On dignity

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SASS ROGANDO SASOT

DIGNITY is a concept uttered a lot in light of recent events in our country. “Let us help [drug abuse victims]solve their drug abuse problems by recognizing that they are humans with dignity, too,” Commission on Human Rights Chairman Chito Gascon said, reacting to the tragedy that befell Kian delos Santos.

But what is dignity?

It is one of the most powerful concepts modernity has produced. For those who believe in “the march of progress,” the arc of history for them may be long but it bends towards the realization of human dignity.

When political demands are framed as what human dignity requires, those demands are bestowed a sense of urgency. The powers-that-be that ignore and fail to honor these demands run the risk of being vilified as standing on the wrong side of history.


Throughout its history, dignity has meant different things. It was once associated with prestige, status, rank—this usage of dignity is still reflected in the word “dignitary,” which we use to refer to a person of high rank or position in the government or church.

This notion of dignity is hierarchical. In its theological context, those who are closer to God in the chain of being is deemed to possess a higher version of dignity. St. Ignatius once considered the priesthood as “the apex of dignities.” Priests, according to Pope Innocent III, are superior to man and inferior only to God, as explained in The Dignity and Duties of the Priest by St. Alphonsus Liguori. Even monarchs appeal to theology to legitimize the dignity of their throne.

Secularism divorced dignity from its theological association. Liberal thought used dignity to refer to the “inherent worth” of human beings. Meanwhile, egalitarian thinking tied the concept of dignity with equality, producing the concept of equal dignity: equal inherent worth. Yet dignity has not always been considered as such.

Dignity as externally given can be found in the Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes mentioned that what they “commonly” called dignity during that time was “the public worth of a man…the value set on him by the Commonwealth…and this value…is understood by offices of command, judicature, public employment; or by names and titles introduced for distinction of such value.”

A century later, in the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant formulated the concept of dignity that is non-theological, universal, individualistic, egalitarian, and inherent. Differentiating dignity from value, Kant said: “Everything has either Value or Dignity. whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity…an intrinsic worth.”

In his dissenting opinion to Obergefell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States, Justice Thomas relied on the Kantian conception of dignity. He argued that because dignity is innate, it can neither be bestowed nor taken away. To illustrate his point, he said:

“Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits.”

Many found this utterly absurd, if not totally offensive. ButThomas was just being logical. Because dignity is innate, it follows that no one can give it to you: you already have it inside you. Since it is an inherent feature of being human, there is nothing anyone can do to you that can remove your dignity.

The problem with Thomas’ reasoning is that he failed to see that dignity is not self-enforcing. He is stuck in the metaphysical conception of dignity and didnot consider the significance of “recognition”in order to give dignity a practical application.

Gascon wanted the government to recognize the dignity of drug users. The question is, is this not being done with the rehabilitation program the government has been doing? The more than a million of users and pushers who surrendered and were given a chance to straighten their path signify respect rather than disregard of their dignity.

Recognizing that drug abuse victims have dignity entails determining and condemning who victimized them. They were preyed upon by the drug syndicates.

It is because the Duterte administration recognizes the dignity of our people and the generation that would come after us that it has committed to destroy the apparatus of the drug syndicates, which flooded the country with shabu. And it seems that the CHR that has totally ignored how the shabu trade leads to the massive violations of human dignity.

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1 Comment

  1. Absolutely agree. I remembered Duterte’s speech saying the same thing to Obama in threatening to cut aid if the drug war continues, that Obama does not know the meaning of dignity, and the US should not insult the dignity of the Filipino people.