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What is Human Dignity? Common Definitions.

You’ll hear the term “human dignity” a lot these days. Human dignity is at the heart of human rights. What is human dignity exactly? What’s the history of this concept and why does it matter? In this article, we’ll discuss the history of the term, its meaning, and its place in both a human rights framework and a religious framework.

What is human dignity?

At its most basic, the concept of human dignity is the belief that all people hold a special value that’s tied solely to their humanity. It has nothing to do with their class, race, gender, religion, abilities, or any other factor other than them being human.

The term “dignity” has evolved over the years. Originally, the Latin, English, and French words for “dignity” did not have anything to do with a person’s inherent value. It aligned much closer with someone’s “merit.” If someone was “dignified,” it meant they had a high status. They belonged to royalty or the church, or, at the very least, they had money. For this reason, “human dignity” does not appear in the US Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The phrase as we understand it today wasn’t recognized until 1948. The United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human dignity: the human rights framework

The original meaning of the word “dignity” established that someone deserved respect because of their status. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that concept was turned on its head. Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Suddenly, dignity wasn’t something that people earned because of their class, race, or another advantage. It is something all humans are born with. Simply by being human, all people deserve respect. Human rights naturally spring from that dignity.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, continued this understanding. The preamble reads that “…these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.” This belief goes hand in hand with the universality of human rights. In the past, only people made dignified by their status were given respect and rights. By redefining dignity as something inherent to everyone, it also establishes universal rights.

Human dignity: the religious framework

The concept of human dignity isn’t limited to human rights. In fact, for centuries, religions around the world have recognized a form of human dignity as we now understand it. Most (if not all) religions teach that humans are essentially equal for one reason or another. In Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, it’s because humans were created in the image of God, becoming children of God. Dignity is something that a divine being gives to people. In Catholic social teaching, the phrase “Human Dignity” is used specifically to support the church’s belief that every human life is sacred. This defines the denomination’s dedication to social issues like ending the death penalty.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, respectively, dignity is inherent because humans are manifestations of the Divine or on a universal journey to happiness. In the Shvetasvatara Upanishad, an ancient Sanskrit text, it reads “We are all begotten of the immortal,” or “We are children of immortality.” Buddhism begins with the understanding that humans are “rare” because they can make choices that lead to enlightenment. Our dignity arises from this responsibility and ability, uniting all humans in their quest.

When everyone is equal, they are all equally deserving of basic respect and rights, at least in theory. Countless people have had their dignity disrespected over the years by religious institutions and others using religion as justification.

Why recognizing human dignity is so important

Why is human dignity so important when it comes to human rights? Human dignity justifies human rights. When people are divided and given a value based on characteristics like class, gender, religion, and so on, it creates unequal societies where discrimination runs rampant. People assigned a higher value get preferential treatment. Anyone who doesn’t fit into the privileged category is abandoned or oppressed. We’ve seen what happens in places where human dignity isn’t seen as inherent and human rights aren’t universal. While the privileged few in these societies flourish, society as a whole suffers significantly. Inevitably, violence erupts. If a new group takes power and also fails to recognize human dignity, the cycle of destruction continues, only with different participants.

Recognizing human dignity and the universality of human rights isn’t just so individuals can be protected and respected. It’s for the good of the entire world. If everyone’s rights were respected and everyone got equal opportunities to thrive, the world would be a much happier, more peaceful place.

Learn more how you can defend and protect human dignity in a free online course.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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