Pinker’s three objections to dignity as an independent moral value


, , ,


IN 2008, Steven Pinker wrote a New Republic essay titled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” which slammed George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics’ report Human Dignity and Bioethics. Pinker objected to the frequent and central appeals to “dignity” in the Report’s moral rationales. The first few sections of Pinker’s essay criticize the uniquely Judeo-Christian—especially Catholic—conception of dignity the Council assumes. But later in the essay Pinker offers three objections to dignity as a “foundation for bioethics.”


In fact, Pinker’s three objections to dignity-based (or “dignitarian”) arguments in bioethics, if sound, would undermine such rationales in all areas of applied ethics. And since Pinker’s concerns are still often echoed in philosophy forums—indeed, in some recent talks these sorts of objections have been levied in reply to my dignitarian defense of gun rights—it’s still worth our time to consider them.

In this post, then, I’m going to critique Pinker’s objections to dignitarian rationales. My reply will not assume any particular conception of dignity (Catholic or otherwise), so it should be useful to all sorts of dignitarians. Nonetheless, this is a purely defensive exercise in that I don’t offer any new reasons to think dignitarian concerns should play a role in applied ethics. I simply argue that Pinker’s objections fail to show they shouldn’t.

Dignity: relative or objective?

Pinker’s first objection to the relevance of dignity in bioethics is that dignity is relative: Continue reading

“The Honor of Human Rights”

Recently published in Human Rights Review: “The Honor of Human Rights: Environmental Rights and the Duty of Intergenerational Promise,” by Richard Hiskes (Political Science, Grand Valley State).


The Honor of Human Rights  Environmental Rights and the Duty of Intergenerational Promise   SpringerLink.png


Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives



I’m happy to report—somewhat belatedly—that Honor in the Modern World is now for sale!

Edited by Laurie Johnson and me, the book is probably the most interdisciplinary study of honor yet. We are very grateful to our contributors—many of whom contribute to this blog—for their excellent and highly original essays.

After a century-long hiatus, honor is back. Academics, pundits, and everyday citizens alike are rediscovering the importance of this ancient and powerful human motive. This volume brings together some of the foremost researchers of honor to debate honor’s meaning and its compatibility with liberalism, democracy, and modernity. Contributors—representing philosophy, sociology, political science, history, psychology, leadership studies, and military science—examine honor past to present, from masculine and feminine perspectives, and in North American, European, and African contexts. Topics include the role of honor in the modern military, the effects of honor on our notions of the dignity and “purity” of women, honor as a quality of good statesmen and citizens, honor’s role in international relations and community norms, and how honor’s egalitarian and elitist aspects intersect with democratic and liberal regimes.

The table of contents can be see on Amazon, along with lots of sample viewing. Consider ordering a copy for your school’s library, as the book includes essays useful for philosophers, political scientists, historians, international relations scholars, psychologists, and military academicians.

Tony Cunningham, “Good Citizens: Gratitude and Honor”


, ,

Great talk by Tony Cunningham (Philosophy, St. Benedict/St. John’s) on the moral importance of gifts and gratitude—even for a liberal society—from an honor perspective. This is a preview of a chapter Tony has graciously written for the forthcoming Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Thanks for posting on your Youtube channel, Laurie!



Craig Bruce Smith: “Rightly to Be Great: Ideas of Honor and Virtue among the American Founders”



I just discovered this great lecture by contributor Craig Bruce Smith (he was too humble to point it out to us!), and he agreed to let me post it on this blog.


One of Craig’s book projects is Rightly to Be Great: Honor, Virtue, Ethics and the American Revolution. Here’s a short description of it.  
“Rightly to Be Great” tells the history of the Revolution through an ethical lens. It shows that a colonial ethical transformation caused and became inseparable from the American Revolution, creating a continuing moral ideology. This manuscript centers on several generations of Americans who came of age before the Revolution and climbed to prominence during it. These founders are remembered for their contributions to American independence and the creation of a nation, but while they were forming this new republic, they reflected on the ethics of their deeds. They wanted the country to succeed, but not at the cost of honor or virtue. These two concepts were at the forefront of the American founders’ minds as they traveled the precarious road to independence. “Rightly to Be Great” traces the development of honor and virtue in the lives of people such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and other individuals from the elite, middling and lower classes. It also incorporates groups that have historically been excluded from the discussion of honor, such as women and African Americans. Using a narrative writing style and a deep core investigation into members of these Revolutionary generations, this project traces extensive changes over time and analyzes how thought influenced action.

Mike Austin raises the issue of the postgame handshake


, , ,

Mike Austin (Eastern Kentucky) is one of the top philosophers of sport. In a recent blog post for Psychology Today, Austin notes that Kentucky high schools are now being advised to discontinue the practice of postgame handshakes.

Sports and the Postgame Handshake   Psychology Today

As reported by the Lexington Herald Leader,

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has issued a “Commissioner’s Directive” advising schools not to hold organized post-game handshake lines because of too many fights and physical conflicts.

“While it is an obvious sign of sportsmanship and civility, many incidents have occurred … where fights and physical conflicts have broken out,” according to the Commissioner’s Directive that went to schools on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the adrenaline and effort required to participate in the sport sometimes seems to deplete the supply of judgment available to participants.”

According to the missive, more than two dozen fights in the past three years in Kentucky have broken out at post-game ceremonies. Although athletic and school officials were buzzing about the order Tuesday afternoon, Commissioner Julian Tackett downplayed the order, saying it was “much ado about nothing.”

There are no rules requiring the post-game handshake, and too many times, there hasn’t been enough supervision to stop conflicts during the ceremony. Students can still shake hands with other players voluntarily.

