The idea of dignity has shifted over time. Today it is at the center of our thinking about law and human rights, but there is often disagreement about its meaning. In the past, dignity was reserved for aristocrats and monarchs. During the Renaissance, many believed all of God’s creation — humans, animals and plants – had dignity. Later, some said only humans were worthy of the distinction. In modern times, dignity is cherished as a fundamental human right. The concept has been part of our national debate about civil rights, politics, and war. Diane and her guest discuss historic and modern meanings of dignity, duty, and respect.


  • Michael Rosen Professor of Government at Harvard University


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When Michael Rosen's friend asked him what philosophers have to say about dignity, the Harvard professor was at a loss. He muttered something about Immanuel Kant and then decided to come up with a better answer.

  • 11:07:13

    MS. DIANE REHMIt came in the form of his new book which is titled "Dignity." Michael Rosen joins me in the studio to talk about the history of the concept and its many meanings. I hope you'll join in the discussion. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:07:50

    PROFESSOR MICHAEL ROSENGood morning, it's a great pleasure to be here.

  • 11:07:51

    REHMI'm glad. You had this conversation with your friend Christopher McCrudden. Tell us about that conversation.

  • 11:08:07

    ROSENWell, this was in the days when I was working in England and he and I were colleagues at Oxford University so we met over coffee. And Christopher is a very distinguished human rights lawyer and he's particularly interested in issues of anti-discrimination law and it seems that dignity has come up a great deal in that context. And I was a philosophy teacher specializing in political philosophy.

  • 11:08:39

    ROSENI was a bit taken aback, I have to say, because, you know, it's what I do for a living. And when someone comes along with a question like that, you expect you should say something. So people ask you what do philosophers have to say about equality or justice or rights and you can say, well, there's a lot to be said and here's some things, here's some books, here's some articles. And it turns out that dignity, oddly enough, had very little written about it.

  • 11:09:06

    ROSENAnd what philosophers had to say about it is actually quite disparaging so even in the 19th century, Schopenhauer said dignity was a shibboleth of all empty-headed moralists. It's just something that people hung on to as a kind of way of feeling good about themselves and not something that was really a substantive concept to be used in politics.

  • 11:09:34

    REHMSo bringing it into current times, what did you say to him?

  • 11:09:44

    ROSENWell, I went off and did some reading and I found that quite rightly, there was a great deal of use of the term, but particularly at the end of the Second World War. The end of the Second World War, a number of very famous human rights documents were agreed, most famously, the Universal Declaration in 1948 and that starts with the statement that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

  • 11:10:21

    ROSENAnd among other things, there were various conventions, Geneva conventions, new constitutions, particularly the German Constitution, which also starts with the idea of human dignity. So that's brought it into, as it were, a legal framework. And there's an interesting story behind how it came on the scene at that time.

  • 11:10:43

    REHMTell me about it.

  • 11:10:44

    ROSENWell, the philosophers might say, look, dignity isn't doing a lot of work there. When if you said all human beings are born free and equal in rights, then that's pretty much the same as saying they're born free and equal in dignity and rights. But if you think of what happened at the end of the Second World War when these documents were agreed, there was really a coming together of different groups, different traditions of thought in the aftermath of Fascism to say this mustn't happen again, let's now agree on some principles.

  • 11:11:23

    ROSENAnd people who, part of the tradition, would be a tradition of liberal, democratic thinking which is focused on ideas of rights and equality. But something that happened at the end of the Second World War is that people who previously being quite strongly opposed to egalitarian thoughts about rights came on board with the idea of rights, and dignity actually signals that. And specifically, I think, the Roman Catholic Church, which in the 19th century had used the concept of dignity as a way of contrasting its view of a proper social order with the ideas of the French Revolution, the ideas of equality.

  • 11:12:08

    ROSENSo if you look at the Popes in the 19th century, say Leo XIII, who was there in the late 19th century, he issued encyclicals in which the idea of dignity was specifically used to contrast with ideas of rights.

  • 11:12:24

    REHMInteresting because going back even further, you think about dignity as perhaps applying to animals, applying to plants, applying to everything that we see and encounter. I'm interested in the narrowing of that process from animals and plants down to human beings socially.

