Dignitarian Harm

The Unworkable (and Unconstitutional) Idea of Dignitarian Harm

on March 18, 2019

Dignity and respect are good ideas that as a general rule are the proper way to treat people, but like anything else, they can be abused. In the current cultural/political conflict they are being used as instruments of tyranny. Until this generation, most Americans would have regarded the Constitution and the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution to be the unassailable rule for the public life of persons of all creeds (or none), but today, the Constitution and its guarantees are overridden in the name avoiding offense to personal life.

As noted in this writer’s previous article, the second half of the twentieth century saw the U.S. Supreme Court change the meaning of constitutional freedoms from a set of discrete rights to a vision of the good life based on the idea of personal choice. The originally enumerated freedoms themselves, and the system of constitutional government, with such limitations as federal rather than unitary government, separation of powers between branches of government, and limitations on the power of government, all bespeak of the importance of as much individual freedom as possible in a clearly ordered society. But by making freedom from offense to personal choices key to understanding the good life, as the court clearly did in its decisions on sexual issues during this period of time, constitutional freedoms and even the very idea of personal liberty have been undone.

Crucial to the subversion of constitutional freedoms has been the use (or abuse) of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. It proposes that people may not be coerced because their choices in personal life are thought to be wrong, but only if they are “harming” others. This might seem a “live and let live” philosophy, in which we can all pursue our own idea of the good life. But if merely giving offense to personal choices counts as “harm,” then people are required to affirm the goodness of all other lives. The state is then mandating a vision of the good life for everyone, in violation of the original harm principle that people may not be coerced because their choices in personal life are wrong.

This inconsistent principle of allowing any vision of a good personal life, but mandating that everyone accept them all as good, is what the partisans of the sexual revolution use to require universal acceptance of their preferred sexual standard (consent as the criterion of acceptable sexual activity). As natural law advocate Sherif Girgis has so cogently argued, if people are understood to be properly defined by themselves, they are done injustice if anyone disagrees. Refusing to treat people as they claim to be is then a gross injustice, a severe personal attack, since that is what they in fact are. Such injustice is therefore “dignitarian harm.”

The Supreme Court’s radical sexual decisions, starting in the 1960s, confined the area in which people can claim that their heart’s desire is proper to the area of sex. Justice William O. Douglas indicated this in writing the crucial Griswold decision (1965). He made his sensibility regarding freedom for martial contraception constitutional law, but as far as making his sensibility law in non-sexual areas of life was concerned, he said he would “decline that invitation.” This still, however, gives legally sanctioned irrationality large play, since sexual decisions affect much of life. It deeply affects marriage and the family, crucial areas to the life of so many people. And since the court soon considered pregnancy “intimate” enough to be governed by the rule of personal choice in the Roe vs. Wade decision (1973), it affected the lives of unborn children as well.

Contrary to the claim of nonjudgmentalism, the sanctity of personal choice and the harm to dignity of contradicting it really do pass a public judgment on people’s personal lives. They affect how people live in a wide range of occupations. Not only bakers, florists, photographers, marriage officials, counseling professions (and perhaps soon) medical personnel (with respect to abortion), but really everyone who interacts with the public is at legal risk for not facilitating the sexual choices of others. Even more alarmingly, private associations and families are pressured to embrace the same standard of sexual self-determination.

But it is not really possible to limit self-determination to sexual matters. If everything must conform to free sexual choices, then as Justice Anthony Kennedy held in the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision (1992), the individual defines all of reality. Transgenderism, in which people declare what sex they belong to independently of their bodies, is the inescapable result. Male and female become meaningless words, a pointless term applied to oneself. Unless, or course, it is held to require action by someone else. It then becomes a weapon to get what one wants. And since male and female could mean anything, and the individual is defining reality, it becomes impossible to say what is sexual and what is not. Nor is it possible to say what is truly “intimate and personal” or “central to personal dignity and autonomy,” which were Justice Kennedy’s criteria for suspending public judgment. One might claim to be of any race, or any age. The right to self-determination has completely destroyed ordered life.

