This post examines the virtue of dignity. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is dignity?
“The one who is conscious of his soul’s nobility will not endure a dishonorable life.” ―Sophocles
The word “dignity” is commonly used in a few ways, only one of which describes a virtue.
One way is in phrases like “human dignity.” This is something that is supposed to reside in all people and that makes them worthy of respect. If you mistreat someone in certain ways, you might be said to be “violating their dignity.” In such a case, it’s not that you were mistaken about whether or not this particular person had exceptional dignity worthy of respect, but that you were failing to acknowledge a sort of inalienable baseline dignity that belongs to everyone and the possession of which sets certain boundaries to how you ought to behave toward them. Discussions of dignity in contexts like human rights and medical ethics are usually discussions of this sort of dignity. (Dignity in this sense has a suspicious resemblance to phlogiston: a hypothesized substance that serves as a placeholder for a more complex explanation — less generously, a mere applause light, or “nonsense on stilts”.)
Occasionally “dignity” is used as a sort of honorific, bestowed on somebody as a way of raising them above the common crowd. A “dignitary” for example, is someone who has been officially granted dignity of a sort.
If you succeed in elevating something (an art form, a profession, a group of people) into a position of higher respectability, you might be said to have “brought dignity” to it. (For example, “Zora Neale Hurston brought dignity to African American folk tales by revealing them to be a sophisticated literature.”)
Finally, another use of “dignity” is in phrases like “that would be beneath my dignity” or “to bear trials with dignity.” This form of dignity you don’t just have by default; some people have it and some people don’t. But on the other hand, it is not something that is bestowed on you by someone else or that requires affirmation from others; it seems to be self-generated. This last meaning is the meaning of dignity-as-a-virtue that I want to explore in this post.
Dignity overlaps with honor somewhat — in the sense of character / pride / reputation / rectitude. Dignity also sometimes goes under the names of self-worth, self-esteem, or self-assurance. The “self-”ness of those epithets highlights that dignity is an internal resource.
Dignity is often associated with poise — a “dignified bearing.” Body language that signifies dignity (sometimes as a literary or theatrical shorthand) includes having an upright posture (not cowering or cringing), an unhurried and deliberate way of doing things (not rushed or clumsy), a proud demeanor (looking people in the eye, not fidgeting or wringing one’s hands), and a steady voice (not shouting or stammering or whining). So grace, gravitas, and decorum all seem to be outward markers of dignity or to be connected with it somehow. That said, they are neither necessary nor sufficient. Somebody who has been injured by disease or accident, for example, may lack some of these superficial markers of dignity but can still show just as much dignity in how they play the cards they are dealt.
Endurance in the face of pain, courage in the face of fear, and temperance in the face of temptation are considered dignified, while someone who wilts easily or who does something unseemly while tempted may be told that they are behaving in an undignified way.
“Quiet” is a modifier often-applied to “dignity” — which contrasts the dignified person with the person who kvetches, whines, rages, makes ostentatious declarations, puts on airs, talks a big game, or has a big hat-to-cattle ratio. So there may be some affinity between dignity and silence, reserve, temper, and serenity.
There is also a somewhat ironic connection between dignity and shame. To have a sense of shame requires that you think some things are beneath your dignity; to be ashamed of something you have done is to believe that it was a stain on your dignity; to be restrained by your sense of shame is to put a high price on your dignity. So shame seems to require dignity, and dignity is protected by shame. But on the other hand, feeling chronically ashamed can make dignity difficult. (Brené Brown is a popular self-help author and speaker who has made shame her bailiwick. She describes people with resilience to shame — who neither become shameless nor consumed by shame — as “Wholehearted” and gives some advice on how to get there from wherever you’re at.)
There may be some tension between dignity and humility, and in particular where humility meets piety in self-abasement. On the other hand, some religious people include dignity among the virtues. Christians sometimes reason that as people were made in God’s image, only a little lower than the angels, we ought to attempt to reflect the glory of God with our own dignified stature. But it can be hard to maintain a dignified bearing while in humble awe at just how small, weak, ephemeral, and ignorant we are in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t it ridiculous — comic and tragic at the same time — for an overdressed chimp like me to pretend he is dignified?
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” ―Hamlet
“The well-bred are dignified but not pompous. The ill-bred are pompous, but not dignified.” (Analects of Confucius, ⅩⅢ.ⅹⅹⅵ)
Pomposity, braggadocio, fronting, and machismo are among the ways people without dignity try to fake it, but to the discerning such things are just evidence for an absence of dignity. Their flaw is in part that they show the braggart to be conditioning their dignity on the respect shown to them by the sort of people who might be impressed by their bluster, whereas a person with genuine dignity would not be bothered by what easily-swayed randos might think of them.
