Decolonising Dignity

In today’s blog, Dr Christine J. Winter of the University of Sydney, whose paper ‘Decolonising Dignity for Inclusive Democracy‘ is forthcoming in Environmental Values (28.1, February 2019) explains how the landmark legal conferring of personhood on three [Aoteraroa] New Zealand geo-regions has opened up an opportunity to re-evaluate the concept of dignity in a way that ‘breaks down the human-nonhuman dichotomy that privileges human desire over long-term environmental stability’ and in doing so furthers the process of decolonisation by conceiving human-nonhuman relationships less as hierarchies and more as intimate ‘entanglements’.


‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’ (United Nations, 1948)

Dignity underpins theories of justice and is fundamental to the idea of liberal democracy. It grounds such principles as equal rights and freedom. Its use in opening the UDHR suggests dignity is something all people have just because they are human. However, just what dignity is is less obvious. As Martha Nussbaum suggests ‘[d]ignity is an intuitive notion that is by no means utterly clear’ (Nussbaum, 2011: 29). It is this uncertainty and that it is conceptualised in a bunch of ways within the Western cannon that leads me to suggest we can seek a more inclusive conceptualisation, one that might work particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand, and possibly further afield. Indeed, based in Mātauranga Māori, we can conceptualise dignity in a way that breaks down the human-nonhuman dichotomy that privileges human desire over long-term environmental stability.

We understand dignity’s absence more clearly than exactly what it is. In part, this may be because we are unsure what grounds it. Indeed, many different conceptualisations of dignity have been used to underpin justice and ethics over the centuries of Western thought. The idea of dignity was once harnessed to establish hierarchy and protect privilege. In its more modern rendition, it raises all humans ‘up’ to the same level of status (Waldron, 2012). (For a detailed analysis of dignity see also Kateb, 2011; Rosen, 2012). In its modern usage, there is some understanding that it is a power for good. It protects people from demeaning or discriminatory or unjust acts. We know, too, that dignity’s twin is respect (Bendick-Keymer, 2014; Nussbaum, 2017). These two concepts are bound in an intimate entanglement.

In summary, to this point the claim is, humans have dignity because they are human, and because they have dignity, they deserve respect. Respecting the dignity in ourselves is part and parcel of respecting others’ dignity. There is, also, some degree of agreement that it is or should be, a universal notion. So, why might the idea of dignity ‘need’ to be decolonised?

Dignity plays a role in promoting the human exceptionalism that is a feature of Western politics and justice theories because it is generally applied to humans alone. However, human exceptionalism is not an ontological feature of the philosophies of many of the Peoples who first inhabited the settler states – the states of Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. Nevertheless, in these settler states, where dignity and human exceptionalism underpin many concepts in politics and law, it is a foundational concept for the liberal democratic order. But this does not mean it is universally understood to inhere to human only. A window has opened in Aotearoa New Zealand that affords the opportunity to re-evaluate dignity, and simultaneously inch the state further on its de-colonial journey.

Three geo-regions, Te Awa Tupua (the Whanganui River system), Te Urewera (a forested range) and Taranaki (a conical volcanic mountain) were recently granted personhood status. Granting this status is a political solution to outstanding Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi) claims – part redress for past wrongs perpetrated by the state on Māori. It returns these geo-regions closer to their precolonial status – a status of intimate relationship with the people(s) who co-exist with them. It blends Mātauranga Māori (Māori philosophy) and Anglo-European legal conventions and in doing so attempts to make commensurate two incommensurate ontologies. Legal personhood for geo-regions and the blending of Western and Maori ontologies to do so suggests, too, a need to decolonise dignity. Let me explain.

