My word processor defines dignity as: 

the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect

Fair enough, but how do we know when someone is “worthy of honour or respect”? It seems to me that in order to be recognized as “worthy of honour or respect” dignity must be found in what an individual does. In other words, dignity is not something you either have or don’t have like brown eyes or knobby knees. It is something that you create. So the question is, “How do you create dignity when you take action in the world?”. According to the above definition, your action should be “worthy of honour or respect”.  For dignity to occur, then, we must be able to identify just what counts as honourable and worthy of respect. This being the case, we cannot really talk about dignity unless we can first identify a set of values that we can all agree could be used as criteria to assess the dignity of a particular behaviour. 

This could be tricky. Depending on a number of factors we each arrive at our own personal set of values which means what we see as honourable and worthy of respect may differ considerably. However, thanks to our common evolutionary development, people all over the world, living in different cultures and environments, tend to value similar sorts of things. Specifics vary widely but the general kinds of things that humans value tend to reflect our shared human biological and psychological needs. When you think about it this makes good evolutionary sense. In order to survive and thrive it is imperative that we be motivated to meed our basic needs. It also makes evolutionary sense that we should value (like, care about) those things that help us meet those needs. 

If this is the case, we should be able to recognize the kinds of things humans value by examining our common human needs. Over the years psychologists have put forth various lists of biological and emotional needs but evolutionary psychologists point out, rightly I think, that to be considered a fundamental human need the need must serve the survival of the individual and the species. Thus, the basic biological needs of nourishment, hydration, and warmth obviously qualify. In addition meeting our emotional or psychological needs such as safety, security, and belonging also enhance our chances of survival. Less obviously but, I would argue, equally important to human survival, is the need for meaning, the need to make sense of our world and our place in it. Understanding our world and our relationship to it benefits our survival. Finally, I would also argue that identifying a personally satisfying purpose for living can be crucial to individual survival as it can provide personal guidance in making important, even life and death, decisions.

Now that we have identified our common human needs we are ready to look at the kinds of values that we typically adopt as being favourable to meeting these needs. I will refer to these values as our Default Values because they are not usually consciously chosen but arise unconsciously. The chart below shows the thinks that most of us value due to their effectiveness in meeting our needs. 

Need Default Values
Physiological Acquisition of Physical Requirements
Safety Boundaries and Categories
Security Accumulation of Resources
Membership Family and Tribes
Personal Importance Control and Dominance
Meaning Personal Promotion
Purpose Personal Success

This is all very well but, return to the question of dignity and, in particular, the “being worthy of honour and respect” part, these values are problematic. For example, the accumulation of resources could easily become greed. And control and dominance could lead to tyranny. Now, it’s possible, and even likely, that some people honour and respect tyrants. If you watch the TV series “Vikings” you will see that honouring and respecting such people was the norm in Viking culture. Even today people honour and respect Donald Trump inspire of his greed and attempts at tyranny. But, thankfully, the majority of people today do not support this type of behaviour. The values listed above, then, are not ones that we can all agree on as being reliable criteria for evaluating behaviours as “worthy of honour and respect”. And yet they arise naturally and by default. Herein lies the  dilemma. By what means are we to identify and adopt a set of values that reliably promote behaviours that are honourable and worthy of respect?

As discussed in The Hopeful Mindset, what is needed is an adjustment in the way we see ourselves in the world. Due to our nature, as arrived at through millions of years of evolution, we typically see ourselves as being independent selves in a world of independent things. This is our default worldview and the basis for our default values. In this world of competing independent selves and separate tribes values like accumulation of resources and control and dominance are thought to be effective ways to meet our needs for security and control. 

But, while this view of people as being separately existing selves in a world of separately existing things may seem an obvious truth, it is not actually the way of things. Ecologists have been telling us for decades that living things exist interdependently within their ecosystems. An ecosystem is defined as a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. We are biological life forms and as such we exist in a “community of interacting organisms”. Our very existence depends on vital interactions with other living things (other people included) and our environment. 

When we begin to fully grasp the implications of being interdependent beings, as opposed to independent beings, we may begin to see that meeting our needs according to our default values may not be appropriate in the long run. Nature equipped us to survive in the world as it was in the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our default values made more sense in a sparsely populated world where life was hard and brutal. Today we are forced to face a very different reality. The modern world is over-populated and unavoidably interconnected. The consequences of ignoring this situation are now painfully obvious. Climate change, environmental pollution, and the ravaging of resources are some examples. It is time to look at meeting our non-negotiable needs from the perspective of the interdependent reality in which we exist. In doing so we arrive at a very different set of values. 

Need Independent Values Interdependent Values
Physiological Acquisition of Physical Requirements Health
Safety Boundaries and Categories Resiliency
Security Accumulation of Resources Sustainability
Membership Family and Tribes Inclusive Connection
Personal Importance Control and Dominance Responsibility
Meaning Personal Promotion Humility
Purpose Personal Success Contribution

Unlike the automatic and unconscious arising of our default values, values based on interdependence must be consciously adopted. This requires understanding that we are not separate, independent selves but interdependent, interconnected individuals. As individuals, it is the responsibility of each one of us to familiarize ourselves with the nature of the interdependent reality in which we live and to make the choice to live by the values that this reality demands. Armed with this knowledge and these values we an opportunity work together to create a better world. Surely, lives lived in this way are “worthy of honour and respect” and, as such, are lives lived with dignity.