Because such blowhards seek to impress rather than to become the sort of person they ought to admire, they become mere performers, insecure every time the applause dies down. In thrall to their audience, they cannot stand on their own feet, and real dignity eludes them.
Sometimes also people try to assert their dignity by being domineering, in a way that ultimately isn’t very dignified. Donald Trump’s cringeworthily aggressive handshakes are one example, and South Park Cartman’s “respect my authoritah!” is another.
Dignity can also overshoot the mark and become a snobbish sense of superiority, or a supercilious stuffiness (“I would not lower myself to see some silly comic book movie”). Aristotle’s great-souled man is proud, has tremendous self-regard, believes himself to be deserving of all honor, and has earned every bit of it. He also doesn’t seem like he’d be much fun to be around. He has dignity, to be sure, but not of a sort most people would be wise to imitate.
Dignity and “Pride”
For people in low-status castes or oppressed groups, assertions of dignity can be political statements. “Gay Pride,” “Black & Proud,” and so forth try to defeat or invert the effect of being in the politically disadvantaged group by refusing to go along with the idea that there is any lesser dignity to being in the group.
For people in higher-status groups, superficially similar assertions of pride (e.g. “White Pride”) operate differently. Some people in those groups may use “pride” as an attempt to leverage the extra privilege and status that the group has obtained as though it were something that could give them dignity as individuals.
Groups will sometimes use this borrowed-dignity temptation to cheaply buy off people who don’t have much dignity of their own — by offering them low-value tokens that ostensibly confer “official” dignity: titles, ranks, insignia, awards, positions, and things of that sort.
Behaving in an undignified way can sometimes reflect badly on groups you belong to, and this can also become tangled in questions of group status and politics. For example, a character like Stepin Fetchit, who played up degrading stereotypes for laughs, came to be seen as not only an undignified role for the actor to play, but as something that was harmful to the dignity of black people in general and so a sort of betrayal or lapse of solidarity on the part of the actor.
(People who attempt to display dignity and fail are stars of many comic tropes. Such scenarios are put to good use by many comedic actors, consider Charlie Chaplin or Peter Sellers for example. The struggle to maintain dignity in trying circumstances seems to strike a nerve with people, and seeing the pompous brought down to earth is also popular.)
Becoming more dignified
A dignified person puts a high value on their character and stature, and so they will not stoop to scrape for less valuable things. This suggests that in order to be dignified, it helps if you have your basic needs (in a Maslow’s hierarchy sense) well in hand, so you don’t have to “swallow your pride” to make ends meet.
Dignity can be threatened by being in another person’s debt or by being reliant on somebody else. This makes self-reliance an important ingredient of dignity. If you live paycheck to paycheck, you may feel less able to tell your employer to take a hike if they ask you to do something beneath your dignity. Having a financial cushion — in this context, sometimes described as “fuck you money” — enables you to value your dignity higher than your job. If you place a high value on your dignity, you’ll be more motivated to save up money to better insure it in this way.
If your ambitions require you to flatter, kow-tow, or suck-up to people with power, money, or authority, or to be a crowd-pleaser, you may find your dignity and your ambitions at cross-purposes. It’s a good idea to consider the potential cost in dignity of the ambitions you decide to pursue.
The influence of intoxicating drugs, alcohol in particular, can cause people to shed their dignity. And an addiction can tempt a person to do undignified things to feed the monkey on their back. So if you want to be more dignified, caution around drugs is warranted.
If you catch yourself behaving in an undignified way, see if you can find a pattern. There may be another virtue you can strengthen that will help your dignity as a side effect. If you lose your dignity when you are tired or uncomfortable, work on your endurance. If you lose your dignity when you are tempted by something you want, work on your temperance. If you lose your dignity when you are frightened, work on your courage. If you lose your dignity when you are angry, work on your temper.
People sometimes behave in an undignified way under the sway of strong emotions. Knowing how to feel an emotion fully and genuinely without letting it push you beyond respectable bounds is an art that takes practice to get right. If you are in the habit of suppressing strong emotions, you may find yourself out of your depth when emotion breaks through your defenses; on the other hand, if you use strong emotion as an excuse to throw off all restraint, you’ll likely develop the bad habit of sacrificing your dignity in the process.