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Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. —Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Dignity found its way into English before the Renaissance (1400s to 1600s).[1] At that time, dignity was a quality akin to nobility, majesty, and wonderfulness, and philosophers granted dignity to all sorts of things. In the 1700s, Immanuel Kant thought that dignity was being granted too liberally. He said that a human was the only being, and the human capacity for morality was the only idea, that had dignity.

In the 20th century, academics discovered that many people accepted Kant's idea that dignity was a synonym for humanness. The academics discovered that many people claimed to believe that being human means having dignity, and that having dignity means being entitled to respect and to human rights.

Aldergrove and others say that using dignity to justify calls for respect and for rights is illogical. Aldergrove says dignity (as humanness) is no different from other abstractions, for instance, preciousness or "just because". McDougal et al point out that dignity can be used to justify one set of rights, and to justify another set of rights that nullify the first set.

Aldergrove notes that some people use dignity to mean something other than humanness. Aldergrove observes that, when dignity has a meaning other than "humanness," dignity does not become a better reason for rights. Altering the meaning of dignity does no good because no meaning of dignity can overcome the is-ought problem that Hume identified.

In the 20th century and thereafter, few people were concerned about the ambiguity and the illogic that attends dignity. It became an issue in matters of human rights, medicine, and law.


In Europe, during the Renaissance, people were granting dignity to all sorts of things. The philosopher Pico della Mirandola granted dignity to ideas and to beings. In his "Oration on the Dignity of Man", he told hostile clerics about the dignity of the liberal arts and about the dignity and the glory of angels. His comments implied the dignity of philosophers.[2]

In Mirandola's time, people were using dignity as they use it today. Dignity is typically a combination of quiddity and goodness. Quiddity is the essence of something—its whatness. Quiddity is the quality of something that tells us what it is. The quiddity of a shoe is "shoeness." The quiddity of a devil is "devilishness." The quiddity of a human is "humanness."

When we grant goodness to a quiddity, we create dignity. We can create dignity out of anything. For example, if we grant goodness to humanness, then we have a justification for saying that humanness has dignity or that some humans have dignity. If someone holds that mathematics is good, then he can say that mathematics has dignity. If someone holds that murderousness is good, then he can say that murderousness has dignity. Saying that something has dignity is making a claim that something deserves respect and benevolent treatment.

Claiming that something deserves respect and benevolent treatment by reason of that something's dignity is problematic. The problem is that adversaries can use dignity for contrary purposes. For example, someone can claim that science has dignity and, therefore, science deserves respect. Nothing prevents someone else from claiming that anti-science has dignity and, therefore, anti-science deserves respect. This example demonstrates dignity's capacity to serve any master. In neither case does the invocation of dignity prove anything. Neither statement is true merely because it makes reference to dignity.

From Mirandola's time, dignity has been an authority for various claims and propositions. As an authority, dignity has always been the equal of any god or of any other supernatural being. For example, a cleric could counter the proposition that God wants all the Cathari killed by replying, "Perhaps, but Dignity obliges us to be merciful toward the infants". Used as an authority, dignity is often a substitute for "I" or "me".

A philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment (1600s and 1700s in Europe), Immanuel Kant said one idea only and one being only had dignity. Kant said those things only which are 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". [3]

Egonsson calls the belief that equates dignity with being human the Standard Attitude.[4] Egonsson observes that, while some people claim to have the Standard Attitude, they use language which indicates that they have attached qualifications other than humanness to their idea of dignity. Some of these qualifications may exclude some people from being human and from having dignity. Wertheimer agrees with Egonsson's observation.[5] Wertheimer says "it is not a definitional truth that human beings have human status."[6] Accordingly, one cannot trust that people who solicit respect and rights for themselves because of their dignity will not deny respect or rights to others.

Aldergrove says dignity, when it is used to mean humanness, is a conceit.[7] Having dignity, he contends, is no different from having preciousness or greatness or specialness or glory. Aldergrove says a conceit is "an excuse to feel the way you want, or to do what you want." He 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.[8]

Aldergrove considers alternative meanings for dignity. He notes that some dictionaries define dignity as a quality or state worthy of esteem and respect.[1] He notes that some dictionaries define dignity as stateliness.[1] After considering the alternative meanings, Aldergrove concludes that no meaning is better than any other insofar as the claims based on dignity are concerned. Aldergrove says the claims to respect and to rights are precluded because of the observation by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume noted that an is-statement does not give rise logically to just one ought-statement (the is-ought problem).[9] Thus we cannot go logically from “we are human” (or "we are worthy of esteem" or "we have dignity") to some therefore about what we ought to do or believe. A fact does not give rise logically to one value or to one conclusion. Consequently, we cannot logically say, "We have dignity; therefore we ought to have a right to free satellite-television.[10] Basing a claim upon dignity is an exercise in absurdity.

Despite the problematic nature of dignity, it figures prominently among the world's concerns. As the following paragraphs illustrate, dignity is an issue in matters of religion, human rights, medicine, and law.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists the "dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God." "All human beings," says the Church, "in as much as they are created in the image of God, have the dignity of a person." The catechism says, "The right to the exercise of freedom belongs to everyone because it is inseparable from his or her dignity as a human person."[11]

Human Rights[edit]

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 United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

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.[12] [13][14] One archbishop favored legal sanctions because, he said, it is "the manipulation and defamation of religion which threatens human dignity, rights, peace and security."[15] 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."[16] 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."[17]


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

International Bodies[edit]

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."[18]

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:

Conscious of the accelerating developments in biology and medicine;

Convinced of the need to respect the human being both as an individual and as a member of the human species and recognising the importance of ensuring the dignity of the human being;

Conscious that the misuse of biology and medicine may lead to acts endangering human dignity;

Resolving to take such measures as are necessary to safeguard human dignity and the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual with regard to the application of biology and medicine . . . .

