Why Do We Need Human Rights? (40): On the Relative Unimportance of the Notion of Human Dignity

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philosophy / why do we need human rights

dignity village

(source)

I think I owe my readers an explanation. After 2.876 (!) blogposts about human rights, I’ve hardly ever mentioned the notion of dignity. That must look like gross negligence on my part, given the fact that the word “dignity” features prominently in most human rights treaties and declarations. For example, the Vienna Declaration of the 1993 World Human Rights Conference affirms that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person”.

I don’t buy it. Human rights derive from human values. We need rights, not to protect our dignity, but to realize our values. I subscribe to a value-based approach to human rights. I can’t and won’t explain this approach here – you can read this older post if you want – because what I want to do now is simply argue against dignity as a basis or justification of human rights. In fact, that sounds a bit too extreme: dignity can be a basis, at least of some human rights, but it’s not the one I prefer. It’s my view that there really is no analytical or practical need for the concept of dignity in the field of human rights.

Of course, if someone decides that he or she wants to believe in human rights because of an affection for the notion of dignity, why not. In the end, what we want is full protection of all human rights, and the things that produce this protection are of secondary importance. However, I’m convinced that progress towards that end is more likely when we focus on values rather than dignity. Dignity, compared to values, is an extremely vague and contradictory notion, one that has many meanings, few of which are practically useful in grounding or justifying human rights.

1.

dignitary

a “dignitary”

Let’s start with the word’s inherent contradictions. Dignity implies both radical inequality and radical equality. Originally, inequality was central to the notion. Dignity was, and to some extent still is, the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect, or better of a certain amount of honor or respect. Some people deserve respect due to their status, standing, position or function. For example, respecting the dignity of the queen means honoring her as a person having her function. A “dignitary” is defined as a person who has a high rank or an important position. A head of state or a government respects the dignity of foreign emissaries by giving them the proper privileges. All these and many other uses of the word “dignity” reveal the inequality that the word is intended to convey.

Another use of the word shows that it is about inequality not only of people but of things as well: “I will not dignify your question with an answer” means that your question is so silly and so far below an adequate level of quality that my answering it would give it more respect than it deserves.

On the other hand, dignity also has a radical egalitarian meaning. This is a relatively recent development. There is, it seems, something like human dignity, a dignity all humans share regardless of rank and position. This comes across in certain recent uses of the word. People are said to behave in an undignified manner when they fail to show sufficient self-respect: for example, a person who is about to be executed for a grave crime and who has be to dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows. Such a person certainly does not have a high rank or status and yet is still seen as behaving in an undignified manner. Why? Because that’s not how humans should behave. Humans should show self-respect.

People can also treat each other in an undignified manner: keeping a patient in a persistent vegetative state alive against her will and against hope is often described as undignified; the same is true for a failure to give someone a proper burial. “Aging with dignity” means being old and at the same time able to continue to perform normal human functions.

a degrading depiction of a woman

a degrading depiction of a woman

All these modern uses of the word “dignity” convey equality, and more specifically an equality based on a certain understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. Being treated with dignity means being treated in a human and non-degrading way, in a way that respects our common humanity, and in a way that all humans deserve.

Perhaps we have to thank democracy for this egalitarian turn in our understanding of dignity. Democracy offers all people the dignified prerogatives of kings. Jeremy Waldron has famously argued that the notion of human dignity comes from the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born. There has been a “leveling up”: all of us deserve the same respect that was once reserved for high status people. We are all “dignitaries” now. Human dignity, as opposed to old-fashioned dignity, is considered to be “inherent” rather than given by class or status, by ritual, coronation, anointment, dress, office etc. However, while this egalitarian turn is to be commended, it looks like we have arrived at a point where dignity is no longer different from equality. It’s another word for the same thing. In what way is being treated with dignity different from being treated equally? Hard to say.

Another problem is that the two meanings of the word “dignity” – the egalitarian and the inegalitarian one – continue to exist side by side. This is confusing and it can lead to the idea that some people, on account of their actions, are no longer dignified or have lost their dignity and self-respect and hence no longer deserve their human rights.

2.

