We know what dead European philosophers thought about dignity. We know a lot less about how others have thought about it.
The Overseas Development Institute has done pioneering work charting how groups across the world talk about dignity in their lives. In Spring 2019, we expanded that by looking at the experiences of poor Nairobians in Mathare.
We conducted a focus group and participatory photo competition in February and March 2019, in partnership with the Mathare Social Justice Centre.
Mathare residents said that:
‘We all have dignity. That is why we show respect to those in our groups. We communicate well and work together. There is a purpose to this: it lets us discharge our God-given duty to care for one another.
‘But fully respecting people isn’t something everyone can do. Some stuff we can all do, like being polite in our speech and observing social codes. We may win recognition by showing our unique qualities. But to be truly respectful, you need more: self-respect; a firm foundation; and autonomy.
‘To get that, you need a lot of things – many of which are denied by a government and society [that] is abusive and sometimes murderous. In that situation, you get derailed. You find other ways of winning respect: money; power; and violence.’
This approach to dignity is different from the philosophical literature in two ways: Western philosophers simply assume that everyone has the capability to be respectful, and do not discuss a purpose to dignity.