  • 11:12:56

    ROSENOkay. Well, there were different strands in this thought which go right back to the Romans, but there's a really important term, I think, that happens in the Middle Ages with Saint Thomas Aquinas and he uses the idea of dignity. He says, dignity is the worth that something has in itself and in his view, something has dignity if it's in its proper place within a divinely-ordered hierarchy.

  • 11:13:27

    ROSENSo to say that something has dignity is really to say that it's in its proper place so there isn't a single thing of dignity which could apply to animals, to plants, to human beings. It's, as it were, you've got to be in your distinctive place in that hierarchy. And what happened really in the late 18th century and in the 19th century was that dignity came to be narrowed to the thought that only human beings have full dignity and the person responsible for that is the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

  • 11:14:06

    REHMWell, but even then you have classes and distinctions and hierarchies as to who within that human race deserves dignity.

  • 11:14:23

    ROSENAbsolutely right. So there's another strand of thinking about dignity in which it's not about, you know, what has value in itself, but, as it were, how things fit into a status hierarchy and that's really interesting, too. It's also part of the Christian tradition because if we think about Christianity, its fundamental thought of Christianity is that the last shall be first, that status hierarchies in this life aren't the real hierarchies of status.

  • 11:14:53

    ROSENAnd so all through the Christian tradition, there's been a way of thinking about dignity in which real dignity applies to those people who are, in a certain sense, suffering and at the bottom of the scale. So, yes, there are a lot of complex things going on. And then in the 19th, with the French Revolution, the privileges of the aristocracy in France were actually called dignites. These dignities were abolished.

  • 11:15:18

    ROSENSo there was a sense that everyone then becomes leveled up to the rank that only the privileged once had and that's very, very important for our democratic idea of dignity, I think.

  • 11:15:32

    REHMMichael Rosen, he is professor of government and philosophy at Harvard University. His new book is titled "Dignity: Its History and Meaning." We will take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to If you were to ask anybody on the street, two or say three different people, what is your definition of dignity, do you think you would get a single answer today?

  • 11:16:24

    ROSENI think people would give you examples and I think that would be interesting and significant. They would often talk about people behaving with dignity. They would think about people, particularly people in extreme circumstances, people who are suffering or subject to unjust oppression. For instance, I think in the United States, they might very well think of people in the civil rights movement as being examples of dignity. Martin Luther King was a dignified figure.

  • 11:17:02

    ROSENSo I don't know if I'm right. Of course, I'm a visitor, a new person, but I have a friend who sadly has passed away. She was being treated at the leading cancer hospital in London and at the same time, a tabloid celebrity was also being treated and she was in the terminal stages of her disease.

  • 11:17:24

    ROSENAnd large numbers of reporters were pushing and jostling this poor lady as she was coming for her treatment. And my friend, who was certainly no philosopher, shouted at them, for God's sake, let her have some dignity. I think that's the sort of thing that most people would think of, I guess.

  • 11:17:42

    REHMAnd yet there remains the question, why examine this issue now?

  • 11:17:52

    ROSENWell, the sad truth is that people very often talk past one another when they invoke dignity. So, you know, people of a humanist, secular sort often talk about the right to death with dignity, by which they mean people's right to end their own lives when they would like to. People of the more religious cast think of human dignity as overriding an individual's right to dispose of their own lives as they wish.

  • 11:18:23

    ROSENAnd that clash is something which, obviously as a philosopher, I'm not going to resolve, but I hope that I can make some contribution to people's understanding of where each other's thoughts come from.

  • 11:18:40

    REHMUnderstanding the dignity of someone who perhaps is on the street is something we might talk about. Short break.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd the question of dignity, what it is, how it's demonstrated, how we as human beings understand it, how we talk past each other as we try to define it or indeed engage other people in a discussion is the focus of Michael Rosen's new book. It's titled "Dignity: Its History and Meaning." Michael Rosen is professor of government at Harvard University. We are going to open the phones shortly, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Join us on Facebook or send us a Tweet.

  • 11:21:06

    REHMThere is the notion earlier perhaps that someone deserves dignity because they are in a higher social class. What happened to that?

