Sustaining our dignity

It is our behavior in all aspects of life that determines our true character.

Respect Ave 521 (photo credit: courtest)
Respect Ave 521
(photo credit: courtest)
“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?... Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalms 8)
Dignity is usually defined in moral terms as the innate right of each human being to respect and ethical treatment. This concept of human dignity is the basis for human rights and claims against abuse.
All humans are born with this “inherent dignity.” It means that each of our lives is of equal value. No matter the social status of a person, whether clergy, president or monarch, it is never justified for them to sacrifice someone else’s life for their own personal benefit. All human life is of equal value.
“Inherent dignity” is also evident in the respect for the human body. In hospitals, doctors are advised to pull curtains and be as discreet as possible when they examine patients. In prisons, personnel are required to respect a criminal’s physical privacy, even when checking them for suspicious objects. Even human cadavers are accorded respect. They are not left uncovered unless being inspected.
In addition to “inherent dignity,” we are endowed with the potential for “acquired dignity.” This means that being dignified or undignified is related to how we behave. A basic manner in which dignity is acquired comes as a result of how we act in relation to physical pleasure.
Human physical pleasures of eating and sex are similar to the pleasures animals enjoy. Acting in a manner that is too similar to the way animals enjoy pleasure is considered degrading. Acting in that way would mean your conscious thought is absorbed only in satisfying that pleasure. As a result, you neglect your self-awareness and control and are acting more like an animal than human. Acting like an animal is degrading. In fact, one of the most derisive comments one can make is that someone is “acting like an animal.”
Humans have developed culture and codes of acceptable behavior to differentiate themselves from animals. These behaviors include personal grooming, cleanliness, accepted dress codes, manners during eating and regulations regarding sexual conduct.
Dignity in eating means eating in a refined manner and with etiquette. If our standard is not to act like animals, then, for example: Eating with a knife and fork and napkins at a table is dignified.
Eating while walking in the street – certainly not a hamburger, but even pizza or ice cream – is undignified.
Eating by putting one’s face into the plate, as an animal would do, as opposed to raising the food to one’s mouth, is undignified.
Eating most foods with one’s fingers is also undignified.
Dignity in sexual behavior has many components. While it is considered indecent to engage in sex in public areas like a mall, it is also undignified to engage in intimate kisses in public. Even in private, intimate relations with dignity means maintaining a respect for oneself and one’s partner without only being obsessed with fulfillment of desire.
Psychologist Paul Rozin suggests that feelings of disgust reflect a built-in human emotion to distance ourselves from behaving like animals. There is universal human disgust toward exposed feces, and all dirty, filthy animals or creatures. Animals that thrive in dirt, filth and waste are particularly disgusting to people. We appreciate cleanliness. It is why we consider “cleanliness close to Godliness.”
Some philosophers consider dignity connected to our God-given unique human faculties. For them, we are acting in a dignified manner by exercising these faculties.
One of these faculties is imagination. Jacob Bronowski, a science historian and author of The Ascent of Man, noted that man is able to see a “better future” because of his ability to imagine. As opposed to animals, which can only adapt to nature, man can harness and control nature for his benefit. Examples are agricultural systems, power and energy development, and even new medical treatments.
Other unique human faculties are selfawareness, which allows for conscience and morality, as well as advanced language skills, which allow for intricate social networks and educational growth.
Living one’s life by refining these faculties of imagination, conscience and language for the good of society is a way of expressing human dignity.
Aside from our behavior in relation to pleasure and satisfaction, human dignity is also evident in how we react to aging and death. When aging begins, there are people who try to deny it. Such people are reluctant to state their accurate age. Others change their appearance in order to look younger, but often with undignified results. Examples include women who get face-lifts, and men who get hair transplants.
Dealing with death is another area for dignified behavior, but it is getting more challenging to do so. As a result of advances in medicine for curing diseases and forestalling death, an expectation has developed that death is even more unacceptable than ever before. Fighting to cure terminal illness while simultaneously accepting death as inevitable is a challenge in dignified behavior.
A great example of dealing with death in a dignified manner was the late Prof. Randy Pausch. After a long battle with pancreatic cancer and a terminal diagnosis, he continued to celebrate life. He gave a lecture about achieving dreams, which later became a New York Times best-seller called The Last Lecture.
There are many opportunities to act in a dignified or undignified manner. To be dignified, we need to keep in mind our unique human faculties, like self-awareness and conscience. By doing so, we are remaining in touch with our divine potential while engaged in pleasure, entering older age or struggling with terminal illness.
That challenge was noted by Pico Della Mirandola, a famous Italian Renaissance philosopher.
“We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose. To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be born into the higher forms of the divine.”