“You’re on notice, if you’re going to do this, you’re going to be accountable,” Tackett said.

Austin asks a number of questions about the handshake ritual that directly appeal to honor:
Sports and the Postgame Handshake   Psychology Today
You can contribute to the online discussion here.

David Harsanyi: “Bring Back Dueling”



Admit it: every once in a while you think it…

Bring Back Dueling





Friedrichs and Berg: “Rhodes must fall: from dignity to honour values”


, , , , ,

In an OpenDemocracy post published today, Joerg Friedrichs (International Development, Oxford) and Ryan Berg (currently a doctoral student at Brasenose College, Oxford) argue that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford exemplifies the pernicious qualities of an emerging moral culture that honors victimhood, stifles speech, and privileges feelings over facts.

RMF protester

Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Friedrich and Berg’s analysis builds off of an important article by Bradley Campbell (Sociology, UCLA) and Jason Manning (Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia) entitled “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.” Campbell and Manning persuasively argue that we are transitioning from a dignity-based culture to an honor-based one of victimhood. By “dignity” culture they mean one that sees everyone as innately endowed with an unearned and inalienable moral worth. On this scheme, our basic moral equality is assumed, assaults on welfare and property are punished by a central authority, and insults are largely disregarded and thus comparatively rare. This regime replaced the traditional honor culture on which some people have more value than others, personal value could be easily lost through shame and insult, and riposte to offense had to be handled personally—the traditional honor culture.

Cecil Rhodes

“To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

According to Campbell and Manning, the new honor culture of victimhood combines and inverts various aspects of its predecessors. Like a traditional honor culture, victimhood culture is highly stratified and is highly sensitive to insult. However, it elevates victims and demotes non-victims, which traditional honor cultures would find bizarre. Moreover, on it offenses to dignity are properly handled by authorities, not personally, as if they were “material” attacks on person or property (hence “microaggressions” and not the more accurate micro-offenses). These appeals to authority are what makes this honor culture so dangerous to free speech and inquiry. 

For their part, Friedrichs and Berg take no stance on whether the Rhodes statue should fall. What they bemoan is the way RMF activists hijack debate with the imperative of their offense and puritanical zeal. Here’s a teaser:

While students were not that supportive, the RMF movement found resonance with the media. This was due to the fact that those campaigning associated themselves, in sometimes tenuous ways, with the victims of colonialism, racism, and other forms of vicitimisation. The movement thus exemplified the move towards offense taking and the celebration of victimhood. It hardly occurred to the campaigners that an honest dialogue about Rhodes, his highly controversial legacy, and the merits and demerits of censoring history might have been more befitting of Oxford than trying to sanitize the place from anything potentially offensive and unpleasant, such as association with an ambivalent and flawed character like Cecil Rhodes.

I encourage you to read the whole post: “Rhodes must fall: from dignity to honour Values.”

Joerg Friedrichs on honor, face, and dignity in international relations


, , ,

Followers of this blog might be interested in a forthcoming article by Professor of International Relations (Oxford) Joerg Friedrichs, “An Intercultural Theory of International Relations: How self-worth underlies politics among nations,” forthcoming in International Theory (a pre-publication version is available here, the FirstView version is here for those who can get past the paywall).

Here’s the abstract:

“This article introduces an intercultural theory of international relations based on three distinctive ways of establishing self-worth: honor, face, and dignity. In each culture of self-worth, concerns with status and humiliation intervene differently in producing political outcomes. The theory explains important variation in the way states and nations relate to members of their own culture of self-worth, as well as members of other such cultures.”

I’d like to summarize Friedrichs’ scholarly, insightful, and thought-provoking essay here, but I will also embellish a bit with questions and commentary. Discussion in the comments section below is welcome as always. (By the way, Joerg may be posting on the blog soon, so keep an eye out for that.)

The dignity-honor-face model

Friedrichs begins his analysis with the increasingly plausible premise that “self-worth is the ultimate human motivator.” Continue reading

Honor and racial justice

Identity-based oppression is usually framed as a harm to dignity. When someone has suffered an injustice based on their race or gender, we commonly say that they have not been treated with dignity, or that their dignity has been violated. On the dignity account of oppression, oppression is morally wrong because 1) it is a failure to respect an individual as a human being, due to their identity in a social group, and/or 2) it is a failure to even recognize that an individual is a human, due to their identity. Note that social identity is the reason for oppression, on this account, but it is not the primary thing that is being disrespected. What is being disrespected is fundamental humanity, if we can abstract such a thing from supposedly morally irrelevant features of identity. To stop oppression, we should get oppressors to see their victims as humans. We need not respect collectives as such, only the humanity of individuals within these collectives.

I am skeptical that the dignity account correctly diagnoses the nature of oppression. Oppression seems to occur not because people fail to see similarity, but because they fail to respect difference. At best, the dignity account tells an incomplete story. It may even go so far as to obscure the nature of oppression so that some means of resistance are seen as illegitimate. I want to suggest that honor, an old tool that has historically been used by radical activists, might allow us to look at oppression with new eyes. As Sharon Krause has noted in Liberalism With Honor, Frederick Douglass and the suffragists have framed their oppression using the language of honor, emphasizing the martial virtues and the duty to stand up or die trying. So have radicals from groups as diverse as the founding Zionists and the Black Power movement, who rejected assimilation into the dominant culture and thought their cultures worthy of special respect. Today, black racial justice activists continue this tradition by describing the Baltimore protests as an “uprising” and emphasizing self-love not in spite of their race, but because of it. Since these individuals were and are on the frontlines of resistance, we should take the idea of honor seriously instead of trying to shoehorn their ethos and actions into the dignity framework. Continue reading