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Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to respect and ethical treatment. It is an extension of Enlightenment-era beliefs that individuals have inherent, inviolable rights, and thus is closely related to concepts like virtue, respect, self-respect, autonomy, human rights, and enlightened reason. Dignity is generally proscriptive and cautionary: in politics it is usually synonymous to 'human dignity', and is used to critique the treatment of oppressed and vulnerable groups and peoples, though in some case has been extended to apply to cultures and sub-cultures, religious beliefs and ideals, animals used for food or research, and even plants. In more colloquial settings it is 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.

While dignity is a term with a long philosophical history, it is rarely defined outright in political, legal, and scientific discussions. International proclamations have thus far left dignity undefined,[1][2] and scientific commentators, such as those arguing against genetic research and algeny, cite dignity as a reason but are ambiguous about its application.[3]

Contents

Philosophical history

Statue Depicting Dignity
Woodcut from Cesare Ripa's Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Dignity

In 1486, Pico della Mirandola presented his Oration on the Dignity of Man to a crowd of hostile clerics, in which he argued that men should emulate the "dignity and glory" of the angels, through the pursuit of philosophy and the liberal arts. This oration is commonly seen as one of the central texts of the Renaissance, intimately tied with the growth of humanist philosophies.

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.”[4]

Dan Egonsson, followed by Roger Wertheimer, argue that it is conventional for people to equate dignity with 'being human' (Egonsson's 'Standard Attitude', Wertheimer's 'Standard Belief').[5][6] Both, however, claim that people generally import something other than mere humanness to their idea of dignity: Egonsson suggesting that an entity must be both human and alive to merit an ascription of dignity.observed that, while some people claim to have the Standard Attitude, they use language that indicates that they have attached conditions other than humanness to their idea of dignity, while Wertheimer states "it is not a definitional truth that human beings have human status."

Proclamations and Conventions

Through much of the 20th Century, dignity appeared in assorted writings as a reason for peacemaking and for promoting human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Subsequent proclamations also invoke dignity in the call for more rights. For example, the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), article 11(1), proclaims, "Everyone has the right to have his honor respected and his dignity recognized." The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (1981), art. 5, insists, "Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being." All the international proclamations leave dignity undefined.[7]

At the beginning of the 21st Century, dignity was a reason to curtail human rights. Clergy and laity invoked dignity to explain their agreement with resolutions that were being approved by the United Nations. Those resolutions bid all nations to restrict rights by imposing legal sanctions upon blasphemy (defamation of religion) and upon all conduct that a religious person might find offensive.[8] One archbishop favored legal sanctions because, he said, it is "the manipulation and defamation of religion which threatens human dignity, rights, peace and security."[9] One law professor hoped "the law against defamation of religions may be constructed in a way that does not abridge legitimate speech including artistic freedom and yet protects the dignity of religion."[10] On 26 March 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a non-binding resolution that states, "defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence."[11]

Medicine

In the 20th century, dignity became an issue for physicians and medical researchers.

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International Bodies

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."[12]

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."

Canada

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.”

[13]

Denmark

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."[14]

France

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."[15] 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."[15]

Portugal

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.”[16]

Sweden

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."[17]

Switzerland

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.[18]

United States

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."[19]

Law

McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen studied dignity as a basis for international law.[20] They said that using dignity as the basis for laws was a "natural law approach."[21] The natural law approach, they said, depends upon "exercises of faith."[22] McDougal, Lasswell, and Chen observed:[23]

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 . . . .

Canada

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.

France

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.[24] The law prohibited research on human embryos created in France but permitted research on human embryos brought to France.[24] The law prohibited researchers from creating embryos for research but allowed researchers to experiment with embryos that were superfluous after in vitro fertilization.[25]

Germany

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." [26] 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:

  • Human dignity is the basis of § 131 StGB, which prohibits the depiction of cruelty against humans in an approving way. § 131 has been used to confiscate horror movies and to ban video games like Manhunt and the Mortal Kombat series.
  • A decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court in 1977 said life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as a violation of human dignity (and the Rechtsstaat principle). Today, a prisoner serving a life term can be granted parole on good behavior as early as 15 years after being incarcerated, provided that his release is held to constitute little danger to the public. Note that persons deemed still dangerous can be incarcerated indefinitely on a life term, if this judgment is regularly reaffirmed.
  • § 14(3) of the Luftsicherheitsgesetz, which would have allowed the Bundeswehr to shoot down airliners if they are used as weapons by terrorists, was declared unconstitutional mainly on the grounds of human dignity: killing a small number of innocent people to save a large number cannot be legalized since it treats dignity as if it were a measurable and limited quantity.
  • A Benetton advertisement showing human buttocks with an "H.I.V. positive" stamp was declared a violation of human dignity by some courts, but in the end found legal.[1][2]
  • The first German law legalizing abortion in 1975 was declared unconstitutional because the court held that embryos had human dignity.[27] A new law on abortion was developed in the 1990s. This law makes all abortions de jure illegal, but the state does not prosecute early-term abortion if preceded by counseling.
  • In a decision from 1981-12-15, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht declared that peep shows violated the human dignity of the performer, regardless of her feelings. The decision was later revised. Peep shows where the performer cannot see the persons who are watching her remain prohibited as a matter of dignity.

