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Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, legal, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. It is an extension of the Enlightenment-era concepts of inherent, inalienable rights. Dignity is often used in proscriptive and cautionary ways: for example in politics it is usually used to critique the treatment of oppressed and vulnerable groups and peoples, but it has also been extended to apply to cultures and sub-cultures, religious beliefs and ideals, animals used for food or research, and plants. Dignity also has descriptive meanings pertaining to human worth, although there is no exact or agreed upon definition of this worth. In general, the term has various functions and meanings depending on how the term is used and on the context.
The English word "dignity" comes from Latin dignitas by way of French dignité. In ordinary usage it denotes respect and status, and it is often used to suggest that someone is not receiving a proper degree of respect, or even that they are failing to treat themselves with proper self-respect. There is also a long history of special philosophical use of this term. However, it is rarely defined outright in political, legal, and scientific discussions. International proclamations have thus far left dignity undefined, and scientific commentators, such as those arguing against genetic research and algeny, cite dignity as a reason but are ambiguous about its application.
A philosopher of the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola, granted dignity to ideas and to beings. In his "Oration on the Dignity of Man", he told hostile clerics about the dignity of the liberal arts and about the dignity and the glory of angels. His comments implied the dignity of philosophers. This oration is commonly seen as one of the central texts of the Renaissance, intimately tied with the growth of humanist philosophies.
A philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), Immanuel Kant held that there were things that should not be discussed in terms of value, and that these things could be said to have dignity. 'Value' is necessarily relative, because the value of something depends on a particular observer's judgment of that thing. Things that are not relative - that are "ends in themselves", in Kant's terminology - are by extension beyond all value, and a thing is an end in itself only if it has a moral dimension; if it represents a choice between right and wrong. In Kant's words: "Morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity." Specifically with respect to human dignity, which his writings brought from relative obscurity in Western philosophy into a focal point for philosophers, Kant held that "free will" is essential; human dignity is related to human agency, the ability of humans to choose their own actions.
Philosophers of the late 20th century who have written significant works on the subject of dignity include Mortimer Adler and Alan Gewirth. Gewirth's views on human dignity are typically compared and contrasted with Kant's, for like Kant he theorizes that human dignity arises from agency. But while sharing Kant's view that rights arise from dignity, Gewirth focused far more than Kant on the positive obligations that dignity imposed on humans, the moral requirement not only to avoid harming but to actively assist one another in achieving and maintaining a state of "well being".
Among other topics, including the dignity of labor, Adler extensively explored the question of human equality and equal right to dignity. According to Adler, the question of whether humans have equal right to dignity is intrinsically bound in the question of whether human beings are truly equal, which itself is bound in the question of whether human beings are a distinct class from all things, including animals, or vary from other things only by degree. Adler wrote that the only sense in which it is true that all human beings are equal is that they are equally distinct from animals. "The dignity of man," he said, "is the dignity of the human being as a person—a dignity that is not possessed by things." To Adler, failure to recognize the distinction challenged the right of humans to equal dignity and equal treatment.
Dan Egonsson, followed by Roger Wertheimer, argued that while it is conventional for people to equate dignity with 'being human' (Egonsson's 'Standard Attitude', Wertheimer's 'Standard Belief'), people generally also import something other than mere humanness to their idea of dignity. Egonsson suggested that an entity must be both human and alive to merit an ascription of dignity, while Wertheimer states "it is not a definitional truth that human beings have human status."
Human dignity is a central consideration of Protestantism and Catholicism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists the "dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God." "All human beings," says the Church, "in as much as they are created in the image of God, have the dignity of a person." The catechism says, "The right to the exercise of freedom belongs to everyone because it is inseparable from his or her dignity as a human person." The Catholic Church's view of human dignity is like Kant's insofar as it springs from human agency and free will, with the further understanding that free will in turn springs from human creation in the image of God.
Human dignity, or kevod ha-beriyot, is also a central consideration of Judaism. Talmud cautions against public charity to avoid offending the dignity of the recipient. Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides in his codification of Halakha cautioned judges to preserve the self-respect of people who came before them: "Let not human dignity be light in his eyes; for the respect due to man supersedes a negative rabbinical command".
An Islamic view of dignity was set out by Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, head of the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization in Iran, in 1994. According to Taskhiri, dignity is a state to which all humans have equal potential, but which can only be actualized by living a religious life pleasing to the eyes of God. This is in keeping with the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which states that "True faith is the guarantee for enhancing such [basic human] dignity along the path to human perfection".
Through much of the 20th century, dignity appeared in assorted writings as a reason for peacemaking and for promoting human rights.
Subsequent proclamations also invoke dignity in the call for more rights. None of the international proclamations suggest dignity is the rare quality that some commentators say it should be.
In the 20th century, dignity became an issue for physicians and medical researchers. It has been invoked in questions of the bioethics of human genetic engineering, human cloning, and end-of-life care (particularly in such situations as the Terri Schiavo case, a controversial situation in which life support was withdrawn from a woman diagnosed in a persistent vegetative state).
In June 1964, the World Medical Association issued the Declaration of Helsinki. The Declaration says at article 11, "It is the duty of physicians who participate in medical research to protect the life, health, dignity, integrity, right to self-determination, privacy, and confidentiality of personal information of research subjects."
The Council of Europe invoked dignity in its effort to govern the progress of biology and medicine. On 4 April 1997, the Council, at Oviedo, approved the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine. The convention's preamble contains these statements, among others:
Conscious of the accelerating developments in biology and medicine;
Convinced of the need to respect the human being both as an individual and as a member of the human species and recognising the importance of ensuring the dignity of the human being;
Conscious that the misuse of biology and medicine may lead to acts endangering human dignity;Resolving to take such measures as are necessary to safeguard human dignity and the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual with regard to the application of biology and medicine.
