On Dignity, Morality, and Responsibility: The Effect of Obergefell vs. Hodges

This summer has been full of some pretty amazing and terrifying historic moments, and the Supreme Court decisions definitely made the list for me. As someone who finds the judicial process fascinating, and takes a pretty active role in politics, I was one of the people who woke up early, made a large cup of tea, and eagerly watched everything unfold on SCOTUSblog. When the decision was announced, I prided myself on being one of the first to report the result to my Facebook friends.

From those sleepy Friday morning hours, social media exploded into a rainbow (literally and figuratively) of discussion and opinions regarding the case. For many of my friends, this was the culmination of years of advocacy work. For some, it was merely a lame political move that showed a deeply misguided set of priorities within the queer and allied communities. For others, this decision was an affront to their religious beliefs, and they took to the internet to vent their frustration with the majority opinion.

Once the clamor died down a bit, I began combing through the opinions myself, and what struck me the most about all of this was Justice Kennedy’s appeal to human dignity expressed in the majority opinion. I am not a legal scholar, and I do not pretend to know the comprehensive history of appeals to dignity in American jurisprudence, but the way in which the concept of “dignity” was used in this opinion gave me pause.

“Dignity” is a fun word to play around with. It points to some sort of nebulous concept of worthiness–in this case, if one has dignity, one is worthy of such and such rights. Justice Kennedy certainly alluded to this idea (without defining it) in outlining the majority opinion, and, from where I’m standing, it makes for a very convincing argument.

However, this way of arguing worries me greatly.

This concept of dignity provided a means to give justice to LGBTQ people in the United States, but it also sets a very troubling precedent for distributing justice. By appealing to “dignity” within this case, the Supreme Court essentially is saying that a certain group of people were not equally protected under the law, and rectified this through choosing to hear this case. On one hand, it can and should be commended that they chose to remedy this injustice, in my opinion. On the other, this method of distributing justice places judges at the top of a very precarious hierarchy of dignities in the United States, if differing concepts of dignity could clash.

For example, this concept of “dignity” could be utilized to strike down gun control legislation on the grounds that owning a gun is instrumental to one’s dignity. Conservative Christians in the wedding business could sue for the right to not serve LGBTQ couples, on the grounds that this would infringe upon their dignity as conservative Christians. Because dignity is such an elastic idea, there’s no telling what courts would do in these situations.

This brings me to my fears regarding appeals to dignity. Given all the events of this past year, seeing gross miscarriages of justice in myriad ways, I cannot help but be skeptical regarding the systems at play which are meant to protect and uphold our rights. If dignity can be used to justify any point of view, how can it be used as a tool to further justice? How many cases are going to be decided using this as a tool for political gain, rather than as a way to form “a more perfect union,” morally, ethically, or legally?  When will language of “dignity” be used as little more than a mask of neoliberalism, pandering to shallow ideas of justice while reifying oppressive structures?

This language, while convenient, potentially allows us to become little more than ostriches, burying our heads in the sand rather than wrestling with some very complex issues–none of which can be settled easily. Tying it all up neatly with a vague word like dignity does not absolve us from the responsibilities we, as humans, have toward one another–it just makes for some snappy Facebook quotes. In order to get justice for everyone (with or without appeals to dignity), we have to do it ourselves, and be ready for the mess therein.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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