DIGNITY

Posted on January 13, 2021 · Posted in Blog, General, Memo Plus Gold, Personal

You have heard the term “human dignity” a lot these days. Human dignity is at the heart of human rights. What is human dignity exactly? What’s the history of this concept and why does it matter? We will discuss the history of the term, its meaning, and its place in both a human rights framework and a religious framework.

What is human dignity?

At its most basic, the concept of human dignity is the belief that all people hold a special value that is tied solely to their humanity. It has nothing to do with their class, race, gender, religion, abilities, or any other factor other than them being human.

The term “dignity” has evolved over the years. Originally, the Latin, English, and French words for “dignity” did not have anything to do with a person’s inherent value. It aligned much closer with someone’s “merit.” If someone was “dignified,” it meant they had a very high status. They belonged to the royalty or, at the very least, those who had money. The phrase as we understand it today was not recognized until 1948.

Human dignity: the human rights framework.

The original meaning of the word “dignity” established that someone deserved respect because of their status. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that concept was turned on its head. Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Suddenly, dignity was not something that people earned because of their class, race, or another advantage. It is something all humans are born with. Simply by being human, all people deserve respect. Human rights naturally spring from that dignity.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, continued this understanding. The preamble reads that “…these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.” This belief goes hand in hand with the universality of human rights. In the past, only people made dignified by their status were given respect and rights. By redefining dignity as something inherent to everyone, it also establishes universal rights. 

Human dignity: the religious framework.

The concept of human dignity is not limited to human rights. In fact, for centuries, religions around the world have recognized a form of human dignity as we now understand it. Most, if not all, religions teach that humans are essentially equal for one reason or another. In most religions, it is because humans were created in the image of God, becoming children of God. Dignity is something that a divine being gives to people. In religious social teaching, the phrase “Human Dignity” is used specifically to support the belief that every human life is sacred. 

When everyone is equal, they are all equally deserving of basic respect and rights, at least in theory. Regrettably, countless people have had their dignity disrespected over the years by religious institutions and others using religion as the justification.

Why recognizing human dignity is so important?

Why is human dignity so important when it comes to human rights? Human dignity justifies human rights. When people are divided and given a value based on characteristics like class, gender, religion, and so on, it creates unequal societies where discrimination runs rampant. People assigned a higher value get preferential treatment. Anyone who does not fit into the privileged category is abandoned or oppressed. We have seen what happens in places where human dignity is not seen as inherent and human rights are not universal. While the privileged few in these societies flourish, society as a whole suffers significantly. Inevitably, violence erupts. If a new group takes power and also fails to recognize human dignity, the cycle of destruction continues, only with different participants.

Recognizing human dignity and the universality of human rights is not just so individuals can be protected and respected. It is for the good of the entire world. If everyone’s rights were respected and everyone got equal opportunities to thrive, the world would be a much happier, more peaceful place.

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