Dignity and Honour as an Alternative to Right and Respect

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for wpfdc.org

In my previous essay I argued that liberal human rights are at best reductive and at worst repressive. They reduce human beings to ‘bare individuals’ who are stripped of all real, constitutive relations with other human beings or the universe and merely seen as bearers of abstract entitlements such as negative liberty. Liberalism can also enslave people to the joint power of the global ‘market-state’, which can suspend both core constitutional provisions (like fair detention, fair trial and habeas corpus) and deny citizens or stateless people essential legal rights.

In this essay I will put forward the case for the notion of ‘dignity’ and ‘honour’ as legitimate alternatives to the concept of ‘rights’ and ‘respect’. The latter privilege individual subjective entitlements and claims, whereas the former shift the emphasis to more mutual, reciprocal arrangements and a more objective sense of a ‘right ordering of relations’. As such, dignity and honour are neither subordinate to rights and respect nor mere supplements but instead a genuinely different approach to promote the worth of each person and the flourishing of all.

1. Why dignity and honour?

An appeal to ‘rights’ alone cannot secure humane and fair treatment, especially in case of crime and imprisonment but in relation to the dominant institutions of education and welfare, as both Karl Polanyi and Michel Foucault argued in different ways. Likewise, using human rights to defend individual or collective autonomy ignores the mutual, interpersonal relations that constitute society. These limitations and shortcomings are neither accidental nor temporary but go back to the origins and the logic of the liberal tradition. Indeed, the emergence and rise to power of liberalism was coterminous with substituting individual rights for the common good and replacing notions of relational being with a focus on individual substance (which is nonetheless vulnerable to collective domination, as in the work of Hobbes).

Philosophically, the liberal tradition oscillates between the idea that human beings have special rights because they own themselves (the ‘possessive individualism’ of Hobbes and Locke), on the one hand, and the idea that human are unique because they are originally free and have been afforded trusteeship of their own untradeable liberty (the ‘collective autonomism’ of Rousseau and Kant), on the other hand. Either way, liberalism is wedded to a contractualist logic that links the individual directly to the collective by bracketing the relational, interpersonalist dimension altogether out of the picture. The main, if not exclusive, kind of mediation is that of individual right and social contract.

While this has had no doubt significant benefits for many, it is nonetheless the case that persons are reduced to ‘bare’ individuals and that communities and associations are subordinated to the collusive convergence of state and market. Crucially, the ‘market-state’ can exclude both individuals and groups which it deems to be outside the social contract and individual entitlements – whether the criminal and the stranger or the poor and the marginalised.

The only genuine alternative is a pluralist ontology that accentuates the relational and cooperative outlook of humanity – a pluralism that can variously be more personalist or more corporatist. Dignity and honour shift the focus from the individual, rights and contracts to persons, mutual relations of esteem and reciprocal regard. From an anthropological perspective, it is these practices of mutuality and reciprocity that provide the glue which holds society together. Indeed, trust, cooperation and gift-exchange are human habits on which both democracy and the market economy ultimately depend.

2. What dignity? Whose honour?

According to pluralism, the dignity of the person and the honour of the association (or corporation) are complementary rather than mutually exclusive or in opposition to one another. The reason is that to value the dignity of each human being is not to value an abstract bearer of general rights or individual autonomy who is exactly the same as all other such bearers. Instead, it is to value the particular share of the person in the universal gift of freedom and the irreducibly specific character, i.e. the personal talents and gifts that constitute the uniqueness of each character. It is for this latter reason that each and every person is ‘more’ than the mere totality of an individual – because the latter is always already reduced to the purely equivalent attributes, including rationality, autonomy and liberty.

