Self-Worth And Self-Delusion
Presentation made for a workshop about the "Concept of Human Dignity from the perspective of the history of Religions", at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, December 2006.
I cannot help but point out to start with how ironic it is that, just as we gather here in Jerusalem to talk, in dignified manner, about dignity, plans have apparently been put together by some Israeli authority to set up a museum celebrating human dignity and tolerance in a location not far from here–the irony consisting in the fact that these plans are being contested in court by some Arab families, including mine, on the grounds that the proposed structure desecrates an old Moslem burial site, or disrespects, in other words, and is totally oblivious to the dignity of the people, alive or dead, associated with that site. To capture or describe this irony I would say , simply, that it consists in the surrealistic juxtaposition of, on the one hand, the dignified exchange of ideas we are having here, presumably in search for some metaphysical truth, and the pernicious pursuit, on the other hand, of structuring, restructuring or de-structuring a physical reality in the environment surrounding us. The irony, in other words, and in this context, is a sad measure of the distance between truth and reality.
But coming away from that irony, let me begin by briefly introducing my thoughts for this afternoon, and for this wonderful workshop- thoughts which may already be gleaned from the title I chose for my presentation, and for which I hope I will not be dismissed forthwith as being too cynical: in short, I would like to suggest that we (in a very picky –i.e. comprehensive, but discrete- use of this first person pronoun, as I shall explain) seem to be generally inclined to an overblown estimation or regard of ourselves, on no other grounds but the vacuous but egotistic fact that the objects in question happen to be us; and such that, with the same amount of conviction, and in much the same manner as with this or with some other valued quality such as beauty or elegance, had we been ants or spiders or Martians rather than the homo sapiens we call ourselves, we would in all likelihood still hold ourselves with the same esteem, and, with the same amount of high-mindedness and intensity, we would simply call our dignity or worthiness or beauty or elegance “antial” or spidery or Martian, not caring a hoot that it is not being specified as human. And by pointing out the picky use of the pronoun I only mean to emphasize the all-too-well-known and historically proven disdain we hold and have held for each other as members of the human species, a disdain which has often taken on fatal and even genocidal proportions, and has been expressed by an appeal to any number of classifications one might care to name, such as color or race or class or religion or region or age or gender- classifications we (as different clusters or groups) have deemed to be worthier, ironically speaking, and on many an occasion, than our self-classification as human beings.
Not that we (again, in the very picky sense in which, for example, deranged American captors manage to set themselves apart in their own minds from nude Iraqi prisoners) are nonetheless not prejudiced in favor of –I dare say, even intoxicated by- our grandiose dignity: on the contrary, we may indeed hold it to possess a value larger than the very life wherein it has its seed, regarding it, with philosophers such as Kant, as having intrinsic (contra inherent –see below) worth, as a value that cannot be exchanged (or negotiated, as I’ve argued on another occasion) for anything else, and as constituting the distilled essence of humanity itself, and as what therefore distinguishes- as the real significance of our discerning faculty, and as the medieval Pico argues (referring to an Arab source, by the way)- human beings from other creations; indeed, even regarding it as having or being of a divine origin, in much the same way we regard as having divine origin those matters upon which we would like to confer a specially elevated status, with a view to legitimating that status with a sanctified seal, such as our very image (physical or otherwise) in which we have been created, or such as our sovereignty, meaning kingship, or the status of some of our edicts and laws, or such as our entitlement claims to a specific plot of land, such as this, or our right to rule it or lord it over other people, or whatever –all matters, needless to say, for which we would be hard put to find any sane justification.
Which takes us, appropriately, straight to God, as well as to Arabic etymology (neither, by the way, being a subject I an expert in): because I must admit having pondered somewhat (as all of us seem also to have) whether, hailing as we do from different backgrounds, and being gathered together under the grand title of human dignity for this workshop, presuming, in doing so, and as I suppose we must, that we speak the same language –at least the language of mind or meanings if not the language of words- as we use the relevant, and even revered word- whether we would all actually be talking about the same thing as we carried out our discussions, or whether we would be talking at cross purposes without even realizing it. For it is not unheard of, after all, at least in my own experience, to be known to spend a whole evening, or even a day or two, perhaps even a lifetime, thinking one is speaking about the same notion with someone else, or shares their values, only to realize later that the two of you were grazing in two totally different fields. And, after consulting a common (Arabic-English) dictionary to make sure that karamah and dignity are indeed believed, at least on a sufficient number of occasions, to refer to the same notion (though, with cognates on both sides, other terms can be, and often are used in related contexts) I began to ask myself whether, if we dug a little bit deeper into the roots of those two words, we might not find a common notional ancestry, and therefore a clearer understanding of their meaning derived from their genealogies. But no such luck. Not so far, nor so convincingly anyway- unless, perhaps, one of us can stretch the meaning of dignitas such as to denote, among other Latin hues and shades of worth, a material measure of it- a measure, by the way, imaginably also picked out by the term gravitas, denoting a related Roman virtue- and such that one might then regard this material measure as being itself a metaphorical weight-measure of wealth or plentiful-ness, and, by extension, of provision and generosity. For, looking at the trilateral Arabic root, karam, one’s first impressions are that the word has to do with provision and generosity, and although God Himself and the meaning of the word are also closely connected, (as we already heard), in many more ways than one, the particular meaning of being the source of provision of anything and everything is undoubtedly one of them, and it is primarily the quality of, not only the absence of want, which is a negative feature, but the infinite source of plentiful-ness, or bounty, which sets God apart from His creation. Everything in the world is transitory, we are told, but God, dhu’ljalal wa’l ikram. It is thus understandable if the human being’s dignity (karamah) –here meaning: freedom from want- is conferred upon him in the first instance by God akramahu, since the quality of being absolutely free of want is demonstrably not human, and hypothetically at least divine. One can easily see how it is then a short step to take to becoming, in God’s image, and partaking of one of His divine qualities, someone who gives, is a giver, or practices karam, having first been freed from want, even of what one possesses.
