Vanity thought #1413. “Supreme” Justice 14

Near the end now, there’s just one point about dignity and one more dissenting opinion left and I will be released.

The dissenting argument about dignity is more philosophical than legal, it’s just a gripe the dissenting judge had with the reasoning deployed by the majority opinion. What’s interesting about it is that it makes sense, then loses sense under counterarguments, then gains sense again, and then loses sense when put in Kṛṣṇa conscious perspective.

The basic argument goes like this – the majority realizes that liberty has nothing to do with legalizing SSM and so it argues that SSM restores human dignity. The error is that the Constitution does not talk about dignity, and even if it did, dignity is not something that can be bestowed by the government.

At one point the majority suggested that marriage confers “nobility” on individuals. That’s not a legal right protected by the Constitution, and the suggestion that married people are therefore more noble than unmarried is specious, it sounds good only on the surface.

I don’t think the majority would agree with this general description of their legal reasoning regarding dignity but the objection raises interesting points on its own so let’s go with it.

Here’s a long quote that is also so concise I don’t think I can improve on it: “Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth.”

The government, therefore cannot confer or take away people’s dignity. Simple and brilliant.

The counterargument, however, is that we’ve seen plenty of examples in history where human dignity was taken away and needed to be restored – slavery or interments camps, for example, mentioned by the dissent itself. The innate possession of dignity by the slaves was never a reason not to outlaw slavery, so courts and governments have all the rights to restore dignity.

This counterargument wasn’t raised in the dissent, of course, it’s something I’ve seen in discussions about it. The answer to this is also simple – it’s precisely because human dignity is innate that slavery was perceived to be wrong. If existence of slaves’ dignity depended on the government slavery would have never been outlawed and no one would ever raise voice against it. It would be like arguing for restoring rights of rocks and stones.

There were plenty of people, of course, who didn’t see slaves as fully human, equal to their owners, and it was that attitude that was deemed unconstitutional.

So, perhaps, the dissent is right in rejecting the idea that SSM confers dignity to gays, if it was exactly how the majority argued, but I don’t see how it stops the court from reacting to SSM in the same way they reacted to slavery.

The answer to this would be, I guess, is that there’s still no “nobility and dignity” clause in the constitution and so if the court was looking to right some wrongs it should have used different legal arguments to go about it.

What about dignity from our POV? Is it really as innate as the US Constitution says?

Dignity in the sense used here never appears in Prabhupāda’s books, it’s just not something he was concerned about so our “official” understanding of it will always be somewhat speculative. There’s only one discussion with Śyāmasundara about philosophy of Kant where dignity is discussed in the context relevant to the topic:

Śyāmasundara: He says that man, because he respects the moral law and practices it, is a personality having infinite dignity. He believes in the dignity of man based upon his adherence to moral principles. If a man follows moral principles, then he has dignity, which is different than any other…
Prabhupāda: That is already explained, that varṇāśrama-dharma, because the brāhmaṇas, they follow the good laws, therefore dignity. A brāhmaṇa is supposed to be the first-class man in the society, and therefore they are honored.
Śyāmasundara: He says everything else has an exchange value or a price, but man alone possesses self-direction or dignity, and this is priceless, and so we should never stoop to sell ourselves. If we sell ourselves like a commodity, then we lose our dignity.
Prabhupāda: That dignity is his inherent quality of obedience to the Supreme. That we should not sacrifice. Here, modern civilization is that he knows that he is not independent, he is subordinate to God’s will. Still, artificially, to defy God he is manufacturing so many philosophies, hypocrisy.
Śyāmasundara: He sees that men sell themselves like commodities. In order to get something, they sell themselves.
Prabhupāda: Yes. To get some popularity, to get some money, to get some adoration, he sacrifices.
Śyāmasundara: He says that the way man should really act is to follow the moral code, and then he has dignity, because he has self-direction. He is determined to follow the moral principles, so he has dignity.
Prabhupāda: The moral codes are there. If anyone follows actually, he has dignity.

From this exchange it appears that dignity is not innate but depends on following moral codes, or varṇāśrama. In other words, dignity comes from being connected to God, we have it only as a reflection of God’s own infinite fame and honor, and so it can be lost. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that atheists have no dignity because they still follow laws originally laid out by God but, in general, this explanation is perfect.

Acting on your own, in pursuit of your own interests, is not dignified in any way I can think of. A mother taking care of her kids has dignity in her purpose but the same woman committing adultery looses dignity in that aspect of her life. If she has to prostitute herself to support her kids she has dignity in that but in other ways her behavior is certainly immoral and undignified. She is not going to be respected as a prostitute but she can still be respected as a mother.

Does this relativistic understanding of dignity contradict the US Constitution? On the surface it appears that it does, but look at what is actually said in Declaration of Independence: people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. The connection between God and dignity is there – it all comes from a connection to God. We were all created to serve the Lord, that is our eternal nature, and in that sense our dignity is innate and unalienable even if we refuse to do so, but this refusal and whatever follows from it has no dignity, and not even granted “rights”, which would be a surprise to American atheists and secularists of all stripes.

I wonder what they would say to this argument. If I had a chance to present it I’ll certainly report their reaction.

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