Can There Be Misery Loftier Than Mine?

I am remiss in writing a follow-up to my post on dignity, and here it is Friday afternoon again, and soon I’m off to Stratford for the openings of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. So it’s probably now or never, but now means something not nearly so well-thought-out as I would have liked. But here ‘goes anyhow.

The title of the post is from Endgame – which, not coincidentally, I saw last weekend at BAM, just before it closed, and the production was excellent. Beckett is, I think, an excellent place to start in formulating a rejoinder to an argument from dignity, as his plays are profoundly humane and empathetic, as well as deeply funny, and portray the human condition as anything but dignified.

Hamm, the speaker of the line that serves as this post’s title, is really the only character I can think of from the major plays for whom one could say that “dignity” is his central value. I use the word advisedly, because, as Alan Jacobs has pointed out, it has multiple uses, but I think I am using it correctly. Dignity comes from the Latin for merit or worth; in modern usage, it means principally comportment appropriate to being worthy or elevated. An indignity is an act that treats the object as unworthy; to be undignified is not to behave in such a way as to signal to others one’s own lack of worth, or lack of care for one’s worth. Returning to Beckett, and running through the major characters of his major plays: Vladimir and Estragon have no dignity to speak of, nor does Lucky, while Pozzo is a rawer figure than Hamm, more interested in power than in authority; Winnie certainly has something, but I don’t think it’s dignity, rather some virtue that can survive the terminal indignity that is life on earth; and Clov, Nagg and Nell, in Endgame, are of course afforded no dignity at all. Only Hamm – who has no power, but apparently ample authority – is interested in dignity. His own.

The Hamm-Clov relationship is the setup that Hegel hypothesized as the beginning of history, transposed to the end of time. There is master and slave; the master is the one willing to risk defeat for the sake of pure prestige, and the slave is the one who was not willing to risk, and succumbs. The master seeks recognition, seeks regard, seeks dignity – but the only regard he can earn in this manner is from slaves, and their regard is worthless. The master seeks to bolster his dignity by classifying more and more varieties of activity as undignified, and relegating these to his slave, upon whom he winds up utterly dependent. Meanwhile the slave, having been assigned all productive activity, earns his own regard and those of his fellows by that productivity, a regard that the master, ultimately, cannot ignore. History ends when master and man abandon their former relations, and enter into new relations on the basis of reciprocal regard. Endgame, of course, does not end so happily; Clov abandons Hamm’s service, but cannot leave (where is there to go?) and is left contemplating Hamm in not-so-splendid isolation, still pontificating, seeking regard from his last remaining servant, his handkerchief.

Alan would probably say that the reciprocal regard at the end of Hegel’s history is recognition of our true dignity, something that elevates all of us equally: our shared divine descent. Without a common source, whence comes a common basis for this regard? Indeed, he would probably argue, the different ending of Hegel’s master/slave confrontation and Beckett’s relates to the fact that Beckett’s universe is godless, Hamm’s only concept of dignity, social. I think there are three problems with this position.

First, I think that worth can only exist alongside the unworthy; nobility alongside the base. The natural aristocracy of all is not a well-thought-out idea. What, in practice, the assertion amounts is, I think, drawing a sharp line somewhere. In the past, this might have been drawn between Christian and heathen, or between white and black; today, it is most likely to be drawn between human and non-human. Alan is acutely sensitive to making sure all humans – the severly disabled and the unborn alike – get to stay on the right side of the line. But Peter Singer, his exact opposite, is equally sensitive to making sure that non-human animals (at least some of them, at least some of the time) get onto the right side of the line. I think the nature of that dispute should make all of us wary of laying all our bets on the existence, and our ability to distinguish the contours of, such a line, whether between ourselves at full capacity and ourselves at less than full capacity, or between ourselves and other creatures.

(Consumatopia: before you chime in, I’m fully aware of the tension between what I just argued and my argument here. I would need another lengthy post to reconcile the two positions, but I’m not even sure I’d want to do that, as the Rawls post was more of a thought experiment than anything else. But maybe I’ll do it at some point anyhow. No promises.)