This cannot stand. Personal behavior must necessarily be subject to criticism and adverse judgment. Guaranteeing each person’s right to the life he or she thinks is proper is completely unworkable, and also unconstitutional, since it overrides all the limitations the law imposes on people’s dealings with one another. In the course of the LGBT revolution, the First Amendment particularly has been under attack. Freedom of religion, certainly, but also freedom of speech and association. The general idea of personal freedom, which served as the basis for the Supreme Court’s revolutionary sexual decisions, is undermined if it can be set aside for hurt feelings. “Dignitarian harm” is an idea that simply cannot work consistently, although it can be made to work inconsistently by activists and government officials for whoever is currently understood to be a victim by the prevailing ideology.

How can people resist what is really insanity? There are painful consequences for resistance. To begin with, we should resist by speaking the truth rather than acquiescing in terminology used by revolutionary ideology, and speaking the truth even when there are legal or social penalties. Speaking the truth is not “violence.” Moral autonomy may recognize no higher authority, but of course there is a larger reality than ourselves that we must accommodate to. “Transgender man” or “transgender woman” are words that should never be used. There are no such things. The only shared meaning is based on physical reality, so “woman identifying as a man” and “man identifying as a woman” (if a bit wordy) should be used instead. We should speak of sex, not “gender” (unless we really mean grammatical gender). Pronouns should refer to a person’s real sex, not their (falsely) claimed sex. We should never speak of “gay rights” or “LGBT rights,” as the people who identify in those categories have the same rights as everyone else. We should speak of homosexuality and transgenderism instead. If an organization’s rules against homosexuality or specifying that people have their natural sex is challenged as “discrimination against LGBT people,” we should deny that they are being discriminated against – only homosexual behavior and transgender claims are prohibited. And likewise with those providing goods and services to the public, selling or renting property, or hiring or firing personnel. They are not “discriminating against LGBT people,” but declining complicity in homosexual behavior and treating people according to their true sex.

Don’t religious believers claim legal protection for their commitments? They certainly do, but it is a claim supported by Constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, and the First Amendment’s no establishment provision to make such a guarantee meaningful. And even here, no one is being required to take action to support a religion in which they do not believe. The words of the Constitution should give religious freedom broad protection. But religious freedom is also a very reasonable provision, since religion pertains to our commitments to an ultimate reality. Is conscience an affront to dignity? Dignity should not require action against conscience.

  1. Comment by Diane on March 19, 2019 at 12:15 am

    Intersex people are increasingly organizing and becoming visible. Biologically, having either sex-specific “XX” chromosomes and corresponding reproductive organs or “XY” chromosomes & corresponding reproductive organs defines the gender binary of male or female.

    Intersex people who number percentage-wise as equal to redheads cannot be defined by the rigid two-gender definition. Not even the Bible speaks to intersex people, many of whom rightfully identify as gender-queer. Identification of sex based on external reproductive traits can err. Some infants have ambiguous genetalia. Others are born with intersex conditions that will not show up for another decade. A child with a penis at birth will have “male” on their birth certificate. That same child might have the intersex condition called Klinefelter’s. It’s characteristics don’t show up till puberty when this “male” child will develop female breasts and never develop a deep voice. This child will be reproductively sterile. Why? Because the child is blessed with at least 2 “X” chromosomes and at least one “Y”. Is the child male or female? The child must check one of those boxes. In some states, such a child or adult can petition to have their gender marker changed on their birth certificate if their gender identity differs from that which they were assigned at birth. All they need is a doctor’s statement.

    And yet, the creation story says God created them, male and female. It does not say male OR Female.

    Clearly, intersex people are one way in which “male AND female” is very evident. The transgender person exhibits “male AND female” as well. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks clearly exhibit traits that overlap – boys attracted to boys is both male in terms of physical characteristics and actually associate as female in terms of attraction to males. Most every human being can find in themselves attributes typically associated with males and attributes associated with females. When women started wearing bloomers, pants, slacks, trousers, etc, they were ridiculed as “she-males”. They were understood as cross-dressing. Katherine Hepburn was gender-queer for her day, though it wasn’t a term then. She defied rigid binary-gender roles and stereotypes. Though it’s now acceptable for women to cross-dress ((I’m a senior woman who never wears a dress or skirt), men who cross-dress are not accommodated. But that’s changing, as well it should.

    God created us male AND female – not one OR the other. LGBTQI folks are simply the most visible models of God’s male AND female creation.