Crucially, character itself – as the key figures of Greco-Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages such as Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas argued – is not just given by nature but is also habitually acquired, ascribed and nurtured. It therefore does not exist outside interpersonal relationality and social reciprocity. Thus, one cannot respect a human being qua human being or in abstraction of his/her relationships, profession, beliefs or faith. Put differently, one cannot respect a man and despise him as peasant, father, son, football player, Christian or lover – though he is bound to fall short on ethos and excellence when it comes to such and similar roles, functions and vocations.

Nor is the true that character so conceived subordinates sovereign individuals to the rule and domination of illiberal, undemocratic corporations. The kind of pluralism that this essay defends seeks to fuse personalism with corporatism in such a way as to view persons and groups as having their own ‘individual’ integrity and entertaining relations that are mutually augmenting – like members of a body who cannot flourish unless both the parts and the whole are healthy and properly ordered.

Philosophically, this implies viewing individual rights in both ‘personalist’ and ‘distributist’ terms, which means that persons are not isolated, atomised individuals but rather the most basic ‘station’ in an organic yet dynamic hierarchical ordering of society. This ordering does not reflect or reinforce the privilege of power and money but is instead in accordance with excellence and ethos. Hence it is organic in the sense of being in line with the best traditions –yet at the same time dynamic in the sense of rewarding innovation and transformation.

Politically, this implies that the person is the primary station in a ‘nested’, interlocking union of various levels of relationship and association governed by the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity – in the sense of mutual assistance based on personal need – requires that neither individuals nor the state pursue their own self-interest but exhibit a proper regard and commitment to the flourishing of others. Subsidiarity suggests that political, social and economic functions should be fulfilled at the most appropriate levels for the common good of each and everyone and hence at the levels that are closest to the person and her flourishing. Such a conception assumes that there is a pyramid with rule at the top only authenticated by its guardianship of the common good. So legitimate rule on the part of the state (government, administration, the armed forces, etc.) involves both popular assent and a public commitment to the common good.

It follows that individual rights cannot be viewed in isolation but must be linked to the whole person and her manifold roles in the polity – from the family and the household via the locality and the profession to the state and the international society of nations. What a person can do for herself, grow for herself, make herself or own herself, she should. Inversely she must be in a position to appeal against an oppressive group or a repressive state – just as groups should have a right to appeal against oppressive higher groups, states or ultimately an international hegemon – in ways we are yet to invent and make work.

But claims to individual rights necessarily involve a more mutual, reciprocal dimension than modern liberalism allows, i.e. an appeal to groups, associations, states and the international society of nations. All these higher levels compared with the isolated, atomised individual are not merely necessary evils. Rather, they can be viewed as upholding the dignity of the person and the flourishing of all against oppression and exploitation.

3. ‘Mixed constitution’ beyond liberal democracy

In turn, this requires a genuinely ‘mixed constitution’ in which no single branch of government can arbitrarily override the others. Crucially, it also requires a commitment to protect the person against the group, or smaller groups against greater ones, as in the protection of small businesses against bigger ones and against the twin threat of cartels and monopoly. In fact, this is one of the best arguments in favour of mixed constitution, including the need for a constitutional monarchy beyond merely aristocratic power: the One must sometimes defend the Many against the virtuous Few when the latter have turned corruptly oligarchic.

By contrast, it is the liberalism of the left and the right that posits a diametric opposition between the individual and the collective, linked to the primacy of the political over the economic (as for Hobbes and Rousseau) or the economic over the political (as for Locke and J.S. Mill). But either way, the liberal tradition subjects the social to the combined rule of the economic and the political – the free market or the central state. It therefore views society in almost exclusively formal, procedural terms as a means to an end – with merely instrumental value to encourage either self-possession or autonomy (or both at once).