Switzerland

The Swiss Constitution states at Article 7, “Human dignity is to be respected and protected.”[28] 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
(1) Humans and their environment are protected against abuse of gene technology. (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.

See also

References

  1. ^ "Those provisions concerning human dignity have not been authoritatively interpreted or applied by any of the competent, independent, international institutions." Bartha Maria Knoppers, Human Dignity and Genetic Heritage: Study Paper (Law Reform Commission of Canada, 1991), note, at 23. None of the international proclamations make dignity the rare quality that some commentators say it should be.
  2. ^ Myres S. McDougal, Harold D. Lasswell, and Lung-chu Chen, Human Rights and World Public Order: The Basic Policies of an International Law of Human Dignity (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980), note, at 376.
  3. ^ Aldergrove says dignity means the set of attributes that distinguish an intelligent, solemn, sober, healthy, independent, adult homo sapiens (the model adult) from someone else, especially a young child or a lunatic. J. R. Aldergrove, Why We Are Not Obsolete Yet: Genetics, Algeny, and the Future (Stentorian: Burnaby, 2000) at 71.
  4. ^ Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (Second Section: Transition From Popular Moral Philosophy To The Metaphysic Of Morals).
  5. ^ Dan Egonsson, Dimensions of Dignity: The Moral Importance of Being Human (Dordrecht, Sweden: Kluwer Academic, 1998) 132.
  6. ^ Roger Wertheimer, “Philosophy on Humanity,” in Abortion: Pro and Con, R. L. Perkins ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1974) 107-28.
  7. ^ None of the international proclamations suggest dignity is the rare quality that some commentators say it should be. Aldergrove says dignity means the set of attributes that distinguish an intelligent, solemn, sober, healthy, independent, adult homo sapiens (the model adult) from someone else, especially a young child or a lunatic (Aldergrove, 71). Thurber says dignity "has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages, a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority" (James Thurber, 'Thinking Ourselves Into Trouble,' pt. 3, Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, Michael J. Rosen ed. (Harper & Row, 1989)).
  8. ^ G.A. Res. 60/150; U.N. Doc. A/Res/60/150; G.A. Res. 61/164; U.N. Doc. A/Res/61/164; G.A. Res. 62/154; U.N. Doc. A/Res/62/154.
  9. ^ Archbishop Defends Religious Freedom to U.N. Council 2006-07-14.
  10. ^ Khan, Liaquat Ali. 'Combating Defamation of Religions' 1 January 2007.
  11. ^ United Nations Human Rights Council on religious defamation," 26 March 2009 Retrieved 2009-03-30.
  12. ^ Declaration of Helsinki by World Medical Association
  13. ^ Bill in Parliament of Canada 1996
  14. ^ Gratton, Brigitte. http://www.etiskraad.dk/sw293.asp Survey on the National Regulations in the European Union regarding Research on Human Embryos (July 2002), 16.
  15. ^ a b http://www.ccne-ethique.fr/docs/en/avis008.pdf CCNE Opinion no. 8.
  16. ^ Gratton, Brigitte. http://www.etiskraad.dk/sw293.asp Survey on the National Regulations in the European Union regarding Research on Human Embryos (July 2002), 53.
  17. ^ Swedish statutes.
  18. ^ Dignity of Plants.
  19. ^ http://www.bioethics.gov Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics March 2008.
  20. ^ Myres S. McDougal, Harold D. Lasswell, and Lung-chu Chen, Human Rights and World Public Order: The Basic Policies of an International Law of Human Dignity (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980).
  21. ^ McDougal et al, note, at 70.
  22. ^ McDougal et al, note, at 69.
  23. ^ McDougal et al, note, at 71.
  24. ^ a b http://www.ccne-ethique.fr/docs/en/avis053.pdf CCNE Opinion no. 053.
  25. ^ Cazeau, Bernard. http://www.senat.fr/senfic/cazeau_bernard98029w.html (in French). Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  26. ^ http://www.bundestag.de/interakt/infomat/fremdsprachiges_material/downloads/ggEn_download.pdf
  27. ^ German law about abortion.
  28. ^ Swiss Constitution.

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