  2. Comment by Bill T on March 19, 2019 at 6:52 am

    If you believe this then newborns can have genetic tests and if they fit the criteria only they can identify as different than their physical makeup later in life. Otherwise, it is only in a person’s mind. Japan has laws that require you to physically be a male or female before you can claim differently. Sounds like you would agree since that would reflect their true DNA.

    So we would finally be able to test a persons DNA and only they can be LG……… under the law. And only they can have surgery to turn them into true males and females.

    Thanks for clearing all this up.

  3. Comment by Diane on March 19, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    Prenatal care is not always covered, so many forego testing. Some intersex conditions can be detected in-utero, if testing is done. Because living in a conservative society demands one be male OR female (and conform to gender stereotypical roles) the stigma for parents who learn the fetus is intersex encourages abortion. In an informal survey, parents who learned the fetus was intersex said they were encouraged by doctors to,seek an abortion.

    As a retired educator, I have worked with intersex children. Klinefeltner’s children are particularly susceptible to bullying as both male and female hormones kick in during puberty. It is a condition that can wear the mind and body out. One child was so exhausted that they were permitted by the school system as part of the child’s individual educational plan to arrive two hours late. The child had been assigned as male since birth, but exhibited the development of female breasts and had a female-range voice.

    To learn more, visit the Intersex Society of America website and read the research and stories of intersex people.

    I consider the existence/creation of intersex people to be a sacred sign that each of us has elements of male AND female, we are neither strictly one OR the other, even as we may individually identify as one or the other. I identify as female, but have personality and character traits that others readily call out as more masculine than feminine. It’s just who I am. I have no desire to conform to what others think I should be to suit their narrow, self-serving, rigid theology that says I should be and behave more like what they are.

  4. Comment by Bill T on March 19, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    The issue then is to not insist that others recognize both your male and female traits. You are one or the other and it certainly makes it easier especially since the rest of us will be arrested if the new” rights” law goes into effect and we do not recognize what you identify as. That is what Plasterer was writing about but you did not address.

    That is the issue at hand. Believe me that the reaction of two people who shifted sex, one through an operation and the other just declared the shift was off the wall when someone, remembering what they were, called them what they were before. One replied angrily and the other slammed themselves into a wall. With the new law they could call for discrimination when there was none. Just look at the law in Calif that in nursing homes the attendant can be charged if they do not use the patients preferred pronoun.
    All you need do is remember the Law of Unintended Consequences. Laws like that increase discrimination not decrease it.

  5. Comment by Andrew Hughes on March 19, 2019 at 6:53 am

    Sin in our world has brought about all kinds of problems, not just sexual confusion. There are other consequences for our sin; Sexual diseases, deformities, mental issues, etc. We as Christians should love all people. But we don’t condone are agree with the consequences of sin. There is a better way. His name is Jesus.“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah 61:1 & Luke 4:18. We need to repent and call on Him today.

  6. Comment by Diane on March 19, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    Sin is always about destruction. A resurrection faith lifts up. How does punishing gay people lift anyone up? In my seventy years, I’ve observed far too many broken marriages and relationships when gay people were “rewarded” for “being saved” by pretending to be heterosexual. Major “ex-gay” organizations/ministries have folded after decades of trying to prove “change is possible” with thousands of clients. Many of them married someone of the opposite sex, only to be so stressed by the rigors of 24/7 self-deception that thousands of these marriages end in divorce. The leaders of those “ex-gay” “conversion” “ministries have confessed and apologized in recent years for the harm done by bogus claims and theology, no matter how sincere, that perpetuate homosexuality is changeable. There are some folks who are bisexual, but most humans experience attraction as innately given. I mean, really, how many heterosexual people chose to be heterosexual and can tell us all about the day they woke up and said, “gee, I’m going with choosing to be heterosexual today?” If their sexuality wasn’t a choice, than homosexuality isn’t a choice either. It’s unnatural for someone to pretend to be heterosexual if they’re not. The high rate of an estimated 85% of mixed-orientation marriages ending in divorce tells us that these marriages where one person is pretending (often having been theologically brainwashed to believe they can change) to be straight are not normal, not natural. The 85% estimate comes from leaders of the the international support group that serves thousands upon thousands of distraught straight people who learned their married partner is not heterosexual (I know one straight woman who killed herself after learning she’d been married to someone who was gay…they chose not to divorce, but continue a life of secrecy). Please refer to the group’s website, “Straight Spouse Network”.

