant’s account of respect for persons is the “…acknowledgement in attitude and conduct of the dignity of persons as ends in themselves….They must never be treated merely as means, as things that we may use however we want in order to advance our interests, and they must always be treated as the supremely valuable beings that they are.”  

In summary, Nancy Pelosi is not deserving of dignity because of her wealth, title, or position. She is a person with absolute dignity because of her status as a rational being and should be treated as such. Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of Congress do not recognize this universal principle in their interactions with other people. 
Moreover, it is not just the current office holders that have failed in this regard. The essential feature of any State is predicated on a failure to recognize the absolute dignity of all persons. Instead of respecting individuals as ends in themselves having equal worth, the State is the anti-social arrangement whereby people are treated as having unequal worth with unequal dignity. Some people are rulers, and other people are ruled. Some people receive political privilege, while others do not. Some people expropriate wealth, while the wealth of others is expropriated. Individuals are not ends in themselves but rather mere means to satisfy the desires of those in power. All are subjected to the arbitrary power of the State. 

Nancy Pelosi does not operate in a vacuum, but she does actively support the aggrandizement of the State apparatus. Nancy Pelosi’s blatant lack of respect for other human beings as moral equals is repugnant and deserves moral condemnation. That being said, we should neither say that Nancy Pelosi is underserving of dignity, nor that she has lost her dignity because of her reproachable behavior. We may, however, be perfectly justified in saying that she and the other members of Congress have failed to live up to that which dignity entails.

In Liberty,

Jason Riddle

“Morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity.” – Immanuel Kant


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