Human Dignity, Theology and Human Rights


The Personal Experience of Dignity

What is human dignity? The word itself is derived from the Latin word dignus, meaning “worth.” Hence, to say that a human being has dignity means that he or she has “worth” or “value.” Actually, a person does not even need to know what dignity means in order to have a basic intuition about his or her value or importance. In other words, when a person’s dignity is violated, he or she tends to have an immediate awareness of it. For example, when a person is insulted, he or she is aware of having suffered the indignity of verbal abuse. Again, when a man or woman is attacked bodily, he or she is aware of having suffered the indignity of physical abuse. In both examples, the person feels dishonored.

Affirming and Protecting the Dignity of the Human Person

Affirming and protecting the dignity of the human person, especially since the Holocaust, has been a major concern of the international community. For example, the Preamble of  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Similarly, Article 5, Section 2, of The American Convention on Human Rights refers to “the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Extrinsic Human Dignity

The words “inherent dignity” refer to intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, human worth. Extrinsic human dignity means that something outside a person gives him or her worth or value, such as money, possessions or a high position in life. However, such things, through fate or misfortune, can be lost. It would follow, then, that a person who has lost such things has lost his or her dignity and, therefore, no longer has any worth. 

Intrinsic Human Dignity

Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses human dignity, saying, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Human dignity must be intrinsic for all humans to be equal “in dignity and rights.” Intrinsic human dignity is innate, that is, it is in the very nature or being of the human person. That is why it cannot be lost. In other words, dignity is not something a human being does but who (whom) a human is.

The Preamble of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man also notes the dignity of the human person, saying, “All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights.” The Introduction refers to “the essential rights of man are not derived from the fact that he is a national of certain state, but are based upon attributes of his human personality.” Article 17, the third emphasis on human dignity in the American Declaration, says, “Every person has the right to be recognized everywhere as a person having rights and obligations, and to enjoy the basic civil rights.”

The Uniqueness of the Human Person

When the international documents on human rights affirm the dignity of the human person, they presuppose that there is something special or unique about being human that separates him or her from all other life-forms in the world. A human being is special, because he or she is a person. To have inherent dignity is to be someone, not something; a who, not a what; a subject, not an object. In other words, to have inherent dignity is to be a person.

Dignity Rooted in Kind, Not Degree, of Being

In degree, humans are similar to other life-forms. As such, the difference between humans and all life-forms is merely quantitative, consisting of different forms of matter from which they all evolved. However, in kind, humans are different from both inanimate things (such as rocks) and animate things (such as apes). As such, the difference between humans and everything else is qualitative. In other words, human dignity is grounded in the spiritual nature of the person.

Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, express well the dignity of the person:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!”

The ultimate reason there is something divine or god-like in being human and the ultimate reason for human dignity is that human beings are the imago Dei. In other words, they are made in the “image of God.”

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