  • 11:21:22

    ROSENWell, as I say, partly it was always called into question by Christianity. Christianity always made a contrast between worldly status and true religious status. But what started to happen was democracy, that democracy brought with it the idea that everyone was entitled to a high status. And indeed almost, I would like to think, reversed things so that those in power owe particular duties of respect to those who elect them and whom they're there to serve rather than vice versa.

  • 11:22:12

    REHMIt's interesting because we've had an email from Lisa in Silver Spring, Md. who says, "It strikes me that dignity is at the core of the health care debate in this country. If everyone has access to adequate care millions will not have to suffer, not only from a health crisis but with the indignity of declining health and personal financial fortune."

  • 11:22:49

    ROSENWell, it's very interesting that Lisa says that because one of the things that's come to me is that dignity's very often something over and above and associated with bad things that happen to people. So, you know, if bad things happen, if people are suffering, if people are subject to violence, if their rights are disrespected in different ways, well, that's a bad thing. But some of those things, I think, we also see as disrespectful to us as well. And I think that's where the idea of dignity often comes in.

  • 11:23:29

    ROSENSo it's not just that you're poor, it's not just that you're in pain but also that you are denied something which sends a message that you're of less worth. And I think that's very often where we come to think of dignity.

  • 11:23:48

    REHMSo before we go any farther can you give me your definition of dignity?

  • 11:23:58

    ROSENWell, I think there are different strands and so I'd have to explain them all. There's one strand which thinks of dignity as the universal declaration does as somehow whatever it is that human beings have that entitles them to rights and respect. There's another definition which says dignity's about having a status that has to be respected. There's another thought which is that you have dignity if you're dignified, if you're someone who behaves with control.

  • 11:24:29

    ROSENBut of course, those things have to be different. I mean, when we think of a two-year-old, two year olds aren't dignified, but of course, they have rights that have to be respected. But finally, the one that I particularly was talking to now, just in respect to Lisa is the right to be treated with respect. And I think that's not quite the same as being dignified, but being treated with dignity is a very, very important thing. It's not, in my view, the foundation for all of our rights, but it goes together with those rights.

  • 11:25:03

    ROSENAnd one of the things that struck me particularly as I've thought about history is the way in which some of the worst things that human beings to do one another go together with a kind of disrespectfulness. So when we think of various humiliating kinds of treatment, when we think of genocide, when we think of torture very often they go together with demeaning the victims. And I think that's a sad fact of human nature is that that disrespectfulness enables people to behave in these ghastly ways to one another.

  • 11:25:42

    REHMBut the world has a history of populations disrespecting other populations. That's part of somehow what human nature has become. My tribe is behaving with dignity, that tribe is not.

  • 11:26:09

    ROSENWell, I think that's one of the grand, perhaps hopeless, but heroic things that human beings have been trying since the Second World War is this assertion that difference doesn't have to mean disrespect. Now I don't know, I'm not able to say what's going to succeed in the end, but I do think it's a noble aspiration and one that, you know, I'd like to see more people sign up for. I don't think it's inevitable that we have to fail to respect these things.

  • 11:26:49

    ROSENAnd I think some of the most moving stories one hears, for instance, from times of war and conflict are stories in which people who found themselves engaged in deadly mortal enmity and at the same time can acknowledge the dignity of their enemies.

  • 11:27:10

    REHMSo the aspiration is to treat others with the dignity with which you yourself hope to be treated. It is another version, if you will, of the Golden Rule.

  • 11:27:34

    ROSENWell, yes, but even in a way beyond it. Perhaps, it's a slightly mystical view, but the view is that in treating somebody else with respect not because of who they are and what they've done. You know, it's quite proper that we should disrespect someone like Saddam Hussein as a terrible person who's done terrible things to people. But as the embodiment of humanity, we owe even a terrible person like Saddam Hussein a certain kind of respect.

  • 11:28:08

    ROSENAnd that something similar is true of ourselves. So that aspect of ourselves is not just the aspect of ourselves that has certain desires, has certain goals, has certain ambitions, but also one which acknowledges certain limitations.

