Editorial - The Many Faces of Human Dignity

‘Dignity’ is one of those rich terms we encounter often but its precise meaning can be difficult to pin down. Consequently, we find people using the term to justify very different and even opposing behaviours. 

As an example, people with differing views about assisted suicide claim equally to be promoting human dignity. The only way of making sense of this is to conclude that many employ the term in a very shallow and broad way. If, for instance, it means nothing more than treating people ‘well’, or treating people with ‘respect’ according to the particular way each of us happens to define that notion, then the concept of dignity provides very little in the way of consistent ethical guidance.

For those wanting to grapple with a deeper and more precise meaning of human dignity, the distinctions between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ dignity provide a useful way of unpacking the significance of the term as well as the differing moral duties that ensue depending on which understanding one is committed to.

An extrinsic approach ties dignity to the circumstances one finds oneself in, or to the way persons see themselves or are seen by others. According to this understanding dignity can be conferred or taken away, something akin to the clothes people wear; able to be removed, changeable according to fashion and existing in differing states of ‘finery’ conveying a socially constructed ‘judgement’ about the worthiness or non-worthiness of the lives of certain persons or groups of persons. Extrinsic dignity is essentially variable, shaped by the particular stories about human meaning and flourishing that exist at any point in time and thus susceptible to the vagaries of the social matrix of family, culture, society and religious and institutional traditions. 

Critically, the understanding of human dignity in a cultural milieu such as ours, with its (over) emphasis on individuality, independence and productivity, takes on a strongly ‘functionalist’ flavour – to be dignified is to be strong, fit, self-reliant, healthy and productive. Conversely, where this approach dominates, it follows that one of the greatest ‘sins’ against human dignity is for a person to become a ‘burden’ to others or society. The increasing hold of the functionalist mind-set within New Zealand society is evidenced by the growing social isolation being experienced by large numbers of elderly in New Zealand – a continuation of the practice, throughout history, of societies marginalising those it perceives as socially unacceptable or unworthy. 

By contrast, the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights1 notes that “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.” This gives rise to two insights: (i) the claim that dignity is “inherent” or intrinsic and (ii) the critical role this concept plays in upholding human freedom, justice and peace. 

What exactly do we mean by saying that dignity is intrinsic? The philosopher Immanuel Kant speaks of the formula of the end in itself: “Act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means.”  We ought, in other words, to treat each and every person as having a value that is all their own; we must treat everybody as being valuable in and of themselves no matter what. 

According to this approach, human dignity is a quality that inheres in each and every person by virtue of the simple fact that they have a human nature. It demands a scrupulous respect for all human life, whatever the situation or context, and it rails against the instrumental or functional view which reduces the person to being an instrument for various socially determined interests – invariably the interests of the powerful, healthy and well-resourced. 

Considering the second insight that arises from the Declaration on Human Rights, John Dickson gets to the very heart of things when he argues that society needs a solid intellectual ground for caring for those who are no longer productive or functional. “Ancient Greece and Rome … had little by way of philosophical reasoning that could guarantee the inherent worth of those lacking rational capacity or social utility. So infanticide was common and social welfare for the aged and dying was virtually non-existent. Christianity changed all of that. It inherited from Judaism a theology of human dignity and a program of social welfare [grounded in the belief] that Christ had died for all, even for the lowly and neglected.”

It is my contention that only the concept of intrinsic human dignity inherited from Judaism and Christianity and enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is ultimately capable of bearing the weight of an inclusive, free, just and caring society. This should make us all extremely alert to the dangers posed by the growing acceptance of an extrinsic understanding of human dignity. 

In the light of this threat it is urgent that we seek to defend an intrinsic approach to dignity in the broad court of societal opinion. To that end, this issue offers a number of key ‘witnesses’ who present some of the many faces of such a dignity.

Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre


[1] See http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/, accessed 31 October 2016.

[2] https://publicchristianity.org/library/its-out-with-the-old-as-christian-values-fall-away