One might, of course, be open-minded about relating worth with measure, but be skeptical about relating the latter with matter, and be therefore skeptical about relating dignity (and gravitas) with material wealth or plentiful-ness, or with absence specifically of material want. After all, the very notion of dignity almost negates, it might be felt, and in the Victorian manner of regarding money-matters as being beneath one’s dignity, the need even of countenancing wealth, let alone of countenancing the need for wealth. However, even this Victorian notion of dignity is, and must be recognized as being, in some inverted fashion, founded in wealth, or is an aristocratic notion, and therefore not immune to our initial reading of it in material terms. In other words, the connectedness of worth with wealth or material well-being persists. But sticking to Arabic only, and forgetting how amiable Latin is or is not to our material reading of this notion, the connection of karamah with karam, or dignity with the capacity to be a provider, or to be a giver rather than a taker, holds its grounds: for, even if freedom from want can be ascribed in the first instance with a lofty metaphysical meaning, such as the want for a cause to exist, less lofty and down-to-earth meanings still have their place, such as the freedom from want for food, or health, or education, or a decent job. Indeed, Lisan el-Arab corroborates the semantic continuity between the capacity to be a giver or a provider and being noble or dignified. The Karim (i.e., God) is an infinite provider as well as the summation of all virtues. The Lisan even reminds us, bringing us down to earth, and referring significantly in this context to the different types of earth or soil, whether barren or fertile, of the connection between rich soil or goodly earth where –hold your breaths- vineyards (karm and kuroom, from the same root, also kerem in Hebrew, supplementing semantic with semitic continuity) can be cultivated and grown, and less fertile or even barren soil, the goodly earth being a makrumah, a land of plenty, or, significantly, of milk and honey –akthar-‘lard samneh wa asala) -all references which understandably might make a lot of you in the audience jump immediately to the logo of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, or at least to the biblical story of the two spies returning from the land of milk and honey, the land of bounty and plenty, bearing bundles of grapes so large and heavy, that the Lord is thanked for them with a glass of wine by some of you annually to this day. (As an aside, I might raise the provocative question here whether, had the said spies presumably not stolen the bundles from someone’s vineyard in the said land, Hebrew might not have, also like Arabic, drawn specifically on the word kerem rather than kavod as an etymological source for the concept we are discussing. And quickly to temper down the provocation I may cause by saying this let me add that the Lisan specifically refers to a Hadith where it is said the truly Karim man or Moslem is Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, as the fourth in a line of prophets, and as possessing all the relevant virtues). Be that as it may, a small technical problem in Moslem Arabia arises in this context as one first sees, then has to deny the naturally flowing connection between karm and wine: the Lisan contends that a hadith is attributed to the Prophet explicitly forbidding that grapes be associated with the word karm, specifically because of the connection with wine, as wine has the capacity to influence the mind and to lead to excessive spending (tabdhir elmal fi ghayr haqqihi). The Moslem, as a man of virtue, is worthier to be called by that word than this tree! The Lisan, quoting one Abu Bakr, makes the connection between alcoholic intoxication and free-spending or lavishness explicit: Karm is so-called, it contends, because the wine that is distilled from it exhorts to largesse and generosity, etc. But whether one might wish to connect virtue, especially generosity, specifically with wine, or to content oneself with the connection simply with goodly soil and bountiful fruit, and even if one were to separate between less lofty material and loftier non-material meanings associated with Karam and karamah, one could still see the basic connection of the word and its root with a condition of a plentiful-ness exceeding self-sufficiency, allowing for largesse and generosity, even in the context of human behavior or how we conduct ourselves in our relations with each other. But I should remind us, lest I be misunderstood in this context, that the freedom from want that is meant here, and the grand human virtue associated with it, is freedom even in the psychological sense from such want, as the desert paradigm of Hatem el-Taí reminds us, where Hatem places the generosity protocols of treating a guest far above his limited means, in this case his prized horse, an animal which is transformed with culinary expertise into a deliciously welcoming feast.
