The idea that human dignity is innate

Clarence Thomas’s dissent is getting a lot of attention, all of it in the form of incredulous derision. (I hang with a rough crowd.)

It starts on page 78.

The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the
Constitution, but with the principles upon which our
Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been
understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement
to government benefits. The Framers created our Constitution to preserve that understanding of liberty.
Yet the majority invokes our Constitution in the name of a
“liberty” that the Framers would not have recognized, to
the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect.


How is it to the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect? Which liberty? Just liberty in general? I can’t see it. He must mean our liberty to take things away from people we consider oooky in some way.

Along the way, it rejects the idea—captured in our Declaration of
Independence—that human dignity is innate and suggests
instead that it comes from the Government. This distortion
of our Constitution not only ignores the text, it inverts
the relationship between the individual and the state in
our Republic. I cannot agree with it.

Oh good grief, how childish. Cue Gary Cooper standing strong-jawed and knocking down a building, because Freedom.

On to page 93 and his already-notorious claims about human dignity.

Human dignity has long been understood in this country
to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration
of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred
to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image
of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which
this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity
cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not
lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity)
because the government allowed them to be enslaved.
Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity
because the government confined them. And those denied
governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity
because the government denies them those benefits. The
government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it

Oh gawd. That’s such an appalling thing to say. He’s taking the thought that oppressed people use in order to hang on to their own inner sense of dignity under horrible conditions, and treating it as a true claim about reality. It’s not a true claim about reality – it’s a huge lie about reality. Of course slaves lost their dignity because the government allowed them to be enslaved, and that was one of the many outrages against them. Slavery stole their dignity from them.

Government can take dignity away so easily and so thoroughly. Imprisonment, torture, death, denial of rights – all are ways to take dignity away. It’s great if people can feel they still have their dignity inside despite that, but that does not take the onus off government.

George H W Bush has a lot to answer for.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    When Clarence Thomas looks in a mirror, he does see an African American, right?
    Because he sure seems to be doing a great impression of Dave Chappelle’s character, Clayton Bigsby, the blind African American klansman.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    But there is a tradition here*:

    Stone walls do not a prison make
    Nor iron bars a cage
    Minds innocent and quiet take
    That for an hermitage

    If I have freedom in my love
    And in my soul am free,
    Angels alone, that soar above,
    Enjoy such liberty.

    So… you can chain people up and they are free, and you can treat them like shit and they have dignity. And black is white, god is dead, dogs and cats sleep together…

    *Lovelace, To Althea From Prison, 1642. Clarence Thomas is nothing if not timely.

  3. says

    Cuttlefish, I know, that was what I meant by “the thought that oppressed people use in order to hang on to their own inner sense of dignity under horrible conditions.” Lovelace says it a good deal more eloquently though.

  4. says

    This “innate dignity” idea needs to be killed with fire. If you mean “inherent moral worth” — such that no human should be enslaved or abused or murdered — then say that. “Dignity” should mean things like self-control, social status (either granted for merit, or self-asserted in defiance of external devaluation), and self-determination. This mystical-metaphysical sense invoked by religion is an undefined term used to mean that we can’t have assisted dying, and certain kinds of sex or domestic arrangements are taboo, etc, because they are inconsistent with “innate dignity”. It’s an equivocation that attempts to steal the good associations that accrue to the other, legitimate, usage.

  5. footface says

    So. Human dignity is inherent. Cool. What does that have to do with the Constitution granting equality under the law? “Look, you have dignity! Isn’t that enough?” (I really don’t get how to interpret Thomas’s words as saying anything other than “I don’t like same-sex marriage, and I’m flailing.”)

  6. Cuttlefish says

    The good news for me is, I have a whole new set of stuff to show my students, to show that this horseshit is not a hypothetical or rhetorical bit of wordplay.

    I suspect that is also the bad news.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Apparently by “dignity” Thomas means something like a soul, utterly unaffected by the material world.

    And his definition of “liberty” does indeed match that of the US’s founders, most of whom had no doubt it included the right to own and exploit slaves.

  8. Kaelik says

    Honestly though, a reading of Thomas’s opinion that relates it to gay marriage is a failed reading. This opinion could be nearly word for word applied to every substantive due process decision the Court has made in the last 60 years and Thomas would mean it just as well.

    Thomas is probably a bigot, but unlike Scalia, he actually is just writing his principles, his principle is just really dumb and rejects all substantive due process rights. I mean, let’s be clear, he literally said that he saw Loving v. Virginia standing for the proposition that Virginia could ban interracial marriage in state and refuse to recognize marriages in other states, they just couldn’t arrest people for doing it in another state.

    So I mean yeah, he is a monster. But when he says “detriment to liberty” he means that the very concept of:substantive due process as a concept is going to destroy the “liberty” of the constitution. No he isn’t right, but this isn’t the typical GAY MARRIAGE! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

  9. sigurd jorsalfar says

    The ‘liberty’ they sought to protect was a much lesser liberty than today’s liberty, which is too big and shared by too many people, in the opinion of Injustice Thomas.

  10. khms says

    I don’t think “innate” is the problem here, or even “dignity“.

    I think it’s “inalienable“.

    That’s where the bad logic comes from.

    In fact, they are only too easily alienable, which is exactly why they need to be protected. And not just against the government.

    Of course, that’s what the framers meant (just as when the equivalent word unantastbar went into the German constitution). But it’s not how many people today understand it.

    Then again, that’s why we have that second sentence.

    Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt.

    Human dignity is inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority.

  11. Al Dente says

    Thomas’ essay on dignity has absolutely nothing to do with the question about the Constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

  12. Omar Puhleez says

    Die gedanken sind frei. Thoughts are free.
    Hat tip also to Richard Lovelace.
    As my contribution to the glorious liberation of humanity far and wide, may I say this:
    all men and women are equal in the eyes of Donald Duck. Also of my dog Bluey. Those two conditions being met, we can now say on a good enough basis that they are equal in all conceivable circumstances.
    Everyone is equal.
    Now I think we should all go back to what we were doing.
    I have spoken.

  13. johnthedrunkard says

    That Thomas could EVER have been considered for the Supreme Court is an appalling scandal, and a deep stain on the whole country.

    Even without Anita Hill’s warning, his poor record, incoherence, and ideological eccentricity would have disqualified him. Except that Marshal had just retired and people were willing to accept the idea of a ‘Black seat’ on the court?

  14. says

    Ah no – Thomas was so very far from being the only eligible candidate for a “Black seat” on the court. So so so very far. No, what George Herbert Fucker Bush wanted was a right-wing black guy on the court. That pool is much smaller.

  15. Donnie says

    So, with Thomas’ dissent, he is going to annul his marriage to a white woman, right? I guess his thinking only goes one way, “as long as it doesn’t affect me, fuck everyone else?”

  16. Lady Mondegreen says

    So Thomas justified his dissent with that reliable old fallacy, the Appeal to Deepity.


    Omar Puhleez, your succinct paraphrase of Thomas’s, er, thinking, amuses me greatly.

    Sharing, with attribution, on my Facebook wall. Hope you don’t mind.

  17. Omar Puhleez says

    Lady Mondegreen:
    You are most welcome.
    Though I have a Facebook account, I never go near it. Nor any other social media. And I would not have a clue to check out your wall.
    So could you post a link?

  18. Omar Puhleez says


    Ah no – Thomas was so very far from being the only eligible candidate for a “Black seat” on the court. So so so very far. No, what George Herbert Fucker Bush wanted was a right-wing black guy on the court. That pool is much smaller.

    Keeping it all in the family, so to speak.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *