Montreal, May 15, 2005 No 154




Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce.




by Edward W. Younkins


          Every time I hear Bob Dylan's excellent song, Dignity, I wonder what it is that various people have in mind when they use that word. The expression "human dignity" is used by a wide variety of people coming from all different directions and is used in a great diversity of contexts. Dignity is a universal human concern; is prevalent in modern philosophical, moral and legal discussions; anchors different worldviews; and has different levels of meaning depending upon the context in which it is used. As the linguistic functions and contexts of the word "dignity" have become widespread, its meanings have become ambiguous, blurred, vague, eclectic, and equivocal.


          Equivocation of the concept of human dignity deserves serious scrutiny. Is an expression such as "the dignity of the human person" merely subjective or do fundamental criteria exist allowing us to define the term and to determine when it is being violated? Of the many different ideas of human dignity, are any or all of them legitimate or are there false destructive notions of human dignity? It is certainly not satisfying to accept the idea that the concept of human dignity cannot be precisely defined, analyzed, and clarified. The purpose of this essay is to provide a conceptual map for the idea of human dignity. The discussion will revolve around the different spheres or levels in which the term is used and will delineate legitimate and illegitimate uses of the concept.

Human Dignity as a Concept of Universal Application

          Dignity is etymologically rooted in the Latin dignus or dignitas meaning "due a certain respect or worthy of esteem and honor." A fundamental inalienable dignity inheres in every human person by virtue of his uniqueness in distinction from all other men and from all other natural creatures. Each human being has free will and is capable of acts of reflection, insight, and choice. Each person is an originating source of action, has control over his own life, and is responsible for his own actions. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) treated dignity as a concept of universal human application when he said: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only." To treat a person as an end is to respect his dignity by allowing him the freedom to choose for himself. A person who has dignity has the capacity to give direction to his life and deserves respect from other rational creatures.

          Human dignity is understood in the context of human nature that includes rationality and free will, characteristics that are intrinsic to the factual reality of every person. Each individual instantiates a human nature and therefore has dignity from his very beginning. A man's fundamental dignity as an autonomous and sovereign chooser and actor is non-negotiable and cannot be repealed, negated, or diminished by any person, group of people, government, or any other institution. Each person has a worth or dignity that should be respected under any and all circumstances or conditions. Dignity is a permanent and inseparable quality of autonomous human beings because they can use their minds to judge what is right and what is wrong.

          Every human person is owed a certain respect and this respect revolves around the idea of natural rights. The dignity of the human person is a necessary prior assumption from which rights derive. Human rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person. To have dignity is to have the capacity to claim one's natural rights, to control ourselves, and to direct our own lives. Dignity is thus something shared by all people regardless of the abilities they possess, positions they hold, social status they have, or any other situational variables that may pertain. Human dignity is the intrinsic worth that belongs to a human being in his capacity as a responsible person. People require a social order that respects the dignity and freedom of every individual so that they may have the opportunity to develop of their own accord and to work toward their own flourishing and happiness. Immunity from coercion makes human flourishing possible. Human dignity provides the foundation for free men and for a free society. When human dignity is preserved, then inalienable rights are possible.

          Many religions are inspired by the concept of human dignity. Many theologians contend that persons are sacred and have an intrinsic dignity because they have been created in the image of God. However, one does not have to be religious in order to recognize and to emphasize the inherent dignity of the human person. A man's inherent dignity, along with the rest of natural law, derives from the nature of man and the world. Because natural law can be derived from what is inherent in human nature, it would be valid even if God did not exist. Thomas Aquinas has explained that there exists a system of moral beliefs accessible to human reason and independent of divine revelation. It follows that there can be human dignity even if God did not exist.

The Invalid Use of Dignity to Argue for Positive Rights

          The section above has discussed a minimal, but legitimate, use of the term, "human dignity." Recognizing basic truths about the human person, dignity at this level refers to respect for the autonomy that is intrinsic to each person's existence. Dignity makes it wrong for people to abuse others through physical or psychological coercion or to use them against their wills.

          Unfortunately, certain individuals, apparently concerned with social or distributive justice, have hijacked the term "human dignity" and have found it to be a rhetorically effective way to argue for positive rights. They have switched the emphasis from the sound notion that "some things ought never to be done to any human person" to the similar sounding but invalid idea that "some things ought always be done for every human person." It appears to many people that human dignity demands that every individual ought to have the means necessary for their human development. Because many people do not have such means, it follows that someone should do something to remedy the situation. As a result, concerned individuals appeal to human dignity as if it means something more than respect for persons and their autonomy.

"Human rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person. To have dignity is to have the capacity to claim one's natural rights, to control ourselves, and to direct our own lives."

          Partisans of economic rights use the idea of human dignity to claim that every individual deserves income, food, shelter, healthcare, employment, a guaranteed livelihood, social security, and other "necessities" just by virtue of being a human being. The argument is that adequate resources should be made available to satisfy the basic needs of individuals and families to enable them to live in conditions of human dignity. The perspective of these welfare rights proponents relates the concept of human dignity to the material needs of human beings and to a concept of distributive justice that would require satisfaction of the essential needs of everyone.

