In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker notes that a high level of self-control benefits not just individuals but also society. Europe, he writes, witnessed a thirtyfold drop in its homicide rate between the medieval and modern periods, and this, he argues, had much to do with the change from a culture of honor to a culture of dignity, which prizes restraint.I had thought of "dignity" primarily in terms of just one of the American Heritage Dictionary's definitions, that is, "Stateliness and formality in manner and appearance", and #4 in the OED reads "Nobility or befitting elevation of aspect, manner, or style; becoming or fit stateliness, gravity" and refers us to "dignified": "Marked by dignity of manner, style, or appearance; characterized by lofty self-respect without haughtiness; stately, noble, majestic."
But that's not cited in the Macmillan English Dictionary, which instead only mentions "the impressive behavior of someone who controls their emotions in a difficult situation," whereas Merriam-Webster offers "a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control" and "the quality of being worthy of honor or respect".
I did not know this. And even if the Macmillan English Dictionary gives the example "She faced her death with great dignity" for their above definition, restraint and control of one's emotions aren't apparently what "dignity" means in the Death with Dignity movement, which states,
The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one's own desires and beliefs. From advance directives to physician-assisted dying, death with dignity is a movement to provide options for the dying to control their own end-of-life care.So in "death with dignity", it's still control, but control of one's own future. I have the impression that it also suggests there's something undignified about living in an unpleasant manner, that is, suffering from the symptoms of illness and its treatment: pain or unpleasant side effects from medication or other life-prolonging measures.
But for me, life, and aging, and death itself are all pretty undignified.