HUMAN DIGNITY

Introduced by Svanborg Sigmarsdottir, a post-graduate student at the University of Essex, on 17 September, 1999

The speaker introduced her argument by noting that while humans have traditionally taken precedence in a hierarchy of religious values, today animal welfare and environmentalism secure as much lay attention. Moreover, the growth of individualism has tended to promote concern for personal value, but Kant emphasised that persons should be seen as ends in themselves rather than as means for specified purposes. Thus, human `dignity' (inner worth) should not be confused with `honour' (public worth) which results from external evaluations. Allocation of qualitative differences between people as human beings can have serious consequences and our century has witnessed many attempts to sub-humanise people through distinctions of race, class, status, etc. Since each culture has its own codes, in a multicultural world there will be divisions and conflict about differing evaluations. Consequently, we should seek a universal acceptance of human dignity, irrespective of the various and variable ethics which time and place engender, as a basis for claims of human rights, currently much exercising legal minds.

Whatever its exact analysis, general agreement on its fundamental status is desirable. For example, a concept of `equality' may affect the status of women vis-a-vis men, which can produce dilemmas, since special features differ, and the protection of identity poses a problem of reconciling sameness and difference. Since capabilities are extrinsic, the speaker concluded that `equality' may permit particularity only through a more basic concept of personal dignity. In discussion it was pointed out that differing groups sometimes have common cultures. Conversely, in some cultural complexes, such as Brazil, the only common value could be inner worth, i.e. dignity. The speaker argued that war crimes tribunals exemplify respect for dignity, since the accused are accorded legal status as human. Whether one would have `dignity' when isolated on a desert island, and whether `dignity' and `humanity' are social constructs rather than intrinsic to human beings, were accepted as debatable issues. Similarly, discussion of `rights' tends to be matched by claims that `duties' inevitably follow, whereas it may be agreed that some people, such as those sufficiently mentally defective, may be regarded as having no duties but nevertheless as having rights based upon their dignity as human beings.

Geoffrey Catchpole