To nurture the person one must nurture social groups, economic vocations and the shared polity in which all can participate. In order to widen and deepen personal political participation or democracy, one must ensure that every individual can exercise political influence through the workplace and with those whom he shares a common purpose, notably membership in professional associations and other similar bodies. As John Milbank argues, “by contrast, merely representative democracy (which nevertheless has its place) assumes that there is in any case little impact to be made on most of human life through the political process, which indeed is for liberalism undemocratically defined as primarily the upholding of contractual rights which as ‘natural’ do not need voting on, and the securing of social and economic ‘fair play’. Democratic decision is here reduced to mass adjudication concerning the endless ‘hard cases’ to be decided within these terms of reference, while liberal constitutions (above all that of the USA) are devised to prevent any representation of a collective will from rejecting the ground-rules of liberalism itself”. [1]

Coupled with personalism, corporatism has nurtured more mutualist, reciprocal arrangements such as workers’ representation on company boards, close ties between local business and local government, a joint commitment to vocational training, professional associations, high-entry qualifications and alliance of traditional craft-skills with modern technology. In countries such as Germany, Northern Italy or parts of Central and Eastern Europe, such arrangements have proved capable of delivering sustainable economic success as well as greater personal fulfilment compared with the typically ‘Anglo-Saxon’ practice of neo-liberalism (whether in its monetarist or its neo-Keynesian variant or again both at once).

4. The centrality of ‘right order’

What does the alternative of ‘dignity’ and ‘honour’ mean for ‘rights’ and ‘respect’? It means linking legitimate subjective rights to objective right, law or – better – justice (ius). As such, ius is bound up with the notion of an objective, ideal order which can be participated in, just as a good man who shares in the transcendent Good can also be considered to be good ‘in his own right’ (an argument we owe to Plato). In short, from the perspective of pluralism which this essay advances, ius is both subjective and objective precisely because it denotes the individual belonging to a wider cosmic order that is ontologically more relational and juridically more reciprocal than the individual substance and unilateral rights for modern liberalism.

By contrast, pluralism argues for objective right as part of a just order whose collective ends are ultimately underwritten by metaphysical realism (universals are present in things) and intellectualism (the mind can cognise universals so instantiated in things). Legitimacy and moral standing are inextricably intertwined with the nature of the wider order that the ruler is meant to uphold – the pursuit of the common good through the exercise of justice and other virtues. The provisionality of politics means that the state is autonomous and has its own integrity but that its coercive powers need to be counter-balanced by the persuasive powers of other organisations such as the intermediary institutions of civil society, the Church and other religious communities.

Thus Christianity and other religious traditions offer an alternative account. If rights are seen as actually objective rather than exclusively subjective, then they are not merely grounded in individuals but relate to a wider political, socio-economic and cultural order that mirrors objective reality. Such an order is primarily composed of individuals organised in groups and associations – rather than ruled by the market-state or a theocratic regime.

This also suggests that there are objective ‘rights and wrongs’ that concern relations between persons and things, even if ‘rights and wrongs’ are always open to contest and debate. For instance, political discussions about rights privilege notions of unilateral entitlement at the expense of reciprocal responsibility and duty. Instead of state-administrative or economic-contractual relations, Christianity links reciprocity to gift-exchange, charity and a universal community beyond social, ethnic or national divisions.


The exercise of rights that are objective is not just a matter of individual ability or capacity but also of collective capabilities in the pursuit of shared ends – the common good in which all can share, rather than exclusively private profit or state power. As such, justice is – or should be – predominantly about a proper ordering of relationships within society, not the imposition of abstract foundational principles or the application of positive prescriptions based on law.

Crucially, justice is not simply a question of socio-economic fairness or equality of opportunity – as most politicians claim. Much rather, justice is about a fair share in the distribution of material and non-material resources which can provide a proper pattern of relationships.

Public debates about abortion or the legitimate use of torture won’t be resolved by appeals to human rights alone. What is also required is a sense of the sacred, the absolute sanctity of life and strict taboos against violation. The biblical notion that we are all created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ can help link the sacredness of life to objective rights and their exercise for shared ends. Without religion, references to universal human rights will ring increasingly hollow.


[1] John Milbank, “Dignity rather than right”, forthcoming.