Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Essays

Human Dignity between Kitsch and Deification

Avishai Margalit

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Horizontal Honor and Vertical Honor


What is so great about human beings that each and every one of them deserves moral respect? Strangely enough, respect for humans is like aristocratic respect, honoring you for who you are, not for what you do, and who you are depends on your family tree. In the case of humans, the family concerned is, so to speak, the family of humanity.11xAn earlier version of this essay was delivered as the 2004–5 Litowitz Lecture hosted by the Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University on October 14, 2004. 

Yet there is a vast difference between social aristocratic honor and moral honor (respect) for humans as humans. Social honor is typified by two dimensions: the vertical honor you owe to those above you in rank and the horizontal honor you owe to your equals. Moral honor has only one dimension: the horizontal. This respect is extended to all humans, even the cruelest criminals and the most mentally challenged. Even human corpses are to be shown respect. Dead bodies, even those of our enemies, are not animal cadavers. They are expected to be treated differently, a difference that manifests respect.

There may be a serious tension between social honor and moral respect, for we are often called to morally respect individuals whom we intensely disrespect socially. The poet W. H. Auden composed an epigraph to his 1930 poems “let us honour if we can / the vertical man / Though we value none / but the horizontal one.”22xW. H. Auden, Epigraph (1930), Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957 (London: Faber & Faber, 1996). Did he mean that we can honor only the dead, the horizontal, and are incapable of honoring the living, the ones who are still vertical? Or perhaps he had an erotic private joke in mind. I do not know. But my essay is about the reverse of Auden’s verses—“let us honor if we can the horizontal man, though we value none but the vertical one”—meaning, let us deal with the purely horizontal honor that is moral respect, even though it is vertical, social honor in which we often indulge.


The Religious Answer


What justifies respect for human beings as human beings? One influential answer to this vexing question is that human beings as such do not deserve respect. The source of respect for humans rests somewhere else; it is only because humans are created in the image of their creator that they deserve respect. Since God is the sole creator, God, and only God, deserves veneration. Respect for humans is merely a reflected glory, emanating from the glory of God. So the answer to the question—what is so great about humans that makes them deserve respect?—is that there is nothing great about humans. God is great, and humans are created in the image of the great God.

But then what is it to be created in the image of God? This remains terribly obscure because, based on traditional readings of the scriptures, God is not supposed to have an image in any literal sense. The idea of being created in the image of God is that there is some unspecified similarity in virtue such that humans are similar to God and this similarity reflects glory on human beings. It does not mean a symmetric relation, however. It is like saying that “Tel Aviv is more similar to New York than New York is similar to Tel Aviv.” Similarity, as Thomas of Aquinas tells us, is a non-symmetric relation.

I should add that the idea of humans deserving respect for being created in the image of God is backed by a powerful myth of origin, which tells us that humanity descended from one couple that was created by God. Hence, respect for being created in the image of God is extended to all humans because we are descendents of that first primordial couple. All humans thus constitute one extended family, the family of humanity.

The universalistic reading of the relevant Biblical verses from the Jewish tradition, based on the view that all humans are created in the image of God, is not shared by all who belong to that tradition. There are very distressing readings, mainly by Jewish mystics, that narrow the category of being a human to being a Jew. Noted among them is the Talmudic saying, attributed to the mystic sage Shimon Bar-Yoahi, “you are called humans but the gentiles are not to be called humans.”33xShimon Bar-Yoahi, Tractate Ybamot 61. The translation is mine.

So far we have ascertained a prominent religious justification for respecting humans. Contrary to such an account, humanistic morality does not appeal to the Divine for any moral justification. Humans are the measure of all moral things. Thus, the question of why humans deserve respect is answered in humanistic moral theory by an appeal to humans or to human attributes that provides direct justification, without going through the mediation of something else such as God.

The challenge to the humanistic approach is to find a justifying attribute, that is, a good-making feature of humans by virtue of which each and every human being deserves respect. Being human is not usually regarded as good enough to justify respect because it is regarded as a merely descriptive term to designate a biological species and hence has no moral bearing. Against this common view, I maintain that being human is the right title to justify respect as humans. Moreover, other justifying attributes shoot either too high or too low, whereas being human is right on target. An example of shooting too low is respect for humans as potential victims. An example of shooting too high is respect for humans as potential moral legislators. Shooting too low involves kitsch; shooting too high involves deification. Both are seductive traps. My concern in this essay is to clarify what I believe these traps to be and to extricate the discussion from some claptraps that go along with it.

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