Second, I think “human dignity” runs into many of the same problems as “human rights” when we are talking about posterity. Only extant beings can have rights, and only extant beings can have dignity. If there is something wrong with designing the next generation through the application of biological technology, I don’t think we’re going to find the reason in an affront to an inherent dignity in Man As He Is, and we can’t talk about an affront to the dignity of the next generation because they don’t exist yet to have their dignity affronted. Let’s take an example: suppose I knew that I could ensure my children would not inherit a terrible disease if I screened my sperm before conception. Suppose I knew that I could ensure my children would be between 5 and 15 IQ points more intelligent by similarly screening. Suppose I knew that I could ensure my children would have blonde hair be similarly screening. I deliberately choose to talk about screening sperm rather than embryos to remove the any question of killing from the field of play; I similarly didn’t talk about direct genetic manipulation so as to avoid questions of prudence and side-effects. I want to isolate the question of designing the next generation. If I understand the argument from dignity correctly, having engaged in this kind of screening process is itself an affront to the dignity of the child. But the child in question does not exist yet, and the child who comes into being is no more and no less a child of God than the children who were never conceived because of the screening. I fail to understand how removing an element of random chance from the process of recombination constitutes an affront to the dignity of a being who would not exist but for that intervention, much less how it constitutes an affront to beings who never come into being because other sperm were rejected (and recall that myriads of sperm will be rejected in the process of random recombination as well). There may be things wrong with such interventions, but “dignity” just doesn’t seem to be a useful way of talking about them.

Third, and finally, I think Christians should be more cognizant of the fact that the persuasiveness of the concept of dignity that Alan and others have advanced derives from the persuasiveness of the doctrine of the Incarnation. If God became Man, then according ourselves a special dignity seems right and logical. If God did not become Man – if, in fact, such an idea is blasphemous, as it is to Muslims and Jews – then it seems much less right, much less logical.

So what’s an alternative answer to the question I put into Alan’s mouth?

I think one can approach the problem in several ways.

First, one has recourse to C.S. Lewis’s argument against slavery. He grants the master’s argument that some are born to be slaves. Indeed, he rejoins; but none of us are born to be masters. We may all be equal because we are all children of God, and partake of that dignity. Or we may all be equal because we are all so far from God, and are in awe of His dignity.

Second, one has recourse to Hegel’s own position: that mutual regard is acquired the oldfashioned way – we earn it. The source of mutual regard at the end of history is not that the master slaps himself on the head and says, “why, we’re both children of God, let’s be brothers!” It’s that he sees what the slave can do, and recognizes the dignity of labor, something he did not understand before (and, arguably, could not have understood without his prior history, but that’s another story for another time). This is not an argument from capacities of the sort that Alan would object to, because it’s not an argument from rights; it’s an argument from achievement and, hence, an argument from duties. Similarly, I think one can articulate the problems in terms of relations with one’s offspring, and with the next generation more generally, and the possible impact on society as a whole, that would arise out of a serious commitment to engineering the “perfect child” without recourse to any value outside of the social.

Third, one has recourse to an argument that, while independently derived from either of the above, is, I think, something of a synthesis of the two: the argument of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik begins with the two accounts of creation in Genesis, the one an orderly progression from lowest to highest in creation, with Man the capstone, entrusted with God with the responsibility to “fill the earth and subdue her;” the other, utterly distinct in feeling, ending with Man’s expulsion from the garden where he was meant to dwell, dependent on the mercies of the divine for his first clothing, lost and alone in a howling wilderness and pining for his former home. Soloveitchik basically says that both of these are true accounts of our relationship with the Divine. On the one hand, we have great capacities, and as such have been entrusted with great responsibilities – and great expectations for what we will do. This Man is not Promethean, as his power is not stolen, but he has Promethean ambition. On the other hand, we are still vastly far from the divine, and in the final analysis in a state of utter dependency; moreover, our very capacities leave us in a state of profound alienation from our state of being, as we know we were meant to live in a garden, but awaken in the wilderness.

Or, to put the same thought as it was articulated by another Ham (and, as well, another ham):

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?

Let me close with one final analogy. There is a precedent in Jewish tradition for the concept that we ourselves, as creatures, are imperfect creations, and need to be perfected by an act of human intervention, an intervention undertaken without consent, an intervention which impacts our bodily selves, and an intervention that is considered – not absurdly, and not merely recently but stretching back into antiquity – to be an affront to our inherent dignity. That precedent is the covenant of circumcision, imposed upon a male child at the age of eight days. It would probably be viewed as special pleading for me to say that the concept of a non-social dignity being advanced is problematic because of its possible conflict with the core ceremony of Jewish tradition, so I won’t do that; I’ll just leave it there to speak for itself.

I’m more than happy to continue the conversation further, but can’t promise any substantial contribution over the next few days.