Worth and dignity

English has many words to refer to the same things.  Other languages do, often because the way the speakers live or work requires fine grained words for different species of animals, trees or plants, different weather patterns, land formations, tools, shapes or the like.  With English there is also the historical amalgamation of a Germanic language (Anglo-Saxon) with a Latin-based language (Norman French).  Some of these duplicate words drive my ESL students crazy.

I was thinking of this last night as I finished yesterday’s post on the theme of worth and dignity.  As I mentioned yesterday, “dignity” comes from a Latin adjective, one that’s burned into my memory after years as an altar boy saying, “Domine, non sum dignus.”  Lord, I am not worthy.  Just by the sound of it, you know that “worth” has a German origin.

When I made an issue of the connection between a sense of one’s own dignity and the desire to be in control, my brother Patrick asked me if I was referring to Kant’s emphasis on dignity.  As I told Patrick, Kant is the modern philosopher with whom I am least familiar, a major impediment to understanding much of the last 200 years of philosophy.  In any case, at Patrick’s suggestion, I started to look at Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, where Kant makes a key statement about human dignity as the basis for morality.  In the edition that I have, the translator notes that the German word that Kant uses for “dignity” is würde.   Aha! I thought.  The English word “worth” must come from the German würde.  Close, but not quite accurate.  In fact, in my research on this question I came across a wonderful statement comparing and playing on the words for “worth” and “dignity” in German.

Der Mensch hat nicht Wert, der Mensch hat Würde

A human being does not have worth (or value).  A human being has dignity.

This statement was the title and the subject of a speech by a retired German Catholic Bishop, Franz Kamphaus, to a conference on “Human beings, ethics, and science” in Berlin in 2002.

Before pursuing questions of value and dignity more theoretically, I would like to share how Bishop Kamphaus has lived this philosophy.  More than 30 years before Pope Francis made it fashionable, upon becoming bishop, Franz Kamphaus turned his official residence over to a refugee family and went to live in an apartment.  Later, Bishop Kamphaus stood up to Pope John Paul II over the issue of counseling pregnant women.  The then pope did not approve of the way Bishop Kamphaus was letting women who had had abortions return to the sacraments after counseling.  The Pope took away the Bishop’s authority over this counseling.  Rather than resign as bishop after such a public slap in the face, Dr. Kamphaus stayed on to keep up his work.  After he retired at age 75, Bishop Kamphaus went to live in a home for the mentally and physically disabled.  His speech to the 2002 conference focuses on how we treat the disabled.  (I thought it was appropriate to learn about Bishop Kamphaus on the same day that the New York Times carried a story on the dedication of a memorial for all the disabled people murdered by the Nazis.)

Dr. Kamphaus’ statement of Kant’s morality also reverberates with the challenge with which I began this series of reflections on control and dignity: Sophie’s Choice.  In Kantian terms, the Nazi doctor was asking a mother to violate the dignity of each of her children by deciding which one should be the means towards the end of saving the life of the other.  At the emotional and psychological level of this dilemma, making this choice destroyed Sophie’s würde.




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