          There is an insoluble problem with respect to determining the standards to be used for measuring the basic needs (or minimal necessities) for human dignity. There is no possible categorical minimum measurement standard that is applicable in different places and points in time. Standards vary over time and between nations, regions, and families at any one time. In this sense, dignity vaguely refers to relative and changing standards regarding what is normative, attainable, and preferable. The result is a pragmatism that involves programmatic cut-off points regarding what is to be provided and what is not to be provided.

          The argument is that economic rights are critical means of ensuring a dignified existence to all human persons. Citing dignity as the source of human rights (including economic or positive rights) welfare state advocates want to formulate new rights to apply to new situations. This claim of positive (or welfare) rights is meant to impose on some people the positive obligation to provide goods for others. Positive rights are said to provide something that people need to secure their dignity. According to this line of reasoning, a positive right of one person to food, medical care, a job, housing and so on imposes a positive duty on others to take positive actions to sustain the welfare of those who are in need. People have positive rights only at the expense of someone else's natural rights.

          When economic rights as positive rights are brought into the framework of human rights, the result is a reduction of rights to "moral" claims. The positive (or welfare) rights idea is incompatible with the legitimate view of persons as ends in themselves. Welfare rights are illegitimate rights they change over time, are impossible to attain, and do not require human action for their violation.

          Many people view the state as the granter of rights and as the bearer of responsibility for these positive rights. As a result, people whose basic needs are not being met require assistance from the state and become wards of the state. It follows that people who exercise such rights sell themselves into dependency and, by doing so, lose their human dignity.

Dignity as Virtuousness of Character

          The first part of this paper discussed a legitimate, but minimal, meaning of the word dignity unearned, but deserved respect for persons and their autonomy based on their potential for rational thought and action. This kind of dignity attaches to a human being merely because he has the capacity to be a responsible person. If a human agent responsibly uses his capacities to choose, act, and flourish as a virtuous human being, he could then be said to have achieved a type of dignity of merit. This second, valid use of the term, dignity, is the subject of this section.

          When a responsible human agent enters into his own creative endeavors, not only should he avoid anything counter to universal human dignity (as described in the first section of this essay), he should also use his capacity of rationality to achieve a distinctively meritorious form of human dignity by developing a virtuous character and by engaging in moral conduct. In this maximal second legitimate meaning of human dignity, a person develops his virtues as a means to gain his values and to achieve his flourishing and happiness.

          Dignity, in this sense, is a matter of how one acts. Dignity, as virtuousness of character, is a human achievement that can give one a sense of accomplishment. To have a dignified life among fellow human beings, an individual must positively engage in a variety of virtuous acts and practices over his lifetime. This Aristotelian self-perfectionist approach views dignity as a moral accomplishment and as a fulfillment of human capacities.

          There is a difference between the related ideas of having dignity and having a proper sense of dignity. Having a sense of dignity involves concern to attain and maintain one's integrity as well as attitudes of self-respect, self-esteem, pride, shame, indignation, and resentment. A person who has a sense of dignity is disinclined to act in ways he views as beneath his dignity or in ways that will make him feel shame. Living according to moral principles contributes to one's having a sense of dignity.

          To have a sense of dignity requires self-respect. One's sense of dignity is portrayed in the pride one takes in his accomplishments, in his perseverance and strength of will, and in his reluctance to compromise moral standards. It is also displayed in a person's tendency to make amends or feel remorseful, guilty, or apologetic when he believes that he has treated someone wrongly.

          A person's sense of dignity is related to resentment, shame, and indignation. A man with a sense of dignity feels resentment toward another when he thinks that he is being disrespected or treated merely as a means. In addition, he feels shame when he, himself, is guilty of some injustice. Furthermore, he experiences indignation at the exploitation, degradation, or oppression of others. Indignation at others' injustices is reflective of one's sense of dignity and his concern for the just treatment of others. A person with a sense of dignity is likely to take positive steps to attain justice for other persons.

          One is able to discern dignity and dignified behavior by both their presence and their absence. For example, when a man conducts himself with self-control or self-restraint, even while protesting some injustice, we can say that he is displaying dignified behavior. In addition, failure to exercise self-control is a symptom of a person's inner diminishment of his dignity. One's dignity and integrity involve autonomy and self-regulation.

Toward Precision and Validity

          Over the years it has been difficult to articulate what dignity is or what having a sense of dignity amounts to. Although most people generally understand dignity as some type of worthiness of respect, not many people have attempted to define exactly what this means. The term "human dignity" has been assigned different meanings that have, at times, been contradictory and incompatible with one another. The imprecise use of language has lead to dignity becoming a vague catchword. Some people say they "know it when they see it" while holding that the term cannot be defined. For others, the idea of human dignity appears to be shapeless, overworked, and unempirical. However, given the pervasiveness of concern for human dignity in moral and political discourse, much time and effort should be devoted to clarifying and evaluating the concept. This paper has been an attempt to evaluate three uses of the term dignity two valid uses and one invalid use. The valid uses are (1) dignity as related to rationality and autonomy and (2) dignity as virtuousness of character. The invalid use involves appealing to dignity to argue for positive rights.