The Convention states, "Parties to this Convention shall protect the dignity and identity of all human beings and guarantee everyone, without discrimination, respect for their integrity and other rights and fundamental freedoms with regard to the application of biology and medicine."
In 1998, the United Nations mentioned dignity in the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. At Article 2, the declaration states, "Everyone has a right to respect for their dignity." At Article 24, the declaration warns that treating a person to remove a genetic defect "could be contrary to human dignity." The Commentary that accompanies the declaration says that, as a consequence of the possibility of germ-line treatment, "it is the very dignity of the human race which is at stake."
In 1996, the Government of Canada issued a report entitled New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies. The report used "the principles of respect for human life and dignity" as its reason for recommending that various activities associated with genetic research and human reproduction be prohibited. The report said the prohibited activities were "contrary to Canadian values of equality and respect for human life and dignity."
The Ministry of Health enacted the Danish Council Act 1988, which established the Danish Council of Ethics. The Council advises the Ministry on matters of medicine and genetic research on humans. In 2001, the Council condemned "reproductive cloning because it would violate human dignity, because it could have adverse consequences for the cloned person and because permitting research on reproductive cloning would reflect a disregard for the respect due to the moral status of embryos."
In 1984, France set up the National Consultative Committee for Ethics in the Life and Health Sciences (CCNE) to advise the government about the regulation of medical practices and research. In 1986, the CCNE said, "Respect for human dignity must guide both the development of knowledge and the limits or rules to be observed by research." The CCNE said that research on human embryos must be subject to "the rule of reason" and must have regard for "undefined dignity in its practical consequences." The CCNE insisted that, in research on human embryos, the ethical principles that should apply are "respecting human dignity" and respecting "the dignity of science."
The National Council of Ethics of Portugal published its Opinion on the Ethical Implications of Cloning in 1997. The opinion states, "the cloning of human beings, because of the problems it raises concerning the dignity of the human person, the equilibrium of the human species and life in society, is ethically unacceptable and must be prohibited."
Sweden's The Genetic Integrity Act (2006:351), The Biobanks in Medical Care Act (2002:297), Health and Medical Services (Professional Activities) Act (1998:531), and The Health and Medical Services Act (1982:763) all express concern for "the integrity of the individual" or "human dignity."
The Constitution says Swiss citizens must respect the dignity of animals, plants, and other organisms. Accordingly, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) published a brochure in 2008 about how researchers can respect the dignity of plants.
In 2008, The President's Council on Bioethics tried to arrive at a consensus about what dignity meant but failed. Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., the Council's Chairman, says in the Letter of Transmittal to the President of The United States, "… there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term, human dignity."
McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen studied dignity as a basis for international law. They said that using dignity as the basis for laws was a "natural law approach." The natural law approach, they said, depends upon "exercises of faith." McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen observed:
The abiding difficulty with the natural law approach is that its assumptions, intellectual procedures, and modalities of justification can be employed equally by the proponents of human dignity and the proponents of human indignity in support of diametrically opposed empirical specifications of rights . . . .
In 2004, Canada enacted the Assisted Human Reproduction Act. Section 2(b) of the Act states, "the benefits of assisted human reproductive technologies and related research for individuals, for families and for society in general can be most effectively secured by taking appropriate measures for the protection and promotion of human health, safety, dignity and rights in the use of these technologies and in related research." The Act prescribes a fine not exceeding $500,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or both, if someone undertakes a proscribed activity such as the creation of a chimera.
Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union affirms the invioability of human dignity.
In 1997, the National Consultative Committee for Ethics in the Life and Health Sciences, as well as other observers, noted that France's dignity-based laws on bio-medical research were paradoxical. The law prohibited the willful destruction of human embryos but directed that human embryos could be destroyed if they were more than five years old. The law prohibited research on human embryos created in France but permitted research on human embryos brought to France. The law prohibited researchers from creating embryos for research but allowed researchers to experiment with embryos that were superfluous after in vitro fertilization.
Human dignity is the fundamental principle of the German constitution. Article 1, paragraph 1 reads: "Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority." Human dignity is thus mentioned even before the right to life. This has a significant impact on German law-making and jurisdiction in both serious and trivial items:
The Constitution of South Africa lists "human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms" as one of the founding values of the South African state, and the Bill of Rights is described as affirming the "democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom". Section 10 of the Constitution explicitly states that "Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected." In jurisprudence, the right to dignity is often seen as underlying more specific rights, such as equality, security of the person or privacy, but is has been directly applied in a number of cases relating to criminal punishment, the law of defamation, and the right to marriage and family life.
The Swiss Constitution states at Article 7, "Human dignity is to be respected and protected." The Constitution mentions dignity again in relation to medicine and genetics:
Article 119a Transplantation Medicine
(1) The Federation adopts rules in the field of transplantation of organs, tissue, and cells. It provides thereby for the protection of human dignity, personality, and health. (2) The Federation establishes particularly criteria for the just assignment of organs. (3) Donations of human organs, tissue, and cells are free of charge. The trade with human organs is prohibited.
Article 120 Gene Technology in the Non-Human Field(2) The Federation adopts rules on the use of reproductive and genetic material of animals, plants, and other organisms. It takes thereby into account the dignity of the creature and the security of man, animal and environment, and protects the genetic multiplicity of animal and plant species.
(1) Humans and their environment are protected against abuse of gene technology.
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