  • 11:28:27

    REHMMichael, I know you're thought a lot about this and, you know, I wonder whether you're thinking does extend to the treatment of nonhuman creatures. There was an article on the front page of the New York Times the other day about, for example, the treatment of racing horses and the extent to which they have been given medications to speed them up beyond their capacity. They would break ankles on the racetrack and be shot right there.

  • 11:29:17

    REHMIt struck me that the human being was not behaving with dignity toward the creature and had taken this creature for its use as opposed to treating part of this world with dignity.

  • 11:29:50

    ROSENI'm actually very sympathetic to that, Diane. I think one of the ways that I might re-express it is to say that what's upsetting you, and it upsets me too, is an attitude that human beings have in which all that really matters is disposing things to their own will.

  • 11:30:08

    REHMIs us.

  • 11:30:10

    ROSENAnd that self-centeredness seems to be in contrast with what we might call a more reverential way of looking at the world. Now of course, you know, animals have wellbeing and we should worry about their wellbeing. But I think even beyond that, there is a sense that we would do well in this world not to look at everything as if it's just there for us to consume, to manipulate. And I think that not everyone feels that way, but it's something that you obviously do and I have to say I do, too.

  • 11:30:47

    REHMWe have a great many callers.

  • 11:30:49

    ROSENThat's wonderful.

  • 11:30:49

    REHMGoing to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. To Mohammad in Dallas, Texas. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:31:04

    MOHAMMADGood morning, Ms. Rehm. I appreciate your show. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:31:08

    REHMOf course. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:31:13

    MOHAMMADWell, my question was -- I already asked the question. My question was for Mr. Rosen, how do you deal with dignity after you've lost everything? I'm an Iraq refugee and your country, your life, your family, your profession. And then how do you deal with dignity when it comes to those -- in those respects?

  • 11:31:39

    ROSENWell, Mohammad, I really, you know, have a lot of sympathy for your situation and it's hard for me to say things without having shared your experiences. But I think one of the things that we learn about dignity when we think about dignity is that people can show dignity particularly when they find themselves in difficult situations. It's one of those times where that ideal becomes a very important ideal and one that I think other people see and recognize, so if I think back to people who find that situation.

  • 11:32:22

    ROSENI just recently read a very moving book which was Martin Luther King's book, "Stride Towards Freedom," in which he describes the days of the Montgomery bus boycott. And that was a time when black people in the south were in very limited and humiliating circumstances. And this movement was a movement in which they asserted, but despite these limited and humiliating circumstances they were going to behave in a way which showed that they were worthy of respect.

  • 11:32:56

    ROSENNow, of course, that's an easy thing for someone who's in a privileged situation to say and it's a difficult thing to practice. But I think you'll find that that's something that people understand and respond to. It's something which ties us together, people who find themselves in fortunate circumstances and in less fortunate circumstances.

  • 11:33:36

    REHMMohammad, I do hope that life improves for you and that throughout, you perceive your own dignity. Thank you for calling. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Joe.

  • 11:33:41

    JOEGood morning, Diane. You've asked for a definition and I thought I'd give you mine.

  • 11:33:44


  • 11:33:45

    JOEI think dignity is upholding a high moral standard regarding yourself and others no matter what their station in life and no matter what their moral outlook is and recognizing their intrinsic right to respect.

  • 11:34:02

    ROSENI think that's an excellent definition. I think that people can hold high moral standards. And the only thing that I would just sort of add to it is that part of it is recognition. It's that second part that's very important, that it's not just that we see people as having high moral standards, but that we show to people sometimes in public ways, and that's very important, I think, when in public life. But I think it does you credit and it's an admirable definition.

  • 11:34:36

    REHMThanks for calling, Joe. To Aurora, Ill. Good morning, Steve.

  • 11:34:43

    STEVEGood morning. Yes. Would you place dignity for me in the elements of honor and reputation, which I consider contrasting elements?

  • 11:34:56

    ROSENYes. I think that if you go through the history of the term, it sort of flips between those different things. And, of course, honor changes a great deal from the Greeks to the Christians and so on. But I think one of the things that makes it interesting is that dignity starts to become something which isn't simply external.

