Philosophers have a great deal to say about human dignity, but very little to say about degradation. This is odd, for there is an enormous amount to say on the subject of degrading people: what exactly do we mean when we speak of degradation? How are we to regard degradation from a moral point of view? Should we say that human beings have a right not to be degraded? None of these questions are straightforward, and all raise important issues, not only from a philosophical but also a legal point of vie. But on practically all of these matters philosophers are almost silent.
Why is this? J. L. Austin once brought to our attention two common but nevertheless quite mistaken assumptions: first that a word must have an opposite, or just one opposite; and second, that it must be the ‘positive’ word that ‘wears the trousers’. As he remarked, ‘commonly enough the ‘negative’ (looking) word marks the (positive) abnormality, while the ‘positive’ (looking) word, if it exists, merely serves to rule out the suggestion of that abnormality’. It is a failure to pay heed to this observation that helps account for the philosophical neglect of degradation. Perhaps it is now thought that, if there is anything at all to be said about degrading people, it is to be read off or deduced from conclusions reached by Immanuel Kant and others on the subject of human dignity. But in fact, and in keeping with the spirit of Austin’s remarks, there appears to be no good reason whatsoever for adopting this view. If we want to get clear how we should think of ‘degradation’, we shall have to examine the notion on its own merits. We can’t expect Kant to do all the work for us.
There are, of course, several quite distinct senses of the word degradation: so we talk of ‘degrading’ the environment and now, apparently, of degrading military capacity. But I am interested in neither of these but in the quite different sense intended when we refer to a person as degraded because she has suffered some form of ill-treatment: torture, perhaps, or cruel and unusual punishment. Degradation in this sense is worth examining, and not only because it is an interesting and complex concept whose meaning and value is commonly misunderstood. For besides this, the notion of degradation features in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which reads as follows: ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.
We are about to incorporate the European Convention into English law, and henceforth we shall be duty bound not to subject anybody to degrading treatment or punishment. A thorough investigation into degradation, therefore, will include an enquiry into not only the meaning and value of the term, but also the question whether indeed we should support the absolute prohibition upon degradation that now prevails in Europe. These matters require extended discussion, but in this brief article I can do no more than raise a number of questions with a view to persuading the reader that the subject is deserving of more attention than it has received hitherto.
We might begin by taking a further look at what both the European Court and European Commission of Human Rights have to say. For the purposes of Article 3, ‘degrading’ has its ordinary dictionary meaning. Degrading treatment, therefore, is treatment that humiliates or debases, though there is a minimum threshold level of humiliation or debasement that must be reached. Degrading treatment is conduct that ‘grossly humiliates’, although causing less suffering than torture. The question is whether a person of the applicant’s sex, age, health, and so on, and of normal sensibilities would be grossly humiliated in all the circumstances of the case.
There is much here to comment upon. First of all there is a tendency to construe degradation in terms of humiliation or, at any rate, gross humiliation. But we are entitled to ask whether humiliation is even a necessary, let alone a sufficient condition of degradation. If a young man becomes violently drunk, and is seen swaggering, belching and swearing in the street, then onlookers may with good reason consider that he degrades himself by acting in such a manner. (‘He was behaving like an animal’, we might say.) But the young man, on the other hand, may not feel the slightest humiliation at the time he was befuddled with drink and on the contrary remain highly entertained by the fear and loathing he inspired. Nor should we simply assume that humiliation will set in so soon as he is able to look back from the vantage point of sobriety. Humiliation is not a necessary condition of degradation. And neither is it sufficient: if I fail to answer a simple question in a general knowledge quiz I may feel humiliated besides my better informed friends. But that is a far cry from degradation. Indeed, if I accept my ignorance with good grace then I may even be said to have kept my dignity despite the gross embarrassment endured.