Taranaki 3
Taranaki. Photo: Christine Winter

I grew in the shadow of the great maunga Taranaki. I carry in my bones, my flesh, my being minerals drawn from the rich volcanic soils in which our food grew. In my memories remain the tranquility and smells of the bush, the sound of the gushing rivers, the thrill of wild ski runs down Taranaki’s slopes. I carry also in my bones, flesh and being my ancestors – Anglo-Celtic-Ngāti Kahungunu – as do my children and as will their children beyond. So while not the maunga of our Ngāti Kahungunu ancestors, Taranaki is integral to who I am. For Taranaki iwi (Māori peoples whose ancestral roots trace to first settlement) Taranaki is kin – a member of an entangled epistemology (whakapapa) and relational ontology.

Mātauranga Māori uses three concepts that combine to form a twinned dignity and respect association. They are mauri (life force), tapu (the potentiality to be) and mana (personal integrity). Everything possesses mauri, tapu and mana, not just human beings. Mātauranga Māori is not a philosophy of human exceptionalism. It is a philosophy of entanglement.

Te Urewera
Te Urewera. Source: Wikimedia commons

Mauri is the source of vitality, a force of interconnection. It flows from within all things spiralling out to connect with other things beyond the boundaries of its form (Durie, 2010). Tapu, like dignity, is intrinsic and inviolable. Unlike dignity, it is understood to be integral to all things. To abuse tapu is to reduce mana. Like dignity and respect, tapu and mana co-exist. Diminish the mana – the integrity of something or someone – and their tapu, or potentiality, is also diminished. Because everything is understood to be interconnected, then to abuse the mana and tapu in one element is an affront to and abuse of the interconnected whole.

This philosophy, and this conceptualisation of a type-specific dignity in all things explains perhaps why in Aotearoa recognising geo-regional personhood seems ‘natural’. It’s a way of entangling human and nonhuman, Māori and Western traditions. Practically, what it means is that we must show respect to the mauri, tapu and mana in everything – individually and as an entwined whole. When we consider a project – waste disposal, or water extraction, or mining, or a ski field development, say – then we must consider not just the benefit to the people involved in the project. We must consider, too, the benefit or harms to other people connected within the system, to other creatures, and plants and the forms themselves – the water, the mountain – and consider the impact on the essential dignity of all these elements. By upholding dignity, by enhancing mauri, tapu and mana, a project is support-worthy. If not – back to the drawing board.

Whanganui River
Whanganui River. Image from

I suggest the idea of dignity is vague and has multiple conceptualisations. It is a concept philosophers are prepared to change and adapt as the understanding of social order, justice, and the place of humans in the world evolves. I also suggest if political philosophy or justice theory are to make claims to universalism, then they should be based on universal values. However, as I have shown, the concept of dignity that grounds many of these theories may not be universally understood. In Aotearoa New Zealand, at least, to be an inclusive democracy, to move beyond the oppressions of colonial domination, requires a broader conceptualisation of dignity, one that acknowledges a right to be, the entanglement of human and nonhuman, and the wisdom relational ontologies play in promoting entangled human-nonhuman welfare. Conceptualising dignity from mauri, tapu and mana recognises that human potentiality is integrally entangled with the right of animals, fish, birds, plants, and landform to flourish – to debase one is to diminish the whole. Reconceptualising dignity so the personhood of Te Awa Tupua, Te Urewera and Taranaki are accorded respect simultaneously respects the dignity of Māori and draws Aotearoa New Zealand’s law and politics onto a pathway towards de-colonial practice and recognition. It also offers a foundation from which to de-centre human and establish a health-giving relationship with the environment.


Bendik-Keymer, J. 2014. ‘From humans to all of life’. In F. Comim and M.C. Nussbaum (eds), Capabilities, Gender, Equality (pp. 175–91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Durie, M. 2010. ‘Outstanding universal value: how relevant is indigeneity?’ In R. Selby, P. Moore and M. Mulholland (eds), Māori and the Environment (pp. 239–49). Wellington,: Huia Publishers.

Kateb, G. 2011. Human Dignity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, M.C. 2007. Frontiers of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, M.C. 2011. Creating Capabilities: A Human Development Approach. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rosen, M. 2012. Dignity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

United Nations General Assembly. 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Waldron, J. 2012. Dignity, Rank, and Rights. (M. Dan-Cohen, ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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