Human dignity is of central importance today, particularly in the fields of medical ethics and bioethics, as it represents a fundamental constituent of many contemporary constitutions, the most global being the Charter of the United Nations. It is, however, far from clear what the term human dignity means. The expression itself may be inappropriate, as it focuses solely on human beings. Perhaps we should use the dignity of human beings instead of human dignity, as the latter implies that human beings have dignity, whereas the dignity of human beings implies that dignity has a foundation and that it applies to human beings but can also apply to other creatures. The foundation of dignity, according to Kant, is the actual ability for autonomy. He stressed that human beings have that ability but that it is also possible for other creatures.
We distinguish between two types of dignity. One implies equality and one implies a certain hierarchy. The type of dignity relevant for our constitutions and ethical debates is that which implies equality among the bearers of that dignity. The first philosopher who mentioned that type of dignity was Cicero in his De Officiis.
The other type of dignity, hierarchial, is older and is linked to abilities. If someone has X, then that person has dignity. The more X people have, the more dignity they have. X can be power, strength, beauty, reputation, or many other things.
Dignity that implies equality can have necessary or contingent foundations. If we decide that the basis of our governing constitution is dignity of this sort but we don’t hold that this dignity is a natural constituent of human beings, then the dignity has a contingent foundation. If we hold dignity as being a natural constituent, then the dignity has a necessary foundation. The trouble with contingent foundations is that we cannot claim ethical superiority relative to other governments that do not place the dignity of human beings as the basis of their constitution, but hold, for example, the concept of human slavery as right and proper.
If we wish to claim ethical superiority, then we have to hold that dignity is a natural constituent of human beings or that it has a necessary foundation. The problem here is with the enormity of the claim that we have grasped the nature of human beings and that part of that nature is a dignity that all human beings share in the same manner. Most philosophers during the last century have abandoned making claims about the essence of the world.
What are the necessary foundations? In the history of ethics, the three most popular foundations are
- likeness to God’s image
We can find each of these in most foundations of dignity, although one aspect may be emphazised over the others.
If we believe that reason is the foundation, we must clarify what type of reason. Reason can be the means to live a good life (good for ourselves) or to live a moral life (impartially right). We can distinguish between the potential ability of reason, the actual ability of reason without necessarily acting on it, and actual ability of reason as the necessary basis of our actions. Kant suggested that the actual ability for autonomy is the foundation of human dignity, but he linked reason to each of the other foundations of dignity as well.
In the context of being a foundation of dignity, freedom usually refers to metaphysical autonomy and connects with an eternal soul without beginning or end or a soul that we create ourselves before time and space. On the basis of the preferences of our souls, we freely decide our acts. Pico della Mirandola regards freedom as the foundation of our dignity.
Our likeness to God’s image is the third of the most popular foundations of dignity. Our similarity can be represented in reason, having an immaterial soul, or being free. It becomes clear, then, that freedom, God’s image, soul, and reason are closely connected. If we hold that our dignity is based on our being created in God’s image, as Thomas Aquinas or Manetti do, we can still wonder from which moment to which other moment do we have dignity. Of course, this is from the moment when body and soul are united to the moment when they are separated again, but when are these moments? Some believe that we are brought to life from the moment of the fusion of sperm and egg. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, held that it takes place 40 days after conception for boys and 80 to 90 days after conception for girls.
If we have dignity, what does this imply? Possible implications come in the form of rights and duties.
Rights can follow necessarily or contingently. There are positive rights (for example, to receive something) and negative rights (such as the right to take action). A positive right implies that others ought to support us concerning X. A negative right implies that we ought not to be obstructed in doing X. The positive right to live can mean that others have the duty to support you if you fail to survive by yourself or if someone tries to take your life. So we still must distinguish between the positive right to have something and the positive right to keep what we have.
Duties can also follow necessarily or contingently from dignity. As with rights, duties may be positive (such as the duty to take action) and negative (for example, to refrain from something). We must also differentiate between our duties and the duties of others.
We can further define rights and duties by dividing them into ethical, moral, or legal categories. Ethical rights or duties are always those that are good for ourselves. Moral ones are those rights or duties that are impartially right. Legal rights or duties correspond to the law.
In the history of philosophy, we have given Cicero, Manetti, Pico della Mirandola, and Kant the most importance in their views of the foundations of dignity. In the contemporary debate, the positions of Margalit, Gewirth, and Habermas are particularly noteworthy. The most vehement, explicit, and pointed critique of dignity was made by Nietzsche.
- Kant, I. (1999). Practical philosophy (M. J. Gregor, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Mirandola, G. P. D. (1965). On the dignity of man: On being and the one: Heptaplus (C. G. Wallis, P. J. W. Miller, & D. Carmichael, Trans.). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.