Dignity in modern Europe and North America is that quality of an individual human person that warrants treating him or her as an end, never merely as a means to some further end. Many things have a price; they are exchangeable for something of equal or greater value. A human person has no price and is not exchangeable; nothing has more value. Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) gave voice to the Enlightenment view by saying that dignity is "an intrinsic, unconditioned, incomparable worth or worthiness" (Kant, p. 36). In a context of expanding technological ability to treat many topics, including persons, as means, the concept of dignity has been associated with the setting of boundaries on such treatments.
In common parlance society distinguishes between expressing dignity and having dignity. To express dignity is to behave in a dignified manner, to retain composure and a sense of self-worth in a difficult situation. To have dignity is a status independent of any behavior. It is to be treated by others as a person of worth or with respect. It is the second of these, having dignity, that carries moral weight. Every person has dignity regardless of his or her wealth, class, education, age, gender, or demonstrated abilities. Dignity is said to be inherent, inborn.
What is the warrant for the assumption that each person has dignity? The capacity to reason or to make moral judgments are Enlightenment criteria by which human beings are distinguished from other sentient creatures. The theological tradition shared by Jews and Christians locates the ground of dignity in the imago dei, the image of God within the human race; and Christians add the incarnation, according to which God enters into the humiliation of becoming human in order to exalt the human race. These provide justification for belief in dignity plus modern commitments to human rights and social equality.
Metaphysically dignity is innate or inborn—that is, dignity applies universally to all human beings regardless of distinctive personal characteristics. Phenomenologically, however, dignity is relational—that is, dignity is first conferred and then claimed. When a family treats infants and young children as persons of worth, these children grow up to see themselves as worthy, as valuable in themselves. Then they are able to express dignity by claiming their rights in society. One way to view the ethical task of persons in free societies is to affirm our responsibility to confer dignity upon persons who are marginalized politically or economically or socially, so that they will be able to rise up and claim equal rights. To be treated by others as having dignity enables one to rise up and express that dignity.
Societal Threats to Dignity
Human dignity today faces four threats. First, quite obviously, totalitarian governments and repressive religious regimes deny a sense of final value to their citizens. Problems of how to deal with such governments or religious traditions, especially in a world increasingly linked by technological means of communication and scientific research, remains a serious political issue.
Second, animal rights groups accuse European and North American society of speciesism and seek to confer dignity on nonhuman creatures and, in some cases, on the environment. The extent to which dignity applies to animals, plants, or even certain artifacts such as works of art, remains a debated issue.
Third, modern industrial economics appears to treat individuals impersonally, as part of a mass. Karl Marx (1818–1883) reflected this threat when describing factory workers as flesh and blood appendages to machines of steel. Science and technology also are frequently seen as the instruments whereby bureaucratized industry is given the power to destroy traditional family values and undermine the personal relationships necessary for dignity to enjoy a conferring context.
In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has become one of the world's champions of human dignity against this third threat. Social forces enhanced by biomedical technologies appear to compromise social commitments to protect human life at all costs. Abortion—both therapeutic and elective—seems to threaten life at the beginning; and certain forms of euthanasia seem to threaten life at the end. Ethical debates over pregnancy termination and end-of-life medical practices appear to Vatican eyes as a hardening of hearts against those who cannot protect themselves from the economics of an increasingly technology-dependent civilization. Pope John Paul II referred to this as the culture of death. The Pope believes that at conception God places a newly created immortal soul in the conceptus; and the presence of this soul establishes morally protectable dignity. This translates into an ethics that will not allow society to put to death a person with a soul, whether prior to birth or when suffering from a terminal illness. In our culture of death "the criterion of personal dignity—which demands respect, generosity and service—is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they are, but for what they have, do and produce. This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak" (Pope John Paul II, p. 42).
The fourth threat, at least in the eyes of the public, comes from genetic research and biotechnology. This is because DNA has become associated with the essence of a human person. DNA is said to be the so-called blueprint. Manipulation of one's genes, then, appears to subordinate one's essence to some further end. Proposals for designer children or perfect children through genetic selection and genetic engineering appear to subordinate the welfare of the children to the images and ends of the parents. Proposals for human reproductive cloning, resulting in two persons with identical genomes, appear to violate the individuality of both for purposes exacted by those making the cloning decision. Such proposals elicit public anxiety over the possible loss of dignity.
This fourth threat to human dignity is more apparent than real. It is a mistake to identify DNA with human essence. No matter how significant one's genome may be, genes alone do not constitute a person. Even identical twins, who share the same genome, develop their own private self-awareness and express their own individual claims to worth. Dignity is not lodged in DNA. Any person coming into the world having been influenced by genetic technologies will enter into the same sets of relationships that confer or deny dignity. Metaphysically no amount of genetic manipulation will reduce a person's dignity
As a belief held by a culture, dignity is a conviction that must be rearticulated in the face of threats. Even though built into this conviction is the idea that human worth is innate or inborn, social ethics requires that it be conferred, cultivated, enhanced, and fought for. The doctrine that each person already has dignity is actually a hope that some day all people will realize—and express—dignity.
Kant, Immanuel. (1953). Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton. New York: Harper.
Peters, Ted. (1996). For the Love of Children: Genetic Technology and the Future of the Family. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
dig·ni·ty / ˈdignitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect: a man of dignity and unbending principle | the dignity of labor. ∎ a composed or serious manner or style: he bowed with great dignity. ∎ a sense of pride in oneself; self-respect: it was beneath his dignity to shout. ∎ a high or honorable rank or position: he promised dignities to the nobles in return for his rival's murder. PHRASES: stand on one's dignity insist on being treated with due respect.
178. Dignity (See also Noblemindedness.)
- cherub celestial being symbolizing dignity, glory, and honor. [Heraldry: Halberts, 23]
- cloves symbolic of stateliness. [Plant Symbolism and Folklore: Jobes, 350]
- dahlia symbol of dignity. [Flower Symbolism: Jobes, 406]
- ermine fur which represents nobility. [Heraldry: Halberts, 13]
- strawberry symbolizes esteem. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 177]
Hence dignitary XVII.