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Humiliation: The Collective Dimension

Part of the Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy book series (LOET,volume 24)


There are two possible understandings of the idea of a collective dimension of humiliation. One is: Can collectives violate human dignity? And the other is: Can someone violate the (human) dignity of a collective? The first understanding points to the familiar direction of collective agency and collective responsibility. We ask questions like: Are the Germans responsible for the Holocaust? Is the United States to blame for Guantanamo Bay? And: Do men add to the subjection of women by tolerating or downplaying its importance? There is an ongoing debate over the question whether there can be collective agency and responsibility and how it should be understood if it exists at all.1 Although this is surely an important debate, it is not the question I want to focus on. My concern here is the second understanding of the question: Can someone violate the human dignity of a collective? The initial response to this question seems to be no, because collectives have no dignity and certainly nothing like human dignity. I think this answer is plainly wrong because it rests on a confusion of methodological and ethical individualism (Lukes 1973). It is correct that collective entities do not have dignity apart from their human members, but this does not mean that we have to look at individuals alone and not at groups when being concerned about humiliations. In what follows, I will explain how an account of collective or, rather, shared dignity can be understood and why this is not an issue ethical individuals need to fret about. First, I will describe three ways in which a group can be humiliated. I will then assess how the third and most indirect way, namely group humiliation through the humiliation of individual members, can be understood. Finally, I will outline how an account of shared dignity might help us to understand the role of a concept of special group rights within the family of human rights.


  • Affirmative Action
  • Human Dignity
  • Normative Sense
  • Collective Dimension
  • Shared Identity

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1Recent accounts of shared intentions and collective or corporate responsibility can be found in an anthology by Peter French (French and Wettstein 2006).

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  1. 1.

    My thanks go to the colloquium on applied ethics at the University of Potsdam for pointing out that there is a strong need to separate these cases.

  2. 2.

    Some people have suggested to me that thorough controls in themselves are not humiliating. I think this is somewhat isolating the example from its social context. Consider that these people are singled out just because of their religion and see in the eyes of all other people from whom they are separated the fearful question: Are you a terrorist? This clearly has to count as a humiliation, because these persons are not judged for what they are but for the worst anybody could be and they have no way of telling the other customers: Look, this is just a weird misunderstanding.

  3. 3.

    This is also clearly captured in the social and political theory of recognition developed by Axel Honneth (1996).

  4. 4.

    This is not meant to negate that in fact the groups that are humiliated for certain reasons, because they are of different faith for instance or are of a lower social status. In fact there is always a story behind humiliating attitudes and behavior and it is important to look at this history when one wants to overcome this indecency.

  5. 5.

    Note that the idea of a connection does not necessarily imply that there is a precursor of a future violation, it can also point at past violations in order to be humiliating, but it must be linked to those grim memories in order for that to be so (Thompson 2002: 101–113).

  6. 6.

    An act that is intended to humiliate, like the defilement of Jewish graveyards, does not have to lead to felt humiliation, but can lead to other feelings like anger or fear. In many cases, anger might be an appropriate reaction to an attempt to humiliate. Nonetheless, the act of defilement of Jewish graveyards still qualifies as humiliating in a normative sense. I thank Guy Stroumsa for pointing this out to me.

  7. 7.

    Samuel Kerstein suggested that the humiliation of a group member might be welcomed, even when it is directed against a shared part of identity that is constitutive for the self-respect of the members of the group. This could be the case when one member of a group is just taking it much too far in being proud of having this identity. Likewise Marcus Düwell suggested that it might be called for to humiliate those who are themselves very humiliating in their attitude. I think a group can rightfully want one of its members to be insulted, but not to be humiliated. And it might be that there are cases where humiliation is the only response to prevent humiliation and, therefore, some kind of self-defence. But I have no clue how such cases would look and how it can be made certain that those members of the group who do not humiliate are also not humiliated. Moreover, I think both have something similar in mind that is degrading but not humiliating. There are probably many cases where degrading someone can be justified; there are no cases where it is justified to humiliate someone, or, at least, I can think of none.

  8. 8.

    For data on rapes in marriages: Vergewaltigung in der Ehe: “Wer den eigenen Mann anzeigt, setzt sich nicht mehr an den gemeinsamen Tisch.” Der Tagesspiegel, 26 July 2000.

  9. 9.

    There are now many books on Guantanamo Bay. One by an activist insider is: C. Stafford Smith (2007) One that explores the ethical dimension of the case: C. Butler (2007). There are even more books published on Abu Ghraib. For an investigative journalist’s perspective: M. Danner (2005). For interesting reflections of an art historian: S. F. Eisenman (2007). Material on both cases can be found in: W. F. Zimmerman (2004).

  10. 10.

    One might think that they are not treated as rational agents when treated like this, but this is not the case given that rational reasons are given for this action. One might also think that they are not treated as autonomous agents. I think this is also not the case because one of their autonomous decisions is not respected, which is different from not treating some as a person with autonomy.

  11. 11.

    In the end, the case was dropped. See: “Court Drops Turkish Writer’s Case,” BBC, 23 January 2006.

  12. 12.

    This account is obviously based on the Kantian idea that our dignity stems from our nature as rational beings and, therefore, as free agents. It also extends this account, however, because it recognizes that we are sentient beings with rationality in the Kantian sense (Baumann 2003: 19–34, Schaber 2003: 119–131).

  13. 13.

    This idea also goes back to Kant and his idea that everything has a price (Preis) while only human beings have dignity (Würde). In the German constitution this is captured in article 1, paragraph 1: “Human dignity is inviolable. To respect and to protect it is the duty of all state authority.” This leads to the problem of the paradox of humiliation, i.e. the question why dignity matters when it cannot be violated. A solution to this problem is presented by Ralf Stoecker (Stoecker 2003: 133–151).


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Neuhäuser, C. (2011). Humiliation: The Collective Dimension. In: Kaufmann, P., Kuch, H., Neuhaeuser, C., Webster, E. (eds) Humiliation, Degradation, Dehumanization. Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy, vol 24. Springer, Dordrecht.

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