H.P.P. [Hennie] Lötter is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. Hennie’s research interests are in political philosophy and philosophy of science. He is the author of several articles on poverty, and the monograph "Poverty, Ethics and Justice" (University of Wales Press, 2011). This book has also been subject of two recent symposia in Res Publica (with Darrel Moellendorf, Gillian Brock, and Thaddeus Metz) and the International Journal of Applied Philosophy (with Taddheus Metz, Daryl Glaser, and Tristen Taylor).
Title: Poverty and Human Dignity
In my presentation I explore the possibilities and strengths of a theory called dignitarianism, that I proposed in an article in 2016[i]. I also look at weaknesses and counter-arguments that could be raised. In particular, I investigate the adequacy of the suggested grounding of dignitarianism and the capacity of the theory to explain the core features of poverty that humans have to deal with. In the article I introduced the theory as follows.
A major political development that taught humanity much about living fairly as equals in a just society in the last century or so was the development and implementation of the conception of a justiciable bill of rights. There is a direct link between the idea of equal human rights for every citizen that cannot easily be overridden and Immanuel Kant’s idea of human dignity. As much as the idea of human rights gained traction and implementation in the 20th century throughout the world as a cross-cultural practice to defend important interests of individual citizens, to the same extent the idea of human dignity gained acceptance as the other side of the human rights coin. In the light of the widespread and growing acceptance of human rights undergirded by the value of human dignity, I contend that human dignity ought to become the central concept of any political philosophy. I claim that the concept of dignity properly understood can capture all the most important human interests to be defended by forms of government designed for contemporary societies.
To set out this argument, I first explained Kant’s definition and justification of the idea of human dignity, then showed some of its implications, and finally proposed the outline of a new political philosophy with the concept of human dignity at its core. How exactly did Kant define and justify the intrinsic worth or absolute human dignity of every citizen? I stated my understanding of Kant’s view as follows.
Kant theorised that humanity already exists as an end in itself that we should acknowledge through respect. To be a human is to have intrinsic worth, a value that goes beyond all other values and that is best described as human dignity. The dignity of humanity, as expressed in an individual human, cannot be compared to that of another, nor can it be compensated for if taken away, or traded off for something else, or replaced by any other value. This value inheres in every human in such a way that everyone has an equal moral worth.
For Kant, the ultimate way to judge the morality of any action is to look at the moral agent’s attitude towards humanity as expressed in an action, to judge whether the action demonstrates respect for the humanity of that specific person. Moral action towards other people thus esteems, preserves, or furthers the dignity of the people affected by the action. Kant is specific that the human dignity of persons is the ‘supreme limiting condition” of every other person’s freedom of action. In his so-called kingdom of ends, Kant imagines a group of rational agents that become a community (or union) by harmonising their ends into an interconnected system where each person only pursues those ends that respect the ends pursued by others. Individual persons thus pursue their ends by mutually limiting their actions so that others have freedoms similar to theirs.
Viewing other humans as members of our species with equal human dignity as ourselves and part of our inclusive moral community makes a major difference to the actions we consider appropriate toward them. Rejecting or denying their human dignity licenses either cruel behaviour or reason for simply ignoring their plight.
The definition of poverty in my book called Poverty, Ethics and Justice relies on the idea of human dignity. How does this definition link poverty with human dignity? I argue that poverty strips poor people of significant parts of their dignity related to the role economic capacities play in the lives of humans. This role is circumscribed by norms that determine what it means to have dignity as a human with respect to economic capacities. In the article I articulated the norms as follows.
Adult humans contribute to society and become self-reliant through the exercise of economic capacities, i.e. capacities to access and utilise economic resources needed for survival and flourishing. Adequate exercise of economic capacities enables us to participate in a standard set of social activities and empower us to develop our human capacities in socially satisfying ways. ‘Socially satisfying” in this context means morally acceptable, intellectually impressive, or emotionally pleasing ways. To be without appropriate economic capacities for a decent living excludes people from productive, valued contributions to their communities and societies. Their status as interdependent fellow citizens taking proper care of themselves whilst contributing to their shared life with others is thus undermined.
This is my concrete conception of social exclusion, as poor people cannot participate in the fundamental collective human quest for ensuring the survival and enabling the flourishing of human communities. Further, they cannot develop and deploy their capacities to engage in social life, they are disabled from giving their full input in employment, their range of activities as full members of society are diminished and their poverty restrains them from utilizing opportunities they would otherwise qualify for.
In the article I faced the challenge that if I link human dignity so strongly with the norms that define the role of economic capacities and their impact on our lives, then surely I must explain why economic capacities play a fundamental role in the grounding of human dignity? If yes, then I must demonstrate that the grounding of human dignity consists in much more than the use of reason in autonomous moral decision making or normative self-government (Kant), or vitality and the identity and solidarity accompanying communal relationships (African views)?
In the article I offered a few suggestions of a more comprehensive grounding of human dignity that more accurately articulates the uniqueness of humanity compared to other living beings. This grounding justifies dignity for humanity as species and equal dignity for every living being instantiating humanity in their person. In the article I wrote that I suspect the following factors might ground human dignity.
(i) Our human intellectual capabilities demonstrated so powerfully in the multiple “worlds” that we create in almost kaleidoscopic variety through imagination, culture, science, and technology to enable our survival and flourishing; (ii) The exceptional degree of plasticity of human behaviour that finds expression in diverse cultures, innovative economies, co-operative communities, and uniquely expressive individual lifestyles; (iii) Humans exhibit a wide and deep range of emotions that we articulate in complex, diverse ways in human language, art forms, and media; (iv) Humans engage in sophisticated moral reasoning and are held to account for their actions. We are thus capable of normative self-government. For this reason humans seem to legitimately deserve more comprehensive and wide-ranging moral spaces and protections than any other organism alive.
How could we develop a political philosophy based on human dignity as fundamental concept? I proposed a brief outline of such a theory that I call dignitarianism. The word “dignitary” does not only mean someone in a position of high rank, but can also mean that dignity has been endowed, granted, conferred, or bestowed on someone. In effect that is what we as humans do when we declare that every human has equal dignity. We declare that we acknowledge the human dignity that we have discovered each instantiation of humanity in a human person possesses. Through such declaration we respect one another’s inviolable moral status that must be honoured in specific ways and not be violated or ignored. As we have seen earlier, no person’s human dignity must be violated, nor should any person violate their own dignity themselves. Rather, the challenge is to live a life worthy of the moral status assigned to our species, whether as individual humans or as collectives joined together in societies.
I then asked what does it mean for humans as individuals and collectives to live lives worthy of our dignity. My provisional answer was as follows. It means simply that humans demonstrate those dimensions of human life and activities that typically characterize the qualities that ground human dignity. Proper respect for the dignity of humanity, grounded as outlined above, implies the intent to let human communities flourish and prevent any form of harm or neglect to endanger or destroy such flourishing. Proper respect for humanity in the person of an individual human requires us to let each individual pursue whatever goals they set to develop and test those unique human qualities that ground their dignity, without them violating the goals of others in the process.
Does the proposed theory of dignitarianism have any particular value that makes it more acceptable than liberalism, republicanism, or a human rights approach? In my presentation I offer considerations to explore this question in greater depth.
[i] H.P.P. Lötter, 2016. “Is poverty eradication impossible? No, says dignitarianism”, International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol 30:1, 43-64.