  • 11:35:21

    ROSENSo if we go right back to the Romans, Cicero already thought that there was a human dignity which came just from being a human being. And it lay in marking off yourself from certain kinds of, well, he thought animal behavior so that, for instance, we wear clothes, that we eat with table manners, that we keep our bodily functions private. These are things that mark us off. But they're not just ways of having a reputation. They're ways of signaling something to ourselves and to one another.

  • 11:35:58

    ROSENSo it's difficult because these -- I'm having this image of a kind of series of threads which intertwine. You're quite right that they do intertwine but I think that's one thing I would say was distinctive.

  • 11:36:11

    REHMIt's interesting. We've had an email asking about the lack of dignity in politics today.

  • 11:36:22

    ROSENOh, that is interesting and people lamented. When I wrote the book, I happened to read an article by David Brooks in the New York Times in which he lamented exactly that thing. And he, though no Democrat, described the president as a dignified figure. Now I come to the United States as a Brit and so obviously I look at these things as an outsider. I think that dignity plays a big role in American politics. But it seems as though it plays that role sometimes and not at other times.

  • 11:36:59

    ROSENSo that American politics has a lot of rituals, a lot of places where people signal respect to one another. And I think in some ways what seems to be happening in the United States, and I say this very cautiously, is that people are starting to think that those rituals are rather empty.

  • 11:37:19

    REHMAnd when you think of, by contrast, the British prime minister appearing before Parliament with these horrid catcalls practically coming from the wings, it's a very different situation. Short break, we'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Michael Rosen is here with me. And he is a professor of history and government at Harvard University. His new book -- it's a very tiny book, but it encompasses so many ideas about the word and the meaning and the history of dignity.

  • 11:40:33

    REHMHere's an email from Dennis who says, "I'm a Vietnam vet. We called the German monsters in World War I and II. We had names for the Viet Cong. And remember the outrage when those Marines urinated on dead bodies. Think about it. They had just killed these people. Isn't that a lot more serious than urinating on them? Somehow soldiers are expected to kill the enemy and then change gears and respect their bodies. I get it, but it's not easy. It's hard enough to expect the NFL lineman to let up as soon as the quarterback throws the ball."

  • 11:41:36

    ROSENWell, that's a terrific email, Dennis. I mean, I think you, perhaps, should have written the book for me. I couldn't agree with you more about exactly -- I think you have your finger exactly on all the important points. But the thing you said, which I really want to emphasize, is that despite the fact that it's not easy, it's incredibly important that we do that. If what we're engaged in is, for instance, a moral war, if the state is exercising coercive power on our behalf in ways that we think are justified and whether that's a moral war or, of course, when it's exercising police power against prisoners or wrongdoers.

  • 11:42:24

    ROSENAnd the reason is because in the end we want to occupy the moral high ground. And that's, of course, practical, as well as theoretical. Now, you know, there were times when we're subject to invasion, if, you know, the Mongol hoards were coming and you just needed to fight in any way you could to keep the safety of your homestead, but nowadays our wars are fought because we're trying to defend not just our physical existence, but a certain way of living and being in the world. So...

  • 11:43:05

    REHMIsn't that precisely what Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich wanted to do, to protect their way of life, to say that their dignity had to be defended and therefore their dignity and defense thereof allowed them to make the decision to send six million Jews into the ovens?

  • 11:43:43

    ROSENWell, that's just the point, isn't it? It's the asymmetry. Where what Dennis is talking about is the requirement we have to keep that balance, even with our enemies. And what is palpable about the Third Reich is that it was just the opposite. I mean, even in the '20s the horrifying journals (sounds like) Basturma, the caricatures of Jews as insects, all of these strategies of demeaning and dehumanizing others, that was fundamental, I think, to what then came afterwards. I mean …

  • 11:44:26

    REHMSo what you're saying is that it totally lacked dignity.

  • 11:44:34


  • 11:44:35

    REHMAll right. Let's take a call from Tonasket, Wash. Yanika (sp?) , you're on the air.

