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Other ethical principles

References to and definition of dignity

References to the right to and protection of dignity or human dignity can be found in several national, European and international conventions and charters as well as in several constitutions and national laws. Examples include the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. According to the former, people have a right to life, to integrity of the person, not to be subjected to slavery or forced labour, and not to be tortured, degraded or humiliated (Holmerova et al., 2007). Some of these aspects of dignity may be interrelated. For example, Caplan (2010) argues that people may be repulsed by torture as it often involves humiliation or degradation.

However, the concept of dignity is difficult to define (Holmerova et al., 2007; Horton, 2004; Marmot, 2004). There have even been claims that it is a meaningless slogan and a useless concept in bioethics which can be reduced to issues surrounding respect for individuals and autonomy (Macklin, 2003 in Caplan, 2010). Moreover, there is considerable overlap with the concept of personhood in the sense that opinions differ as to whether it is an innate quality of human beings or something that is granted or attributed to a person which prompts a few questions such as:

  • Is dignity a property of an individual or of the way others react to him or her?
  • Can one’s dignity be affected by the way one is treated? (Marmot, 2004)
  • Can dignity be inalienable but at the same time something that can be lost or destroyed? (Jacobson,2007)

The answers to these questions are unclear as there are competing definitions of dignity and as Holmovera et al. (2007) point out, it is often easier to define what constitutes a violation of dignity than to provide examples of what dignity is. Jonathan Mann, for example, divided violations of dignity into four categeories: 1. being ignored or insufficiently acknowledged; 2. being seen but only as a member of a group; 3. having one’s personal space transgressed involuntarily; 4. humiliation (quoted in Horton, 2004).

Nevertheless, there have been several attempts to define dignity. It has been described as:

  • something that is irreducible, transcending political, economic and cultural difference, that has been conferred on humans by God and that is “the moral basis of our shared humanity, and thus ultimately of universal human rights” (Sacks, 2002)
  • based on the ability to exercise will and choice (Pico della Mirandola, 1468)
  • “(an absolute inner worth) by which he exacts respect for himself from all other rational beings in the world” (Kant, 1797)
  • an inherent characteristic of being human, it can be subjectively felt as an attribute of the self, and is made manifest through behaviour that demonstrates respect for self and others (Jacelon et al., 2004)
  • the maintenance of social conventions and decorum, and the right (and duty) of autonomy and self control (Caygill, 1990)
  • the public worth of man (Hobbes, date)
  • strength, both of mind and body (Wollstonecraft,1792 – on the definition of true dignity and human happiness)

Based on an extensive review of the literature, Jacobsen (2007) summarised some of the different and seemingly contradictory ways that dignity has been perceived by different authors, for example as an objective phenomenon and a subjective phenomenon, something that is intrinsic as well as extrinsic, unconditional and static but also contingent and dynamic, inherent but also bestowed on a person or achieved. A range of appellations were also noted such as basic dignity, human dignity, social dignity and personal dignity which can also be confusing but Jacobson (2007) claims that these can be condensed into two main concepts, namely human dignity and social dignity. This classification into two related concepts might also add some clarity to these seemingly contradictory properties of various conceptualizations of dignity.

Human dignity

Human dignity (sometimes referred to using the German term Menschenwürde) refers to the inherent and inalienable value of every human being which cannot be destroyed, taken away or measured. It is not dependent or conditional on anything. It simply results from being human and can refer to individuals, groups or people as a species. There are two approaches to understanding human dignity, one which is religious and one which is secular. The former is based on a belief that humans have a special place in the world as we know it and that human life is sacred. The following extracts, taken from documents linked to the Catholic Church, provide examples of this:

“215 Whatever the progress in technology and economic life, there can be neither justice nor peace in the world, so long as men and women fail to realize how great is their dignity; for they have been created by God and are God's children.
Mater et Magistra, (Christianity and Social Progress), Encyclical Letter of Pope John XXIII, 1961

“11 Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God's image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.
Centesimus Annus, (The Hundredth Year), Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II, 1991

“At the centre of all Catholic social teaching are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person. The human person is the clearest reflection of God's presence in the world; all of the Church's work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God's creative work and the meaning of Christ's redemptive ministry. The Challenge of Peace, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1983”

(Source: Eastern Ontario Catholic Curriculum Cooperative, 2005)

The secular approach to human dignity tends to be associated with Kantian and neo-Kantian philosophy which emphasizes rationality and the ability of humans to act as moral agents, as well as equality and the need to treat people with respect. However, it could be argued that dignity cannot be reduced to a question of autonomy as very young children or people with mental incapacity would be excluded (Bostrom, 2008).

Social dignity

Social dignity can also be divided into two categories: dignity-of-self and dignity-in-relation (Jacobson, 2007). Dignity-of-self encompasses a sense of gravity, decorum, self-respect or self-confidence which can be fostered and promoted but can presumably also be lost. It emerges through social interaction in a particular social context (i.e. in a historical context, place and time).

Dignity-in-relation describes the way that a person’s perceived value and worthiness is reflected back within the context of interaction. Dignity-of-self is to a large extent dependent on what is reflected back by other people with whom one comes into contact based on their perceptions of one’s words or actions. Those who have achieved social dignity may be rewarded by signs of respect but social dignity can be withheld, lost, threatened, gained, maintained, bestowed or achieved.

Some authors recognize the two different types of dignity. Caygill’s (1990) definition of dignity as the maintenance of social conventions and decorum, and the right (and duty) of autonomy and self control seems to combine the concept of social dignity with that of secular human dignity. Similarly, Kolnai described two types of dignity. The first, “human dignity” was linked to being a person and the second, “dignity as a quality” was comprised of three main characteristics: 1. composure and restraint, 2. distinctness and invulnerability, 3. serenity with power of self-assertion which is not limited to people as it could also apply to animals, landscapes and even works of art (Bostrom, 2008; Holmerova et al., 2007).

In the context of dementia, social dignity may be threatened as communication difficulties lead to a gradual breakdown in verbal communication and in many cases a reduction of meaningful interaction. This in turn may threaten personhood and consequently human dignity if the person ceases to be considered truly human. For this reason, when a person has severe dementia the onus should be on friends and carers to take over responsibility for maintaining communication and social interaction with him/her.



Last Updated: Monday 29 March 2010