On to the matter of the practical utility of the notion of dignity. To what extent can the word be used to justify specific human rights and denounce specific human rights violations? If we understand dignity as the preciousness of each human individual then we are not allowed to treat humans in a degrading way or in a way that diminishes their humanity. Torture would be a clear case of degrading treatment in this sense. Hence, a right not to be tortured would receive strong support from the notion of dignity. A similar reasoning is perhaps possible for certain other human rights such as the right not to be enslaved and the right not to suffer poverty. A slave or a poor person can be said to be have lost his or her dignity.

But how do violations of someone’s freedom of speech violate his or her dignity? Or someone’s right to associate and assemble on the town square? That’s not clear at all. Dignity, it seems, is of limited use in the justification of human rights. Perhaps one can make the case that dignity requires respect for autonomy, and free speech protects autonomy (see the argument here). But why not focus directly on autonomy? What is the value-added of dignity here? Looks like a detour. If anything, dignity is important because autonomy is, not vice versa. More generally, it’s entirely possible to defend the claim that people have dignity because they are rights bearers (or, somewhat less ambitious, that they have dignity because they are autonomous persons able to make rights claims). That they have rights because they have dignity may be the wrong way around.

In any case, the sweeping claim that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person” seems to be untrue. Sometimes we can say that dignity requires a certain human right but more often than not dignity does not tell us anything useful. Given that there are many better reasons to promote human rights, including those rights that can if necessary be based on dignity, I fail to see the strategic advantages of focusing on dignity. Sure, if dignity can justify some but not other human rights, we should not dismiss it. Everything that helps is welcome. However, I have the feeling that dignity is often used as the ultimate and deepest ground for all human rights. And that is plainly wrong. Our common human values are the ultimate and deepest ground for human rights.

3.

A third problem with human dignity is its religious origins. If old-fashioned dignity comes from rank, position and function, then where does human dignity come from? What’s so special about human beings? Why do we deserve a certain treatment? Many would say that dignity comes from God. Because human beings are created in the image of God they have a certain value that needs to be respected if God is to be respected. However, the religious origins of the notion of dignity may make it unappealing to non-believers or adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions.

Of course, it’s possible to generate a plausible non-religious account of dignity. I mentioned autonomy a moment ago. Kant had an interesting view based on the idea that using people as means is an affront to their dignity. I’ve appealed to this view in the context of capital punishment and yet I’m not convinced that it is really necessary as a ground for human rights in general.

More posts in this series are here.

5 Comments

  1. rights are usually conferred to someone by a higher authority, since all men are supposedly equal since no one gave others life, or themselves thu no man can confer rights, so there is no higher authority then the one who creates that life, God if you will some would say nature too. dignity is the idea that you respect the rights of others not to be treated as inferior whether in social situations or legal circles and respecting their dignity by not meddling in their affairs uninvited or imposing your opinons of how they should live using pressures, ridicule or the power of the state to force your ideas onto another,(welfare, taxation, regulations to force others to confer obedience to positive rights at the expense of your own, etc) . doesn’t necessarily mean following positive rights however, or being obligated to honor those rights at the expense of your own rights, is that what you mean?

  2. I had long accepted ‘inherent dignity of human beings’ without question. But you raise a highly intriguing point. I have a couple of questions to understand your post better.

    I understand that Rights are conferred by an authority/society/state etc. Is Dignity the same? A social assessment or perception (if you will) of a person – allotted on the basis of his/her behavior or character? If a person behaves in a degrading, undignified way – stripping himself of dignity – can someone else / society provide dignity for him? Unlike Rights, it feels as though having Dignity depends on exercising it. Excuse my layman language, but how would you respond?

    • Well, first of all, I don’t think rights are conferred by an authority, at least if we’re talking of moral rights (legal rights may be thusly conferred). Moral rights exist independently of authority and are merely recognized and protected by authority. About dignity, I don’t think it’s similar. Those who think dignity is important would argue that it as well is not conferred but merely protected. I think the difference between dignity and rights is indeed the exercise of it: even if you don’t exercise your rights you still have them (even if they’re violated by the way); in the case of dignity if you don’t act in a dignified way, your dignity is gone. That’s not the case for rights: even if you waive your rights you still have them. See here for example: http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/alienable-rights/

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