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Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to respect and ethical treatment. It is an extension of Enlightenment-era beliefs that individuals have inherent, inviolable rights, and thus is closely related to concepts like virtue, respect, self-respect, autonomy, human rights, and enlightened reason. Dignity is generally proscriptive and cautionary: in politics it is usually synonymous to 'human dignity', and is used to critique the treatment of oppressed and vulnerable groups and peoples, though in some case has been extended to apply to cultures and sub-cultures, religious beliefs and ideals, animals used for food or research, and even plants. In more colloquial settings it is used to suggest that someone is not receiving a proper degree of respect, or even that they are failing to treat themselves with proper self-respect.

While dignity is a term with a long philosophical history, it is rarely defined outright in political, legal, and scientific discussions. International proclamations have thus far left dignity undefined, and scientific commentators, such as those arguing against genetic research and algeny, cite dignity as a reason but are ambiguous about its application.


A philosopher of the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola, in his 'Oration on the Dignity of Man', spoke in front of hostile clerics of the dignity of the liberal arts and of the dignity and glory of angels.

A philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant said some things should not be discussed in terms of value, which is necessarily relative (because value depends on an observer’s judgment). Kant said those things beyond all value have dignity. Kant identified those things that are beyond all value as ends in themselves. Something is an end in itself if it has morality; that is, if it can make choices between right and wrong. Kant said "morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity.”

Egonsson called the belief that equates dignity with being human the Standard Attitude. Roger Wertheimer called the equating of dignity with humanness the Standard Belief. Egonsson observed that, while some people claim to have the Standard Attitude, they use language that indicates that they have attached conditions other than humanness to their idea of dignity. Wertheimer agreed. He said "it is not a definitional truth that human beings have human status." Egonsson said the minimal conditions that most people attach to their grant of dignity to an entity is that the entity be both human and alive.

Aldergrove says dignity, when it is used to mean being human, is a conceit. Having dignity, he contends, is no different from having preciousness or greatness or specialness or glory. Aldergrove said a conceit is "an excuse to feel the way you want, or to do what you want." Aldergrove says a conceit is a way of creating an authority out of nothing. He says a conceit is equal to just because as a reason for anything. He insists dignity "can be an excuse for any law or policy."

Aldergrove notes that dignity, regardless of its meaning, cannot justify the claims that commentators attach to it. Aldergrove says those claims are precluded by the observation of Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume noted that an is-statement does not give rise logically to just one ought-statement (the is-ought_problem). Thus we cannot go logically from “we are human” to some therefore about what we ought to do or believe.

Proclamations and Conventions

Through much of the 20th Century, dignity appeared in assorted writings as a reason for peacemaking and for promoting human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states:

Subsequent proclamations also invoke dignity in the call for more rights. For example, the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), article 11(1), proclaims, "Everyone has the right to have his honor respected and his dignity recognized." The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (1981), art. 5, insists, "Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being." All the international proclamations leave dignity undefined.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, dignity was a reason to curtail human rights. Clergy and laity invoked dignity to explain their agreement with resolutions that were being approved by the United Nations. Those resolutions bid all nations to restrict rights by imposing legal sanctions upon blasphemy (defamation of religion) and upon all conduct that a religious person might find offensive. One archbishop favored legal sanctions because, he said, it is "the manipulation and defamation of religion which threatens human dignity, rights, peace and security." One law professor hoped "the law against defamation of religions may be constructed in a way that does not abridge legitimate speech including artistic freedom and yet protects the dignity of religion." On 26 March 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a non-binding resolution that states, "defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence."


In the 20th century, dignity became an issue for physicians and medical researchers.

International Bodies

In June 1964, the World Medical Association issued the Declaration of Helsinki. The Declaration says at article 11, "It is the duty of physicians who participate in medical research to protect the life, health, dignity, integrity, right to self-determination, privacy, and confidentiality of personal information of research subjects."

The Council of Europe invoked dignity in its effort to govern the progress of biology and medicine. On 4 April 1997, the Council, at Oviedo, approved the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine. The convention's preamble contains these statements, among others:

The Convention states, "Parties to this Convention shall protect the dignity and identity of all human beings and guarantee everyone, without discrimination, respect for their integrity and other rights and fundamental freedoms with regard to the application of biology and medicine."

In 1998, the United Nations mentioned dignity in the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. At Article 2, the declaration states, “Everyone has a right to respect for their dignity.” At Article 24, the declaration warns that treating a person to remove a genetic defect "could be contrary to human dignity." The Commentary that accompanies the declaration says that, as a consequence of the possibility of germ-line treatment, "it is the very dignity of the human race which is at stake."


In 1996, the Government of Canada issued a report entitled New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies. The report used “the principles of respect for human life and dignity” as its reason for recommending that various activities associated with genetic research and human reproduction be prohibited. The report said the prohibited activities were “contrary to Canadian values of equality and respect for human life and dignity.”