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.” [19]


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."[20]


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 or rules 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."[21] 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."[21]


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.”[20]


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."[22]


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.[23]

United States[edit]

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."[24]


McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen studied dignity as a basis for international law. [25] They said that using dignity as the basis for laws was a "natural law approach."[26] The natural law approach, they said, depends upon "exercises of faith." [27] McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen observed:

The abiding difficulty with the natural law approach is that its assumptions, intellectual procedures, and modalities of justification can be employed equally by the proponents of human dignity and the proponents of human indignity in support of diametrically opposed empirical specifications of rights . . . .[28]


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.[29] The law prohibited research on human embryos created in France but permitted research on human embryos brought to France.[29] The law prohibited researchers from creating embryos for research but allowed researchers to experiment with embryos that were superfluous after in vitro fertilization.[30]


Human dignity is the fundamental principle of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, and is mentioned before the right to life. Article 1, paragraph 1 reads: Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. [31]

Examples of dignity's effect upon German law
  • 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 Federal Constitutional Court in 1977 said life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as a violation of human dignity (and the Rechtsstaat principle).
  • § 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. The killing of a small number of innocent people to save a large number was deemed illegal because the section 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 a lower court; a higher court disagreed.[1][2]
  • In 1975, a court declared the first German law legalizing abortion unconstitutional because the law threatened the dignity of embryos.[32] In the 1990s, Germany developed a new law by which the state does not prosecute anyone for an early-term abortion if it is preceded by counselling.
  • On 15 December 1981, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht declared that peep-shows violated the dignity of the performer, regardless of her feelings. In a subsequent decision, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht held that the performer's dignity was not violated if she could see the persons who were watching her.


The Swiss Constitution states at Article 7, “Human dignity is to be respected and protected.”[33] The Constitution mentions dignity again in relation to medicine and genetics:

Article 119a Transplantation Medicine (1) The Federation adopts rules in the field of transplantation of organs, tissue, and cells. It provides thereby for the protection of human dignity, personality, and health. (2) The Federation establishes particularly criteria for the just assignment of organs. (3) Donations of human organs, tissue, and cells are free of charge. The trade with human organs is prohibited.

Article 120 Gene Technology in the Non-Human Field
(1) Humans and their environment are protected against abuse of gene technology. (2) The Federation adopts rules on the use of reproductive and genetic material of animals, plants, and other organisms. It takes thereby into account the dignity of the creature and the security of man, animal and environment, and protects the genetic multiplicity of animal and plant species.

Dignity as a rarity[edit]

Some writers reject the idea that dignity should be a common quality. They say dignity should be used to describe only the exceptional individual. For example, Thurber says dignity "has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages, a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority"[34] Aldergrove says dignity should mean the set of attributes that distinguish an intelligent, solemn, sober, healthy, independent, adult homo sapiens (the model adult) from someone else, especially a young child or a lunatic.[35]

External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2
  3. Kant, Immanuel, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (Second Section: Transition From Popular Moral Philosophy To The Metaphysic Of Morals), trans. by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.
  4. Egonsson, Dan (1998). Dimensions of Dignity: The Moral Importance of Being Human. Dordrecht, Sweden: Kluwer Academic. p. 132.
  5. Wertheimer, Roger (1974), “Philosophy on Humanity,” in Abortion: Pro and Con, R. L. Perkins ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, pp. 107-28.
  6. Egonsson, pp. 81-82.
  7. Aldergrove, John Romney (2000), Why We Are Not Obsolete Yet: Genetics, Algeny, and the Future, Stentorian: Burnaby, p. 83, ISBN 0-9682932-1-2
  8. Aldergrove, p. 83.
  9. Hume, David (1739-1740), A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, Book III (Of Morals), Part I (Of virtue and vice in general), Sect. I (Moral distinctions not deriv'd from reason).
  10. Aldergrove, p. 83.
  11. Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
  12. UN Resolution 2005 (A/60/PV.64)
  13. UN Resolution 2006
  14. UN Resolution 2007
  15. Archbishop Defends Religious Freedom to U.N. Council 2006-07-14.
  16. Khan, Liaquat Ali. 'Combating Defamation of Religions' 1 January 2007.
  17. United Nations Human Rights Council on religious defamation," 26 March 2009 Retrieved 2009-03-30.
  18. Declaration of Helsinki by World Medical Association
  19. Bill in Parliament of Canada 1996
  20. 20.0 20.1 Survey on the National Regulations in the European Union regarding Research on Human Embryos (July 2002)(Brigitte Gratton).
  21. 21.0 21.1 CCNE Opinion no. 8.
  22. Swedish statutes.
  23. Dignity of Plants.
  24. Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics March 2008.
  25. McDougal, Myres S., Harold D. Lasswell, and Lung-chu Chen (1980), Human Rights and World Public Order: The Basic Policies of an International Law of Human Dignity, New Haven: Yale UP, note, at 376.
  26. McDougal, p. 70.
  27. McDougal, p. 69.
  28. McDougal, p. 71.
  29. 29.0 29.1 CCNE Opinion no. 053.
  30. Bernard Cazeau on experimentation with embryos(in French). Retrieved 11 April 2009.
  32. German law about abortion.
  33. Swiss Constitution.
  34. Thurber, James (1989), 'Thinking Ourselves Into Trouble,' pt. 3, Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, Michael J. Rosen ed., Harper & Row.
  35. Aldergrove, p. 71.