Human Dignity and Human Rights

Dignity” is defined as “the state of being worthy of honor or respect” (OxfordEncyclopedic English Dictionary). When this concept is associated with the adjective human, it is used to denote that all human beings possess equal and inherent worth and therefore ought to be accorded the highest respect and care, regardless of age, sex, socioeconomic status, health condition, ethnic origin, political ideas, or religion. Inherent human dignity should be distinguished from moral dignity, which isa synonym of “honor.” While the former plays a central role in the legal instruments relating to bioethics, the latter has less relevance in this field. On the one hand, the inherent dignity, as it is inseparable from the human condition, is the same for all, cannot be gained or lost, and does not allow for any degree (Spiegelberg, 1970).Even the worst criminal cannot be stripped of his or her inherent dignity and has therefore the right not be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatments or punishments. On the other hand, moral dignity does not relate to the existence itself of persons but to their behavior; it is the result of a virtuous life, that is, of a life lived in accordance with moral principles. This is why moral dignity is not possessed by all individuals to the same degree (e.g., an honest citizen has more dignity than a pickpocket). While this is a kind of dignity that people may occasionally exhibit, lack, or lose, the dignity in which all humans are said to be equal isa characteristic that belongs permanently and inherently to every human as such (Gewirth, 1982, p. 27).The concept of intrinsic human dignity operates in modern times as the bedrock of the international human rights system that emerged in the aftermath of theSecond World War. It plays also a key role in the international policy documents relating to bioethics that have been adopted since the end of the 1990s. Human dignity can be characterized as the “shaping principle” of international bioethics (Lenoir & Mathieu, 2004) or as the “overarching principle” of the global norms governing biomedical issues (Andorno, 2009). Far from representing a shift merely in style, the higher profile accorded to human dignity in bioethics is seen as a true shift in substance that deserves to be carefully considered (Beyleveld &Brownsword, 2002, p. 29).This chapter aims, first, to briefly present how the notion of human dignity has been conceptualized over centuries of philosophical thought; second, to stress the foundational role it currently plays in international human rights law; third, to emphasize its even more crucial role in the international policy documents relating to bioethics; fourth, to present the reasons for the recourse to human rights in the formulation of global bioethical standards; and finally, to briefly address the challenge to the universality of human dignity and human rights posed by cultural diversity.

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