The Ministry of Health enacted the ‘‘Danish Council Act 1988’’, which established the Danish Council of Ethics. The Council advises the Ministry on matters of medicine and genetic research on humans. In 2001, the Council condemned "reproductive cloning because it would violate human dignity, because it could have adverse consequences for the cloned person and because permitting research on reproductive cloning would reflect a disregard for the respect due to the moral status of embryos."


In 1984, France set up the National Consultative Committee for Ethics in the Life and Health Sciences (CCNE) to advise the government about the regulation of medical practices and research. In 1986, the CCNE said, "Respect for human dignity must guide both the development of knowledge and the limits orrules to be observed by research." The CCNE said that research on human embryos must be subject to "the rule of reason" and must have regard for "undefined dignity in its practical consequences." The CCNE insisted that, in research on human embryos, the ethical principles that should apply are "respecting human dignity" and respecting "the dignity of science."


The National Council of Ethics of Portugal published its Opinion on the Ethical Implications of Cloning in 1997. The opinion states, “the cloning of human beings, because of the problems it raises concerning the dignity of the human person, the equilibrium of the human species and life in society, is ethically unacceptable and must be prohibited.”


Sweden's The Genetic Integrity Act (2006:351), The Biobanks in Medical Care Act (2002:297), Health and Medical Services (Professional Activities) Act (1998:531), and The Health and Medical Services Act (1982:763) all express concern for "the integrity of the individual" or "human dignity."


The Constitution says Swiss citizens must respect the dignity of animals, plants, and other organisms. Accordingly, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) published a brochure in 2008 about how researchers can respect the dignity of plants.

United States

In 2008, The President's Council on Bioethics tried to arrive at a consensus about what dignity meant but failed. Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., the Council's Chairman, says in the Letter of Transmittal to the President of The United States, "… there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term, human dignity."


McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen studied dignity as a basis for international law. They said that using dignity as the basis for laws was a "natural law approach." The natural law approach, they said, depends upon "exercises of faith." McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen observed:


In 2004, Canada enacted the Assisted Human Reproduction Act. Section 2(b) of the Act states, "the benefits of assisted human reproductive technologies and related research for individuals, for families and for society in general can be most effectively secured by taking appropriate measures for the protection and promotion of human health, safety, dignity and rights in the use of these technologies and in related research." The Act prescribes a fine not exceeding $500,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or both, if someone undertakes a proscribed activity such as the creation of a chimera.


In 1997, the National Consultative Committee for Ethics in the Life and Health Sciences, as well as other observers, noted that France's dignity-based laws on bio-medical research were paradoxical. The law prohibited the willful destruction of human embryos but directed that human embryos could be destroyed if they were more than five years old. The law prohibited research on human embryos created in France but permitted research on human embryos brought to France. The law prohibited researchers from creating embryos for research but allowed researchers to experiment with embryos that were superfluous after in vitro fertilization.


Human dignity is the fundamental principle of the German constitution. Article 1, paragraph 1 reads: "Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority." Human dignity is thus mentioned even before the right to life. This has a significant impact on German law-making and jurisdiction in both serious and trivial items:

  • Human dignity is the basis of § 131 StGB, which prohibits the depiction of cruelty against humans in an approving way. § 131 has been used to confiscate horror movies and to ban video games like Manhunt and the Mortal Kombat series.
  • A decision by the German Federal Constitutional Courtmarker in 1977 said life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as a violation of human dignity (and the Rechtsstaat principle). Today, a prisoner serving a life term can be granted parole on good behavior as early as 15 years after being incarcerated, provided that his release is held to constitute little danger to the public. Note that persons deemed still dangerous can be incarcerated indefinitely on a life term, if this judgment is regularly reaffirmed.
  • § 14(3) of the Luftsicherheitsgesetz, which would have allowed the Bundeswehr to shoot down airliners if they are used as weapons by terrorists, was declared unconstitutional mainly on the grounds of human dignity: killing a small number of innocent people to save a large number cannot be legalized since it treats dignity as if it were a measurable and limited quantity.
  • A Benetton advertisement showing human buttocks with an "H.I.V. positive" stamp was declared a violation of human dignity by some courts, but in the end found legal.[32522][32523]
  • The first German law legalizing abortion in 1975 was declared unconstitutional because the court held that embryos had human dignity. A new law on abortion was developed in the 1990s. This law makes all abortions de jure illegal, but the state does not prosecute early-term abortion if preceded by counseling.
  • In a decision from 1981-12-15, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht declared that peep shows violated the human dignity of the performer, regardless of her feelings. The decision was later revised. Peep shows where the performer cannot see the persons who are watching her remain prohibited as a matter of dignity.


The Swiss Constitution states at Article 7, “Human dignity is to be respected and protected.” The Constitution mentions dignity again in relation to medicine and genetics:

See also


External links

PELE, Antonio: The concept of human dignity (Spanish)e-­archivo.­uc3m.­es/­handle/­10016/­3052

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