On Human Dignity

What if, in the course of our common life, the recognition of human dignity took center stage? While it has been dismissed among some as vacuous or problematically unspecific, dignity acknowledges the inherent value of each human being and, when acted upon, can significantly improve the quality of interpersonal and intergroup relations.

There certainly are a host of cultural resources from which to argue for human dignity. From a biblical perspective, one might look to the first chapter of Genesis and discern there a recognition of the value of each human being:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

This allegory then affirms that God looked out over all creation, including the human beings newly formed, and declared it all “very good.” This is surely the low-hanging fruit on which at the very least a theological argument could be built in a Jewish- or Christian-leaning cultural milieu.

In the Western intellectual tradition, one might look to Emmanuel Kant’s notion of werde, to describe the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of the human being. (Let’s suspend, for a moment, the justified critique of Kant’s Eurocentrism.) For Donna Hicks, a contemporary scholar who links the recognition of dignity to conflict resolution, dignity is a birthright composed of ten essential elements: the acceptance of identity; inclusion; safety; acknowledgement; recognition; fairness; benefit of doubt; understanding; independence; and accountability. It is thus far from a vacuous or static concept. (See Donna Hicks, 2011, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, Yale University Press.) When put into practice, these elements will naturally foster a greater sense of civility, justice, and equality in any society.

Seeking further justification for human dignity, one might turn to southern Africa where ubuntu, the mutual recognition of common humanity, is poignantly expressed in terms of the statement, “I am because you are.” It is no surprise, then, that protections for dignity were written into the South African Constitution. As the first Chief Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court wrote, “Under the South African Constitution, dignity is a value asserted to ‘invest in our democracy respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings.’ It is, as the Court has held, a value that informs the interpretation of many, possibly all, other rights.” (See Arthur Chaskelson, 2011, “Dignity as a Constitutional Value: A South African Perspective,” American University International Law Review, 26(5), 1377-1407.)

Sadly, it is possibly in violations of human dignity and the rights that stem from it that its existence becomes most obvious. And this makes it all the more urgent to foster more broadly in society — especially in US society at this highly fractured political moment — a greater awareness of and regard for human dignity.

Wouldn’t it be a boon for democracy across the globe if democratic practices and institutions could be rooted in a deep and abiding respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings, of each human being?

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