Trying to Define Dignity

As I mentioned earlier, I have been reading Deirdre McCloskey, and her books are so maximalist that they have left me with lots to think about (in agreement or disagreement). One of those things that has been preoccupying me for the last month or so1 is from her book Bourgeois Dignity (which is a sequel to The Bourgeois Virtues but I read it a year before reading TBV).  The relevant bit is this, from early in the book:

Dignity and liberty are admittedly hard to disentangle. But dignity is a sociological factor, liberty an economic one. Dignity concerns the opinion that others have of the shopkeeper. Liberty concerns the laws that constrain him. The society and the economy interact. Yet contrary to a materialist reduction, they are not the same. Laws can change without a change in opinion. Consider prohibition of alcohol and then of drugs over the past ninety years. And opinion can change without a change in laws.


This sort of “Dignity is what other people think of you” definition ends up being in opposition to another definition of dignity, which stuck in my head from reading about the difference between honour and dignity societies. I don’t remember where I originally came across that, but this blogpost is a nice summary, and throws in bonus descriptions of experimental research2:

[Honor] culture is based on the idea that a person’s worth is based on his reputation. Reputation, in turn, is based on positive and negative reciprocity. This means that in order to be considered honourable you need to repay favors, but also revenge insults, even very small ones. If you fail in these obligations, especially in revenging insults, other people will shame you by laughing or expressing disgust, and your reputation/honor will be ruined. The motivating emotion that makes people do what they are supposed to do is shame.

The dignity culture is characterized by the conviction that all individuals have an inner, inalienable worth. The ideal person of dignity is one who stands by his principles and doesn’t listen to gossip. This attitude will of course not protect your life or property so it requires a state that enforces the rule of law. The person of dignity is less prone to corruption since he follows his internal standards and is less swayed by what other people say.

So, what McCloskey calls the “opinion others have of the shopkeeper” sounds more like honour than dignity, the way she has defined it. Of course, you could say that by this she means that other people recognise the inherent self-worth of the shopkeeper, and that practically, your inherent self-worth has no benefit if others don’t recognise it as well and refrain from humiliating you or beating you up.3  But it’s odd that what she has written doesn’t seem to acknowledge what seems to be a reasonably well accepted definition of dignity.

What is also interesting about dignity and honour is the role which shame plays in them. The post linked above defines shame as the anti-honour, and guilt as the anti-dignity. But I’m not sure they are directly comparable, and maybe there are really two different types of shame, both of which have the same word in English, and so we find it difficult to see the difference.

One type of shame, in honour cultures, is what other people inflict on you through their actions. And the other type of shame, in dignity cultures, is what you feel yourself, because your own actions have reduced your self-worth. I remember that some years ago, after khap panchayat members were convicted and sentenced for ‘honour killing’, I had been sarcastic about Jats thinking that their children marrying out of caste or in to the same gotra was more shameful than the shame of being a murderer. And that when they were so worried about what people would say or think about the first, did they not worry about people saying that they were criminals?

But this distinction between honour and dignity societies may explain why that is so. In one, shame comes from what other people do, and honour has to be regained. In another, shame comes from what you do – and even if you are shameless while doing it, the shame of being found out will weigh on you. At least, I hope so. I suppose that if you are a psychopath, then even being found out will not cause any shame.

To belabour the point a little bit with examples, these are the things you might be ashamed of if you are high on dignity and low on honour:

  • doing a bad job when you are capable of doing better
  • not keeping promises
  • not taking care of your family and loved ones

(I am mostly giving examples related to work and trade because of the Bourgeois Dignity hangover, but there would be examples in the personal sphere too.)

And if you are high on honour and not so high on dignity, you are more likely to be ashamed by:

  • your family members disobeying you (and of course it becomes all that worse if these are women)
  • people you consider to be your inferiors in the hierarchy insulting you
  • An outsider realising that your city or home is quite terrible (and so you put up Potemkin villages rather than be dishonoured). This was of course very evident in India in the context of the 2010 Commonwealth Games – not being dishonoured in front of foreigners was more important than the dignity of having nice sports facilities for ourselves.

Perhaps we should call the first one being ashamed and the second one being beshamed.

I may be getting unnecessarily hung up on the definition Professor McCloskey uses, but considering that Bourgeois Dignity is a comprehensive and polemical book about why and how it is dignity more than technology, political systems, or financial systems that has driven the industrial revolution, the end of poverty, and human wellbeing in the last three hundred years, I feel it is an important thing to get hung up about. Does McCloskey really mean that what other people think of us is crucial to prosperity, or does she mean that not having to worry about what other people think of us is crucial to prosperity? I wonder if she replies to fanmail.

I shall close this post with a rumination on societies transitioning from honour to dignity, and how it gets reflected in literature and the arts. Deirdre McCloskey has written about how Jane Austen’s novels are a mirror of this transition, and how they describe the transition at a very personal level instead of the macroeconomic one which Bourgeois Dignity describes. Persuasion, especially, shows this on two levels4: first, by showing the dignity and virtue of naval officers in contrast to the honour obsession of the landlords who keep slagging them off; and secondly, by showing Anne’s regret at having worried about what other people think. For me, the fact that Anne is an extraordinarily sensible person surrounded by idiots highlights her dignity – even if she and Captain Wentworth, contra McCloskey, are not held in high opinion by the other characters.

And what of India? I haven’t read early Indian novels, or for that matter, seen a lot of old Indian movies, so I could be way off here. But I propose that the pioneering work of art which celebrates dignity over honour and gives a giant raspberry to the fear of being beshamed and insulted is Amar Prem. Take it away, Kakaji:


  1. I think I started thinking about it after watching Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special, in which he devotes a substantial amount of time to the ‘Log kya kahengein – what will people think’ problem that afflicts his family and Indians in general
  2. In view of the unfolding crisis in psychology research, maybe this research should be taken with a pinch of salt
  3. I imagine that Terry Pratchett would have made this point very well as dialogue.
  4. As bonus reading, here is McCloskey talking about the importance of persuasion in economics, and explicitly using Jane Austen’s Persuasion to make her point.

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