    The theology that claims homosexuality is inherently sinful is destructive. It has perpetuated tremendous harm both to lgbt folks and to straight folks who become its innocent victims. As an unmarried woman, if I’m dating a man, I always have a gay male friend check him out (gaydar exists!). The last thing I want is to be emotionally/sexually committed to someone who’s pretending to be straight. Dishonesty in relationships isn’t healthy, yet conservative theology continues to peddle how “good” it is when gay people “change” (pretend) to straight and marry someone of the opposite sex.

  7. Comment by Rick Plasterer on March 19, 2019 at 4:31 pm


    The point of my article is not to address whether or not homosexuality is changeable or whether the sex of every human being without exception is evident from their body. It is to say that no society, and certainly not one in which the personal freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights are guaranteed, can function on the basis that giving personal offense is a crime.Yet that is what the concept of “dignitarian harm” does. As I pointed out, the Supreme Court tried to restrict suspension of public judgment to sexual matters, but with the advent of transgenderism, it is no longer possible to say exactly what is sexual.

    As I also indicated in the article, not only is dignitarian harm unworkable, but an attempt to apply it inconsistently to only certain personal preferences is wrong. People should not be required to accept and even celebrate preferences they believe to be evil, even if other people are deeply pained.

    It is true that sin leads to destruction, but we identify sin from the Bible, whereas you appear to be saying that sin is what people find doesn’t work well in their lives. God does not guarantee us happiness, but does require obedience from everyone. I’m inclined to agree that religious believers placed too much emphasis on homosexuality (or now transgenderism, although sex is evident from most people’s bodies) as a choice, and that they can change their inclinations by an act of will. No one is a sinner by choice; we are all inclined to sin by being part of a fallen humanity. The fact that a particular inclination seems natural does not make it righteous, but only conformity with the will of God. And he forbids homosexual behavior, and also forbids transvestism (which is reasonably close to what is now called transgenderism). Obeying God is a struggle, as Paul indicated in the Epistle to the Romans. It is not the prerogative of the state to require disobedience because someone is offended.


  8. Comment by Gary Bebop on March 19, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks, Rick, for providing cogent, substantive commentary on a subject generating tempestuous (often bewildering) debates in the churches. Coupled with that, there are the thought police that prowl our precincts.

  9. Comment by Diane on March 20, 2019 at 11:25 am

    Sorry, Rick, but your arguments are self-serving. Your reference to God using “he” is telling. You have created God in your image. Male domination is your biblical game. Of course the savior of the world had to be male, too. Right? It was perfectly sensible for thousands of years to believe that men – not women – were the seed of life. Women were mere flowerpots for germination. In the 1800s, science discovered that women actually have an egg. Conception, life, is shared equally. I speak of God as being one in Spirit, female and male, When I see scholarly Christians making God their male idol, we’re obviously talking about a different god. You’re just old-school, out-dated.

  10. Comment by Mike on March 20, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    Diane, you have fallen for every tenet of liberalism. You have made it clear that you believe in human experience over the Bible.
    God has announced himself as “He”. Don’t forget that He makes the rules, not we humans. He is in charge. He is the ultimate masculine Being, with humans being feminine in our dependence on Him.
    It is the male that gives life. Women give birth, but the sperm brings independent life to the egg, not vice versa.
    “When I see scholarly Christians making God their male idol, we’re obviously talking about a different god. You’re just old-school, out-dated.” I guess that means that you are not a scholarly Christian. You are just one more sinner who needs to repent of their rebellion against God.

  11. Comment by David on March 20, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Generally, people think that animals do not “sin,” but they are afflicted with sexually transmitted infections as well as humans. Those cuddly Koalas have a serious problem with chlamydia. Plants face diseases that are spread by pollen that can also be thought as sexual.

    Deformities are usually due to genetic or developmental problems and not sinful fetuses. The UMC rejects original sin. The human reproductive system is the result of either unintelligent design or chance evolution where nearly 75% of conceptions are aborted because of defects. Having worked in genetics for 40 years, I have had to deal with “God’s mistakes”—various horrors including cyclopia.

    I have never understood the desire to physically change gender with surgery or dangerous hormone treatments. We live in a society where people can pursue interests and activities of the opposite sex. I hope this desire is not merely a clothing fetish.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.