I would not wish to deny that humiliation is related to degradation – for plainly there is a connection of some kind – but the relationship is not as close as we may be tempted to suppose. What else should we consider? The Court might accept that degradation includes more than the element of humiliation, but insist that the crucial question remains that of how the victim is made to feel: is the treatment degrading in the eyes of the victim? We should be wary, however, of vesting too much authority in victims’ testimony, for we are all prone to exaggerate or underestimate the gravity of our situation. Indeed, there are those who consider it perfectly possible that someone should suffer degradation whether they know it or not. As with exploitation, a mark of gross degradation can be just that those degraded are wholly unaware of their demeaning predicament.
It isn’t the victim, therefore, that we are to turn to, but to those capable of a more objective perspective – the Courts perhaps – or informed opinion. Here, however, just as it is beginning to look as if there may be no place for the victim in determining whether degradation has taken place, I must leave this line of thought and turn to another.
Irrespective of the role we allot to the victim, there remains a large question about the intentions of those whose behaviour is thought to be responsible for degradation. One point the Court is at pains to stress is that intention is not an element in the notion of ‘degradation’ according to its general reading of Article 3, by which, other than in cases of torture, the test of liability is solely in terms of the suffering caused.
Now this view too is not quite right. First of all, how much we suffer stems not only from the element of pain but also from our understanding of the behaviour that caused it. If my hand is crushed in your powerful grasp, my understanding of what has happened will then affect the nature of my suffering. Learning that it was not an accident but your malevolent intent will cause shock and distress that compounds the pain you caused.
As thus described the suffering is in part a product of my understanding of your intentions, so we have not yet undermined the view that the test for degradation is suffering. But in fact there is more to degradation than suffering, and intention is connected to this additional element. Suppose that you continue violently to crush my hand, and that you succeed in inspiring uncontrollable fear and trembling. If this becomes a degrading spectacle, the explanation lies not only in the element of suffering, but also in a recognition of the incontinence and powerlessness your cruelty was intended to induce. And whilst such recognition is not unconnected to suffering, as explained above, these are nevertheless discrete phenomena, and degradation includes elements of both.
That degradation requires reference to attitude and demeanour is borne out if we consider those who, despite enduring physical agony, refuse to become consumed by their predicament, and who manage to retain both their composure and a measure of detachment. Are such people degraded? Arguably they are not, though even if they are, the manner of their response will help determine the nature and extent of degradation, so pointing up the need to look beyond levels of physical suffering.
We are now encountering the obvious truth that different people respond differently to similar levels of pain. But if this variable response is to feature in our account of degradation, are we forced to conclude that degradation is largely a relative matter: that what is degrading for you may not be degrading for me? In the case of Tyrer, the European Court of Human Rights considered the question whether corporal punishment is degrading, remarking that ‘[t]he assessment is, in the nature of things, relative: it depends on all the circumstances of the case…’
But these stipulations raise awkward questions, not least for the Court itself, since there is plainly some tension between the Court’s insistence that any assessment of punishment as degrading is relative, and its attempt elsewhere to argue that corporal punishment as such violates Article 3 in virtue of its inherent properties. If we suppose that degradation is a notion whose meaning is subject to cultural and historical variation (as the Court and many of us would appear to presuppose) then it begins to look as if our assessment of various forms of ill treatment can never aspire to become timeless and unvarying. But then we have to ask: is there no practice or punishment – no matter how vile or barbaric – to which we can attribute a degrading tendency irrespective of the time and circumstances of its occurrence?
I have merely hinted at some of the questions to be asked about degradation, indicating that it is a notion that not only proves resistant to straightforward characterisation, but also threatens to sit uneasily with a number of humanitarian commitments. Errors, conceptual and otherwise, lead legislators and lawyers to see degradation where there is none, and yet fail to notice degrading treatment when it manifestly arises. And errors too, of the kind Austin pointed out, have led philosophers unjustly to neglect degradation whilst the subject of human dignity remains a central pre-occupation of more than one branch of modern philosophy. If there is one conclusion to emerge from this discussion it is that the notion of degradation is deserving of as much of the limelight. Here, however, as Austin once said of the subject of ‘excuses’, I must leave and commend the subject to you.