  • 11:44:46

    YANIKAYeah, hi. Yanika (word?). I think that what we've been doing in Iraq is very similar to the way Hitler invaded Austria. I don't think we are defending any dignity. We're defending our empire. But what I wanna say is that I think an important part of post traumatic stress is the fact that soldiers are trained to dehumanize the enemy, otherwise it would be impossible for them to shoot them.

  • 11:45:25

    YANIKAAnd I wanna read a few lines about the situation of a person who has been trained to dehumanize Arabs. And, by the way, the soldiers tend to call them towel heads. And that will give you an idea of what this means. They must begin to imagine the unimaginable suffering they have inflicted upon others, upon strangers who, as they used to remark to each in jest, wore towels upon their heads.

  • 11:46:01

    ROSENWell, I'm not here to debate the war in Iraq. It's certainly true that the mission, as it was presented to the people of the allied nations, was a mission to establish a democratic regime in Iraq. Now you may argue whether that was hypocritical or misguided, but that does place an obligation on soldiers. And I think that the history of those who fought in various wars, yes, of course, much of it reproduces those very regrettable things that you say, but talking to soldiers I've known who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and of course there were many British troops there so I've known some of them personally.

  • 11:46:54

    ROSENI wouldn't say that that dehumanizing, contemptuous attitude towards the enemy is the only one. And of course, very often in those situations people have found themselves dealing with people where it wasn't at all clear who the enemy was and who was part of the population in which they were trying to establish this. So I fully understand how disorienting it must be for many soldiers, but I think it's obvious to anyone whether they share, whether they endorse the mission or not, that it's utterly counterproductive when these atrocities, these undignified forms of behavior are perpetrated by troops because it precisely contradicts the purpose that they're there to establish.

  • 11:47:45

    REHMMichael, we have an email from Thomas who asks, "Is it appropriate to apply the value of dignity to institutional or corporate behavior?"

  • 11:48:01

    ROSENWell, I think of dignity -- and the way I'm talking about it is having a lot to do with communication. And I think institutions are, after all, they're sedimented forms of human life. And they communicate things very much. So yes, I think that the state has a duty of dignity. If you remember last year the Supreme Court gave a judgment against the State of California for the way that it was treating its prisoners.

  • 11:48:30

    ROSENAnd it actually invoked the idea of dignity. So it's precisely when the state is at its most powerful that the idea of dignity comes to the fore. But then when we think of, you know, perhaps a slightly smaller scale, corporations, again, have massive affects on people. Of course one of the things that we think about is the way in which corporations make use of labor in poorer countries to produce consumer products for us in the richer countries. There are all kinds of cases where similar kinds of expressions of disrespect can be in play.

  • 11:49:16

    REHMYou, in the book, talk about tranquility in suffering. Say a little more about that.

  • 11:49:25

    ROSENYes. Well, that's what one strand, which I think comes in very much -- it goes right the way back to the side of being dignified. And it's...

  • 11:49:35

    REHMYou make me sit up straighter.

  • 11:49:39

    ROSENWell, if I may say so, Diane, you represent a very dignified figure.

  • 11:49:44

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:49:45

    ROSENBut and it's something that we see as an aesthetic quality. It's often contrasted with a quality of gracefulness. A gracefulness would be a quality which is often light and sprightly. And dignity is a more measured quality, a quality of showing self control. And the reason why it's so admirable is that as human beings, as finite mortal creatures, we're very often subjected to either physical stresses and strains which make it hard for us to establish and show control, but also to moral stresses and strains, where duties are laid on us which are actually hard to fulfill.

  • 11:50:40

    ROSENAnd when we see people fulfilling them in that way we feel, I think, a perception of dignity. And that idea, I think, is a powerful one which resonates. And it came really to the fore in the late 18th century. It was, again, a democratic idea that, okay, not everyone can be of the highest rank in society, but all of us face these moral demands. All of us face these possibilities of physical suffering and facing that in a way which shows self control and tranquility, not being self-pitying, but showing a certain stoicism, that is a quality of dignity which we can see and admire.

  • 11:51:24

    REHMYou know, as you say that it makes me think of the dignity of the caregiver, as well as the dignity of he or she who is suffering.

