Lueck explores the experience of dignity at Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy conference

Many philosophers argue that dignity cannot be measured, compared or experienced, but philosophy professor Bryan Lueck challenges the notion of being unable to experience dignity.

Philosophy professor Bryan Lueck

“Most value [is] relative so you can compare people to each other on the same scale, but dignity has always been conceived as a value that’s not like that,” Lueck said. “And there’s a lot of literature recently that argues that there can be no such value. Whenever you are experiencing value, you must be experiencing it as relative or comparable. And so what I argued is that those arguments are wrong and in fact there is a way to experience a value that is not relative.”

Lueck presented that argument in a paper on the phenomenon of dignity in October at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy conference in Eugene, Ore.

As a professor who teaches ethics and political philosophy, Lueck said dignity is an important concept. From an ethical perspective, he said recognizing someone as having dignity “is to recognize that you have certain obligations to that person that you can’t ignore.” In relation to political philosophy, people have to recognize that others have rights.

“We recognize those rights. We regard them as worth observing because the rights bearers, the persons, have a kind of dignity,” Lueck said. “So even people who have a really low value, who compared to others haven’t achieved much, nonetheless, they’re deserving of basic political recognition. They deserve to have their rights respected at a bare minimum.”

Through the lens of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s account of meaning, Lueck argues that philosophy of meaning can be used to “make sense of how we can experience an incomparable kind of value.”

“The argument that Nancy makes is that in experience – in your everyday experience in the world – there’s a kind of meaning that is prior to general meaning,” Lueck said.

For example, Lueck said a journalist, as a general person, deals with a source for a story as a general person. An individual journalist’s value is comparable to that of other journalists, according to Lueck, as a professor’s value is comparable to other professors.

“But what Nancy tries to argue is more basically than that, or prior to that, prior to those general meanings there’s a dimension of meaning where we encounter each other as Nancy’s word is singulars,” Lueck said.

A singular, according to Lueck, is not a general person, but something “distinguished from a particulate.”

“That’s the distinction. And a particular is an example of a kind,” Lueck said. “So you’re a particular journalist. You’re an example of a general kind. So you’re an individual. But you’re an individual of a kind, whereas a singular is an individual, but not of a kind. And it’s as singulars that we’re incomparable. It’s as singulars that we can have dignity.”

Lueck said dignity has a lot of ethical implications, one being that “everybody has equal moral worth.”

“So no matter how valuable you are, how talented you are, how skilled you are, despite all of that, everyone is equal in dignity,” Lueck said, “and so everyone is owed a basic measure of respect. Precisely the point of dignity is that it’s not measureable and that’s what makes it different from other sorts of value.”

Lueck completed the paper over Thanksgiving break and plans to submit it to “Continental Philosophy Review” for publication. He also intends to write a book based off of this research in an “attempt to correct” what he believes is wrong in the current literature.

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