Animals, unfortunately for them, more often in Semitic environments, unwillingly pay the price of human generosity and honor- Hatem el-Taí would not have behaved honorably had he not had the decency of being generous and slaughtered his prized Arabian horse. “Ahl Izzah” and “Ahl Karam” are designations of families or clans totally free from want on the one hand, but totally committed to the readiness to provide for others and to be generous on the other. But we know that not only animal life, but human life more generally can be sacrificed at the altar of values which are deemed to be “larger than life”: honor, dignity, but even religious faith, and national causes being among them. Of course, the life to be sacrificed in these cases is more often than not someone else’s; but the lives of dear ones as well as one’s own life have also been known to be paradigmatic of these cases. I do not wish at this point to dwell on this gruesome human syndrome except to point out how honor, a cognate of dignity, often slips in, showing up as a quality or a value very akin to dignity in such examples, as sometimes to be totally indiscernible from it. Indeed, we will find that the word “karamah” in Arabic sometimes translates “honor” rather than “dignity”. One interesting etymological thread here is where the notion being considered has Greek rather than Latin origins, as, for example, in Alfarabi’s Plato’s Laws, cf. Bk.V, where the word karamah straightforwardly translates the Greek time for honor (which, in Plato, is a divine virtue), and where, as an exegesis, Alfarabi repeats Plato’s distinction between karamat al-nafs, and karamat al-badan, the first, or the honor of the soul, being more worthy than the honor of the body, and where Plato warns us how to guard against providing such wants for the body as would not count truly as honoring it.
We can all probably see without too much difficulty the relatedness of, and likenesses obtaining between values such as dignity, honor, self-respect, decency, self-esteem, nobility, gravity, grandeur etc. (Roget’s Thesaurus lists almost 50 cognates), but I would like to draw attention to what I believe to be an interesting etymological quality in Arabic for the verb-forms of word-roots like k-r-m and sh-r-f (from which dignity and honor are derived), which, as we just saw in the example from Plato, and as indeed the English language for parallel words allows, presents those values as being ascribable or acquirable qualities as much as inherent or natural ones, the genealogical roots and ascriptions often having a divine source. The discussion came up yesterday about whether such a property as dignity is inherent or acquired, the conceptual framework being that a distinction can in general be made between properties which one has, and others which one can acquire. This distinction (regardless of its validity) can be reflected in the grammatical form of the terms used to signify those properties. Thus, referring to karamah and sharaf, or dignity and honor, one understands, God’s honoring of Man (akramahu), but also the form (karrama), and, for sh-r-f, sharrafa, in each case allowing for acts such as honoring and dignifying, that is, acts where we honor the person or dignify them by offering them a status, a certificate, or a recognition of one kind or another, or where such persons come to acquire the qualities of honor and dignity as a result of our acts (facetiously, we cannot analogously “finger” a person, or confer on him or give him that property). What I mean to emphasize here is a distinction between, in the first instance, what we may consider as natural and what as an acquired quality or property, and what, derivatively, we may regard as being totally human and what as having divine origins or influences. A value such as dignity can be, as Kant describes it, of intrinsic worth, unlike wealth or bodily comfort, but what I am trying to get at is to show that having intrinsic worth does not make it natural, i.e. inherent; nor yet, as we saw, and in the first degree, does it make it human: quite the contrary, a virtue such as dignity or honor can be regarded as being of intrinsic worth precisely because- that is, as a consequence- of their being divine (rather than lowly and human) in origin. And this, in my view, may be a source, or, indifferently, a consequence of the delusory grandeur with which we regard ourselves.
I started out with self-worth, and now I want to turn, finally, to self-delusion. Simply, what I wish to say in this context is that it matters far less, it seems to me, or at least to me, where we claim to be the origin of such a virtue as dignity or honor or worth, as what we make of it. And now my emphasis on the first-person pronoun has special significance, for I mean by it to express my belief that values are a human construct, and that the connotation (or applicability or universalization) of the terms signifying their meanings is as much within our power or reach as is their denotation: We make words mean what they mean, and we distribute their meanings amongst ourselves. On this basis, for example, the claims that some peoples are more favored by God than others, or that they are naturally worthier than others, become totally void, or senseless. I beg your leave here to return to the pair “denotation” and “connotation”, and I would make a plea using this pair for humility, that is, to bringing our sights lower on the denotation side as we formulate to ourselves an appropriate meaning for “dignity”, and to spread these sights as widely across the human landscape as possible on the connotation side, thus regarding others with exactly the same respect or awe as we regard ourselves. As indeed, if you think of it, to hold ourselves with any respect at all in a meaningful way is really conditional upon our ability to imagine ourselves, strictly speaking, as other people, for example as our future selves, or as altogether different present persons from who we are. For it is surely in precisely this, namely, our ability to see how we could be better than we actually are, and to make ourselves better by our own will, now or in the future, that it makes sense for us to contend we can respect ourselves.
In sum, then, my conclusion is, whether it is dignity, or rights under the law, or claims of one kind or another, human beings are really no better than other animals except to the extent we take on the moral responsibility of acting on the equality principle, or the principle that we are all deserving of equal space or freedom or respect- matters which are not defined by anything other than the fact we are human beings. If we do act on that principle, then we are better. But we are not better to start off with, or by some original divine fiat.