Human dignity is discussed in a wide array of contexts. Most people recognize it as a critical part of justifying human rights and measuring what is just and moral. By nature of being human, all people are ensured certain rights that cannot be withheld based on characteristics that make them unique, such as gender, race, sexuality, and so on. Where did the concept of human dignity come from? Has it changed over the years?
Human dignity as a philosophical concept
The word “dignity” comes from the Latin word dignitas and the French dignite. In their original meaning, these words referenced a person’s merit and not their inherent value as a human person. “Dignity” was about social status, wealth, and power. To have dignity meant a person held a privileged position in society over others. The word “dignified” still has this connotation as you most likely picture a certain type of person when you hear the word. Does this mean the concept of human dignity as we recognize it today didn’t exist?
While the term “dignity” meant something different in the past, people have always been drawn to the concept of inherent human rights. In 539 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great of Persia established basic rights for the newly-conquered Babylon. He freed slaves, promoted racial equality, and allowed people to practice their own religions. The laws were recorded in cuneiform on a clay cylinder, which was unearthed in the late 19th-century. Experts consider “the Cyrus Cylinder” one of the earliest human rights documents in history.
The concept of “natural law” and “natural rights” can also be found in ancient Indian, Greek, and Roman philosophy. In most places, wealth and social status still entailed more privileges. While the idea of inherent rights was brewing, they were not respected equally based solely on shared humanity.
Human dignity in international law
Since people understood dignity to mean something specifically related to status, it does not appear in the US Constitution. It was also not used by British abolitionists working against slavery. It wasn’t until 1948 with the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the dignity of the human person entered international law. It can be found at the beginning of the preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world…” (emphasis added). It appears another five times including in Article 1, which states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” In the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), this concept is emphasized in the line, “These rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.”
There can be no doubt about what “dignity” means in this context. While the concept of natural laws, human rights, and human dignity did exist before the post-WWII era, it was not established as a legal concept. From this point on, human dignity represents the foundation of universal human rights. It’s also found in various constitutions around the world. In Germany, it is the most important principle and stated in the first paragraph of Article 1: “Human dignity is invoidable.” Dignity is also listed in the constitutions of South Africa and Switzerland.
Human dignity as a religious concept
Human dignity isn’t only a philosophical or legal concept. It’s also found within religious frameworks. Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism are four major examples, though all religions recognize the equality of humans. That equality is often not respected or emphasized in practice, but in terms of religious teachings, it is something the vast majority of religions have in common. In Catholic teachings, the church believes all humans have dignity because they are created in the likeness of God. Judaism and Islam teach a similar belief, while in Buddhism, a person’s dignity is derived from humanity’s shared “Buddha-nature.” This describes everyone’s potential for a state of wakening defined by wisdom and compassion.
Why does respecting human dignity matter?
As a philosophical, legal, and religious concept, why is human dignity important? It justifies universal human rights and dictates how people should be treated. While humans have seemed naturally drawn to the concept of human rights, they have just as naturally looked for reasons to exclude certain people. Traits like gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and more have been used to discriminate and harm. Inherent rights stem from the concept of human dignity and establish that discrimination is immoral. Those that perpetuate discrimination and violate human rights can be held accountable. Respecting human dignity matters because it ensures a just, fairer world where everyone can flourish.