  • 11:51:42

    ROSENAbsolutely right. I think that's -- and very often a relational quality, that the dignity of the caregiver lies in not being over-emotional, but at the same time being sensitive and practical at once. And these are things which, when we see them, I think, we rightly admire them.

  • 11:52:09

    REHMTo Houston, Texas. Good morning, Richard.

  • 11:52:14

    RICHARDGood morning, Diane. I have a comment and a question.

  • 11:52:17


  • 11:52:18

    RICHARDAwhile ago, you were discussing dignity in politics and I just wanted to say that I think that dignity is largely gone out of American politics. I'd say that cat-calling in parliament is nothing besides American attack ads that are put on by people who needn't disclose their identities.

  • 11:52:35

    REHMFair point. Fair point.

  • 11:52:38

    RICHARDThank you. What is the etymology of the word dignity?

  • 11:52:42

    ROSENGood. Well, I'm not great classicist, but dignitas is the Latin root. And it has an actual sort of affinity, I believe, to our word digit. So its root is a kind of a ancient root, which has to do with valuing. But as far as...

  • 11:53:06

    REHMYou mean valuing in terms of counting?

  • 11:53:11

    ROSENYes. And indicating something so that, you know, I could be completely wrong about this.

  • 11:53:15


  • 11:53:16

    ROSENBut one thing about it I do know...

  • 11:53:16

    REHMSomebody will call if you're wrong.

  • 11:53:19

    ROSENYes, exactly. Someone out there will be able to correct me.

  • 11:53:21


  • 11:53:21

    ROSENBut one of the interesting sort of affinities is in German, which played a very big role. The word is (sounds like) vilda and you can hear that its very close to our English worth and worthy so there's an interplay between dignified and worthy in those two things.

  • 11:53:41

    REHMMichael Rosen, he's professor at Harvard. His new book is titled "Dignity". And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". Richard, do you have another root source for the word dignity?

  • 11:54:02

    RICHARDI do not, but as soon as I arrive at my office I'll go to work.

  • 11:54:05

    REHMOkay. Good for you. Thank you.

  • 11:54:06

    RICHARDThank you. Goodbye.

  • 11:54:08

    REHMTo Lee, here in Washington, D.C. Good morning.

  • 11:54:15

    LEEGood morning, Diane. First, I wanna thank you for your show. One of the things that's wonderful about your show is that you keep us aware of the significance of human dignity. And I thank you for that.

  • 11:54:30

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:54:33

    LEEI have more of a comment than a question. Initially, Dr. Rosen spoke about Christianity and dignity, but also in the Eastern religion tradition, Hinduism and Buddhism, there is a deep regard for all life, where all life has dignity. And by that it's meant that all life forms have a right to live and to prosper. And when we eat meals there's a prayer that said which amounts to in honor of the life that we have taken in order that we may live we give our gratitude and we promise not to waste.

  • 11:55:32

    ROSENWell, yes. I think that dignity, as it's come into our politics, has some quite distinctive Western aspects. It's this aspect that was early in the Western tradition that started to see all human beings has having some shared dignity, it wasn't just a matter of where you stood in a hierarchy and that, as I say, in this Christian inversion that there's a special dignity of people at the bottom of the social scale. But from the little bit I know about other traditions and you're absolutely right. I think it comes to what I was trying to say earlier. That it goes together with a reverential or respectful attitude towards life in which we don’t see everything there for our disposal. And your prayer seems to me to correspond to that.

  • 11:56:25

    REHMAnd finally, an email from Mark who says, "One cannot retain dignity while denying it to another."

  • 11:56:37

    ROSENYes. Well, I think that's right, but perhaps one can think one has dignity, as Diane was saying, that people have extremely domineering world views which make it difficult then for them to respect others, but I do hope we've come to a world in which we understand things the way that you do, Mark.

  • 11:57:01

    REHMMichael Rosen, professor of history at Harvard University -- and government, by the way. His new book is titled, "Dignity: Its History and Meaning." Congratulations on the book.

  • 11:57:19

    ROSENThank you so much, Diane. It's been a pleasure talking to you and to your guests.

  • 11:57:22

    REHMAnd thank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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